GREAT SHAKES IN L.A.

 

Paul Franssen

 

To the European mind, there is something incongruous about the American fascination with Shakespeare. Even if we no longer think of "American culture" as a contradiction in terms, there still is something low-brow, at best middle-brow, to the best-known and (as we perceive it) most typical cultural products of the United States, from Hollywood to Disneyland; something that sits uneasily with the high-brow aura surrounding the Bard in Europe. And indeed, for a long time Shakespeare was not regarded as particularly abstruse by common Americans. His role in nineteenth-century popular American culture has been traced, with obvious sympathy, by Lawrence W. Levine. Only in modern times, Levine concludes, has Shakespeare at last acquired a high-brow status in the US, too.[1] Yet even now low- and middle-brow Americans seem to have an appetite for Shakespeare. Disneyworld boasts a replica of Anne Hathaway's cottage, complete with a Shakespearean garden (in which all the flowers and herbs grow that are mentioned in the Works); supermarkets sell cans with the brand name "Falstaff" on them, cans which surprisingly enough turn out to contain non-alcoholic beer.

These examples may only have raised more European eyebrows about the ways of Americans with the Bard, using him as just another commodity in advertising and marketing. Yet not all American attempts to democratize Shakespeare are fraught with such danger. On the occasion of the 1996 conference of the International Shakespeare Association in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Theatre Center put on an attractive program of four Shakespearean productions. Each had been geared in some way to America, some even to the region around Los Angeles. Some of the comedies, in particular, had been successfully adapted so as to bring out their relevance to the concerns of modern American society. In this way, Shakespeare was made more accessible to a broader local audience, without any major concessions to the integrity of the text.

Still fairly traditional was the production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Here, the setting had been changed from Athens to Sedona, a Spanish settlement in Arizona, in 1595. The "Law of Athens" became the "Law of Sedona," but that was about as far as the textual changes went. In the costumes of the fairies, however, the local colour was evident: they were all dressed up as animals meant to evoke Indian totems. Puck wore the head of a coyote, apparently a clever animal in Indian mythology, not unlike our fox. Oberon was a majestic American eagle, and Titania was visualized as a puma. The production was delightfully inventive, but the transformation was only skin-deep: it added little of substance to Shakespeare's text. The acting was heavily physical, and required the full athletic skills of the four lovers, whose conflicts were invariably underlined by slapstick fights.

A more drastic rethinking had been done with Twelfth Night. Alison Carey's adaptation, subtitled: or As You Were, featured an irreverently modernized text, in which the antiquated jokes had been ruthlessly replaced by modern equivalents, containing numerous topical allusions to American current affairs. More importantly, Shakespeare's theme of same-sex attraction had been exploited to reflect the debate about gays in the American armed forces. The setting was Illyria Naval Base in Southern California, where Orsino and Olivia were both officers. Orsino tried to cope with his infatuation by playing loud rock-and-roll music on his stereo, and by spying on the object of his passion through his binoculars. Most surprisingly, Malvolio was a female petty officer, a closet Lesbian with a secret longing for her superior, Olivia. Both her strictness towards inferiors and her initial hesitation in approaching Olivia worked quite well in the military situation; Navy discipline and rank, as well as the ambiguous position of gays in the American forces, made a credible modern-day equivalent for outmoded concepts like Puritanism and the impossibility for a man to marry his social superior. This Malvolio was not made altogether tragic, but she nevertheless struck the audience as the victim of rough treatment by her surroundings.

Even more appropriate seemed the adaptation of Measure for Measure by Endre Hules, subtitled If It Don't Fit, You Must Acquit. Shakespeare's original in itself would have been very topical to begin with, in view of its themes of the abuse of power and the personal purity of the ruler: sexual harassment has long been an obsession in the US media, and the past sex lives of presidential candidates have been investigated in ways that should deter anyone but the most virtuous of choir boys or the most shameless of hypocrites from running for office. This modern-dress production successfully exploited the topicality of Shakespeare's play. The set contained a TV screen, on which the Duke and Angelo made their appearances, making their public speeches (surprisingly much of them authentic Shakespeare) as if in reply to interviewers' questions. Before the Duke appeared, the screen showed a familiar coat of arms with the legend: "Duke of the United States of Vienna." In this way, the inevitable strain between public image and private conduct of all politicians, in Washington or in Vienna, was highlighted. As if that was not enough, the Friars were dressed and behaved like TV-evangelists, who tried to work miracles which do not quite work out. The implicit comparison between the bungling duke and the all-too-human charismatic preachers of recent memory seemed quite apt. Isabella's order was clearly of a strict Lesbian-feminist kind. At the end, she was understandably taken aback by the Duke's marriage proposal, which in this production was motivated more by her approval ratings in a television poll than by genuine attraction on the Duke's part. Before she had a chance to protest, however, she was discretely abducted from the stage by an undercover C.I.A. man. This production really brought out the comic sides of this problem play, but it did so without altogether obscuring the serious issues involved; on the contrary, it brought home very poignantly how relevant Shakespeare's themes are still to us (or at least the US) today.

The final Shakespearean production I saw was disappointing. It was entitled Iago, and had been adapted by C. Bernard Jackson to such a degree that it was at first hardly recognizable as based on Othello. The plot presented the events of Shakespeare's play within the framework of a narration by Emilia, Iago's widow, who, many years afterwards, tells her version of the story to a scholar come to investigate the truth behind Cinthio's tale and Shakespeare's play. Those were slanders, Emilia says, meant to blacken the memory of her late husband. Her version is then acted out before the scholar, who is gradually persuaded to take part in the dramatic reconstruction himself. Iago turns out to be the hero, Othello a misguided man who makes himself believe that by cooperating with the Europeans he is doing the best he can for his people. Far from being the only Moor, Othello is the general of an entire Moorish army, including Iago, who have been expelled from Spain and are now fighting as mercenaries for Venice against the Turks. Iago tries to make Othello see that their future lies in Africa, which needs their help to stop the emerging slave trade. Othello, however, is tied to Venice by his love for Desdemona. Desdemona is an ambiguous character, however, a femme fatale who manipulates her husband. She uses her influence to try and protect her former lover Cassio, a fool who has been appointed over Iago by the Venetians for political and racial reasons. Iago's tactful and cautious remarks about Desdemona's fidelity, and most of all, her loyalty, are not entirely groundless, and a political necessity.

The conception of Othello as the story of a black sycophant, who will never be accepted as an equal by whites anyway, has been used before, e.g. in an adaptation by director Charles Marowitz.[2] Yet the need for such revisions is not clear; the very same idea could just as easily have been expressed by a judicious production of Shakespeare's text. In this case, it seems, the adaptation was geared to (supposed) African-American sensibilities, in that the version of the story told by a famous Dead White Male is explicitly branded as a falsification of African history. This obvious bias did not help to make the play a success, the more so as its political message was harped on so insistently. The longueurs of the additional dialogue did not help, either. Repeatedly and at great length, Emilia threatened the audience that they would not be told the rest of her story unless they behaved, that is, agreed to believe her version. I was sorely tempted to take her at her word and walk out; only the occasional snatches of authentic Shakespeare woven into the text held me back. If anything, this production showed that, compared to some modern scribblers, Shakespeare is not that dead at all, whether he is pc or not.

 

NOTES

1 Lawrence W.Levine, "William Shakespeare and the American People," American Historical Review 89-1 (Feb. 1984), 34-66.

2 Charles Marowitz, An Othello, in Open Space Plays (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), 253-310.

 

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