This is a post I did not want to write, about a thought I *really* do not want to have.
I love Shakespeare. After a rocky beginning with what to me was then an incomprehensible text (Julius Caesar) in tenth grade English, my life was changed by performing in Macbeth my senior year. Yes, a high school production of “the Scottish play.” Our drama instructor was a “sin boldly” kind of guy. I doubled as Banquo and the Doctor and got into stage fighting with a very heavy steel sword. Of course I did not fully “get it” as a 17-year-0ld, but it provided me entrée into the language and meaning of Shakespearean theatre. One of my all-time favorite movies is Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. Pacifist that I am, I was almost ready to go fight after his St. Crispin’s Day speech.
So it was with great anticipation that I went to see an HD presentation of The National Theatre’s “recorded live” production of Macbeth with Branagh and Alex Kingston. I *thoroughly* enjoyed it. In particular, I was amazed at how clear the entire cast was in getting across the language of the play in support of the essence of the piece. In fact, one of my questions was that a time or two it seemed that there was an over-emphasis on clarity, slowing things down a tad too much.
So why the “painful” in the title? That has to do with the response of my companion, my wife. Unlike me, she had no redeeming history with Shakespeare in her educational experience. She’s tried some of The Bard’s plays as an adult and has been left underwhelmed if not utterly bewildered. She accompanied me because she sincerely wanted to understand why I’ve been so obnoxious about this play for years. (I don’t rattle on constantly, but, OK, it comes up from time to time.) She likes me (you’ll have to take that on faith) and as a consequence was as far down the “benefit of the doubt” road as it is possible for someone to go. In the end, while she did not dislike it she was not particularly impressed. And here it is: she could not understand the language–not just the imagery or the poetry–the language itself. As I said, this was a stunningly clear reading and she could not follow the text. Let’s be clear. She is no lazy bumpkin. She worked at it and wanted to get it; and she is, for the record, an extremely intelligent musician.
This is the part I don’t want to think, much less acknowledge in public. I fear we have arrived at a point where the ship has sailed (or is getting ready to push off from the dock) on Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English as a viable commodity in the U.S. We translate Aristophanes. Chaucer’s Middle English is only presented for archival purposes. (Vatican II recognized the reality that Latin was not the language of the Catholic Church’s future.) There will inevitably come a point, even if it’s a century from now, when Shakespeare’s beautiful poetry and powerful insight into the human condition will not be able to support itself unaided on the stage or screen. Sigh.
And the related–even more important–lesson is that, for the public not of or educated in the culture of the Western canon, work from that canon is as perplexing as this Macbeth was to Julie. That is a significant fact of programming (and hence, mission) reality facing all of us who work in the arts.
On a *completely* unrelated topic, my buddy Marty Pottenger is doing amazing work with art improving community in Portland, Maine. She is doing an Indiegogo campaign for it right now and, if you have an interest in art that is deeply meaningful to a community, you should at the very least check out her video about it: Art at Work. I recommend it highly!
And, on one more “off topic” topic, with the Holiday season upon us, I’m taking two weeks off. See you in the New Year!