Monday, May 26, 2008

Reading, Performing, and Chimes At Midnight

So I saw Chimes At Midnight last week.  Didn't love it. Sure, I respected it for a work of art.  But it didn't give me the kind of spinal lightning bolts that some movies/performances have done.  And I think I know why.  It gets back nicely to a recurring theme of this blog.  Ready?  Here it is:

I've never read Chimes At Midnight.  Sure, lifetimes ago I read all the Henry plays, but I'm sure I read them through once and moved on.

Compare the two biggies, Hamlet and Romeo&Juliet.  I've read those many times.  As such, I understand more of the play as it is performed, and thus I enjoy it more.  If we're talking about the Henry plays, there's really only two scenes that stuck with me from whenever I read them - when Hal prematurely takes the crown away from his father, whom he thought dead, and the new king's denial that he knows Falstaff.  Because of this, the movie bent itself around these scenes for me, if that makes sense.  Hearing lengthy streams of Shakespearean dialogue that you've never heard before is very, very difficult to follow, especially if there's not a great deal of plot advancement.  Or, worse, the plot advancement is happening offstage, and has to do with the politics of who is attacking whom. 

Reading the words, on the other hand, is very different.  You can pause and think about them.  You can look words up.  You can have those moments where you suddenly say "Ohhhhh, I know what that means!  That makes sense!"  In performance, that is impossible.  You don't get to pause and go back.

So, getting back to the movie for a bit.  There are parts that I understood before the movie ever started, parts that I hang the rest of the movie around.  Then there are those parts that make sense as they happen in the course of the movie.  Often those are simple plot developments, lacking in any real poetry.  After those bits come the bits where you scratch your head and say "I think I understood what just happened", and finally "Ok, I have no clue what he just said."

Doesn't it stand to reason that you want to maximize that first category?  Those are the lightning bolt moments.  I'll tell you seriously, whenever Hal announced that he was banishing Falstaff, the single look on his face told me so many thousand words more than the script ever could.  I want more of that!  When I'm channel surfing and I stumble across Luhrman's Romeo+Juliet I want to be able to stop and say "Oh wait, this is the good part..." no matter *what* part it is, because it's *all* good.    How can anybody possibly get that, if all they ever do is see performance?  Sure you'll get the plot and some of the poetry, but I find it hard to believe if you walk in cold that you're not leaving more than half the play on the floor when you leave.  It's when you read it that it sticks in your brain.

Do both.  I've always said, do both.  Reading's got nothing on performance, no doubt about it.  In my wildest dreams I could not have imagined Falstaff like Orson Welles played him.  What I've always said is that it's performance without reading that makes it all fall apart. If you're content to walk out of a Shakespeare performance saying, "Yeah, that was good," then I suppose I'll never be able to make my case.  If I can't convince you that every word is an atom, with infinite energies waiting to be released, well, then, I guess I'll have to keep trying.

3 comments:

Alan K.Farrar said...

You could always spend as much time watching the performances as you have to reading - watch the film two, three, four times?

That's exactly what people did (do) in the theatre - go back and get more the next time. Very few of Shakespeare's audience ever read the plays - and it is suggested seriously by scholars (ahhhhh) that he never wanted them to.

Of course, in the theatre it is never the same twice (even the same production the following day) - so new ideas and insights get through.

I'm not surprised you didn't get the high with Chimes at Midnight - especially if it is your first Welles film (forgive me if I mis-remember something you wrote). Welles is frequently credited with the greatest film ever made - which suggests there are depths in his work that only repeated watching reveals.

There is an issue of learning a language here - film language as much as Shakespeare.

Ann said...

I took Shakespeare in college, but he doesn't really click for me until I see the play performed. I came late to viewing Shakespeare on stage, and I don't listen as well as I wish, so it takes me two viewings to get the meat of the play. On the other hand, my children began watching Shakespeare performed live when they were 9 - 15 years old, and now they get it throughly, including cross references, on the first time. (yes, I am jealous!) Their brains are better at processing the dense spoken language than mine is.

BTW, the Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern is doing Henry VI, 1, 2, and 3 in November.

Duane said...

See that's the thing, though, is I don't just want "the meat of it", I want the infinite bottomlessness of it. I want the words, because with the words comes the beauty. I don't want to walk out of Romeo and Juliet thinking "Man, that was a sad story, if only Friar Lawrence's letter had gotten there sooner." I want to come out of that show with my life changed. I want to find some much beauty in those words that I carry it with me from that day forth. I want my life changed. I don't have Shakespeare quotes in my head I'm showing off, or because I had to memorize them for a show I was in. They're stuck in there because they're that damned powerful that they're never going away. They are anchors to the existence of something beautiful, that's the best way I can describe it. I honestly and truly believe that my life is better for having experienced words like that. Not fleeting, not watched once or twice, not "what did he say? what did that mean?" Words on a page right there in front of me to stare at, to study, to forward to others. Words are timeless, performances are not.