THE PEARL INSIDER
YEAR-END ISSUE: Defining Classics
Resident Dramaturg KATE FARRINGTON examines the word “traditional” in all of its deceptively complex connotations when applied to theatre.
On “Traditional” (Pt. 4)
“Traditional” American Shakespeare?
One of my favorite professors in college was 85 years old. She’d designed our intensely classical English Lit curriculum, so I suppose we had her to blame/thank for being flung into The Iliad on day one of freshman year and not coming up for air ‘til we hit Omeros in the spring. For those of you who know the term, you’ll understand when I say she was a New Critic through and through. Text was everything to her.
She was a reedy little woman with a halo of white hair and a lilting southern accent straight out of Faulkner. She had lived her life studying, teaching and championing the power of the written word. Even more impressive, she’d done it with a visual impairment—she always made me think of Greek oracles or blind seers.
One day, in the wake of a marathon debate about Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, our class started discussing the complexities of writing novels in a pluralistic society. In her always mild tone, she told us not to focus too narrowly on the novel as a cultural weathervane. She believed we were entering a post-literary world. The long-form written word might not be the wave of the future and we should be prepared for a return of the recited or visualized epic poem told to listeners around a fire—or a screen. You could tell that the idea excited her. “We’ll be like Homer,” she said simply.
That exchange had a deep effect on me. To be able to take a long view of human cultural trends—to think of the novel or the play or even webisodes as different but equally important expressions of human art and ingenuity was inspiring. For a woman of 85 to offer the idea was humbling to my 21-year-old self.
So in thinking about our third definition of “traditional” (partiality to a favorite style from an earlier cultural moment) I can’t help but think of Dr. Louise Cowan, who always tried to imagine on a larger scale.
Theatre is wonderfully malleable. One culture favors masks, another favors puppets. One time period insists on happy endings, another can’t get enough tragedy. Sometimes actors are required to be larger than life, sometimes life-sized is just right. Sometimes playwrights are made much of, sometimes (most of the time) they barely scrape by. Theatre changes to meet the needs and expectations of the time.
But once theatre has answered those needs, once audience expectations turn into complacency, it’s time to challenge them. Theatre thrives in the process of change. And that means what we consider “traditional” shifts with each generation. What was conventional to an audience in 1600 was a style of acting we would find stilted, loud, and stiff. Laurence Olivier’s Oedipal Hamlet was fascinating and right for its moment—but I don’t think you could sell the same interpretation today.
And that’s the way it should be.
The last 100 years of classical theatre in America have been a whirlwind. We began the 20th century with productions of Shakespeare boasting live rabbits bounding through onstage forests or monarchs in real suits of armor—our own version of Naturalism where the design was as important as the action. Those productions were all about spectacle.
In the mid-century, while American Realism was in its prime, classics largely continued to reflect a period visual approach. But it was combined with modern psychological depth, where the actor and the actor’s interpretation reigned supreme. I think of the Theatre Guild, or the touring productions from London with Olivier and Gielgud.
In the 1960s and early 70s, launched by productions like Peter Brook’s carnival-esque Midsummer Night’s Dream or Richard Burton’s stripped down, ultra-hip (or should I say mod?) Hamlet, America dove into our own exploration of the avant-garde in Shakespeare, and the stage saw work by directors of startling vision.
It was the text itself that seemed to take star billing in the 1980s and ‘90s with scholars debating hidden Catholic codes or searching for authorship clues (leading to some fantastically nuanced productions), or blockbuster movies like Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet going for an uncut version of the play as a bold move. This was, in many ways, the “avant-garde” of the late 20th century—to dig into the words on the page. And it was here that The Pearl began its journey.
Now the world of classic theatre is shifting again—has been for a while, in fact.
Ours is a visual world. Images and spoken word are the primary communication touchstones in a digital world where we’re constantly being asked to split our attention between six different tasks. Emojis are our version of pictograms—hieroglyphs instead of words, racing through cyberspace conveying metaphor and emotion.
We are also inheritors of an ever-shifting and diverse cultural landscape that reflects more openly and proudly than ever before the variety of experience Americans bring to the table. And I would argue that in a very real way, our spoken, visual, and endlessly diverse cultural world bears an intriguing resemblance to Shakespeare’s own. His audience was literate, yes, but books were a luxury most working class people (the bulk of Shakespeare’s audience) couldn’t afford. Reading was a practical skill used for business. Language was a game to be played with new words popping up to replace old ones every minute. Poetry was heard, seen, and above all felt—not read.
Does this mean that Shakespeare’s text is doomed to languish in a pictogram world? Not at all. It means that the current crop of directors and actors have taken the previous generation’s textual work to heart, and are ready and eager to find new ways to convey Shakespeare’s complexity, diversity, depth, and nuance—ways that will have maximal impact on the post-literary generation Dr. Cowan so presciently foretold.
Perhaps no generation of directors has faced such an intriguing challenge—but I think they’re up to the task.
The 21st Century Pearl
I said at the beginning that you might be surprised what approach to classical theatre The Pearl favored.
All of them.
As champions of great plays across history, The Pearl’s mission is to find the best way to tell a story in the moment we’re telling it—to find an approach that evokes a true emotional response in our audience. That is how we best serve the spirit of these plays and these stories—by never letting ourselves be governed by a single school of thought, but instead opening ourselves up to the full range of possibilities these tales bring with them. Sometimes that means highlighting the gorgeous “otherness” of a classical work by luxuriating in a play’s original language, setting, and style. Sometimes it means challenging accepted notions about a play by reimagining how we might tell the story—with what actors, in what landscape. Always we will strive, as we always have, to be true to the spirit of every play and to honor (without being slavish) a playwright’s hopes for his or her work.
This season we’ve already offered you a Shakespeare play that celebrated our (and your) familiarity with the work by coming at it from a new angle. In the spring we’ll bring you a classic play you probably don’t know—Georges Feydeau’s Le Dindon, in a translation that lovingly and laughingly evokes a past where romance and mayhem go hand in hand. And we’re honored to bring you a heartbreakingly beautiful adaptation of The Seagull in Stupid F***ing Bird—transporting the emotional complexity and frustration of Chekhov’s world to our own.
Theatre is an ongoing conversation between artists and the scripts they take on, between audiences and the stories they want to hear, between the needs of past, present, and future. Theatre must embrace tradition and innovation in equal measure.
We are so grateful to have an audience that is as keenly interested in the conversation of theatre as we are—that understands the larger story of why these works matter and that wants them to stay vital for generations to come. We were glad that Midsummer was able to spark such a wonderful conversation and we’re excited to share the rest of this important season with you.
Thank you. Thank you for caring enough about The Pearl that we felt we had to respond to your comments in the detail they deserved. Thank you for making it possible for a classical theatre to survive and thrive in New York City. Thank you for adding your voices and your support to the story of theatre. We can’t do this work without you, and we wouldn’t want to.
I look forward to seeing you in the spring!
Dramaturg and Associate Artistic Director
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