As most Shakespeare nerds know by now, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, America’s largest Shakespeare theatre, has undertaken an ambitious project they are calling “Play On!” in which 39 playwrights and 39 dramaturges will undertake to “translate” 39 of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English. This announcement has provoked the predictable amount of consternation throughout the Shakespeare world, enough consternation that as the Director of Mission of the American Shakespeare Center, whose mission is to recover the joys and accessibility of Shakespeare’s theatre, language, and humanity… through performance and education, I would like to share my thoughts on this project, both positive and negative, with our many friends.
Here’s what I like about the project:
(1) To begin with, I applaud the size, scope, and ambition of the project.
Ever since Bill Rauch, OSF’s Artistic Director, arrived in Ashland in 2007, he has brought to the Festival the kind of expansive vision of a theatre of the people, by the people, and for the people. That vision undergirded his first project, Cornerstone Theatre, in which Bill and his colleagues, fresh out of Harvard, would go into communities without theatres and create a production with the citizens. That vision – so American in its principles and in its optimism – was also the foundation for his first big project at OSF, American Revolutions: the U.S. History Cycle, for which he has commissioned American playwrights to attempt to create a collection of plays that helps define America in the way that Shakespeare’s history plays helped to define England. One offspring of that project, Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way about LBJ and the civil rights movement, has already won the Tony for Outstanding Play.
The “Play On!” project matches Bill Rauch’s other work, and in its intention to create Shakespeare scripts of the people, by the people, and for the people, it matches as well the giving and inclusiveness that informs OSF under his remarkable leadership. To appreciate what he has accomplished, locate Ashland, Oregon, on a map, and you will see that it’s a small city (Staunton’s size) in the isolated southwest corner of Oregon, five hours from Portland. Always devoted to first-class work, the Festival’s location trapped it more than most urban Shakespeare companies in the predominant Shakespeare audience base of affluent and aging white people – a place to get away from the world rather than a place to engage it. I do not know how their new programming has changed their audience demographics, but the increased diversity of the actors and staff at OSF and the emphasis on musicals and new plays have certainly made the season’s offerings look less daunting to non-Shakespeare fans as well as more interesting to experienced theatre-goers who are looking for something new and would rather not see their tenth production of Macbeth.
(2) Some good that will come from the “Play On!” project.
Already it has prompted the kind of controversy that keeps the importance of Shakespeare in the public view. It’s made people think about their experiences seeing and hearing Shakespeare. It’s giving employment to 39 playwrights and – even more rarely – a like number of dramaturges. And that means, inevitably, that by the end of the project, 78 very smart people, who have wrestled with replacing Shakespeare’s words (as our actors do when they try to paraphrase their lines) will be in awe of his skill, and they will approach their crafts both with more humility and with more skill.
I hope that once the scripts are all in, OSF will plan a grand convocation of these men and women to talk about their experience of trying to retain, in the words of OSF’s Director of Literary Development Lue Douthit, “the rhyme, meter, rhetoric, image, metaphor, character, action, and theme” of the original. Lue, if you’re reading this, please invite me to that occasion. I promise not to say a word, just soak in the inevitable awe these re-creators will feel faced with what Andrew Hartley, in the answering question “Why Shakespeare?” (The Shakespeare Dramaturg, p.70), calls the “unequaled…poignancy or precision” of Shakespeare’s words and phrases “unparalleled elsewhere.” Our actors feel it every time they play a role; our students feel it every time they study a line. Imagine what 36 playwrights and 36 dramaturges will feel after trying to put an entire play into their own words.
(3) Clearly this project does no harm to Shakespeare, even in Ashland.
OSF assures fans of Shakespeare that over the next ten years they will produce all of Shakespeare’s plays in the original and that “one or more of” the plays created “may be produced along with the original canon.” These scripts will be food for readings and discussion around the country. Shakespeare’s works have always stood up to the “translation” – in a real sense, every production is a new “translation.” Changing words, characters, scenes, plots – none of that is new. Whenever I direct a production, I’ll change a word or twenty. In our current production of Midsummer Night’s Dream “on her withered dewlap” became “on her withered bosom”; and the fairies’ lullaby to Titania about “spotted snakes” became a soft shoe version of “By the Light of Silvery Moon.” Am I ashamed? Kind of. Is Shakespeare rolling in his grave? No seismic activity in Stratford-upon-Avon has been reported.
As our board member Kim West pointed out, this kind of “translation has been going on since Nahum Tate updated King Lear in 1681.” Who knows how many Nahum Tates the project might produce? In one way or another every play is only the first version of a work, changed with each production; and all of this reworking of Shakespeare in whatever language, in whatever medium, from musicals to film to comic books to TV sitcoms to Andy Griffith’s radio retelling of Romeo and Juliet, never lessened the value of his work – all of this has only given the originals more currency.
Here’s what I don’t like about the project:
(1) The OSF project assumes that Shakespeare’s language is not our language.
The rationale for the project is that Shakespeare’s language is hard to understand because his language is too far from our own and that audiences of a far wider range would enjoy the plays better if they were written in contemporary language. I don’t like this rationale, because I think the assumption it makes about Shakespeare’s language is wrong and the assumption it makes about what audiences are capable of enjoying underestimates audiences, actors, and the nature of theatre.
Yes, we could all use larger vocabularies, but if you’re going to start simplifying language to reach those who don’t have a large enough vocabulary, then don’t pick on Shakespeare without picking on Shaw, Wilde, Coward, Williams, Churchill, Stoppard, and Sondheim. For that matter go after Deadwood, West Wing, Justified, Game of Thrones, and Star Trek. Shoot, go after Sesame Street.
