Tuesday, April 23, 2013

William Shakespeare, 1964-2016

“If Shakespeare were alive today, he would be writing television.”

You hear this sentence a lot when people speculate about the Bard (and speculation is, alas, what passes for autobiography when it comes to the author of the First Folio).  The premise behind this statement is twofold.  The first is that, in our modern media-driven culture, live theatre is pretty much dead as a livelihood, never mind as a creative pursuit, and not even a consideration for someone of Shakespeare’s talents.  The second is that those talents would be best suited for television, because you can indeed make a living doing it, and because there’s that repertory feel to a lot of comedy and drama shows that translates back to what we like to think of as the repertory camaraderie of the Chamberlain’s Men. 

That first premise is the perfect definition of Sad But True.  For better or worse (oh who am I kidding—it’s definitely for worse) these days theatre is a niche entertainment that has become, for writers, actors and directors, a stepping stone to TV and the movies.  But what about Shakespeare?

Let’s say our boy Will was born in 1964 instead of 1564, in Stratford, Connecticut.  He would have graduated high school in 1981, and almost certainly thought about going to college.  Now here’s where it gets tricky.  If we’re translating what we do know of Shakespeare’s life in contemporary terms, then we have reached a crossroad.  The Elizabethan Shakespeare was a father when he was 18; would the modern Shakespeare have married some girl from Fairfield because he got her pregnant in 1982?  It might have been what a normal kid in 1582 would have had to do, but given that normal kids in 1982 knew a thing or two about contraceptives, there’s a better than even chance that Will and Anne would have had a great little fling and gone their separate ways, which means Will would have gone to college, majored in English with a minor in the classics—and then what?  Probably gone to New York with his classmates and his connections and made a creative life for himself.  With no family to support, he could have become a starving writer, or even gotten a day job and started writing in his free time.  But writing what?  Poetry?  (Almost certainly.)  Poetic plays or plays with heightened language?  Maybe.  Maybe he’s the next David Mamet, or the American Stoppard.  Next stop: HBO, right? And The Plantagenets, Season Four.  Which makes my head hurt.

But let’s say those contraceptives didn’t do their job.  Let’s say Anne did get pregnant, and Will married her.  If he did, he probably wouldn’t have gone to college (or finished it, if he had just become a freshman) and would have had to get a survival job just to support his growing family (let’s give them the twins as well).  Let‘s say he runs off to New York the way Elizabethan Will ran off to London.  In the mid-1980’s, what would a clever wordsmith with no connections and no college end up doing?  Off-Off Broadway?  One man shows?  Maybe, but Shakespeare was not the lead actor of the Chamberlain’s Men, just a member of it.  If anybody was the driving force, it was Richard Burbage.  So who would have been modern Shakespeare’s Burbage?  Who, with no nobility to suck up to, would have been his Southampton?  And was it really possible for a kid from Stratford Connecticut to suddenly become well-known in his field by 1992?  Just asking the question makes my head hurt even more.

Becuse it’s this way.  If you want to think of Shakespeare in modern terms, then you either have to force the square peg of his Elizabethan history into the round hole of the modern 80’s and 90’s, or you do the reverse, and try to retro-fit the man with the age. Either way, getting the writer into a group of people for whom he can write means trying to think of a modern version of the Chamberlain’s Men, and that’s where the analogy breaks down.  That's where you try to think of who Shakespeare was without a company of fellow-actors around him. And if you conclude that this company atmosphere is necessary for his success as a writer, and it’s TV-related, then the only avenue that immediately comes to mind is Saturday Night Live.  Which means Will would be a writer/performer who would use the TV gig as a springboard for movies rather than television, and movie comedies more than anything else.   And now my head is splitting.

So yes: it is indeed possible to manhandle our country mouse wordsmith into the rarified world of screenplay rewrites, pitch meetings, and writers’ rooms.  What is not possible is to imagine what he would be writing, because all the plays the Elizabethan Shakespeare wrote would be impossible to get greenlit.  Tragedies?  Forget it.  History plays?  I guffaw in your specific direction.  King Lear, or anything approaching King Lear?  Never.  Unless it was something like Dallas or Dynasty.  But to even think of equating Dallas or Dynasty with King Lear says all you need to know about how low Shakespeare would have to fall in order to be explained away by the words “Shakespeare would be writing for television.”

Which is why, to my mind, the only correct response to that remark is to say “Yes—and he wouldn’t be Shakespeare.”

This post is part of today's Happy Birthday Shakespeare Project.  Click on the link and keep the celebration going.

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