A good friend of mine is a playwrite and, just like us writers of novels and short stories, there are things about the creative industry he’s in that frustrate the bejeezus out of him. Shakespeare is one of those things.
Remake something and you’ve guaranteed bums-on-seats. Try something new and it’s anyone’s guess how you’ll do. That’s a big reason that we see Shakespeare being done over and over again.
I know it drives my friend nuts that I pretty much only see Shakespeare performed, but we had a good chat about this the other night (yes, I was raving about Hamlet again).
See, I don’t mind drama that confronts or has dark themes, but I don’t want to come out of the theatre needing a stiff drink and some prozac. At least not every time I see a play. In fact not even most of the time I see a play. Unfortunately that’s entirely my experience of modern theatre (ignoring musicals).
Hamlet – being the example to hand – is exactly what I do like. It’s violent, dark and at the end pretty much everyone is dead, but you don’t walk out of Hamlet dabbing your eyes and wondering where the nearest glass of scotch can be found. A good production might leave you stunned, but there’s humour and tenderness in all of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Just as there are dark moments in many of his comedies.
As my playwrite friend says, a lot of Shakespeare’s plays are structurally flawed and, really, not that great; certainly not works of genius. I love my Shakespeare, but I completely agree. So why do I – and thousands of others – go to see these plays?
I think it’s because what The Bard gives us is – and I’d argue Jane Austen’s longevity is similarly sourced – a well rounded story. Yes there are “heroes” and “villans” but very few are as clear cut as that and the stories are always about more than just the core plotline.
To start with, most plays of the 20th and 21st centuries are just relentlessly bleak, or have an unvaryingly obnoxious set of characters, or where “worthy issues” are presented with the subtlety of 7 day old fish. And, my pet hate, is when a play starts funny and then descends into pathos, so you feel tricked into being miserable.
But, these plays also have “small” stories. (Fair call that not everyone wants to sit through 2 1/2 hours of Hamlet, but when it’s done well you don’t notice the time.) The “modern” trend for shorter plays seems to have predisposed them to having a simplistic feel, with nowhere to hide their themes even for a second.
Mind you, after my film noir bender of a few months back, I’d almost disagree with my own point about relating length to quantity of story!
One other thing that my friend pointed out – which I’d not thought of – was that “modern” plays are generally very middle/upper class. Unless they’re about racism or domestic violence.
Now Shakespeare wrote most of his plays about the aristocracy, but he almost always threw in a brothel owner, gravedigger, night watchmen, servant or other “common folk” as characters of note. Even when he only gave them a few funny lines, he gave them memorable ones and they are characters and speeches that people often remember even when they forget the rest.
So yes, I’m an unabashed Shakespeare fan, but I think there are good reasons for being one. Even if it does make my playwrite friend a little sad.