Helen Mirren Said What?

“Let’s ban Shakespeare,” says Helen Mirren,

Got your attention? 🙂 What she actually said was to ban reading Shakespeare in class, and start taking kids to plays instead. I don’t know that anybody here is going to disagree with that.
At least, not totally ;). I’ve always felt that people feel the need to take sides in the “see, don’t read” war. In truth the answer can only ever be, both. If you see a live show of Hamlet once in your life and never think about it again, consider how little you really got out of it. You probably missed half the dialog. You certainly missed any bits that this particular interpretation chose to excise. And you’re left thinking that Hamlet is a whiny git because this guy happened to play him that way.
See it, yes, *and* read it. Stop with the either/or nonsense. By seeing performance you are doing two things – you are getting closer to the source material, but you are also seeing one particular group’s interpretation of that source material. Here’s the beautiful thing — every time you see it? The first bit remains the same, you get closer to the source material. But the second changes every time.
You know how else you can get close to the source material? Read it. 🙂 As long as you understand that reading the text for yourself is just another tool in your arsenal, another step in your journey, then I don’t see where all the hating comes from.

13 thoughts on “Helen Mirren Said What?

  1. I wrote about this earlier as well. http://bit.ly/fuwOLY

    I think it's important to distinguish between a life time, and that of a student's first exposure. As I point out in my piece, I can see the logic behind a younger student being first exposed to Shakespeare through a performance or a film as opposed to being forced to read it. The former will open more things up whereas the latter is likely to bore and turn them off of it too quickly.

    I do advocate a bit of a primer for first timers before they actually see that first performance or movie. No matter how well it is done, it won't make a large degree of sense to someone unfamiliar with the language and the style. But all and all I think Mirren made a good point.

    I'm not all or nothing either, but if I HAD to be, I would err on the side of watching as opposed to the side of reading for youngsters.

  2. There's no reason at all for it to be an "either-or." It needs to be a "both-and." You'll never experience a play as fully on the page as you will seeing it on the stage — but the page is still necessary. You can't go back and watch an actor deliver a speech over and over again in the same way, but you can read the speech and remember how the actor did it, and think about how it could be different, how you would do it — Which leads me to my "both-and-also": I think you never learn as much about a play as you do by *doing* it, performing it, working through scenes on your feet. The plays I've been in are the ones I feel the greatest connection to. So, I think staging in the classroom is an important component as well. You don't have to be mounting a full-scale production and you don't have to be a professional practitioner to get that sense of ownership over the text, to feel like you've connected with a scene or a character, and we should be encouraging that active engagement in students, not just the passive watching of others' performances.

    Of course, I also cheekily think that if we did ban Shakespeare, it could only boost his popularity through being sexy and forbidden. 😉

  3. I think it's a lot to do with what a play is. A play isn't a passive medium in the way that a painting or a sculpture is. A play requires action, movement, voice, interaction. The Mona Lisa is the same no matter when you go to see it. It doesn't change, barring destruction (or the rare instances when some form of cleaning or restoration brings out something new — but that's so infrequent as to hardly count, and not just anyone can do that). So, when you look at a painting, you're experiencing that work as fully as you can, given the medium. You may notice new things on another viewing, you may appreciate it more seeing it in person than seeing a print, but your choices don't affect what the painting is. It's as complete as it ever will be.

    A play is a different beast, because it's never the same twice. It's never finished, never complete, it's never been everything that it is or could be. There's always some different combination of choices to try. It's different all the time, and so there's something essential to experiencing it in that way. If you watch a play, you're experiencing so much of what it is — but not everything, because in a play, choice is crucial. The choice an actor makes can hugely affect the character and the presentation, and so I think if you remove that active element from your own experience, you're missing a piece of how the medium of performance art works. A play demands choice and agency to be what it is, and its very nature is to be in a constant state of reinvention and alteration.

    And I know this from experience. There are things I've learned when acting roles or when directing others that I just plain never would have seen on the page, and that would've slid by me when I was observing a performance done by someone else. There's just something to being inside the working parts of a play that's different from other art mediums. You can know what the Mona Lisa is without having painted it yourself, but I think you miss part of what a play is if you don't know what it's like to engage with it actively rather than passively. And anyone can do it, which is the great thing.

  4. I think the "seeing vs. reading" argument is really "theatre practitioners vs. scholars" in disguise. Since I am both, I have always known that the two can live in peace. Having that said, I can say that the war is more often perpetuated by the theatre side. Scholars have immense respect for the theatre side and learn things from them constantly. The theatre folks don't always respect or understand what the scholars are up to.

    What the 'see don't read' people neglect to understand is that when I read Shakespeare, I SEE THE PLAY IN MY MIND.

    I'm happy to see that you are of the 'let's all get along' camp. Let's all be on the same side and be advocates for each other.

