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Shakespeare in Strange Places by H. R. Coursen

Directors are forever substituting their own ‘bright ideas’ for whatever they might discover in the Shakespeare script. That is, if they patiently explore what the script offers by way of brilliant language and characterization and a profound exploration of issues still alive on the larger stage of the human experiment.

Modernization – putting the script in a contemporary setting – almost invariably leads to falsification of what the script is really doing. Modernization often renders the script bi-polar, with two radically divergent meanings struggling for domination. And modernization often collides with our own sense of what our times are all about.

One exception to this rule would be the placement of the script in a generalized modern setting. Richard II can work well if the groupings are defined by their clothing. The old men, York and Gaunt, wear morning coats. Bolingbroke and his cabal wear bespoke business suits with an occasional military uniform in the background – like a photo of FDR, Churchill, and Stalin with the staff officers behind them. Richard and his minions are advertisements from Vanity Fair. This scheme won’t contradict references to England’s divine past, and no weaponry or battles have to be adjusted or ignored to comport with modernity. The Barry Jackson ‘Plus-Fours’ Hamlet of 1925 would be just remote enough from our own time for the Gatsby decor to work. And we’d accept foils as part of an upper-crust milieu in which “Whispering” or “Ain’t We God Fun” played in the background.

Modernizations, though, can create more problems than they pretend to solve. In a Ron Daniels’ Henry V in Cambridge some years ago, the soldiers had contemporary uniforms along with their AL-47s. But the soldier, Williams, was a first lieutenant. That meant that, though not an aristocrat, Williams was of the officer class. The script makes that impossible. Make Williams a corporal, or a buck sergeant, but not a first lieutenant. A simple question of someone who knew would have resolved a director’s stupid decision. In a modern-dress Portland Stage version of Julius Caesar, Marc Antony’s highest decoration was a Purple Heart. Those of us who have served in uniform probably respect the Purple Heart more than any other decoration, but we also know that it won’t be a senior officer’s premier medal. In a Measure for Measure at Bowdoin College some years ago, eclectic modern costuming found the Duke wearing a tattered old Ike jacket. He looked like a homeless bum. The play – like all of Shakespeare’s plays – is hierarchical. If one tries to erase that inherent aspect of any script, one also erases the play’s analysis of how power functions.

A placement in an historical moment of some one hundred before the date of production, however, can work. I recall a wonderful stage production of A Midsummer-Night’s Dream at The Theater at Monmouth set in Victorian England. Lysander was a young Tennyson, actually jotting down his better lines in a notebook for later use. Demetrius was a stiff young officer in a good regiment. It was Shakespeare through the filter of a Dickens or a Thackeray. The metaphor was nicely outlined and our own times were not intermingled with what the production was doing.

When Richard III found itself ‘fascisized’ in Richard Loncraine’s film in 1995 and placed in the Great Britain of 1937 – the analogy being Oswald Mosley and Edward VIII -- the script collided with its moment. Loncraine was remarkably faithful to the time, down to a period Tiffany pin and a Dragon Rapide twin-engine aircraft. But Richard’s vivid debate between body and soul, a borrowing from medieval tradition, is wholly anachronistic in this setting. And we learned during the Battle of Bosworth Field that for all of Richard’s mechanized Panzer divisions, he had not developed an air force. Air Marshall Stanley has the only B-25 extant! And he bombs Richard with it. In 1937, the Luftwaffe was testing its superb Me 109 in Spain. As Richard’s vehicle gets stuck in the mud, he must call, obligatorily, for “A horse!” I was surprised that a Tommy didn’t trudge by and say, “Get a horse!” That, at least, would have been funny.

It will be objected that the Loncraine film is a remounting of Richard Eyre’s 1990 stage production for the National Theatre. True. But theater asks us to suspend our disbelief. So, while the link between the lone wolf with the hump on his back who slithers into power and the party leader who exploited the klieg lights and loudspeakers and cymbal-clashing bands, the massed flags and the millions of outstretched right arms to take command of a modern nation is weak at best, we could enjoy Ian McKellen’s bravura performance without the kind of detailed distraction that a realistic medium like film insists upon. Things that worked on stage – like McKellen one-handedly extracting a cigarette from a silver case and lighting it – were not, of course, translated to the film. The film left everything that had been valuable and usefully suggestive back on that stage.

Macbeth has been ‘criminalized,’ in Joe Macbeth (1955) and Men of Respect 1990). But the play is about an epic hero who makes a decision against his “better nature” and against what he knows to be right. That is the tragedy, as Aristotle has it. It is not the story of Al Capone or Bugsy Siegel. To be fair, these films do not use Shakespeare’s language. They replace Macbeth’s story with one that James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson or George Raft has already depicted without relying on Shakespeare. His language tends to get reduced to hoodlumese. “Which a you guys done this?” Paul Douglas’s Joe asks as he sees the ghost of “Banky” at his dinner party after Joe has taken over the gang. In Men of Respect, Michael apologizes to Ruthie after the shattered banquet with a powerful “Sorry I ruined your party.” Such a treatment has no saintly Duncan, therefore no hint of the spiritual dimension that Macbeth abandons knowingly. In other words, the ‘criminalization’ of the script removes from it the context that makes the story of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth so profound. They lose not just their lives, but their souls. “Hell is murky,” as she says.

