Chances are, unless you’re an English grad student or engaged in a lifelong swoon over Shakespeare, you haven’t read or seen “Timon of Athens.” Or even heard of it. Heck, my job is covering Shakespeare and I’ve never seen it. So the Folger Theatre’s mission at the moment — staging a modern-dress version of this obscure work, often consigned to the filing cabinet of classical drama labeled “deeply flawed” — begins as strikingly esoteric.
But it also strikes me as marvelously vital. Because in our age, the canon of classical works to which audiences are exposed shrinks by the year. Oh, the old favorites aren’t going anywhere. Romeos and Hamlets will continue to wax poetic before our eyes — although, methinks, in smaller and smaller venues — and costume shops will be backed up into the future with orders for Macbeth’s tunics and Desdemona’s nightgowns.
Yet the fact that many theater companies seem to believe they can fulfill their classical mandates with only the most widely known plays, or worse, sacrifice more challenging plays to the popular-entertainment demands of the box office, makes me wonder whether these are signs of a deeper problem. That is to ask, are Americans too intellectually lazy to fully appreciate Shakespeare anymore?
The American theater’s most prominent platform, Broadway, seems to have thrown up its hands in surrender: A play by Shakespeare hasn’t opened there since the fall of 2013. An article of faith among theaters and theater writers (for public consumption, anyway) is the audience is never wrong. But what if something wrong is happening to the audience? What if it is losing interest, or patience, in encountering Shakespeare on his own terms?
A fundamental shift in control over Shakespeare’s words has been evident for much of the last 50 years in the English-speaking theater, as directors have with more and more chutzpah taken hold of the text and used it as mere modeling clay. It’s worth mentioning that this practice is widely applied to modern as well as classic plays throughout the rest of Europe and elsewhere.
This has led to some breathtaking flights of the imagination, starting with Peter Brook’s paradigm-altering “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1970, an illuminating production performed on swings in an all-white box. In the years since, it has also resulted in a trend bordering on mindlessness, of imposing every variety of anachronism on Shakespeare, in the service of making his plays more topical for an audience that seems to need something close to a literal reflection of itself on the stage. Rock bottom, for me, was a production in Washington last year of “Romeo and Juliet” during which the memorable “Two households, both alike in dignity” speech was given to a member of the ensemble pushing a vacuum cleaner.
I wonder, though, if this habit has hastened the predicament we’re now in: that it’s next to impossible to attract a sustainable audience to anything but the most accessible titles, because having to deal with unfamiliar Shakespeare is ugh, so much work. One has only to look over the offerings of the most highly regarded classical companies for evidence. In the next 12 months, for instance, Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, winner of the 2012 Tony Award for outstanding regional theater, has three plays by the Bard on the schedule: a “Macbeth” that opens officially on Monday; a “Twelfth Night” and a “Hamlet.”
Did “low-hanging fruit” have the same connotation in the Elizabethan Age?
Also on Shakespeare Theatre’s calendar next season is a revival of that favorite of the Jacobeans, Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot.” And this company is not the only one with Shakespeare in its name that is counting on musicals to fill its coffers. “Oklahoma!” is among the future events at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and a new musical stage version of the animated children’s movie “Madagascar” is set for this summer at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. “Mary Poppins” is forthcoming at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and the Utah Shakespeare Festival will soon be doing “Guys and Dolls.”
Now, these companies all carry on their traditions of producing Shakespeare and maybe, from time to time, one or another playwright from antiquity. One can’t blame them for wanting to survive. But survive as what? What does it say when these organizations, whose identity revolves around 38 (or thereabouts) plays written 400 years ago, have to rely on American musical theater to survive? And if these companies fall back endlessly on titles such as “As You Like It” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” will the ultimate consequence be a further diminishment of Shakespeare, a wearing down by Chronic Warhorse Fatigue Syndrome?
That some Shakespeare works are more popular than others is certainly nothing new. Such experts as Columbia University professor James Shapiro, author of “The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606” and several other well-received books on the Bard, note that going back as far as the 19th century, the plays in the canon that could be counted on as “likely box office successes” always numbered only about a dozen.
