Comedy is tough to do well, even by those who create it, but it is even tougher to go back and restage past comedies for modern audiences. The easy exComedy is tough to do well, even by those who create it, but it is even tougher to go back and restage past comedies for modern audiences. The easy explanation is that humour is such a product of its time that audiences are simply not capable of getting the jokes -- not truly. There may be something to that, but I think the real problem is more complex, and I think it can be remedied.
Most comedies, particularly those that hold up and become memorable classics, tell their jokes to make a point. Great comedies are generally political, either explicitly or implicitly, and the laughs spring out of the message(s) being delivered. On the surface, again, the time distance between a comedy's creation and restaging could be blamed for any problems. Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, for instance, satirizes the Victorian era in which it was written, so modern audiences simply don't have inherent access to the shared experiences that would have made The Importance of Being Earnest easily accessible to its audiences.
Yet I don't consider these problems of time insurmountable. The real problem arises in the way directors and actors approach classic comedies. It is not so much their or the audience's understanding of the setting as it is what they choose to emphasize in their restaging. Restagings of comedies invariably focus on the humour, and in doing so they deliver the humour humourously. Everything is an attempt to be funny, so the restaging becomes about buffoonery, slapstick, the obviously funny, and the subtleties of great comedies are drowned out by the vuvuzuela cacophony of silliness.
The most recent screen adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest is a prime example. Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon, Francis O'Connor and even Dame Judi Dench -- under the misguided direction of Oliver Parker -- do everything they can for cheap laughs, making their characters a pack of blithering, over-the-top idiots rather than the trivially serious idiots Wilde intended them to be (the play is subtitled, after all, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People).
The key to The Importance of Being Earnest, as with so many comedies from the past, is to play it straight. The comedy is in the writing rather than the performance. Algernon and Jack are written to believe the inane things they say, they are also written to believe the brilliant things they say, and it is their belief in who they are, silly as that may be, that makes them genuinely funny. It is the genius of Wilde: to make us believe that his characters believe in themselves. But when the people restaging Wilde don't believe that his characters believe, when they don't believe in the characters themselves, they wind up being too silly by far. (e.g. they have Algernon prance around in plate mail armor while wooing Cecily).
Yep, playing comedy for laughs is a mistake. Comedy is a serious business, and when it is performed seriously it is vastly funnier than comedy performed foolishly. The laughs will come, they don't need to be shopped for.
So if you ever have a chance to see The Importance of Being Earnest onstage, I hope that you find a group of performers who are playing it seriously, delivering the jokes with the conviction that Jack and Algy should have rather than delivering the jokes as jokes. If you do the time it was written, the distance between now and then won't matter one wit. You'll see a comedy as fresh and relevant and genuinely funny as anything being written today -- and The Importance of Being Earnest will forever be one of your favourites. I promise....more
I like to come at Macbeth from an historical perspective, a perspective where Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are not anti-heroes, but heroes of the highestI like to come at Macbeth from an historical perspective, a perspective where Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are not anti-heroes, but heroes of the highest order.
How is that possible you ask? Because Macbeth is taking what is rightfully his.
Modern audiences, and perhaps even audiences in Shakespeare's day (although that seems unlikely since they would have had a greater everyday knowledge of the power structures of Scottish clans), look at Macbeth as the story of power corrupting absolutely. We see it as a story where a man's ambition overrides his goodness, and his callous regicide justly destroys himself, his Lady and everything they have built.
It is a comfortable reading for us. It supports our current belief in good and evil as absolutes, and it allows us to see Duncan as a benevolent leader, Banquo as a victim and Malcolm and Macduff as righteous avengers. It fits our view of the world.
But this reading hurts the complexity that is Macbeth, and it dissolves what makes Macbeth my favourite Shakespearean tragedy -- the tragedy itself.
There is little tragic in the fall of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth if we follow the ill-informed modern reading. They get what they deserve. They commit murder, they make a grab for power, they pay the price. We cannot pity them. And it is difficult to care for them.
But consider the historical context and this reading is tipped on its side like a sacred cow in a dusty field of moonlight.
Macbeth, as the next most powerful Thane, is next in line for Duncan's crown. It is his right. It is the way of Scottish accession. Duncan simply has no right to declare Malcolm the heir, and to do so immediately following Macbeth's greatest victory is both an insult and a challenge.
Moreover, once all others back Malcolm and place themselves against Macbeth they are committing high treason.
