Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Shakespeare, Toasted

I thought I knew what I was getting into with Shakespeare On Toast by Ben Crystal.  The introductory chapters left me thinking that I’d like to hang out with Ben, he seems like my kind of guy.  His book, he writes, was targeted at the audience between the “for dummies” crowd that loses the poetry, and the academic crowd that studies this stuff for a living.  All, he adds, while trying to keep the level of appreciation and ownership of the text very high.  Starting off with a comparison of Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Gielgud, he certainly captured my attention quickly.

He then goes on to mention Authorship, dismissing it in much the same way I do – let’s talk about the works, not the man.  Though he did not miss the opportunity to make his feelings about the subject of Authorship known, such as the emphasized “some of the contenders were dead several years while Shakespeare was still writing!” he sneaks in, while saying he’s not going to talk about it. :)

But then he starts talking about soap operas (British ones, at that!) which lost me a bit.  I appreciate the “Shakespeare got to get paid” analogy, but I don’t think I agree quite so strongly that what Shakespeare was doing 400 years ago was the equivalent of what soap opera writers do now, especially when one turns out 5 episodes a week and one turned out, what, 2 or 3 plays a year?  It’s hard to compare.

There’s a lengthy discussion of the Globe itself, the audience, the costumes…even the lighting.  It was here, near the beginning, that I began to understand Mr. Crystal as an actor.  (I’ve always contended that my “hook” for being a Shakespeare geek is that I  have no other claim to the work, not being an actor/director/writer).  I find it hard to make this leap.  People who have never acted Shakespeare will never understand what it means to act Shakespeare, anymore than people who don’t play jazz will know what it means to play jazz (the author makes the Shakespeare/Miles Davis connection frequently).  We the audience are the ones that listen to the music, or see/hear the play.  I prefer the focus on that.  Tell me what the lighting means for me as audience, not you as actor.

Then it gets pretty deep, even for me.  There’s a lesson in vocabulary, which is fine, explaining that Shakespeare didn’t really use *that* many words that are no longer used, it’s the ones that he used differently than we do that are the most confusing.  But then we get a grammar lesson in when to use “thou” instead of “you”, and I’m flashing back to conjugating the verb “to be” in Latin (“eram eras erat, eramus eratis erant….”).  The point?  Once you realize that sometimes the address is casual and sometimes it is formal, you will spot when each is used, and you will better understand the context of the conversation.  Makes sense.  A little scary if you think about it – people are worried that they’re not going to understand all the words, and we’re splitting hairs about when to use thee versus thy?

And then we get to the point that I expect will perk up the ears of several regular readers (I’m looking at you, Carl).  Half way through the book, Crystal brings up iambic pentameter.  Not in a general “I have to tell you what this is” way like most introductory books do.  In this book, iambic pentameter is everything.  The rest of the book (we’re half way done at this point) is all about the details of the meter.  We even dive right into “trochees” and other variations of the meter, and suddenly I feel like I’m having a conversation about the sonnets again.  When did Shakespeare use true iambic pentameter, and when did he mix it up?  More importantly, *why*?

But this book isn’t about the sonnets. They’re barely mentioned.  Crystal is talking about the plays, and it’s his contention that right down to the syllable level, Shakespeare was providing detailed direction to his actors. If Macbeth delivers 10 syllables and then 6, what happens with the next 4?  Does Lady Macbeth come in immediately, as if she’s interrupting him?  Or is there a pause before she starts in again?  What sort of beat did Macbeth end on, and what does that mean?

It’s in this discussion where the book clearly differentiates itself from any other “intro Shakespeare” I’ve ever seen. I can’t disagree with Crystal’s argument – you really can dig down into this level and consider every last syllable of what a character speaks as a form of insight into the character.  I just think the audience for that level of understanding is very different from what I thought he was going for.  This book isn’t a trip through the works, this book is the key to unlocking the works, and it’ll be up to you to take what you learn here and go reread your favorite work keeping all these new tricks in mind.

To that end, the book includes a lengthy discussion of a particular scene from Macbeth, broken out according to all the rules the author has laid out (including graphs depicting changing syllable counts!).  Honestly at this point I think that Crystal gets so overexcited and caught up in this “unlocking the secrets” stuff that he sometimes trips over his own argument.  For instance he lays out his example scene, and then says “I don’t like that layout, let’s change it….even though, I have to admit, that’s how the Folio laid it out.”  Wait, what now?  You’ve spend the whole book telling us that Shakespeare left us all the clues for exactly what he wanted, but you’re just going to go ahead and reformat the play the way you think it should be?  Hmmm…

People speak of the bottomlessness of Shakespeare, or cracking it open to release the infinite energies, and books like Shakespeare On Toast serve to give you..well, a taste … of what we mean by that.  Go see a show. Did you like it?  How about that lead actor, what did you think of him?  What was your favorite scene?  How about the way he delivered that famous line?  Did you particularly like the emotion he used to stress the third word?  How about how he chose to emphasize the first syllable instead of the last?

There are some folks that will read that and say, “Umm…yeah, sounds real fun.  You’re crazy.”  And then there are those like we Shakespeare geeks who grok everything I just said, and crave more.  I can’t say that this book will convert any Shakespeare haters – if anything it’ll probably confirm their fears.  No, this is a book for Shakespeare geeks, and those who want to be Shakespeare geeks.  I quite liked it – in fact, I finished it about two days into my vacation and didn’t think to bring another book :).  I have complete faith that the next time I see Macbeth or Lear I will be looking for the little details that Crystal describes.


JM said...