The Wall Street Journal’s John McWhorter approves wholeheartedly of the project and tells us that 10% of the words in Shakespeare are “incomprehensible.” That number vastly exaggerates the number of archaic words in Shakespeare and ignores altogether the way context – the other words being spoken and the way the actor speaks them – helps us comprehend. In fact, 98% of Shakespeare’s words are either in our dictionaries as current usage English or as a close cousin of the current English.
(2) The OSF project robs from rather than adds to the meaning of the plays.
It ignores the pleasure of the unconscious experience of comprehending expanded meaning. For example, here’s a passage from Macbeth that McWhorter wants updated. It’s Macbeth considering whether he should kill the King, Duncan:
………………………Besides, this Duncan
hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
so clear in his great office, that his virtues
will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
the deep damnation of his taking-off.
McWhorter prefers this “translation” by Conrad Spoke:
………………Besides, this Duncan
hath borne authority so meek, hath been
so pure in his great office, that his virtues
will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
the deep damnation of his knocking-off.
McWhorter would substitute “authority” for “faculties” because he says he doesn’t know what “bearing one’s faculties” means. He doesn’t? Today we use “faculties” to mean “abilities,” – the very first definition in Merriam Webster – and pretty precisely what Shakespeare meant. In fact the substituted “authority” is not what Macbeth is talking about. Nor is the substituted “pure in office” the same as the original “clear in his office.” Jimmy Carter was “pure” in his office; Ronald Reagan was “clear.” Shakespeare’s “clear” could hardly be clearer.
Most alarmingly, McWhorter champions “knocking-off” for “taking-off.” He would choose a current slang word for “murder” instead of Macbeth’s invented phrase “taking-off.” But even children listening to Macbeth contemplate this murder would know what “taking-off” means, and they would also know – as would the actor playing the part – that it’s a feeble euphemism, that Macbeth can’t bring himself even to say “murder,” and that is the real story of this moment. The actor performing the “translated” line would lose this moment, and the audiences listening to that “translation” would lose this insight into the mind of a man for the first time considering the murder. Shakespeare’s word – easy to comprehend in context – provides the full understanding, whereas in McWhorter’s term the substituted word gives us only a “half understanding.”
(3) The OSF project ignores the joy of acquiring language.
We go to Shakespeare better equipped with the language that Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights left us than his own audiences, audiences who went to the theatre to hear that language invented for the first time. The theatre is where people – literate and illiterate – went to learn new words by having them performed by actors who can show you their meanings. In short they went in search of new words and of old words being stretched to new limits.
We do that too – with Stoppard and Pinter and Beckett plays; with comedians Kevin Hart, Amy Schumer, and Stephen Colbert; with television like Key and Peele and Wired, with lyricists from Sondheim to Notorious B.I.G. Even when some of it flies by us, we enjoy the rush of new words in new arrangements.
(4) The OSF project endorses ShakesFear.
We go to Shakespeare unnecessarily afraid, worried about missing something, worried about vocabulary as though we were taking the SAT. That irrational and unhelpful worry I call ShakesFear, and my main objection to the OSF project is that it endorses ShakesFear, and in doing so it misunderstands the nature of theatre and underestimates the genius of audiences. It promotes the anxiety about Shakespeare that is a primary obstacle to its enjoyment.
(5) The OSF project takes actors and directors off the hook.
“Play On!” shifts the responsibility for “comprehensible” Shakespeare to these 39 playwrights and away from actors and directors who themselves are uninterested in the way the language in the plays work.
Actors who don’t know precisely what the words are can’t make up the difference with an emotional wash, and directors whose aim is foremost the imposition of a concept can sometimes make comprehension harder. As James Shapiro writes in The New York Times, “To understand Shakespeare’s characters, actors have long depended on the hints of meaning and shadings of emphasis that he embedded in his verse. They will search for them in vain in the translation.”
From the day Jim Warren and I started the company, the American Shakespeare Center has made the comprehension of Shakespeare’s language and an understanding of the way the meter and the syntax work the first business of rehearsal. We are continually looking for the ways that staging can clarify meaning for his audiences. We don’t always get it right in our fight against ShakesFear, but repeatedly we hear from audiences, “That was the first time I had no trouble understanding the play” or “I forgot it was Shakespeare” or – our favorite – “That was great. Who translated it into modern English?” And then we get to tell the patron that the words were Shakespeare’s and that he himself effortlessly did the “translation.”
The greatest gift of a good Shakespeare production is this kind of unconscious “translation” – an occasion when performance combines with the wellspring of our language to enlarge us.
(6) The OSF project condescends to certain audiences.
My final concern about the OSF project is the soft discrimination of its low expectations. As I have said, the plan is meant to be a part of OSF’s admirable push to make Shakespeare of the people, by the people, and for the people. But those people are less in need of help than OSF imagines. Children are always swimming in a sea of new language; it’s how they learn. For an adult, Much Ado about Nothing may be harder than The Important of Being Earnest, but for the eight-year-old, they present similar challenges – or, depending on your point of view, opportunities. The OSF project would deprive the very audiences it’s concerned about of those opportunities by creating a kind of “separate but equal” Shakespeare.
OSF’s project, in worrying about making Shakespeare easier, endorses the wrong idea that Shakespeare is too hard. But it is just the right kind of hard. In the words of our Associate Artistic Director, Jay McClure, “Shakespeare is not easy; it is not neat, it is not without complications; it is not always understandable. Just like life. And just like life, it is miraculous. And it is work. And it is worth it.”
As I said at the start, the OSF project has done all of us a favor by raising the issue of how we deal with the rich gift of Shakespeare. First thing we do, let’s not underrate it.
Ralph Alan Cohen
OCS Co-founder and Director of Mission
*This post was edited on 10/10 to correct the numbering in the second section and correct “quipped” to