(Covers several classic comedies hard to find at the SFPL: • The school for scandal / Richard Brinsley Sheridan • The playboy of the western world / Joh(Covers several classic comedies hard to find at the SFPL: • The school for scandal / Richard Brinsley Sheridan • The playboy of the western world / John Millington Synge And many others, with commentary.)...more
I used to be an inveterate playgoer (one year, 1989 I think, I saw 52 plays).
The action and dialog on stage can be pretty quick. And if you're seeingI used to be an inveterate playgoer (one year, 1989 I think, I saw 52 plays).
The action and dialog on stage can be pretty quick. And if you're seeing a play that was written in another time for a different culture, that might be too quick to catch.
For example, the first line of Lady Windermere's Fan is from a butler stepping up to the lady of the house and asking "Is your ladyship at home this afternoon?" Our modern minds would probably surmise from such a question that the butler is asking whether the lady was going out later. But no: the question is asking whether she is receiving visitors at this moment. The notes tell me that this would have been a clue to Victorian audiences that someone is calling that causes social difficulties for the butler... in fact, it is a—*gasp*—man to whom the lady is neither married nor related!
This is why commentary is so valuable when we're bridging cultures. It's all very nice to dive straight into Shakespeare and claim to "get it", for example, but how many of our contemporaries would quickly grasp that a "moveable", for example, is an old term for a small piece of furniture? If you are going to get all of the jokes in Taming of the Shrew, that's something you'll need to be aware of as the banter zips by.
Oscar Wilde is closer to us in time but even better known for his subversive use of humor, so a guide is just as valuable. Don't believe me? Take this quiz. Here's some dialog (middle of the second Act of Lady Windermere's Fan). Hint: Mrs Erlynne is a figure of scandal; nothing has been made too explicit yet, but it seems she might have committed adultery!:
Lady Plymdale [to Mr. Dumby]: What an absolute brute you are! I never can believe a word you say! Why did you tell me you didn't know her? What do you mean by calling on her three times running? You are not going to lunch there; of course you understand that? Dumby: My dear Laura, I wouldn't dream of going! Lady Plymdale: You haven't told me her name yet! Who is she? Dumby: [coughs slightly and smooths his hair]: She's a Mrs Erlynne. Lady Plymdale: That woman! Dumby: Yes, that is what everyone calls her. Lady Plymdale: How very interesting! How intensely interesting! I really must have a good stare at her. [Goes to the ball-room and looks in.] I have heard the most shocking things about her. They say she is ruining poor Windermere. And Lady Windermere, who goes in for being so proper, invites her! How extremely amusing! It takes a thoroughly good woman to do a thoroughly stupid thing. You are to lunch there on Friday!
Okay, what was subversive in this snippet? . . . Times up. The answer: "My dear Laura". Use of her given name indicates this couple is having an adulterous affair of their own! And yet here they are discussing the moral foibles of others with much amused cynicism and very little sympathy.
Conclusion: Read the play. Read the notes and commentary. Go see the play. Repeat as necessary.
Lady Windermere's Fan: Leaving the beneficiary of a sacrifice ignorant is somehow more graceful. I liked this one.
Salome: Very strange. It felt like a play from a different time, and a different author. The others (at least so far) have been plays of manners, with a hidden examination of morality and hypocrisy. Salome is more impressionistic and abstract; the treatment seems more amenable to the opera it later became.
A Woman of No Importance: Far too preachy, it seemed much more amateurish than Lady Windermere's Fan. Entire pages devoted to overwrought monologue, and others devoted to one-sided dialogues, where one character acts the straight man for the other's constant stream of aphorisms and quips, which in the end signify nothing.
An Ideal Husband: Curious how almost all of Wilde's plays deal with infidelity. This one has a femme fatale, but it is about a fallen man, not a fallen woman. Good and possibly better crafted, but therefore not as juicy.
A Florentine Tragedy: Short and excellent. A deadly ménage à trois, very tense in its few pages.
The Importance of Being Earnest: When absorbed after the forgoing, this play is that much more impressive. It is certainly more enjoyable—a condensed nugget of brilliant cleverness—but it also is remarkably different.
Besides this, of Wilde's plays deal, to some extent, with the transgression of social norms, and specifically with disgrace. They are also all more dramatic. Even those that are arguably comedies have a tension borne of the fear of disgrace, and the maneuvering to evade it. (Well, A Florentine Tragedy isn't actually about avoiding it, but artfully confirming it.)
In Earnest, the tension is completely absent. It would be difficult to imagine a more innocuous play. Or one so charmingly silly. How and why Wilde came up with the forename "Earnest" as the target surname is quite miraculous. I suppose in 1895 the name might have actually been quite popular. In the United States at the time it was the 24th most popular name (see WolframAlpha), and has suffered ever since.
As the dictionary illustrates:
ear⋅nest /ˈur-nist/ –adjective 1. serious in intention, purpose, or effort; sincerely zealous: an earnest worker. 2. showing depth and sincerity of feeling: earnest words; an earnest entreaty. 3. seriously important; demanding or receiving serious attention. –noun 4. full seriousness, as of intention or purpose: to speak in earnest.