Welcome to the world of "The Form".
I know you've read Rosenbaum's "The Shakespeare Wars". In the segments with Sir Peter Hall and John Andrews on meter and spellings, etc., everything they talk about has to do with Form-the form Shakespeare used to "direct" his actors as they navigated through the material. It's something I've mentioned quite a few times on this blog and elsewhere. For years, the British have known about it. I was trained in it in the States at one of the comparatively few places to learn about it here. Gedaly's latest post over at the Bard Blog is all about it.
My latest post about "translating Shakespeare" and the dangers it poses have to do with educators missing what's available in the form when they teach from altered versions, or try simply to teach it from an academic standpoint (something that even I was bored to death with while undergoing it in high school)

Ben Crystal's take isn't really over-complicated. I've used it to teach professional to first to sixth graders. And when he seems to contradict himself is when the Form shows just what it's worth. Contrary to a restricting format, it's meant to provide a way of suggestion, which then can allow for experimentation. Sure, there are "rules". But once you know them, they open a world of interpretation, ideas, and inspiration. And only then can one know HOW to bend them interpretively.
The structure in the Folio, how the page is actually set up--the "incomplete" lines, the use of particular pronouns at given times, punctuation, all of which has been altered over the years (and altered indeed is what we're given in ANY modern edition); all of this stuff has a bearing on interpretation and understanding exactly what might or might not be going on in a scene.
The Thou/you form, for instance, is simple. Thou and any form of it is used by someone in a higher station to adress someone of a lower station--King to subject: thee/thy/thou, Parent to child: same. Subject or child to king or parent: You/your. King to king: (mutual respect) you/your. lovers in the heat of the moment: Thee/thou/thy. It's really no more complicated than that. But when those forms start to change in a scene--Look out! Something's happening.
Incorporated into what goes on in an educational venue, while teaching from a standpoint in which participation, getting them on their feet, involved, OUT LOUD making them aware of how much fun it can be to DO Shakespeare, leads to wanting to investigate him further. And every ounce of Crystal's info--and more--can be disseminated to students of any age, given the right circumstances and format. This is the tip of the iceberg.

Shakespeare--as you know--isn't just dull, boring poetry. But that's what it's been turned into by academicians over the many long years since the discussion on the Globe stage was about quite possibly the same topic you mentioned that Crystal seems to contradict himself in analyzing.
Best, Willshill

Duane said...

I think my surprise, Will, comes from thinking that this was to be a book for "the rest of us" and it's more clearly a book written by an actor, for actors. I don't expect that I will ever act Shakespeare in the way that you folks do (getting into it while reciting to 1st graders doesn't really count in my book). My interest in "the form", then, is entirely academic.

I still contend that the "Shakespeare told us exactly what he wanted" and "look how much room there is for interpretation" arguments are essentially contradictory. Just because an incomplete line, using "the rules", can be interpreted several ways does not mean that if Shakespeare were alive and watching you play it a certain way he wouldn't say "No you fool, that's completely not what I meant."

JM said...

Then you completely disagree with Carl and his take on the sonnets? Because interpretively speaking, that's exactly what's happening there. Spaces and beats can be filled dramatically in many different ways. But only when someone is aware of a space to be filled, or an option to be had. And there is a world of difference between a (.) and an (!), or what can happen when ANY punctuation is used where none is needed. Then is when the openness of interpretation validates itself.

Of course we can't possibly know Exactly what Shakespeare was thinking. But do you believe his actors' had no bearing on how something might have been played? This is the whole point. Shakespeare, in order to be fully appreciated and understood, must be taught with incorporations from the actor's viewpoint. Shakespeare was actor First.

Google the RSC's "Stand Up for Shakespeare". Following keystage exams on which out of 30,000 students 5% scored 0, 65% scored less than 50%, and 1 in 3 got 3 or less answers out of 18 correct, the RSC (actors and directors all) became involved in how Shakespeare is taught in England. Their results mirror my less lofty attempts to teach it this way here.

Maybe Crystal's book is pointed at actors, as you say. But the actor's connection to proper education--education that works--if ignored, results in what can be evidenced in the way most people feel about Shakespeare. And I think you'll agree, that ain't good, to say the least.

Gedaly said...

I need to get a copy of this book! It has been on my list, but you just moved it to the top. I want to see for myself.

As for the "I still contend that the 'Shakespeare told us exactly what he wanted' and 'look how much room there is for interpretation' arguments are essentially contradictory." discussion, the argument may be just semantics.

I don't think Shakespeare telling us "exactly what he wanted" means that Shakespeare spells out every choice. He gives us an outline for us to fill in. It's possible that actors following the outline was "exactly what he wanted." There are infinite color combinations and patterns we can create with our colored pencils now; we're just not supposed to color outside the lines.

Now some people color outside the lines... and they usually forget to color all of the inside. And now the picture isn't a pleasing as it could have been. Not necessarily (but usually) bad, but lacking polish.

Explanation only goes so far. Watch Branagh's Much Ado again. That film has a very diverse group of actors. The performances that color outside the lines aren't too hard to spot. And Keanu Reeves? I think he was trying to draw with an eraser.

JM said...

Branagh's a great example in himself. Don't put me in charge of the remote in a room with anyone while watching any of his film renderings; I'll drive them to other confines with the pause button.
Pause: Me "...did you catch that?"
Annoyed Viewer: "What?"
Me: "...the separation, then the drive to the uplifted ending, the way he hit word 'to' in the next line and elongated the assonant qualities of the two words that follow...of course...exactly what I was talking about the other day...etc.
Branagh does it with such a conversational quality that it goes totally unnoticed by an observer clueless to what "rules" he's attending to, yet manipulating in his own way at the same time. A thing of beauty.