I suspected I was no connoisseur of the theater the first time I ever saw "King Lear" enacted, when I began to weep at poor old faithful Gloucester, blind and the blood streaming out the sockets. How powerful, how unbearable, how beautiful.
Never mind that this old and withered nobleman was in fact played by a basketball player aged 18 in radiant pink-cheeked health about seven feet tall.
I perceived that night that for me the actors can be lousy, ill-matched to role, and none too secure in articulation either, and the result is still magnificent if the script be followed faithfully and if the actors give it the best they have got, however little that may be.
What does not work, at least not in a performance of Shakespeare, is futzing around. Ineptness of technique may do no fatal harm, but coyness does.
I saw an interlude, or a pastiche, or a mishmash or whatever the right word is, presented this week after supper at the British Embassy in honor of Shakespeare and in promotion of a scheme to reconstruct the Globe Theater in London as it was in the metapoet's day.
It was a novel diversion after the glazed grapes and similar wonders of the supper. And to think they performed one of my favorite scenes from all Shakespeare, the little interlude from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in which Snout (Shakespeare was terribly good at names for actors) plays the part of a stone wall that separates two lovers named Pyramus and Thisby. Unfortunately we did not have the Lion (played by Snug) who flees in terror from Thisby, but who Pyramus thinks has gobbled up the lady leaving only a bloody garment behind.
Even in its abbreviated form, however, the scene exercised its usual power, and I drowned an eye when the Wall came on because I am cracked, possibly, and am moved to tears often when Shakespeare's clowns and porters and rude mechanicals and Desdemona and other hilarious types appear. Besides, I thought Nicol Williamson showed a nice range of talent, not only as the Wall, in which he was supposed to be clumsy, stupid, etc., which are pretty easy things for actors, but also as Prospero ("our little life is rounded"), which is a bit harder.
As I get the picture, this little six-hour tribute to Shakespeare is going to be taken round the country to promote the reconstruction of Shakespeare's own theater, and since I imagine I am precisely the sort of fellow Shakespeare wrote for, I offer a helpful note or two to Sam Wanamaker, former Chicago actor, who presides over this dramatical tribute and directs it insofar as mortally possible.
And I gently remind him that Shakespeare knew better how to handle a rabble of groundlings and other sniping critics in the audience than Sam Wanamaker does; it is prudent, therefore, to leave the work to Shakespeare.
As long as the entertainment stuck to Snout and Prospero all was well. The trouble arose when an effort was made to convince us that Shakespeare is fun. Of course one meets now and again with men who propound at length such thorny and knotty questions as whether the sun comes up, concluding at heroic length that yes, by and large it does. So there is nothing new in the argument (so much favored by certain directors) that Shakespeare is not merely the supreme writer of the language but is also quite good, actually.
Shakespeare can horse around far better than the average director, in point of fact, and his range is wider than your common scholar's. It is elitist and unfair--your average sweaty writer is well cured in despair by the age of 22 by this disgusting truth--indeed, it is hellishly unfair that Shakespeare off his feed a little is superior to any other writer at the peak of power, and that goes for Milton, too.
Others, I think, have noticed his unholy power and writers usually have sense enough to hint that he was a tetraploid, maybe, or maybe a god or something that once burst on the scene and thank God is not living now, especially since his parody of other writers was so vicious ("for by thy gracious golden glittering gleams, I trust to taste of truest" etc.).
He was moreover an arrogant son of a gun who used to threaten his audience that once he was gone there wasn't ever going to be anything again. And so much the worse because he was right.
So as I say, even your grubbiest writer tries never to let his name come up and does everything he can to discourage any reader from dipping into the plays or the sonnets. Once I had an editor who wanted to know why some piece I wrote was not more like Dr. Johnson, and even at the time I thanked God the imbecile didn't inquire why it was not more like Shakespeare. But then he went to a military school and didn't know all that many writers.
But if through no fault of his own a writer is forced to deal with people who have been dipping into Shakespeare, he does not run off and hide somewhere, nor dodge the fact. No. We are an honest sturdy lot, and when trapped we freely confess what can hardly be concealed, that Shakespeare is better than all the rest together.
Now I see that only writers and groundlings--audiences, that is--seem to know this. Directors sometimes do not know it.
With much groaning they emerge, these conscientious directors, to show us that having bled on the flints for some time they have at last got a candle lit, and they flourish it in the blaze of noon to amaze us how they have illuminated the earth.
Writers, rude fellows, and groundlings, even ruder, often laugh and pitch a tomato or two. I never did think lynching was right, especially if the point may be made with a tomato.
But in this promotional tribute to Shakespeare presided over by friend Sam, it is feared that Shakespeare cannot quite grab an audience's attention by himself, so there had better be added to Thisby and Prospero a few really catchy novelties, such as a monotone song rattling off the title of all the Shakespeare plays. O wow upon my word, what splendor have we here.
I wished I had saved a few crab claws from supper. But peace, I would not wish to be misunderstood or to seem ungrateful for this fine effort to amuse us all after grapes. When the actors acted, everything worked. When some inept hack started writing patter songs, nothing worked, and I double-dog dare them to put it on in a theater and charge a buck to see it.
But if they put on the Wall and Prospero and the vastie fields of France, then they have got something that will sell. To shape a diamond you use diamond dust. To honor Shakespeare you do Shakespeare. I found the whole evening charming, though the last four hours of the stage-stuff dragged a bit, and what I want to know is, why does any director imagine an audience wants to hear some feeble blue jay croak along "singing" some dismal effort when for the same price he could have given us Snug the carpenter in his triumphant role of Lion?
The reason an audience all but snarls out loud during the "song" but purrs sweetly for the lion is quite simple: a cretin wrote the one and Shakespeare wrote the other. The sooner this dreadful truth is absorbed, the less tomatesque the poor actor's lot will be.