In The Steely Grip of Jackbooted Bardolators

I guess 150 to 1 isn’t a bad score, right?

Bag&Baggage just closed our three week run of our major adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” at the Tom Hughes Civic Center Plaza in Hillsboro last Sunday. Although “summergeddon” didn’t help out our ticket sales (I mean, who would want to watch two teenagers fall in love and commit suicide in 107 degree heat? Much more a winter sport, methinks) we still had a great overall turnout and responses to the play were, with one exception (wait for it), overwhelmingly positive. We had a great review in the Oregonian, achieved some of the most significant press coverage we have ever had, and attracted brand new audiences from as far away as Seattle and San Francisco to see our work. We sold huge numbers of Season Tickets to our audiences, and got dozens of complimentary emails and phone calls from audience members who were thrilled and delighted by our retelling of Shakespeare’s classic tale of star crossed love. Overall, we got hundreds of compliments!

With one exception: A local actor, who identified himself as having an MA in theatre and a history of work with local community theatres, sent me an email on Monday that called into question the legitimacy of doing “adapted” Shakespeare productions as (in his words) they “corrupt Shakespeare.” He also indicated that, if, as a company, we were to continue doing these kinds of shows, he doubted we would be around for long and that we were unlikely to get the support of the community and of our theatre colleagues. His biggest beef was that our adaptation featured text that was not Shakespeare’s original work and he wondered who I thought I was to alter Shakespeare’s original, essentially corrupting the play with the inferior verse of other writers.

To be honest, I get these emails a lot. In fact, just in the last year, I’ve had letters from people who HATED our productions of Comedy of Errors (done as a Warner Brothers cartoon), our The Importance of Being Earnest (set in the 1920s and cross gender cast) and our silent film homage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. All of those complaints had little (if anything) to do with the quality of the acting, the set, the costumes, the skill of the performers, or anything related to the craft of our artists and designers. All of them, without exception, were complaints about “what we did to the play…” almost as if, by engaging in creative and (some might argue) subversive performances of classical work we had destroyed every copy of the original scripts. I recall a conversation I had with a very irate woman after a WWII era production of Much Ado who said, “You destroyed the play.” To which I responded, “Funny, I have a copy of the original on my bookshelf at home.” She wasn’t amused.

My biggest problem when I get these kinds of comments is that I don’t just ignore them and send a sweet “thank you for your feedback” response. But, for some reason, these kinds of comments just get under my skin and I feel the need to respond in some way…perhaps as a way of engaging in a discussion about the validity of adaptation, the universality and permanence of Shakespeare’s work, the crucial need to keep the plays engaging and relevant to modern audiences, or (as in the case of the R&J letter) to help illuminate or clarify misconceptions about Shakespeare, his plays, and the debt he owed to previous authors as a result of his out adaptive process.

When Shakespeare sat down to create Romeo and Juliet, in 1596, he was not starting from scratch. In fact, the young William Shakespeare adapted his play from a 3,000 line narrative poem by Arthur Brooke (The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet published in 1562), who himself adapted his story from a French poem by Pierre Boaistuau, Rhomeo and Julietta (1559) that, itself, was adapted from an Italian story by Matteo Bandello (1554), which was adapted from Luigi da Porto’s Giulietta e Romeo (circa 1530), which was adapted from Mariotto and Gianozza by Masuccio Salernitano, published in 1476. Mariotto and Gianozza itself borrows plot lines from a tradition of tragic love stories dating back to antiquity, including Pyramus and Thisbe from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a 7th century anonymous Arabian poet’s story Layla and Majnun and a 3rd century work by Xenophon of Ephesus called The Epheiaca.

All told, the story of star crossed love that we know as Romeo and Juliet is, in fact, the product of more than 1,800 years of adaptation! Even after Shakespeare put his immortal stamp on the story, it didn’t stop there…

In fact, Shakespeare’s version of the Romeo and Juliet story has been performed “adapted” longer than it has been performed “straight!” Throughout the late 16th and the whole of the 17th century, producers and directors took enormous (and sometimes just plain crazy) literary license with Shakespeare’s original work. In some productions, Romeo and Juliet survive their ordeal to live happy, fulfilled lives. In others, one of the lover’s dies and the other survives, Juliet dies before Romeo, the two lovers are resurrected after death, they sit and talk for 12 pages before they die, and on and on and on…. One of my favorite versions comes from 1679 when Thomas Otway interwove Romeo and Juliet with Julius Caesar, creating a version of the play called The History and Fall of Caius Marius, set in Augustan Rome. Sound crazy? Well, Otway’s version was so popular that, for seventy years, it stopped Shakespeare’s own Romeo and Juliet from appearing on any European stage!