  5. Everything Ed just said. 🙂 I've never been a theatre practitioner, therefore I must be entirely scholar. And I agree completely. Thanks for putting it so well.

  6. But Shakespeare's words *aren't* the same each time you look at them, necessarily. The quartos and folios can have huge differences between editions, and then there's what editors do to the text. Even for editions where we only have the Folio to go on, different editors will make different choices about what stage directions to include, or where to divide scenes, or what the punctuation should be. My Norton text is not the same as my Arden text is not the same as the MIT online editions. More people making more choices — and this is why, in our study guides and workshops, we advocate introducing the concept of textual variants. There is no one Shakespeare. There will always be, in his own words, infinite variety.

    So, because of that textual culture, there's something intrinsically impermeable about early modern theatre, at least — I have less experience with modern theatre, so I can't speak to the variations between one production and the next, but I know that these days texts are more stable. But with the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, you get that element of choice, of agency, of exploring options, of making it your own. So, no, I don't think it's about seeing the intent of the creator — I think it's about seeing all the possibilities the creator's work provides you. The best and easiest way is to explore that yourself, which is what we hope to encourage in classrooms. Reading and seeing doesn't get you quite far enough; actively doing it will.

    I actually thought about the classical music thing when I was responding to you the first time, and I think the difference there is, it takes talent and training to play an instrument. You have to learn how to do that. You can't pick up a violin and play a concerto on your first try. But you can pick up Henry V and read the Agincourt speech, without any talent or training beyond the ability to read. It's not going to be world-class work, probably, and there are tools and training you can use to become better at it, more effective for an audience, but you *can* do it, whoever you are. Plays are sort of unique in that way among art forms. You don't have to be good at it for there to be value in doing it — as Shakespeare well knew. Just ask the Mechanicals. 😉

  7. I'm curious, Cass (and mostly because after all these years I just thought of it), but would you say that to fully appreciate the Mona Lisa, or the Sistine Chapel, that you actually have to get yourself some brushes and canvas and go to town?

    What's the difference? We could get into the discussion about Shakespeare's words being a description of what it means to be human, and that by acting them you are participating in them moreso than an artist painting a picture…but I think that the artist would be quick to point out that her perception of a flower, for instance, is entirely different than the perception of someone who has never tried to paint one.

    I think there's truth to both – I think that immersing yourself inside the art simply must give you a different view on it than looking at it from the outside, regardless of the artform. I just feel that this is a luxury, not a necessity. The world's too big and life's too short to meaningfully tackle what this goal would really mean.

  8. Well, reading it out loud alone in your room isn't quite what I meant — working through it as a staging exercise in a classroom is. So perhaps I should have said, you can hand any student in your classroom Henry V and she can get up and perform the Agincourt speech. This whole discussion is based around teaching and how students ought to encounter Shakespeare. I don't see staging as a luxury or a privilege to that — I see it as an essential. And I know not everyone does, but, well, I'm trying to change that. 😉 If teachers aren't getting kids up on their feet to engage with each other, if they're teaching a play like they teach a novel, they're missing what a play is.

    And have you read Q1 Hamlet? It's a completely different play. The variants of Lear are also enormous. In a lot of the plays, it's not nitpicking at all, the differences are large and significant. But even if the differences *are* minor, that doesn't take away from the fact that they exist — or that a minor difference can have a huge effect (where most editors place Macbeth's entrance in 2.2, for example, entirely changes how that scene works, and I just led a workshop based around an editor's choice to move a stage direction in The Comedy of Errors) — and that's another way to give students that agency I've been talking about, that freedom to make choices.

  9. If you don't like the art comparison because it's too static and the Mona Lisa is always the same, might I suggest some classical music instead? Is that a better comparison?

    But let's go with that idea of yours, that "The Mona Lisa is the same no matter when you go to see it." Know what else is always the same no matter when you go see it? Shakespeare's text.

    I see a big huge insurmountable wall down the middle of this conversation – namely the static, fixed world of "This is what the masters gave us" versus the dynamic interpretive side of "This is what this group of people chose to give us." Know what I'm saying? Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but intent is in the eye of the creator – and theatre has two creators, the playwright and the actors.

    Traditional art, like my Mona Lisa example, really has two parties – it has an artist trying to express something, and an audience trying to understand/appreciate it. Interpretive art, whether it's a Shakespeare play or a cover song, has three parts – you've got the artist interpreting the creator, and then you've got the audience trying to understand/appreciate….what, exactly? The intent of the original creator, or the intent of the interpreting artist?

    I could take it another step and argue that this middle layer is not only not necessary, but that it is a detriment. It gets in the way. It is *exactly* like grabbing a bunch of brushes and a canvas, making your own version of the Mona Lisa, and then trying to get an audience for it so that they can see what *you* think the artist meant, and how *you* chose to express it.