“People grow up being steered to these plays either in the theater or the classroom, and they are the plays they like to return to,” he said. “The other explanation is that there are some amazingly good roles in Shakespeare, and actors like to play those roles.” You can get Kevin Spacey to play Richard III, Shapiro observed (which Spacey did). But it’s a lot harder, he added, to persuade him to commit to Posthumus in “Cymbeline.”
What does feel as if it’s gaining momentum is the sense that presenting Shakespeare as written is somehow a disservice to audiences. I spoke with Shapiro some months ago, after the Oregon Shakespeare Festival unveiled an ambitious plan that drew some raised eyebrows along with some plaudits: “Play on!,” an initiative that has commissioned 36 dramatists to, in the company’s words, “translate” the entire Shakespeare canon “into contemporary modern English” by Dec. 31, 2018. While it has some commendable goals — drawing many writers of note, including many playwrights of color, into a potentially profound communication with Shakespeare’s work — the notion that Shakespeare needed to be translated bothered me. It seemed another indication of an erosion in our ability to appreciate the poetry of the most ingenious dramatist of the English-speaking world. For plots, Shakespeare himself inveterately co-opted. What is he, then, if not his language?
This disconcerted Shapiro, too. Shakespeare’s rhymes and rhythms are Shakespeare, he said. “You have to understand that even in Shakespeare’s own day, not everybody got every word,” he explained. “Every play has its own score, its own music, and it’s grounded in that iambic pentameter, and somehow, Shakespeare manages to create a jazz musical, a different feel, a different melody to each work.
“The bottom line for me is this, and it’s something that people in theater companies don’t want to hear,” he added. “When actors and the director know what they’re saying, audiences do, too.”
Barry Edelstein, artistic director of San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, who has a degree from Oxford in Shakespeare, had a more upbeat assessment when I spoke to him, too, about the ramifications of “Play on!” Better to view the wrestling with Shakespeare’s language, he said, as having a payoff for writers and audiences down the road. “Every time I work on a Shakespeare play, my work on a non-Shakespearean play gets better,” he explained, “my understanding of language, of metaphor, of syntax. It makes me a better director, and I think this exercise is going to make these people better playwrights.”
In other organizations, such as the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va., a troupe incorporating original Elizabethan practices into its productions, projects are underway to build a contemporary literary infrastructure around the entire canon. Last week, the center announced an international playwriting contest, in which $25,000 prizes are to be awarded annually for contemporary “partner” plays for each of 38 Shakespearean works. The idea is to run each of the new plays — ideally with parts for a dozen or so actors — in repertory with the play that inspires it. The notion is a promising one, in that it bolsters the rationale for ASC’s tradition of investing deeply in the entirety of the Shakespearean roster.
Which brings us back to the boldness of Folger’s investigation of “Timon of Athens,” a play that chronicles the decline of a rich citizen (played here by Ian Merrill Peakes) who, after naively giving away his fortune, lapses into terminal despair. The work is like “The Merchant of Venice,” thematically built around money, but unlike “Merchant,” is rife with what’s regarded as inferior verse and is thought to be unfinished.
The actor and the director, Robert Richmond, said they were struck by the contemporary connections that might be made in portraying a man’s complex relationship with wealth. Or as Folger’s artistic director, Janet Griffin, said to me one time, in reference to another of Shakespeare’s obscurer dramas, “Pericles”: “We are looking for what the play is saying to us today.”
For Peakes, who at the Folger has played some of the most notorious characters in the canon — Iago and Macbeth, to name two — “Timon” is possibly even more of a test of the mettle of a classical company.
“There is partly this responsibility as an institution to perform these works,” he said, during a rehearsal break recently. “The goal is for people to say” ‘Why aren’t we doing these plays more?’ ” Why indeed.
Timon of Athens, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Robert Richmond. $35-$75. May 9 to June 11 at the Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Visit folger.edu/folger-theatre or call 202-544-7077.