My First Video Conference!

For years now I’ve had “Speak publicly, in person, on the subject of Shakespeare” on my bucket list.  All of the online stuff I do is fun, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t push the boundaries.  I can write whatever I want without fear of real time critique or, pardon the expression, eff ups.

But also there’s an element of recognition that comes with this goal.  I have to be invited to do it, and I have to have a crowd that apparently thinks it’s useful to listen to me.  I suppose I could just grap a soap box and go down to Quincy Market and do my thing, but then I’m a street performer, and ironically enough if I go down that path I’m more likely to do the mime thing.

I digress.  My pal Bardfilm, who some of you might know is a college professor in real life, invited me to speak (via Skype) to his Modern Shakespearean Fiction class, specifically on the subject of adaptation, but also on the bigger and broader question of why Shakespeare? which I’ll get to in a moment.

It was fun!   A very polite, attentive and articulate class who looked like they were actually paying attention to what I said (and most importantly laughed at my jokes :)).  I suppose my standards were a little wonky as my only previous experience at this point has been reading to my kids’ elementary school classes and most of them have the attention span of elementary school students.  It was a pleasure today to speak at a higher level, to feel like I was understood, and to have some actual question and answer time that seemed productive.

Asked to choose a modern adaptation to discuss I picked the opening scene(s) from King Lear compared to A Thousand Acres starring Jason Robards. When asked why that adaptation of that scene I explained that quite honestly 10 Things and She’s The Man have been done to death, and I was far more interested in tackling the “Everest” of Shakespeare.

One of the issues of adaptation that came up is the idea of how much Shakespeare you need to retain in your adaptation.  We spoke of the Lion King and the idea that “the son avenges the father” is always a deliberate Hamlet adaptation, or if instead of the idea of Hamlet has become embedded in our consciousness as a story archetype like Cinderella or Star Wars (“hero’s journey”) or, I suppose, Romeo and Juliet.

I think to score on that point, though, you need to keep more than just some plot and character.  You need to keep the essence of the story.  My Thousand Acres story goes out of its way to include all the characters, even making them all share a first initial.  But within that first scene, the Lear character shows no heartbreak over the betrayal of his youngest daughter, and we learn quickly that this particular story has no interest in telling the Cordelia/Lear story, this adaptation wants to write a Regan/Goneril story.  Which is fine, if that’s what it wants to be – but I’ll lose interest very rapidly.

This post is getting long and it’s getting so I’m going to deal with the bigger “Why Shakespeare?” question in a later post.

Thanks to Professor Bardfilm and his class for having me! Thanks for staying awake and not spending all the time on your cellphones.

Still Time To Win THE TEMPEST on DVD!

Don’t forget, our Share Shakespeare and Win contest is still open (until Sunday March 31)!  Just download the ShakeShare iPhone application, find a quote from (or inspired by) The Tempest and post it to Twitter/Facebook/Pinterest and you can will a copy of Julie Taymor’s 2010 film starring Helen Mirren and Russell Brand.  For more details and complete rules, see the link above for the original post.

So far I’ve got exactly *1* extremely enthusiastic entry from Noah who might well have found every quote there is to find :).  But I’ve got 3 copies to give away, so if you want ridiculously good odds at being one of them, why not enter?

And Now, A Limerick

Sometimes when Bardfilm and I are bored we drag each other down into the pit of procrastination, as we’d both rather talk about Shakespeare than pretty much anything else.  He’s typically better at it than I, however, as his job is mostly doing Shakespeare things to begin with.  When I’m talking Shakespeare it’s a guarantee that I am 100% not doing my day job. 🙂

Anyway, this morning he threw a mediocre limerick at me, I called him on its quality, and he challenged me to do better.  Here’s what I threw back:

There once was an earl named de Vere
Who claimed to have written Shakespeare.
He had not the skill,
But there’s no books in the will!
And that’s all the evidence we’ll hear.

Now I put it to you, faithful readers.  If you think mine’s mediocre as well?  Do better, in the comments. 🙂

Reasons To Get Netflix #1million : Christopher Plummer’s Tempest is Streaming!

Just spotted on my “New Releases” email this morning, Christopher Plummer’s 2010 The Tempest is now available on Netflix Streaming!  I’ve not even had a chance to watch it yet, but I know what I’m doing tonight!  Act fast, as Netflix constantly rotates their streaming library and you’re never guaranteed that the movie you always told yourself you’d get around to watching will still actually be there when you get time to watch it!  I’m looking at you, Ian McKellen’s Richard III….

Did anybody see this one, either live or when it came through on its brief cinema tour?  It played in my neighborhood just one night but I was unable to make it.

Shakespeare on Boston Common 2013 To Present … Two Gentlemen of Verona!

