A couple of weeks ago I mentioned to a friend of mine that I was thinking of auditioning for The Wooden O this year, since for the first time in a years I won’t be on vacation during their run. My buddy, who happens to be a Seattle firefighter, but whose wife acts with the O on occasion, trotted out a taunt he likes to tweak me with: “But Paul, you hate Shakespeare.”
He bases this facetious conclusion on a challenge I proposed some years back calling on all Seattle theatres to self-impose a Shakespeare hiatus for one year. Brendan Kiley, Arts Editor for The Stranger, picked the idea up and wrote about it here. I still genuinely believe this would be a grand and beneficial experiment, but not because I hate Shakespeare—quite the opposite. As a playwright I flatter myself that I understand the man’s genius better than most of the directors and actors who worship so sycophantically at his altar for all the wrong reasons.
“It’s the language that makes his plays so exquisite.”
“No, it’s his sumptious, multifaceted characters.”
“No, no, it’s the tradition, the chance to etch one’s mark on the living canon of performance.”
It’s all bullshit. Shakespeare was a great—yes, even the greatest—playwright for one and only one simple reason: he wrought great plays. All the rest is just so much makings. You might praise a chef for her choice of ingredients, but you wouldn’t claim them as the reason for her genius. A year without Shakespeare would help us gain some much needed clarity and distance from the material. We would come back to it ready to attack with refreshed hearts. And it would also get us off his cash-cow tit for long enough to taste a little bona fide self-sufficiency. Hell, we might actually miss Shakespeare. That currently unfathomable notion alone would make a break worth it, wouldn’t it?
Never mind. I already know the answer. It was shouted at me and Kiley at the Seattle Theatre ShitStorm back in 2008. And it has been shouted just as fiercely upon every subsequent mention. “Never! We will NEVER stop staging Shakespeare. Not for a year. Not for a month. How dare you!? You and the rest of your modern playwright ilk are not fit to wipe the soles of his pointy shoes.” The level of vituperation one encounters upon even suggesting a breather from the bard naturally calls a paraphrase of one of his more famous lines to mind, “Methinks the status quo doth protest too much.”
Yes, American Theatre literally worships Shakespeare. And I have to laugh, because I am pretty sure he would have hated us.
Shakespeare was a playwright, poet, player and proprietor, in equal measure, despite our hindsighted emphasis on the first of those four. He made plays to make money and he made a lot of both. He would hate our precious process of endless workshopping plays to an early death on dusty shelves. At the Globe you worked the problems of a play in performance.
He would hate that people more often read his plays than see them.
He would hate, or not have been even able to comprehend, a system in which playwrights make plays for performance in cities far from where they live, for less than it costs them to create, for the narrowest sliver of society.
He would hate that so many modern American playwrights have never acted and never produced, have never done anything in a theatre except watch silently from dark seats.
Since he shared them, he would sympathize with the milquetoast middle class aspirations of most American playwrights—“I just want to have a house and a family and make the same kind of money as my friends I went to college with”— but he would grow to hate them eventually. Shakespeare may have envied his social superiors, but he also knew at his core he was better than them.
He would not hate that we kiss the asses of our benefactors and patrons, but he would hate how poorly and surreptitiously and self-loathingly we do it; almost never managing, as he did, to flatter and skewer with the same loaded lines: floating sublimely above, then suddenly crawling at them from beneath, being everyone and no one at the same time with such stunning success that even today reasonably sane and educated people entertain themselves with the pseudo-intellectual dalliance that he did not even write the plays which he so clearly did.
He would have hated the MFA system for generating new viral spores of actors, playwrights and directors when there isn’t enough work for the ones already in the system.
He would have hated the advent of the auteur director, smothering the natural brilliance of his plays with their dense cloying concepts.
He would hate that artistic administrators make the decisions about which plays get done, instead of a consensus of proprietor/players, all sharing the ownership of the theatre, and thus the risks and rewards.
And most of all, he would hate our necrophilic prejudice for his plays, even the poor ones, over anything new, even the good ones. As the consummate playwright, he would want us to love the living writers as much or more than the dead.
So, yeah, I’m pretty sure if Shakespeare were alive today he would hate us.
And he’d be writing for television.