Romeo and Juliet is often a victim of the egalitarian wishes of contemporary society, or at least of today’s film-makers. The script says right away that the Capulets and Montagues are “alike in dignity,” that is of equal economic and social standing. And the two great modern versions of the play – Franco Zeffirelli’s (1970) and Baz Luhrmann’s (1996) – respect that equality. Both families are of the wealthy merchant class and one of Juliet’s suitors is a count. The play, like so many of Shakespeare’s occurs on the level of the upper-crust, with occasional descents to the ribaldry of the servant classes. Luhrmann gives his .45 caliber pistols the name “Sword,” to account for the word in the script, but that is an acceptable tradeoff for the energy that the cauldron of Mexico City provides for his film.

Starting on film in 1927, however, Romeo and Juliet are seen as from different backgrounds. In The Red Mill, Marion Davies’ Tina, a scullery maid, is compared to Juliet several times in the title cards. She and an Irish aristocrat (Owen Moore) are in love. In Tarzan the Apeman (1932) Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture (1870) sounds behind Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan and Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane at the end. The tendency to pair disparate lovers continues in Romeo and Juliet and Darkness (1959: a Christian boy and a Jewish girl in Nazi-occupied Prague), West Side Story (film, 1961: a Puerto Rican girl and an Italian boy), Romanov and Juliet (1961: an American girl and a Russian boy during the cold war), and China Girl (1987: an Italian boy and a Chinese girl), and a host of flicks featuring love that crosses religious, cultural, and/or social boundaries: The Restless Years (1958), Shakespeare Wallah (1965), Everytime We Say Goodbye (1987), Pocahontas (1995), Romeo Must Die (2000), Save the Last Dance (2001),  Crazy/Beautiful (2001), Pumpkin (2002), and no doubt others that I know not of. Several of these acknowledge an explicit debt to Romeo and Juliet.

My point, of course, is that love affairs that challenge traditional middle-class values “explain” why they are opposed, and why we root for the courageous young lovers. In Shakespeare’s play, though, the source of the conflict between the equal households lies buried in the catacombs. It just is. That makes the plight of the lovers less explicable, but, I would suggest, far more powerful than do mere attacks on conventional morality. Romeo and Juliet are doomed from the start by “a greater power” than anything can contradict. A good production of the play works from that inherent fatality, as opposed to imposing meanings on the archetype that make it easy for us.

King Lear has been ‘modernized’ in Harry and Tonto (1974), ‘criminalized’ in House of Strangers (1949) and Godfather III (1990). and ‘westernized’ in Broken Lance (1954). Since the play does not announce its world view, as Richard III, Hamlet, and Macbeth do (though Lear’s characters offer partial and incorrect insights along the way), its praxis – or story – can fit neatly into a variety of contexts. A recent ‘westernization’ that did not work was TNT’s “King of Texas” (2002).

Here, a pint-sized Texas cattleman (Patrick Stewart) attempts to divide his vast ranch among his three daughters. Right away, the interpretation collides with history. Cattlemen, even those confronting their own mortality, would be acquiring more land, not splitting it up into tracts that could possibly become farms. The great musical Oklahoma! alludes to the conflict between the farmer and the cowman. 

But what destroys this effort is not just its conception, not just Stewart’s tendency toward tantrum, but the “translation” that Shakespeare suffers. Stewart’s wild flinging of words around is not entirely his fault. It’s a shame, though, that an actor of his stature did not insist on doing a ‘straight’ Lear.

The ranch is to be divided so that “you gals won’t be fightin’ amongst you when I’m gone.” Susanna says, “I love you for your strength.” Rebecca can’t use that one so she says, “It’s not a speakin’ thing. It’s a feelin’ thing.” Claudia has “nothin’ to say.” Stewart, free of the constricting long-johns of Capt. Pickard, lets it rip. “She has no more feelin’ in her than a lowdown rattlesnake. Poison! I don’t keep no rattler in this house. Git!” This, in spite of Claudia’s already playing nursemaid to her pappy.

My favorite line in this adaptation occurs when the black hats are hiding in ambush for the apparent good guys. The good guys are fooled. “Musta got wind we was a comin’, and skedaddled.” But the black hats then rise up and decimate their foes.

I did enjoy inventing dialogue for this travesty. Claudia is robbed of her telling contrast between loving a father and a husband “all.” In the inherited script it can be that line that sends Lear over the edge. Here, it would have been “Pappy, these gals got men a their own. How can they be tellin’ you they love you as much as all-git-out?” Lear does not get his devastating “Into her womb convey sterility!” to Susanna. Here it would have been “If she do have chillen, let ‘em trouble her sorely, like she done her pappy.”

Watching this production was like watching one of Shakespeare’s sources and wondering how he crafted such magnificence out of such unpromising material.

Production of Shakespeare in any medium should be as simple and as free of “concept” as possible, except when the script is placed in an historical moment complimentary to the language and the action. Let the actors work with the language. The words must be cut way down for film, of course, a visual medium. TV, emerging as it does from radio, can accommodate more language than film. And long scripts must be edited for stage. But let the actors work with the language and with the other actors. That is, as his Peter Quince suggests, what Shakespeare did. And it still works.


For expansions of these arguments in light of recent productions, see my Shakespeare in Space: Recent Shakespeare Productions on Screen (Peter Lang, 2002), Shakespeare Translated (Peter Lang, 2005), and Contemporary Shakespeare Production (Peter Lang, 2010).