The announcement’s been made, and Commonwealth Shakespeare this summer will be performing Two Gentlemen of Verona on Boston Common.

I’m not sure how I feel about this.  I’ve never seen the play, so I’m excited to see something new.  But it’s rare that I’ve ever heard anything positive about the play.  Is it that it’s early?  Or just bad?  Is this the one with the rape in it?

I love love love Shakespeare in the park every year.  Hearing the words echo out into the night sky?  Shivers.

I’m not sure how the company chooses the plays, but they’ve definitely been going through a… lesser? phase.  That’s not fair, Coriolanus was in there.  But Two Gents?  Before that Coriolanus, before that All’s Well That Ends Well.  I’m wondering whether Troilus and Cressida or Timon of Athens is coming up next?

In the 18 years they’ve been going, only one show has been repeated — Midsummer.  I’ve seen 9 years worth of shows, and it kills me that Hamlet is the only year I missed (since I’ve been going).

Last year the host actually told one of my knock-knock jokes on stage.  Didn’t really get much of a laugh.  But I felt the damned giddy fool telling everybody around me, “That’s my joke!  I wrote that!!”

Hamlet’s Plan

Somebody help me walk through the timeline in Hamlet’s trip to England.

1) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been assigned the task of accompanying Hamlet to England.

2) R&G have in their possession a letter that says, “Dear King of England, please kill Hamlet.”

3) Neither Hamlet nor R&G know the contents of the letter.

4) Hamlet steals the letter, opens it, and learns what it says.  So he alters it (writes a new letter?)  suggesting that, instead, “the bearers should be put to death.”

5) The pirates attack, and Hamlet goes off with them  (to later be released).

6) R&G,  having lost Hamlet and never knowing what was in the letter in the first place, continue on to England and their ultimate demise.

So here’s my question.  Hamlet didn’t know the pirates were coming, right?  So then what was his plan with the altered letter?  Did he plan to go on to England and stand in front of the king when the letter was read, only to laugh at the expression on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s faces as they are hauled off to the chopping block?

The reason I ask is that I’m left wondering why he so almost gleefully sent them off to die, and whether there were other options.  When he rewrote the letter he assumed that he was basically a prisoner of Claudius’ mercenaries and that he would be brought all the way before the king of England.  Therefore he needed to alter the letter to say something different.  That makes sense.  Couldn’t he have had them imprisoned?  Or something else?

What do you think, does this act (and his subsequent dismissal of his guilt) show that Hamlet’s gone off the deep end at this point?  Remember that his treatment of Polonius wasn’t much better, dragging his corpse through the castle.  Is Hamlet just doing what it takes to survive?  Or is he killing everyone in his way (except the person he’s supposed to kill)?

Orson Welles’ Screwed Up Macbeth

“To lie in restless ecstasy. Restless, restless, goddamnit son of a bitch.”

– Macbeth, Act III, Scene 2
Here’s something that’s going on my playlist!  A YouTube user named “ApeBack” has uploaded a huge set of audio clips from the old Columbia Workshop radio show, including many performances by Orson Welles – Hamlet, Lear, Merchant, Richard III, you name it.   (This link points to all of ApeBack’s videos, from which you can select your favorite Shakespeare play.)
For fun I’ve chosen an outtake where Orson Welles screws up Macbeth – and it only gets worse from there.  It’s fun to hear the man laugh like that.  He’s quite infamous for, shall we say, not being quite so patient with the mistakes of others.UPDATE : Sorry for the confusion, I left out a link in the initial post.  Above, the “outtake” text links to the audio only version of Welles’ screw up.  Below we have the infamous “peas” meltdown that I was referring to above with “not being quite so patient”.  I should have made that more clear.


To me, Shakespeare is all about his words.  Take away his words and you’ve gone down an interesting path, but not a particularly deep one.  Doing a Romeo and Juliet story and calling it Shakespeare is like doing a Cinderella story and calling it Disney.  Those are really just cover versions of much older stories.

So if what you want to do is make your own cover version of a story that Shakespeare tackled, the most interesting places are going to be where you decide to go a different way than Shakespeare did.  Let’s look for a minute at this opening scene from A Thousand Acres, which I just watched and reviewed:
The setup for this scene walks right down the expected path — father/owner Larry has decided to split his “kingdom” up into three parts for his girls.  Rose and Ginny both say “Great idea!” but Caroline says, verbatim, “I don’t know. I want to think about it.”  Their father then shuts her down cold, kicking her out of the deal, and later closing the door in her face when she comes to reconcile.
Just in this moment, consider how this is different from Shakespeare’s version (where Lear gives her I count 5 separate chances to change her mind)?  To my mind this makes the character less believable.  He doesn’t even have a moment of confusion at her answer.  It’s like he knew she was going to say that, and he had his answer all ready to go.  But if that were the case why go through the charade of three equal pieces to begin with?
The scene in the movie cuts there.  There is no suitor for Cordelia to try and make it right, no loyal Kent to beg the king to reconsider.  As a Shakespeare geek I obviously would like to see those characters, but I don’t think they’re crucial to the story the movie wants to tell.  I think what this scene does is to paint Larry/Lear as an entirely unsympathetic character, and that’s unfortunate.  You feel for the real Lear.  You know that he loves his daughters and is crushed at Cordelia’s seeming betrayal.  But this guy?  Larry?  This guy is awful, and you wonder how it is that all of the townspeople love him so dearly.