    You know what? I appear to be going off on a rant about the nature of art, and that is based heavily on a story I just finished listening to, so I think it merits a new post. Coming up shortly…

  10. I agree with Cass wholeheartedly. When I read a play on my own, I itch to put it on its feet. Stage a monolog, or a scene. At least say part of it out loud.

    Shakespeare didn't write plays. He wrote scripts. He didn't think of his work as complete until Burbage and Kempe and the others gave it life on the boards of the Globe and the Blackfriars. The script is just a blueprint. Yes, every script contains the potential for infinite plays, but until actors (and by actors I mean anyone actively reading the text) give breath the to the words on the page, there's no play. You could even say that the play is something that happens between the words, the actors, and the audience. It just doesn't exist if one of those components is missing.

    So I think, Duane, the idea of getting back to what the playwright meant should support "on-your-feet" experiences of Shakespeare's work. He never imagined his plays would exist primarily as printed words. For him, his plays were handwritten transcriptions of things he thought of, to be turned back into living words when he and his fellow actors performed them. The written copy was only a means to the spoken version, the acted version, the living version.

  11. The difference between quartos and folios is picking nits, I think. If you look at an apple and then an orange, the apple didn't turn into an orange, you looked at two different things.

    The question of multiple editors is really just a variation on the director/actor/interpretation idea, though – someone else came along, after Shakespeare, and said "I will put my own spin on this", whether it was Johnson or Bowdler or whoever.

    Whenever I refer to "the text" I'm referring to that broader idea of trying to get back at the source material. Grab somebody else. Neil Simon, maybe. Or Beckett, or O'Neill. Somebody more modern (I'm trying to keep my examples in the realm of playwrights). Grab some source material. Now, edit it in whatever way you choose. Did the text change? No, you created a new text. The only difference between O'Neill and Shakespeare is that we have source material that we're certain is, indeed, the source material. For Shakespeare all we ever have is recollection, whether it's from his friends or his actors.

    I disagree with your idea of "anybody can open up the text and read a speech from Henry V." If you take away the stage, and the troup, and the acting, and you're just left with one person reading the words aloud — have we really brought it down to saying that there's an infinite difference between reading the words aloud, and reading them in your head? Because, honestly, my 6yr old still reads out loud when she reads her books, but my 8yr old does not. I don't think that the 6yr old is somehow experiencing it on a different level, I think she's doing that because she's not yet capable of doing it the other way.

    Let's not get too far from the original point – I agree completely that there's value in hearing the words out loud. I think relatively recently I made an epiphany post on exactly that idea. But I see it as a choice and a privilege to be able to do that, not a necessity. If you want to sit in your room and read the complete works to yourself, and you're getting something out of it, I'm not going to argue with you.

  12. I agree with Ty that it is important to put Helen Mirren's statement in the context of a student's first exposure. In that regard, I am firmly in favor of "both." My first exposure was to "Julius Caesar," and when we were reading the play, we were lucky enough to have the Brando film version playing on PBS, which we were assigned to watch. It was an incredibly valuable and synergistic experience.

    I like your music analogy, Duane, but I would take it back a step to musical notation. One conductor performing a concerto from a score is likely to interpret it differently from another, even though the "text" is the same. The notation in the score has almost all the information needed for performance, but there is still room for interpretation. Ancient notation is more difficult, leaving less known about how the music was supposed to sound. So Shakespeare needs interpreting at least in part because the text does not contain all of the information needed to determine how to perform the play.
    One may argue whether a composer or playwright has a fixed interpretation that one should strive to be true to, or whether their compositions are inherently fluid from birth, perhaps even to themselves. Cass suggests this is so at least for theater, but it may be just as true for music.
    Regardless, I would think it would be possible to examine different interpretations by reading the text (and textual commentary) just as well as by seeing different stage or screen versions, and preferably by doing both.

  13. Every art form is unique. When reading Cass's first post, I thought of my experience playing Beethoven in an orchestra for the first time after hearing him since childhood. Can Beethoven be a favorite composer without being able to play an instrument? Absolutely, but we all seem to agree that we'd get a different appreciation of him when we interpret the music ourselves, in the same way we interpret plays when acting. Even in terms of paintings, we would get another feeling about a piece of art if we were to restore it or to dip into painting for the first time.

    Cass said, "If you watch a play, you're experiencing so much of what it is — but not everything, because in a play, choice is crucial." This is very true, as has been mentioned. Is Cass noting that it is essential to hear the play, to read aloud the play, or to perform the play? It is true that Shakespeare was meant to be heard, and that is essential, if one can hear. But I also agree with Duane that not everyone has the opportunity to do this and are still able to fully appreciate Shakespeare. Some may have other learning styles, some may just not get a chance, yet they still might love the connections between Shakespeare's words that even Shakespeare wasn't aware of. Not sure if this makes sense.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *