Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Loneliest Liberal: Where’s the bacon?

By James Knudsen

Finding the right metaphor can be tricky but I think I’ve got it this time: bacon. We’ll get back to that.
    Today is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s shuffling off this mortal coill [and the 452nd of his traditionally celebrated birthday – the exact date of his birth remains unknown]. It’s been almost nine years since I performed in a play from his pen, but I’ve grown to appreciate his works more over the years, and it seems I find something new to rave about with each passing year.
    I now have on my resume about ten years’ worth of teaching theatre to college students. The course I teach most frequently is Theatre Appreciation, a survey course that covers the elements of theatre, its history and place in culture. It was only recently that, regarding the history of theatre, I realized most of theatre’s history is of not much importance in the 21st century. When looking at the arc of theatre’s 2,500-year history, we find that the only points on that line that still hold sway are the ancient Greeks, because they started what we consider Western Theatre, Shakespeare, the early playwrights of Realism (Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg, although nobody really does Strindberg), and the modern playwrights of the 20th and 21st centuries. Everything else – ancient Roman, early Christian, French Rennaissance, Comedia del Arte – you might catch something from these styles at a college or Renaissance Faire, but they just aren’t part of what people are seeing onstage in 2016. And of those I mentioned that are relevant, one is being performed more than all the others: Shakespeare. Why?

I think it’s useful to consider why the other playwrights, styles, genres, and eras fail to remain relevant. The Greeks, for all their importance, employed a style that doesn’t translate well to our time. It’s very presentational, and I just can’t pull off the look of a toga. Ibsen is pretty good, but he’s Norwegian. Chekhov – only actors like Chekhov. Finally, many modern scripts are very much of the moment they were written. The AIDS plays of the early nineties lose much of their urgency when the disease – which looms over the stage as the drama unfolds – is no longer a death sentence. When the urgency vanishes, the script becomes a period piece, something we usually ascribe to Ibsen, Chekhov, and Shaw.
    I’ve performed in three Shakespeare plays, attended another half-dozen, and studied monologues and scenes from several others – they never seem trapped in their time. One of the first plays I saw was The Taming of the Shrew, set in Mussolini’s fascist Italy. A Midsummer Night’s Dream during The Summer of Love? Sure. Most recently I saw a Henriad, a compilation of Shakespeare’s histories starting with Richard II and dealing with the War of the Roses between the families of Lancaster and York. This production was set in a post-apocalyptic England.
    The time period a director chooses isn’t the only area of a production where Shakespeare’s works prove themselves adaptable. Color-blind casting? Not a problem. Gender-neutral casting? Yes, I’ve seen that too, Shakespeare sort of invented it with Twelfth Night. Staging? Indoor, outdoor, large, small, professional and amateur, they are all workable. And if you can’t bear to produce an actual Shakespeare play, he has inspired plenty of spin-offs – Lee Blessing’s Fortinbras, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, or there’s always West Side Story if your tastes lean more toward musicals.

Because Shakespeare is like bacon! You do anything with it. Think about it – bacon is for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack time. It’s popular with people of all ages, it’s a county fair staple, along with fried... anything. And it’s pretty-near goof proof. Cook it on the stove, in the oven, microwave, wrapped in foil on an exhaust manifold. Check YouTube, I bet you’ll find it. Bacon may be the most versatile meat product there is, almost as versatile as Shakespeare. Which means that, really, bacon is the Shakespeare of meats. I told you metaphors are tough to get right.

I had hoped to find a picture of me performing Shakespeare, but no luck. I did find a photo of me performing the role of the ghost of King Claudius in Lee Blessing’s Fortinbras when I was with Theatre Neo in Los Angeles.

Copyright © 2016 by James Knudsen

1 comment:

  1. happy b-day bard! hey, re "theatre not so important" right, which is one reason why HAMILTON is such a blast, even getting me to read the 800 pages of Ron Chernow's "Hamilton" and LIKE it . ha ha