To change the cod’s head for the salmon’s tail

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Why? To foolishly exchange something for a degraded something else, as in exchanging Shakespeare’s beautiful writing for modern, more understandable language. Or so it’s perceived.

Again I ask why? More specifically, I put that question to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), one of largest major repertory companies in the US.

In case you’re not following this story, here’s the background.

Back in september, the OSF announced that it commissioned Play On! 36 Playwrights Translate Shakespeare because the Bard’s English is so far removed from today’s English that the plays are incomprehensible to contemporary audiences. It has been written that only the “elevated,” the “elite” and the Brits come away with great meaning from the plays as they exist now.

Really? I am none of the above and I can understand them. Do I have to listen closely and pay attention. Yes I do. And is there something wrong with having to do a little work to be rewarded beyond expectations? No there is not.

opinion and commentary, WIlliam Shakespeare, modernizing Shakespeare’s language, mass consumption, retooling the classics, theater and the mass audience, Shakespeare for the 21st century audience, Play On! 36 Playwrights Translate Shakespeare, Oregon Shakespeare Festival,

Apparently, today’s theater audiences want their entitlement. Give to me, for I will not assist you.

In his time, Shakespeare wrote for everyone – the royals, the elite and the groundlings. The guy needed to make a buck. With subplots encompassing all classes, all were invited into the playhouse and included as characters.

Not The Purists

It’s not about the purity of the original plays because we have no way of knowing what the true originals were. Since Shakespeare’s death, the plays have been rewritten or tweaked for different eras, and performed for decades before another scholar decided that the canon wasn’t up to date for the current audience and did it all over again. This is our rinse-repeat moment.

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But this is a different exercise. Sounds to me that this project is being done, not to simply modernize words or passages that have no relevance today, but as a dumb-down. It assumes the audiences are idiots. And, more importantly – it’s about selling tickets.

A somewhat disconcerting soundbite from the OSF’s Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy ruffled many not-just-purists feathers. In this interview from NPR.org, Lue Douthit states:

“I’ll just be really honest to say I can’t understand all of it all the time.”

That’s a hang-jaw statement if I ever I’ve heard one. If I made a similar statement while working for NASA, would I still have a job: To be honest, I don’t really understand what propels the rocket through the earth’s atmosphere and into space all of the time… Okay.

Here’s a thought: Maybe it’s the directors or actors (or even dramaturgs). If they don’t understand the text and context neither will we. I’ve been so fortunate to hear Kenneth Branagh, Patrick Stewart, Liev Schreiber, Harriet Walter and John Douglas Thompson among many other terrific actors speak those glorious words and they got through to me.

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Arguments: Pro + Con

Pro:
From John H. McWhorter of The Wall Street Journal:

“He [Shakespeare] wrote plays for performance. We’re supposed to be able to hear and understand what’s spoken on the stage, in real time.”

Ditz, in a comment from The New York Times Arts Blog:

“I’m one of the sponsors of the translation project that this article describes. //
If our translations are bloodless or watered-down, I will consider the project a failure.“

Caller into the Brian Lehrer Show on Modern Shakespeare:

“The kids are gonna get turned off by their first exposure [to Shakespeare] and then perhaps never go on to experience the classic. Whereas if they get turned on, they’re more likely to.”

Con:
James Shapiro, Professor of English at Columbia University on the Brian Lehrer Show:

“This is a systematic attempt to dumb down Shakespeare, and I’ll be happy to watch it fail.”

“They [OSF] made a deal with the devil. They took an internet gazillionaire’s money to change these plays into what they imagine to be modern English, but won’t be.”

Sheila T. Cavanagh, Professor of English at Emory University

“As an educator and lover of Shakespearean drama, I remain committed to the value of presenting Shakespeare’s plays in their original language.”

This OPR article contains a sampling of a pilot translation performed at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival last year from Timon of Athens. Read on and let me know what you think of the retooled soliloquy.

 Title of the post: Othello II.i.152 / Graphics: © 2015 Janet Giampietro

Addendum

What multi-tasking film and stage actor said this about discovering Shakespeare in performance?

“…this difference between Shakespeare as performed, as opposed to Shakespeare as read, was illustrated. I enjoyed hearing it and saying it and I enjoyed the detective hunt of trying to understand it…”

Give up?

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