Back Into the Fray

First of all: hi!  I’m back!  My much-needed break was much-needed, but being back is a vital portion of keeping myself afloat with my studies.  While I was away, I came across several things that I think would make great posts (don’t worry, those ideas are all safely tucked away under my cap), but none that made me more angry than this blog post I stumbled across while mucking about on facebook.

Paul Mullin is a Seattle-based self-professed “recovering playwright”.  And apparently in 2011 he had some things to say about my man Will.  Let’s start here: go read Mullin’s post; otherwise what I’m about to say is not going to make any sense.

Mullin writes with all the bitterness of a contemporary playwright whose works have been sidelined for more “classical” material.  One of the many things I took issue with in this blog is the tacit assumption that Shakespeare is, in Mullin’s words, a “cash cow” that theatres return to in order to support their other repertory.  This is, at least in this country, absolutely not the case.  Except for very rare circumstances (most of those being Shakespeare-specific companies), Shakespeare is not a moneymaker.  If you want to look at cash cows, cast your gaze to the American musical.  I guarantee you that the odd foray into Grease or Rent will gross a theatre more dollars than the pet-project Hamlet.

A pretty shot of the lobby at Trinity Rep.  Because I've got nothing else to put here, and I love this picture I managed to get.

A pretty shot of the lobby at Trinity Rep. Because I’ve got nothing else to put here, and I love this picture I managed to get.

Next; let’s tackle Mullin’s primary thesis: “Shakespeare would hate us”.  In Mullin’s world, Shakespeare comes via time machine (DeLorean, TARDIS, or otherwise) to the twenty-first century, stays for a while, and has a few things to say about the theatre scene here.  All of them are bad.  Shakespeare, contends Mullin, would hate everything about being a working American playwright and many things about the theatre scene in general.

The bottom line is this: Shakespeare would have no sense of perspective about the twenty-first century American Theatre scene, even if he could somehow magically be transported here to stay for a while.  There is nothing about any of the things that Mullin takes issue with via his Shakespeare avatar that Shakespeare could have even hoped to fathom as making sense.  Saying that Shakespeare would hate us is like saying that Jane Austen was a feminist – there is no cultural context for these people from their own times to have the modern interpretations of opinion which we impress upon them from our 20/20 historical hindsight.  The world, after all, has changed a lot in the past four hundred years.

These kinds of arguments (and I see my fair share of them) recursively glamourize the same unchanging past that they strive to break free from.  By romanticizing the Bardic Avatar, we create a Shakespeare who judges from his untouched perch at the heart of historical perfection.  By putting the ultimate judgment about our theatre today in the hands of a long-dead playwright, we give that playwright the authority over our theatre.  In this way, we privilege Shakespeare’s stage as some kind of perfection which we have strayed away from.  This, you will note, is exactly what Mullin is explicitly attempting to fight as the first half of his post is dedicated to establishing a theatre outside of Shakespeare.  In struggling to remove the agency from Shakespeare’s hands, Mullin strays right back to them.

Another issue I have with this article is a purely historical one.  Mullin’s facts are, for the most part, blatantly wrong.  His assumptions are formed around some few elementary notions about the Elizabethan theatre which don’t hold up to careful scrutiny: that all Elizabethan playwrights were actors (not the case; Thomas Kyd and John Lyly just to name a few off the cuff who put pen to page but never acted professionally), that Shakespeare spoke as eloquently as he wrote (where can we even begin to prove this?  Anecdotal evidence: does everyone you know speak exactly like they write?), that “new” plays were and ought to be privileged over “old” plays in Elizabeth’s London (… because the Elizabethans surely didn’t worship old material.. you know… like any of the stuff they ripped plots from on a regular basis).