The philosophy of the play is that of the dandy, someone with eyes steadily averted from anything serious and turned, instead, towards one's own (and lesser, one's friend's) superficial pleasantness. Definitely not earnest.
It is too bad Wilde didn't take his own advice. Even though we now think of him as the personification of the dandy, if he had merely averted his eyes from the unpleasantness of the Marquess he wouldn't have come to the unpleasant fate that he did.
In reading The Importance of Being Earnest, again the footnotes were helpful, but less so. The usage of given names and more formal surnames was highlighted, and quite deliciously so. The two young women adroitly switch usage back and forth to punish, reward, fend off, tease and prod their men, and each other.
My favorite character was Cecily. Despite the handicap of being raised in the country, she has somehow manage to elevate herself to the same level of cleverness as her city counterpart, Gwendolyn.
About that cleverness. We aren't very clever these days, I think. Or at least not in that ironic way Wilde and Dorothy Parker made so infamous. And while it is a marvelous thing to witness from a distance, I'm fairly sure I don't regret its absence. In both Wilde's and Parker's eras the mores and standards of the day were like protected but weak currencies — a few risky artistes profited greatly in arbitrage shortly before those unsustainable parts of their society collapsed. That we don't have a tiny and irrelevant subculture throwing mordantly funny barbs at the rest of society probably means that, for all our faults, we're not yet ripe for revolution.
Ah, my favorite quote:
Jack: I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can't go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left. Algernon: We have. Jack: I should extremely like to meet them. What do they talk about? Algernon: The fools? Oh! about the clever people, of course. Jack: What fools!
While reading elsewhere on the subject of "The Myth of Pure Evil" (here, if you care) it occurred to me why Lear is my favorite of all the bard's playWhile reading elsewhere on the subject of "The Myth of Pure Evil" (here, if you care) it occurred to me why Lear is my favorite of all the bard's plays.
It is simply that the characters of Goneril and Regan are not -- at least at first -- presented as inhumanly evil. Their initial flaws are easy to understand: their fawning manipulation for personal gain is more typically human than Cordelia's painful honesty, for example. Given how foolish Lear seems to be, it is understandable that his daughters would not be paragons of love and virtue, so the elder two's annoyance that their father wants his retirement to be a magnified reliving of the idylls of childhood is also fully comprehensible.
The only other villain in all of Shakespeare to get such fair treatment is Shylock, but Merchant of Venice doesn't have the slow dawning of bitter realization, and certainly has none of the pathos of Lear.
I've often wanted to see Hamlet played so that we feel sympathy for Claudius and Gertrude: imagine that old King Hamlet was a worse-than-mediocre king, that his refusal to see how "times are changing" was dooming Denmark to the new forces that Fortinbras respresents. Claudius is forced to commit tyrannicide for the good of the nation--like Brutus, he takes the burden of guilt and understands his doom is inevitable. Meanwhile, Gertrude could be cast as a child bride, one closer in age to her son than husband, and naturally drawn to the King's imaginative and lively younger brother.
This could be done with staging: showing Polonius and the other old advisors as isolated from a dynamic new court, where we see the comings-and-goings of merchants and inventors that are clearly invigorating the kingdom. Meanwhile Hamlet, even if he is cognizant of these improvements, is balancing them against the old feudal divinity of kings and his own filial responsibility of vengeance.
Because Lear is clearly shown as the sole author of his own Tragedy, it is the purest of these. In the end, Hamlet still wins due to the complexity of motivations and the deep philosophical explorations we witness the melancholy Dane undertaking. But as good has Hamlet is, the simplistic venality of Claudius hinders it.
When I first read the blurb for this "new play", I thought it would be a silly thing, like the fluff of Jasper Fforde. Shortly after starting, howeverWhen I first read the blurb for this "new play", I thought it would be a silly thing, like the fluff of Jasper Fforde. Shortly after starting, however, I realized what I was reading a mash-up of several of Shakespeare's plays. The content isn't silly at all, although the conceit of it may be.
I think two types of Wikipedia's discussions of "mash-up" are germane -- first, the "web application hybrid" is often a real act of creation. It typically draws data from different internet sources and present interpretations or deductions from those sources that would not have been foreseen otherwise.
The video and musical mash-ups, however, don't seem to add anything new other than the cleverness and mischievousness of combining disparate sources.
Unfortunately, despite his obvious hard and earnest effort, Reed's product is closer to the latter than to the former. The only readers likely to enjoy ATWAG are those already on intimate terms with the source material, and will have learned which scenes and which lines they cherish, and which are melodious filler. Reed recombines these -- yes, with cleverness and mischievousness, but not with anything resembling heartfelt creativity.
I can recommend ATWAG to anyone that already knows Shakespeare well and is willing to spend a few pleasant hours decoding the pastiche. There is certainly some fun to be had in seeing where Reed places and misplaces certain lines. But there are plenty of other Shakespearean diversions -- sorry to say, this one doesn't shine so bright as to obscure the fact that Amazon indexes an astonishing 72,497 books under the keyword Shakespeare (for example, you might enjoy this one as much).
Postscript: whilst proofreading my review, I checked up on my understanding of the word "pastiche" and discovered that the word was more appropriate than I had realized. See the Wikipedia discussion of the term.