“Shakespeare is boring.” I’ve heard the declaration throughout my life – from the agonized cries of my classmates in high school English to my peers (and even husband!) as an adult. Shakespeare is boring and hard to understand. Shakespeare is for intellectual snobs.
I’ve never gotten that. For me, Shakespeare wrote life – the entire range of human emotion and experience in gloriously shaded pictures of words. The man is called “the Bard” for a reason. He wrote language that sings, not to professors in dim lecture halls, not to the elite in paneled libraries, but to everyone. This week, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the actor giving us a backstage tour of the theaters in Ashland mentioned that it is estimated that in Shakespeare’s time, some 80% of London’s population crossed the Thames to see his plays. Can you imagine Hollywood’s glee if 80% of a city, any city, made their way into a theater for the latest blockbuster?
But movies, for all of their polish and effects, lack one element that pulses from the stage in a good production and binds the audience. Love.
It is possible – we do it every day – to be moved to laughter, tears, or thought by a movie – but, moviegoers will never feel the connection to the work and to the actors and to each other that comes from seeing a play performed. In Shakespeare’s time, people packed into cities in ways that made Manhattan look like an example of suburban sprawl. You could literally reach out your window and shake hands with the neighbor across the street. Today we fence off quarter acre lots in order to have privacy from our neighbors. We connect via boxes rather than face to face or hand to hand. Our entertainment is computer-generated, polished, censored, rated, and scrubbed. Sure, barring an extreme disaster, most residents of developed cities are unlikely to be felled by cholera, but we are often left trying to purchase connection, trying to fill an inner craving for which we lack the words.
I love Shakespeare, and I love my daughter’s 7th grade class. Still, I’ll admit, I had some misgivings about viewing Romeo and Juliet with a horde of 12 and 13 year olds, particularly when the viewing involved herding them back into cars for a 40 minute drive after they had suffered through the 7 hour, technology-deprived caravan from Davis to Oregon. As we took our seats in a matinee theater packed with junior high and high school students, I looked at the playbill and saw that the running time was over three hours. I regretted not bringing duct tape.
I was wrong. The production, set in the haciendas of 1840s California newly under U.S. rule, had the audience from the first breaths. Caitlin explained it best last night at dinner. “I was sitting next to Collin, and I looked over and he was just like this.” She leaned forward with her elbows on her knees and her mouth slightly agape.
Mike asked, “You mean because he was bored, or enthralled.”
It didn’t hurt, of course, that these actors knew their audience. I’ll admit it. I love the bawdy parts of Shakespeare’s plays. I love the raw sensuality of the double entendres that wink but are never coy. I love the language that shows us just how prurient our modern notions of decorum are. I love the sense, whether accurate or not, that there was a time when sex was considered as natural and complete a part of life as jealousy, anger, romantic love, or filial love. For all of our modern fuss and bother about birth control, movie ratings, sexting, pornography, sexual orientation, etc., we have lost sight somewhere along the line of the fact that our minds and spirits are tied to our bodies, and that the enjoyment of the bodies is as important to our experience as the enlightenment of the mine. Sorry, but it’s true.
But, “the play’s the thing.” (Yes, I’m mixing my quotational metaphors; deal with it.) This production ramped up the bawd – in word, expression, and gesture – to so perfectly balance the equal power of the tragedy, that the audience of teens and preteens was left nearly breathless from laughter (and yes) a few tears. For the parents, any brief hopes of the sort we experience when accidentally taking our young to a movie with more “adult” scenes than we would like, hopes that “maybe they won’t get it,” were quickly dashed. Elizabethan language or not, there was no question that the kids “got it.”
Something happened in that theater, though. Sure there were a few gasps and nudges and winks, but pretty soon, Benvolio, Mercutio, the Nurse, et al. had so caught the kids in the story, that the titillation of the forbidden gave way to honest enjoyment. And the “grown ups” gave up decorum and laughed along with the kids. And when Tybalt’s sword ran through Mercutio, we all gasped together.
Afterward, one of the boys – a kid who struggles with reading and language, and sometimes with the emotions not only of his peers but of himself – told me and one of the other chaperones, “I kind of almost cried. When that guy, the funny one with the whip…” (Mercutio carried a bullwhip coiled at his hip.)
“Mercutio?” I asked.
“Yeah, he was funny. I was sad when he died. I really liked him.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I was right there with you. I did cry. Mercutio and Benvolio have always been my favorite characters in Romeo and Juliet.” He looked a little surprised – those were not the scenes that a grownup, a mom, was supposed to like.
That’s the thing about Shakespeare, and about theater in general. It frees us from the “supposed tos” and gives us liberty to think, feel, and love. Each of the plays that our group experience this week showed the range of lengths humans will go to in order to experience love – from the tragic (Romeo and Juliet) to the miraculous (the Chinese legend of The White Snake) to the madcap (the Marx Brothers vaudeville play Animal Crackers.)
And as we walked the sidewalks of downtown Ashland in the grey wind, rain, and snow, as we clustered in the wood-fired buildings of the farm, and as we drove from farm to theater and back, I watched my daughter and her classmates and saw the weird and wonderful ways in which they love.
Love is a loaded word for that age – a word of whispers and painful self-consciousness. Love is a word they have almost outgrown telling their parents, and a word they are nowhere near ready to say to their peers. But it’s there nonetheless.
When a few of the boys emerged from the cars, after seven hours, speaking in British accents that they refused to lose over a four-day period and were not strangled, but were instead embraced, by their classmates, that was love. As they raced each other, heedless of coolness and their usual social order, up and down the grassy hills on the farm, burning the pent up energy of that first long car ride, that was love. Love showed in the off-beat, from the mixture of chagrin, irritation, and pleasure on the face of a kid hit in the face by a snowball from one of his classmates to the tattling for infractions such as climbing too high in a tree or the failure to brush teeth or wear jackets, to the silent and almost oblivious pairing off of introverts seeking a moment of solace from the mayhem.
There won’t be many more snowball fights for these kids as a group. Next year will be their last together as a class. There are only a few moments left before they begin to explore the more conventional definitions of love. As parents, we only have a few breaths to go before we have to hold our breaths, wondering exactly how much of Shakespeare’s double entendres they truly understand and whether that understanding has a practical foundation. The kids whose snow battles yesterday reminded me so much of their first snow trip together in second grade will soon find themselves increasingly bound by the constraints of society and expectation. But, for now, they are more real in their connections to each other than many adults.
We limit ourselves when we try to tidy the human experience. Adult life is often constrained by definitions of love, friendship, sex, pain, and joy. We use words that bind our emotions into tidy boxes – appropriate, inappropriate. And, in doing so, we cut ourselves off from that connection with our humanity. Shakespeare had it right – the human experience is a giant, sloppy mud pie of love, hatred, sexual tension, misunderstanding, laughter, and tears. We can roll around in the language and emotion, laugh, cry, and get dirty, or we can stay clean and safe and watch life roll by on a silver screen.