What really gets me going is when people try to put words in Will’s mouth.  Mullin’s most

Adventuring in Boston

Adventuring in Boston

blatant instance of this occurs when he claims: “Shakespeare may have envied his social superiors, but he also knew at his core he was better than them”…. Uh…. What?  I can’t even fathom where the seed of this information is coming from.  How is it even possible to ascertain this from the few facts we have about Shakespeare’s life, none of which come from Shakespeare himself?  Making any statement about how Shakespeare “felt” about anything is far-fetched at best, but this is flat out fantastical thinking worthy of a set of wings and a magic wand.

So can we stop dredging him up to put words in his mouth?  Can we talk about him and not for him?  Meaningful conversation can only be placed upon a firm foundation of fact.  Lacking that, all we have is opinion.  Don’t get me wrong, I’d love for someone to unearth Shakespeare’s diary from the bindings of some age-old book; but until then let’s not speak for him.  It’ll only anger his already-restless spirit and make him devour us all-the-quicker when he takes over the world as a super zombie (…hey, if you can fantasize about Shakespeare’s afterlife, then so can I).

6 thoughts on “Back Into the Fray

  1. I find the cognitive dissonance in his argument incredibly amusing.

    “Shakespeare was a playwright, poet, player and proprietor, in equal measure, despite our hindsighted emphasis on the first of those four. He made plays to make money and he made a lot of both.”

    So he’s making the point that for Shakespeare, it was all about the Benjamins (or I guess the Elizabeths or Jameses, technically speaking). Yet the very next paragraph requires Shakespeare to have held lofty standards about the format in which his plays would’ve made said denari:

    “He would hate that people more often read his plays than see them.”

    It’s funny how the most pretentious people are often the ones shouting the loudest about the need to focus on the simple things.

  2. No dissonance at all, actually in that statement. As a proprietor, he would’ve hated for people to read and not see his plays because he didn’t make a dime (or farthing, whatever) from publications of his plays. No playwrights did at that time.

    So, next?

    PS I’m not shouting now, nor was I when I wrote the essay several years ago.

  3. Actually, Paul, that’s only mostly true.

    Early Modern Publication practices being what they were, IP wasn’t a thing until the Statute of Anne in 1710. Playwrights did suffer from rampant plagiarism of their work (unauthorized editions of plays were printed by folks who, say, came to hear the play once then wrote down what they knew from memory and sold it to a stationer to print… this is why we have so many bad “Hamlet” Quartos).

    But the key word here is “sold”. There are some plays that were printed in Quarto during Shakespeare’s lifetime and are commonly agreed to be “official” editions (ones which Shakespeare had a hand in publishing). For these so-called “Good Quartos”, Shakespeare would have been paid a one-time licensing fee by the stationer. Definitely not the royalty-based society we have today, but “didn’t make a dime” isn’t entirely accurate.

  4. Thank you for the correction on the specifics of my assertion. It does not, however, obviate the fact that playwrights at the time gained little if any significant financial benefit from the sales of the published works. Nor does it change the fact that they wrote them to be seen, not read. (Shakes wrote verse to be read, I’ll grant you.)

    Here’s my main objection to your objection to my essay. You seem to have missed or elided over my central point. The piece wasn’t ABOUT Shakespeare, but about us. Because we fawn over his work to the exclusion of developing new work, we have museumified our art form. You have said nothing in regard to this central point. It’s as if (and in this you would not be alone) you would rather defend his ghost’s putative honor in the face of my “bitter” attacks, than examine the current state of the art form, because that would require a different and arguably wider knowledge set.

  5. Yes. Because I’m a historian, and you are a playwright.

    Here is the main contention: I’m not tacitly “defending” Shakespeare; I’m saying that your argument is flawed because your history is incorrect. Your central point is lost without some careful digging into the facts upon which you base your case. Without the foundation, the argument crumbles.

    …This is not to say that the argument is invalid in and of itself. Your point about contemporary playwriting could well be made, and even with this type of logic if you so wished. But if you do want to launch a historical attack upon the contemporary establishment, you should take a moment to sort the facts first (particularly with the large and vibrant verbiage you are fond of using).

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