The 50 Shakespeare films being shown in the Mary Pickford Theater are best understood as rituals performed in the service of a god, for even in a century of mass this and mass that, it is still understood by everybody that mass is not really the same as energy, and not the same thing as power, unless it is strangely transformed.
The theater in the Madison Building of the Library of Congress seats only 64 people, but so much the better for hearing the comments of live humans who introduce the movies (at previews I heard Daniel Boorstin, librarian of Congress; Werner Gundersheimer, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library; and Robert Saudek and Scott Simmon, authorities on the films). Altogether, 200 movies deriving from Shakespeare plays have been made. The Library of Congress and the Folger Shakespeare Library have 150 of these, from which the selection of 50 was made, an admirable example of two famous institutions joining to present a series that neither could do by itself.
Such a feast for only 64 people at first seems wrong, somehow. Television has shown us the force of "mass marketing," the mass being you and I who watch, and we may too easily evaluate things by the size of the audience or the volume of sales. Sometimes that makes sense, sometimes not.
When we buy toothpaste or toilet paper, as so many of us do, we are likely to buy brands we have seen advertised. Hardly anybody buys Heritage Tissue, for example, a hand-laid paper made by ladies and gentlemen in the Berkshires, retailing at $46 a roll, enhanced with watercolors of New England governors and Plymouth Rock and turkeys.
On the contrary, toilet paper is ubiquitous but not really worth much thought, and while there are doubtless seminars on this product, as on everything else nowadays, and probably a graduate degree can be earned in considering the finer points, let's consider the matter settled, that until some brand kills 20 million people through computer error in the factory, this product will not be on everyone's mind, and will not be reckoned among the triumphs of man.
On the other hand, a fireman who bashes down a door to rescue a crippled kid will be justly admired. People will say wow, as it were, and go to bed comforted that great things still happen among us -- even though it was only one kid, and we were not present to see the blaze of courage. The effect of one fireman rescuing one human has tremendous force with us, independent of numbers.
Getting back to Shakespeare, you notice he never wrote anything but poetry, and mainly for the common theater (with excellent patronage and subsidy, of course), and there were probably a lot of people in the 16th century who thought he was just one of the tribe that ground out clever amusements.
It has turned out, however, that scarcely was he laid under the pavement of Holy Trinity than murmurs arose, suggesting maybe he was from another world, or a tetraploid, or maybe a god.
In centuries since then he has been considered merely a man (even as we) and nobody calls him a god. He is just treated as one, invoked continually in speech, and referred to as the ultimate (divine does not suit the modern vocabulary) authority on all matters of consequence, from split infinitives to the true nature of Richard III.
His shrines may be visited to this day at Stratford (if you get to his tomb in the church at 8:30, and to hell with breakfast, you will beat the busloads of German tourists with cameras and a proneness to bump into things, who only arrive at 9) and many lesser but still dazzling centers. If Stratford is Jerusalem, then the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Library of Congress may jockey for which one is Rome and which one is Compostella.
And there must be lesser shrines -- St. David's in Wales -- that are such a hassle to get to that the pilgrim gets extra points for worshiping there, even if nothing ever happened there.
Once you see clearly that Shakespeare is not just a splendid writer, but a virtually divine one, many mysteries become clear.
Jack Benny, the comedian of blessed memory, played Hamlet in a movie (I have seen an excerpt from this at the Library of Congress this week) and the arms of the theater chairs barely suffice to keep one from rolling out. Would the same scene be so funny if it were not Hamlet, or Shakespeare? Probably not. Benny dolled up in tights, emerging gravely from the dark shadows of Elsinore with a book in his hand and eternal questions on his lips, is Benny Exalted, funny as only a clodhopper in a palace can be, and touching as only a clown at an altar.
He is, by God, going to go for the heights. And, of course, reaches them.
Now in spite of what theater people say, Shakespeare is better read than acted, partly because actors frequently do not understand the lines ("whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer," which is all wrong and distorts the meaning) or because they do not articulate clearly, what with their interest in trotting about the stage, or simply because the words are so packed with meaning that a rapid hearing of them, once, reveals too little of their splendor. Whereas reading from a book, privately, allows anybody to say, "Hey, I don't get that," and chew it about until he does.
One of the good American poets said the things of a poet are done to a man alone, as the things of love are done, and that is so. All religions I can think of stress the changed heart, the altered consciousness, the new life and so forth, and while a great public spectacle can be an assistance to this, sometimes, especially at the more superficial levels, it is undoubtedly true that the great advances are made when the votary is alone, in the presence of a great power outside himself.
Certainly this is the case with poetry, which is why "poetry readings" are so commonly infuriating to people more interested in the words than in the cookies or the free drinks of these occasions.
The two great libraries would not confess it even under torture, but what is really going on at the Library of Congress is in fact a ritual honoring Shakespeare, more than an entertainment for the capital.
The priests of Ammon or Apollo or you name it did not perform their rites only for the edification of a crowd, but in reverence for the god. In the same way the choirs of Ely will show up to sing evensong whether the tremendous nave has anybody in it or not. The place can be empty and it makes no difference. The villagers of the town of Ely, as far as that goes, may never enter the cathedral and yet be up in arms if the divine office is not sung.
In the same way in Washington, how many of us are ever going to see these Shakespeare films? Even if the theater were enormous, how many of us would be free at 7:30 at night to attend? So for all practical purposes it should make no difference at all whether the Folger and the Library of Congress show their Shakespeare films.
I am here to say, however, it makes a difference to me that they do it. I want it done, whether I see it or not. I also want the hockey games to be played and the baseballs to be pitched and the sandlots to be filled, whether or not I play or even watch. We want the hungry to be fed, the wheat to be planted, the negotiators to give a fair sweat in their wrangling and, in short, we want the great theater of life to continue, and we want this whether we are notable actors or not, and we will want it even as we die and leave it.
BONG. Hark the sacring bell. Let the folk simmer down. Let the show commence. The divine office continues.