Should Macbeth have assassinated King Duncan? Probably not (although the alternative would have been civil war and is killing one King more criminal than being responsible for the death of thousands?), but therein lies the strength of Shakespeare's play. Macbeth and his Lady feel overwhelming guilt, and their killing of Duncan tears them apart. Not because it is what they deserve, but because they are fundamentally virtuous people who made a decision that, even righteous, wounded them as deeply as it wounded those around them.
Taken within the context of Scottish accession, the play becomes much deeper and more meaningful. The conflicts of all the characters are muddied, the right and wrong becomes a worrisome mess, the tragedy deepens, and Macbeth and his Lady become honorable people who make a difficult choice that ultimately undermines their own values. This also suggests that the Witches and the supernatural are not some crazed deus ex machina that makes Macbeth's fate inevitable, but a form of chorus that plants seeds of understanding in the minds of the audience and Macbeth.
It's a great play even if the historical context is ignored, but how much greater is it when the historical context is restored? I feel it becomes a match for Lear and Hamlet. Re-read it and see what you think. ...more
I am a huge, unabashed fan of Ken. I love him. I have loved him for years. And this extremely early biography simply made me love him more. I love himI am a huge, unabashed fan of Ken. I love him. I have loved him for years. And this extremely early biography simply made me love him more. I love him so much that if you ask me the question, "Emma or Ken?" My answer is Ken (though I love Emma too).
Beginning took much heat for being precipitous. It came out extremely early in Ken's career, just after his amazing triumph with Henry V, and everyone thought it was dreadfully narcissistic to write an autobiography when he was so damn young. They're probably right. But that arrogance, that self belief, the surprising humility beneath the arrogance, the recognition that it was too much, and the wonderful tale of a young life on the brink of a greatness that would fizzle and remain on the verge for years is just too beautiful to dismiss.
A good portion of the book is taken up with his production diary for Henry V (which is excellent, particularly for anyone interested in some day directing films), but the best parts of the book are the truly autobiographical chapters, which offer unforgettable anecdotes about all of Ken's heroes. These sections made me fall deeply in love with a couple of generations of amazing British actors, and I remain fans of them all to this day. Branagh's marathon runs with Brian Blessed, his awe over the Hamlet recall of Derek Jacobi (the man knows the ENTIRE play by heart), his love for Olivier and Gielgud, his crush on Judi Dench, all of it dazzles, and it is obvious that Branagh was -- and if one considers his body of work he must remain -- as big a fan as he is a colleague of these geniuses.
And you know what, apart from his appallingly shabby rendition of Frankenstein, I remain a massive fan of Branagh's body of work. I loved him most recently in Valkyrie (regardless of my general disappointment in the film) and Wallander, but I really can't think of anything else I've disliked. I know some find his Hamlet overwrought, but I love huge portions of it and like most of the rest (and casting Heston as the Player King is genius). I loved him as Gilderoy Lockhart. I still adore Dead Again. And I don't care what anyone thinks, I love his casting of Keanu as Denzel's brother in Much Ado About Nothing.
You can tell me he sucks. But I'll disagree. You can tell me I am a fool. And I will say you're probably right. But I love Ken. Nothing's going to change that. And I know, at least, that James has my back.
Kenneth Branagh is the King. I can't wait for The Mighty Thor!...more
Whatever we may think about the apparent misogyny in The Taming of the Shrew, popular culture -- for good or ill -- owes a great debt to Shakespeare'sWhatever we may think about the apparent misogyny in The Taming of the Shrew, popular culture -- for good or ill -- owes a great debt to Shakespeare's tale of Kate and Petruchio, and even a little bit to Christophero Sly (remember Eddie Murphy's Trading Places?).
From It Happened One Night, Philadelphia Story and Disney's Beauty and the Beast to Remington Steele, Fawlty Towers and X-Files (just to name a small few), The Taming of the Shrew has been the template for some of the most memorable film and television romances.
The shrewish Kate and sexist Petruchio reappear time and again. If there is a popular expression of "sexual tension," if the "will they? won't they?" questions are being asked, if one side is shrewish or foolish and the other side is controlling (acceptably or otherwise), you can bet that The Taming of the Shrew is lurking somewhere beneath the surface. And let's face it: audiences love these elements. They make for precisely the sort of abrasive romances we seem attracted to.