Review : A Thousand Acres

Bardfilm and I have been discussing “modern adaptations” lately, and I asked for the distinction – did he mean modern setting but original text, or modern language?  For this particular context he meant the latter.  Since I don’t normally seek out such movies I went out and found one – the King Lear adaptation of the book of the same name, A Thousand Acres.

Jason Robards plays our Lear (“Larry”, as it becomes apparently quickly that the author’s gone with a whole first initial thing) to his daughters Michelle Pfeiffer (as “R”ose), Jessica Lange (as “G”inny) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (as “C”aroline).  From that point it’s harder to tell who is who because unless I’m missing something the first initial game goes out the window as Colin Firth’s Jess is plainly the bastard Edmund.  As you can see, though, the cast is first rate.

For any “modern adaptation” of this sort that’s clearly only taking inspiration from Shakespeare and not trying to tell his story, I look for a couple of things.  How much direct homage to Shakespeare is there?  How much of the original story remains?  How much new material does this story provide?

In other words does the end result produce something standalone, while still showing respect for the original?  It’s very tricky to strike a balance, because every time you diverge from the source material you’re going to have audience like me asking, “Oh, really? So you think you’re about to tell a better story?” and you need to bring it.  Safest not to change the story too much, but instead to bring new elements that Shakespeare never touched upon.

How does A Thousand Acres do?  It’s not bad.  The connection to the source material is clear, and  more than minimal.  Larry runs the farm, and wants to retire and divide it up amongst his three daughters.  R and G find this a great idea, but when C so much as says “Let me think about it” he disowns her on the spot.  I mentioned Jess as the bastard character who does all the bastard things, sleeping with the sisters, getting into a fight with his father (Pat Hingle as this sort of Kent/Gloucester combination character), but he’s not really the architect of all the bad that happens.  There’s even a nice big storm for the daughters to send their father into.

Other than those story elements the similarities are few and far between.  In this story, R and G (makes me think of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when I say that :)) are actually the good guys, if you can believe it. It’s a very complicated story.  Nobody in town likes them because the people think the daughters conspired to steal the farm from their father.  Meanwhile the daughters have both got some deep dark secrets that reveal their father is not the nice man he seems, and is well deserving of their hate.

I found the story too confusing to follow in many parts, and that’s one of the reasons that I often dislike modern adaptations.  You try to add your own material, but then to really develop a foundation in that material you have to stray farther (further?) from the original, and eventually you hit walls where you can’t go more in any direction.  Same here.  There are some obvious places where R and G are talking and it seems like the most obvious thing in the world to do is for them to go talk to C…but they can’t.  That’s not how the story went.  In fact we never really even get C’s side of the story – this is Goneril’s movie, if I have to pick a central character.

The whole thing is additionally complicated with the addition of husbands and children, alcoholism and terminal illnesses.  There’s a whole lot going on in this movie besides the Shakespeare.  And it’s all set in this weird sort of Tennessee Williams sounding world where full grown women still call their parents “Mommy” and “Daddy” which, when coupled with the deep dark secrets that we learn, is all the more uncomfortable.

See it if you get a moment, if for nothing else than to have something to talk about the next time somebody trots out one of those lists that contains nothing but Lion King, Ten Things I Hate About You and She’s The Man. But don’t go out of your way for it.

Collaborating with William Shakespeare

If you’ve ever used Google Docs you might be familiar with the idea of multiple people viewing, and possibly editing, a document right before your eyes.

Well Google’s decided to have a little fun with that, and made a demo where the likes of Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson and yes our dear friend William Shakespeare all watch you as you type … and offer up their edits.  I keep trying to force it down certain paths, but detecting plagiarism is not its thing.  You can’t just start typing “To be or not to be” and expect Shakespeare to jump in.

The idea is cute.  I’ve always loved natural language generation and computer assisted personality.  I wish they did more with it — like if you edit someone else’s edit, they get all mad and start fighting with you or something.  Who knows, maybe they’ll do some more with it.  Love to get a look at the source code behind the idea.

Each colored vertical line represents an edit by a collaborator. Here, Charles Dickens is offering a writing prompt.