Sunday, October 11, 2015

Sunday Review: British and American productions of Shakespeare

A problem

By Rolf Dumke

In “Shakespeare in Modern English?” [New York Times, October 7], James Shapiro rightly discusses a main problem in both British and American Shakespeare productions, “that even the best directors and actors...too frequently offer up Shakespeare’s plays without themselves having firm enough grasp of what his words mean.”
    I agree wholeheartedly. In my visits to the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario in the mid-1960s, and especially in Stratford-upon-Avon in England in the late 1980s, the usual procedure was an incomprehensive braying of young men who evidently did not understand what they were saying.
    The only Shakespeare play I ever enjoyed in the English language was The Two Gentlemen of Verona directed by Peter Brook in Stratford, Ontario in 1976. The first act on stage started with young men around a Hollywood swimming pool, cleverly and acidly bantering among themselves, with fine timing. Every actor knew what he said and was therefore comfortable and at ease. I became aware of the fact that the modern setting helped the actors to speak in modern cadences and not in the loud expository stance of usual Shakespeare plays – besides, of course, the excellent direction by Brook.

    (Interestingly, the more recent fine film, Shakespeare in Love [1998, directed by Peter Madden], starts with a droll scene from The Two Gentlemen of Verona. It’s available on YouTube and worth seeing.)
    I was immensely disappointed by the poor, braying performance of Romeo and Juliet and of Macbeth in Stratford-upon-Avon.

In contrast, I have immensely enjoyed Shakespeare’s plays in Germany, where excellent translations by Schlegel and Tieck in the early 19th century have created commonly understandable and fine “classical” German Shakespeare texts which the best German actors and directors completely understand and are able to produce with nuance and verve. Beautiful stuff, these German productions.
    Of course, they differ from the great English texts, but the plots are the same and the pace, body language, and motivation of actors who speak a modern, understandable German are more in sync with the words and create better plays than many Shakespeare plays in the English language whose words are not understood by the actors.
    Take the case of the soliloquy by Macbeth at the end of act 5:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
The play, including its main soliloquy, has been translated by Dorothea Tieck, 1799-1841, to wonderful German poetry with almost identical rhythms and metaphors; lines three and four sound almost better than the original:
Morgen, und morgen, und dann wieder morgen
Kriecht so mit kleinem Schritt von Tag zu Tag,
Zur letzten Silb auf userm Lebensblatt;
Und alle unsre Gestern führten Narren
Den Pfad zum staubigen Tod. Aus, kleines Licht!
    The Guardian published an article on “unser Shakespeare” in October 6, 2010 (“Friends, Germans, countrymen: the long history of ‘unser Shakespeare’,” by Patrick Spottiswoode) that described the immense current production of Shakespeare plays in Germany and his enthusiastic adoption by the German romantic literary movement at the end of the 18th to the beginning decades of the 19th century.
There are now more productions of Shakespeare’s plays in Germany every year than in England. Norbert Kentrup, artistic director of Shakespeare und Partner and the first actor to play Shylock at the Globe in 1998, has bemoaned the fact that the language of Shakespeare is not his first tongue. But he also believes translation provides an opportunity rather than a compromise. After all, German actors are able to play Shakespeare in their own modern-day German, while British actors play Shakespeare in early-modern English.
Shakespeare’s poetry has been the fountain of many following poets in Britain. For example, see the wonderful use of “yesterday” in Hamlet’s soliloquy, which inspired the Beatles’ great song:
Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as if they’re here to stay.
Oh, I believe in yesterday.
Suddenly I’m not half the man I used to be.
There’s a shadow hanging over me.
Oh, yesterday came suddenly.
The contrast of the time dimension is instructive. While Shakespeare has a black view of the many yesterday pasts, which are only a series of petty paces to a grim death, the Beatles bestow yesterday with the grace of a temporary asylum from de-manning troubles, which inevitably arrive today after a verbal abuse of the loved one. Here it is the Beatles who invoke the playful “whirligig of time, which brings in his revenges,” like Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, or What You Will, act 5, but who now, in Macbeth, argues for a grim and steady decline over time. Tragedy is more severe stuff than comedy, after all.

Copyright © 2015 by Rolf Dumke


  1. Rolf, the problem with modernizing the language in Shakespeare is that the original is a towering icon of English literature. To rewrite Shakespeare would be comparable to a German deciding to modernize Goethe. (Or rearrange Beethoven, which I once refused to do myself!) This excludes some 19th century Englishmen who rewrote Shakespeare extensively to make him "suitable for young ladies". The horror, the horror.
    By the way, my favorite Shakespeare performance was the Burton-Taylor film of "Taming of the Shrew". It is by no means declaimed, and even through the barrier of dialect is excruciatingly funny.

    1. Hi Chuck. Peter Brook did it well. If I recall my Stratford, Ontario, experience correctly, he cut Two Gentlemen of Verona severely, gaining time for a generally slower and more intimate recitation of the essential parts.
      Of course, Shakespere in a modernized English version will be different. But it is a warning to do the original version much better than usual. It requires much more rehersal time, as well.

  2. We enjoy excellent productions of Shakespeare at the Guthrie Theater. Directors insist on complete understanding and nuance, no braying although a bit of over- production sometimes creeps in. It provides a satisfying experience for the audience, methinks!

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