Take the most blatant mimicking of The Taming of the Shrew -- television's Moonlighting. It brought together snooty supermodel Maddy Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) and sarcastic private dick David Addison (Bruce Willis), threw the former in shoulder pads and the latter in cheap suits, and suddenly Kate and Petruchio were reborn as 80s sparring partners. The connection was so obvious, in fact, that the makers of Moonlighting decided to make it explicit, actually writing an episode called "Atomic Shakespeare," wherein Maddy and David became Kate and Petruchio. The point is, though, that we, the viewing public, loved it. Maddy and David were water cooler conversation before that term was common. Everyone knew who they were, even if they weren't watching the show, and we all knew that eventually they would tame each other (which, of course, killed the show).
I am rambling now, but what I am trying to say is that The Taming of the Shrew is one of the progenitors of funny relationship comedy. So if you have a chance to check it out on stage (because it is much better on stage than lying flat on the page), make sure you see it. You'll recognize so much that you love that you'll find yourself comfortably going along with the absurdity, the sexism, the endless kissing in spite of yourself. And you may even have a fun time. ...more
I've never been able to decide if Playboy of the Western World is outdated, prescient or timely. If it is timely then I think it would have to be timeI've never been able to decide if Playboy of the Western World is outdated, prescient or timely. If it is timely then I think it would have to be timeless.
Christy Mahon comes to Flaherty's Pub and charms the punters and barmaid Pegeen Mike (the daughter of owner Mike Flaherty) with the story of how he killed his father. Christy can tell a tale, so he charms the pants off the regulars (figuratively) and Pegeen (damn near literally).
But Christy's Da shows up alive, having only been wounded by his son, and all those fooled by Christy's story turn on him. Christy's answer, the only way he figures he can get his new friends back and keep Pegeen's love, is to finish the job on his Da, so he gives it a whirl. The attempt on Old Mahon is convincing enough to put Christy's neck in a noose because none of Flaherty's patrons want to get in trouble for aiding and abetting Christy in a patricide (I love that word). Just when it looks like Christy's going to die, however, Old Mahon, with as many lives as Rasputin, absurdly stumbles to his feet and saves his son.
So, of course, father and son take off to see the world together, and Pegeen is left to lament the one she let get away.
John Millington Synge's play is generally considered one of the Irish greats, even Yeats was a fan, and I certainly appreciate it in dribs and drabs, but it's a bit too ridiculous to really make me a firm fan. I love much of Christy's dialogue, I think the play's violence works (even if Old Mahon's imperviousness doesn't), and the Irishness of this very Irish play is a huge plus, but I've never really felt a spark when I've read this play. And that spark didn't appear when I saw it on stage either. I find the pacing a bit trying because large portions of Synge's play simply bore me.
A neighbour walks into a home and finds the man of the house sitting on his La-Z-Boy, drinking a beer and staring listlessly into space. She asks himA neighbour walks into a home and finds the man of the house sitting on his La-Z-Boy, drinking a beer and staring listlessly into space. She asks him if she can see his wife, and he says she's still in bed. She points out that it's almost evening, and he simply repeats that his wife's in bed. She asks if she can go check on her, and when she gets no answer she heads up stairs to check on the wife. But the wife is dead, obviously strangled, so she leaves the house and calls the police. They come and arrest the man, and later she discovers that the husband and wife's cat is dead -- strangled.
Now from the neighbour's perspective, it is clear that the wife was a cold woman, a hard woman, a woman who wasn't fond of company and who kept her husband, a man who couldn't work due to an injury, outside of social company due to her own discomfort. The wife had even gone so far as to cancel the internet because she didn't want him wasting time on social websites when he could be doing something "constructive at home." And finally, possibly, she strangled the husband's cat, which was his only friend, because it continued to scratch at the furniture and destroy the things she worked hard for. So he killed her.
I'm guessing there aren't many, under these circumstances, who would think that the man strangling his wife was justified. I am sure there are people who would empathize with his plight, sympathize with him for his situation, even suggest that his punishment should be less due to his circumstances, but I would be shocked if anyone felt his actions were justified.
Turn it around, however, make the wife the killer, change the cat to a canary, and set it in a time when the telephone (the social tool disallowed) was newer than the internet, and reactions are very different. A goodly number of people feel that Mrs. Wright's killing of her husband in Susan Glaspell's Trifles is entirely justified. Much of this has to do with the weight of inequality that has amassed for women over the years, but at least some of it has to do with the way we value the lives of humans (in descending order: children, women, men), and a little bit has to do with revenge.
Fascinating...no matter what your feelings may be about the subject.
