As They Liked It: Playing Shakespeare in the Early ’80s

As They Liked It: Playing Shakespeare in the Early ’80s December 29, 2016

The BBC has this great series, “Playing Shakespeare,” in which John Barton leads members of the Royal Shakespeare Company in a series of supposedly-somewhat-spontaneous classes about playing Shakespeare’s verse. Herein a few notes to whet your appetite, and then a rant.

John Barton is hilarious, first of all. He is perpetually swathed in a baggy sweater, all slumping shoulders and bushy eyebrows, his hair piling frowsily on his head like he forgot it there. And then this glorious rich voice issuing forth. It adds a charming Great Muppet Shakespeare kind of vibe to the whole thing.

The series is from 1982, so you get to see Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley and Patrick Stewart before they got to stick titles on the front of their names; plus David “Please to Stop Calling Me Poirot” Suchet, who turns out to be a terrific classical actor. He and Stewart have an episode where they’re basically dueling Shylocks, and it’s electric, a contest of visions and worldviews as well as interpretive ability.

I really appreciated Barton’s attention to fashion in acting. He’s totally willing to consider that maybe those plummy old warblers of the Victrola era were on to something. He’s willing to push the language, to flute and carol it and not throw it away in asides. At one point he says, “Today we give our words short measure,” and he demonstrates how much richer and more powerful our speech becomes when we relish the words. I mean, yes, he also lets you laugh a bit at some of the moanier old Globe-trotters, but look, Shakespeare is a boozy fruitcake and it’s okay to get tipsy off it. …Barton’s not always right (and McKellen occasionally punches back a little; the others are very deferential) but he’s pretty much always enjoyable.

In I think the very first episode he asks somebody what Shakespeare’s favorite word is, and the guy says, “Time.” (Or, to give the word full measure, TAAAYYYYYYYME.) Time shows us not only the fragility of our own lives but the fragility of all that we love, of our homes–the best “time” scene we get in “Playing Shakespeare” is from Troilus and Cressida, Hector and Ulysses looking out over the still-standing towers of Troy. Time isn’t always an antagonist in Shakespeare but it does play that role pretty frequently. Time is destroyer, humbler of our pride, bearer of regret and belated wisdom. When God laughs at our plans time is what He laughs with.

I’m gnawing my way through Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, a vast novel covering more than a millennium in his hometown, Northampton. We see the English Civil War, we see the slum-clearance years, we go from monasteries to ASBOs. The old neighborhoods are all gone. Everything’s been torn down. You can go back to where your home was and sit on the flattened ground and have a quick cry.

Jerusalem insists that time is more or less fake. It seems as though the slums we loved are gone, but in a higher reality they remain, a beautiful and eternal dream. Nothing is ever truly lost. Eternity preserves all the streets and people of our hometown in a series of brilliantly-colored aspics.

On one level this vision is pretty attractive to me and there are ways in which I do believe it. I do think God holds all the moments of our lives in His attention, so that nothing is wasted. The Mass, certainly, is the penetration of time by something beyond time: every Mass is the sacrifice on Calvary.

But mostly I think I’m with Shakespeare. Moore bites the bullet and says if time is fake then so is free will (all your choices are already made, and you no more choose what you do than a character in a book) and he insists–he has several characters insist–that this is consoling. I disagree, my friend, and I suspect a lot of people in recovery will agree with me.  Having had a full cup of bondage of the will I would prefer to order a round of something else. I would like the right to my guilt and therefore my repentance. I would like to let myself be rescued: Fiat voluntas tua, the story is actually sort of horrible if she doesn’t choose to say that.

And as they say in AA, if nothing changes then nothing changes. If everything is preserved–narrow streets and narrow hearts–then the next life is just me and you across the face of the world forever. Extremely no thank you. I would like to be changed, even if that means I lose a lot, even if that means things will never be like they were again.

I seem to read more things lately where time is fake, where everything is eternally present and the mind of God is one vast Midwestern dessert where our lost loves and former selves hang suspended in the divine Jell-O. You might think, given the way I feel about both 1987 and the Middle Ages, that I would be sympathetic to this view. And yet I can’t help but find it creepy. Loss is real! There is no real place where you still haven’t done the awful things you did! People who have gone to be with God are with us still in some ways, but not in other extremely important ways! The woman with seven husbands has no husband now!

Purgatory is radical and real change, in which things we thought we could keep will be lost. Maybe transformed, and maybe once we see the transformation we will not count it a loss, but we would count it loss if we could see it with the unhallowed eyes we have today.

Time is judge and king (though not priest), and we are lucky to be his poor fools.


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