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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: March ::
"It makes it more accessible to a modern audience"
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0647  Thursday, 11 March 2004

[1]     From:   Jonathan C. Dietrich <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 9 Mar 2004 07:04:15 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.0637 "It makes it more accessible to a modern audience"

[2]     From:   John Reed <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 9 Mar 2004 21:05:59 -0800
        Subj:   Reply to It Makes it More Accessible to a Modern Audience


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Jonathan C. Dietrich <
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Date:           Tuesday, 9 Mar 2004 07:04:15 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 15.0637 "It makes it more accessible to a modern audience"
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.0637 "It makes it more accessible to a modern audience"

Tell the story.

This is something I have written on a card in my wallet. I am an actor
who has done plenty of community productions and I think this is key.
Costume, set, lighting, sound, and props should all be there to help
tell the story. If a particular element hinders rather than helps, it
should be left out. If using a "modern" element means that your intended
audience can more easily understand a part of the story, so be it. If
your budget only allows 5 actors, then you need to work hard to be sure
that this doesn't hurt the story.

I think the trap that many companies fall into is fear the text. They
want to try and hide their lack of comfort behind clever ideas and
modern twists. I think that these clever ideas and modern twists can be
very successful, but only with a company that has a solid understanding
of the text and are capable of producing a "traditional" version.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Reed <
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Date:           Tuesday, 9 Mar 2004 21:05:59 -0800
Subject:        Reply to It Makes it More Accessible to a Modern Audience

I could really go on about this one, but I'll try to restrain myself.  I
don't think alterations to costume or scenery helps anything.  Helps: as
in increasing audience comprehension of story, or increasing audience
experience of impact of story.  It usually hurts, in its own small way,
since it can introduce unconscious expectations based on era (time of
story): for instance, setting Hamlet in nineteenth century Denmark
instead of tenth century Denmark.  In the nineteenth century the
overtones of the Christian element, especially the spiritual warfare
aspect, is significantly reduced.  Even comparing nineteenth century to
seventeenth century, if we want to go with a so-called modern-dress
version (their modern dress), this element is still reduced.  To me that
is an essential aspect of the play.  On the other hand if we change both
time and place so that the setting contributes to story in a similar way
as it originally did, then that might be worth trying.  Orson Welles's
"Voodoo" Macbeth comes to mind here.

The modern audience has problems with comprehension, for various
reasons, but it is not due to the backgrounds or wardrobe.  A lot of it
has to do with the language, of course, and I think the main difficulty
is due to the Figures of Speech: or rather the density of Figures of
Speech.  We like to pat ourselves on the back for being enlightened
nowadays, partially because we know physics and chemistry and the
Elizabethans didn't but they knew their rhetoric.  Even those (and I
think it would be fair to number many of the groundlings in this
category) who only had a grammar school education knew quite a lot about
Figures of Speech.  They would certainly feel comfortable with them,
even if they might not be able to tick them off by name as they
appeared; although some might: "Oh, look at that, synecdoche, and there
goes zeugma, uh-huh, and antimetabole, good job, Will, I spent my money
on this well."    However many in the modern audience who are confronted
with, say Claudius's opening speech in Hamlet, are going to go, "Hunh?"
  For my own part I've found that in order to comprehend a play in
performance I have to spend many hundreds of hours studying it, looking
at the notes, looking things up in the OED, and then I'm ok.  There are
only a few plays for which I have done this, however, and I feel sure if
I saw a performance of, say, Cymbeline, much of it would degenerate into
an incomprehensible jumble of English words, especially, as often
happens, they are delivered in a sort of phony sing-song cadence.

I think impact drops off rapidly as comprehension falls.  I'm guessing
again, but I wouldn't be surprised if an audience comprehending 90
percent of the speech only had around fifty percent of the impact as an
audience (the original audience) who understood all of it.  Unavoidably,
then, if a director is serious about communicating one of these plays to
a regular modern audience (I feel sure in presuming most SH. audiences
now are not regular, being generally more highly educated), then the
language must be simplified.  Simplified, not merely cut.  I think if
the hardest ten percent is changed so that it is the easiest ten
percent, that helps a lot.

Another worse problem is that it is likely Shakespeare was working with
a different theory of drama than people have nowadays.   I can easily
confuse myself into believing the modern theory is applied automatically
and more or less unconsciously.  So for example we get performances
where the incidence of aside lines is zero, or close to zero, especially
in filmed versions.

Probably an even "worse" problem is that we largely have a completely
different world view than the original audience.  In round numbers
Shakespeare was a Christian author writing for a Christian audience, and
they shared a large amount of unstated assumptions for that reason, in
some cases highly specific items found in the prayer book, for instance.
  Nowadays, by contrast, we're a bunch of enlightenment philosophers
scampering around advancing technological civilization and stuff and a
large part of those original unstated assumptions are no longer there.
So then the real problem, which probably hardly ever surfaces into
consciousness, is whether the modern performance should be altered to
make the current audience experience more like that of the original
audience, or should the performance be altered to make it more
conformable with current notions of reality?

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