Trifles is a play that I would love to see modernized, but even in its original form it is worth reading and talking about. I need to use it in class again soon....more
It's paradoxically inspiring and frightening that the things the Greek playwrights were writing about still resonate today: inspiring that their insigIt's paradoxically inspiring and frightening that the things the Greek playwrights were writing about still resonate today: inspiring that their insights and idiocies remain relevant to modern readers, and frightening that humanity has made so little progress that the insights and idiocies of Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles still concern us.
I picked up the Oresteia because I thought it was about time I put the plays to the tale I thought I knew. I found what I expected:
The children were eaten: there was the first affliction, the curse of Thyestes. Next came the royal death [if we ignore the sacrifice of Iphigenia:], when a man and lord of Achaean armies went down killed in the bath. Third is for the saviour. He came. Shall I call it that, or death? Where is the end? Where shall the fury of fate be stilled to sleep, be done with?
The familiar bloody tale of cannibalism, infanticidal sacrifice, vengeance, more vengeance, and the Gods ordained entrenchment of patriarchy were all there. The three plays of the Oresteia -- Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides -- were brutal, lovely, frustrating, illogical, brilliant and exciting in turns. I spent some of my time trying to suss out a way to stage these entertainingly without wholesale change, and some of my time thinking about the insights and idiocies that the Oresteia offered.
Amongst it all, I was shocked to discover something fresh -- at least to me. We often talk about the stultifying power of patriarchy, how that power has twisted up our cultures into the ugliness we know now, and the blame for that power is widely accepted to be the responsibility of those who made the power, hold the power and don't want to give it up.
What struck me in the Oresteia is that most people, from that day to this, from Ancient Greece to our modern globalized world, are responsible for the power of patriarchy (at least partially) because they desire infantilization. Few, so very, very few, want to be adults (metaphorically speaking). They don't want to make choices, they don't want to accept responsibility, they don't want to face conflict, they don't want to think. They want protection, they want to be told, they want to justify, they want to conform, they want to remain permanent metaphysical children embracing illusory comfort.
In the Oresteia the gods are credited with every act taken, so the players live or die believing that another is responsible for what they've done. They remain willing children of the gods.
It's a human willingness that I see all around me 2,468 years after the Oresteia was written. Is it any wonder the concerns of Aeschylus still plague us today?...more
Hey you! Yeah. You! How the fuck can you dislike Hamlet?!
I'm not talking about the play here; I am talking about the man. Fuck you aDear Hamlet Hater,
Hey you! Yeah. You! How the fuck can you dislike Hamlet?!
I'm not talking about the play here; I am talking about the man. Fuck you and your bullshit about his "indecision," that indecision sets him apart. Unlike everyone else in the play -- who slay their foes willy-nilly or embrace their personal ignorance to engage in tacit murder or let their passions o'errule their reason -- Hamlet takes his time with his revenge, refusing to be fooled by a damned ghost, looking for proof, making sure that Claudius is really guilty before he acts.
Yeah, yeah, Hamlet was mean to Ophelia. I don't disagree. But Hamlet can hardly be considered the only factor in her death/suicide. And it's not like she didn't deserve it. Polonius and Laertes, Claudius and Gertrude (and maybe even that sneaky bastard Horatio, the last to see her alive) played their parts in her "madness," and it's not like Ophelia didn't have her own hand in her demise. Hamlet loved her. Hamlet's father dies, he's seeing ghosts, his mother is banging his uncle, and there's Ophelia -- at the behest of her family's patriarchs -- cutting off Hamlet when he needs her most. I'd be pissed if she did that to me. I'd call her a whore and a weakling and mock her until she left me alone. Where's her backbone? Where's her love? Nowhere to be found; hence, Hamlet's anger (not that I blame Ophelia, though. What the hell could she do considering the world she was living in? Considering the power of the men in her life?).
And what about Hamlet's thoughts on the equality of mankind? How can you hate on a guy who thinks the way Hamlet does? This is a cat who spends most of his soliloquys holding an in-head debate about the equality of man in death. This is a guy who puts kings and nobles on the same level as fishmongers and worms. He's a guy who embraces life in death without fliching. He sees the "providence in the fall of sparrow" and knows it is good.
Yet you hate him. Why?
Is it because your high school teacher sucked? Is it because you are daunted by Shakespeare and Elizabethan English? Is it because you are convinced that Hamlet is a whinger? Is it because you've fallen prey to a century-plus of Freudian disassembling? Is it because you expect Mobster-style decisiveness? Would you like it more if RockStar put out a shooter game called Grand Theft Elsinore?
Or are you simply a dumbass?
Go watch Lion King or Strange Brew and get back to me.
p.s. this is a Ceridwen-special: a drunken review.