The story of Romeo and Juliet has a long and ancient history, and really, only a small part of that history belongs to Shakespeare. The bard clearly did something remarkable in his play, something truly inspired, such that his version has lived on for so long as an icon of tragedy, love, beauty and creativity. But that doesn’t mean that Shakespeare cornered the market on the story, or that his is the final and definitive version. In fact, I believe there are many elements of the original stories Shakespeare borrowed and adapted that are more engaging, more interesting, and have more narrative consistency than the Bard’s work.

Does that mean that I think Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is without value? No. Do I think that it means we should destroy every copy of the script and put forward only the adapted version we performed. No. Does adaptation ruin or otherwise reduce the value of the original? No. Does adaptation improve the original? Not always. Do the adaptations we write and perform elicit strong positive and negative reactions from our audiences? Hell yes, and quite right!

I am, as a director, perfectly content with getting a reaction from someone who says, “I didn’t like your show. The acting wasn’t great, the costumes didn’t fit, and I couldn’t see anyone because the lighting was bad, and the actors didn’t project.” Fine. Those are substantive concerns that are based on artistic critique. They are a matter of opinion, in most cases, or are relevant to the quality of the performance. What I’m not content with is this: You don’t have the right to (fill in the blank). You may not like it, you may prefer the original, you may believe that Shakespeare’s work is all perfect as written, but that doesn’t mean that artists should be limited to one way of performing, one way of reading, or one way of acting a role. Imagine the world where that were the case.

Further, I get frustrated by people who don’t understand that Shakespeare was not only a great writer, but perhaps his greatest strength was as an adapter of other people’s writing. In fact, Shakespeare and his contemporaries were genius in their sharing, adapting, rewriting, borrowing and sometimes just plain stealing each other’s work and the work of earlier writers to create new stories that were relevant to their particular audiences. I believe that Shakespeare’s greatest skill was his ability to take old stories and breathe new life into them, both through writing his own new poetry and verse, but also by picking and choosing elements from other great writers and fitting them together into a new, bold and engaging story that was both original and referential. That, my friends, is genius. That is hard work.

It is also interesting to me that so many people who hold up Shakespeare’s work as “perfect as written” are also either unfamiliar with or unwilling to credit to the hundreds of other writers who worked with Shakespeare. Indeed, many of the scripts we use in modern productions today consist of half-remembered cue lines from Shakespeare’s actors who wrote them down years after performing them and years after Shakespeare’s death. Much of what Shakespeare included in his plays was taken directly from classical Greek and Roman plays, translated and adapted by Shakespeare, but still not original. Some of Shakespeare is, in fact, Jonson, or Fletcher, or Beaumont, or Brooke, or some other forgotten or semi-forgotten playwright of the era. So, is it Shakespeare’s genius as a writer of plays we are applauding, or are we applauding his cleverness in borrowing, adapting and rewriting the works of other authors? Which lines of Romeo and Juliet was Shakespeare, himself, personally, 100% responsible for writing?

Our adaptation of R&J asked our audiences see this familiar play in a new way, from different perspectives, so that they can (as we do) both appreciate Shakespeare’s genius and get to know the genius of the many writers who influenced, shaped and breathed life into this immortal tale of star crossed love. It asks audiences to make a judgment: what was lost? What was gained? What angered or delighted you? How do you feel about these changes? Did they explain, explore, explode, or alter your feelings about the play, the characters, the playwright, the director, the space, the art?

Adaptation asks questions, it engages audiences in ways that traditional performances do not. Not in a better way, not in a way that is superior to traditional performances, but in a different way, and I absolutely reject the idea that adaptation corrupts or reduces Shakespeare’s genius.

Shaw coined the phrase “bardolator” in his preface to The Devil’s Disciple, published in 1901, and the term “bardolatry” has been in use in theatre circles for some time since then. Essentially, the term refers to someone who has an excessive adulation for Shakespeare, someone that is blindly devoted to the man and his works. Shakespeare himself was not above a little rewriting now and then, not above adapting other works, not above condensing, expanding, or otherwise hacking away at previously written works. Shakespeare resisted the steel grip of “how it SHOULD be done” and embraced a range of artistic and creative approaches to theatre, and, in fact to his own works. I believe Shakespeare would be proud of what Bag&Baggage does with his works. I’m not convinced he would like them, but he would be proud.