Fist Fights over “The Tempest” or Keeping Shakespeare Relevant

I’ve started writing a blog or two on the website for the theatre company I’m Artistic Director of, Theatre Unleashed. The link is here, but I’ll be posting them here as well.

Monday September 29th…

An amazing graphic for a show that's gone.

An amazing graphic for a show that's gone.

Two main stage shows down, another opening in three weeks.

Strike was down and dirty and done in two hours leaving everyone pretty much exhausted. Though elated over such a great run.

I didn’t want to keep anything. You see these theatre companies with rooms and rooms full of things that they’ll never use again and at some point it was all in the decision to keep that one thing.


We had our first group of students fill half the house last night…had to add extra seats to accommodate other patrons. A Q&A followed, I watched from the side as a minor debate brought on by a smart student ensued concerning a line that in some versions belongs to Prospero and others to Miranda. Miranda is speaking to Caliban in this instance and telling Caliban that she taught him how to speak, in other instances its Prospero (some scholar decided the first way was wrong and changed it.) While it will probably never be known precisely as to who Shakespeare intended this line to go to, it brings up an interesting argument, one that ranges from Biblical scripture translations to the Bard himself. Do you look at something and find the literal (logical?) context for it, or do you make an artistic decision that goes against the grain of logic and literalness.

From the productions of Shakespeare that I’ve been involved with over the years and my own studies, Shakespeare himself seems ill concerned with logic and literalness. He seems in fact to take a healthy disposition against it! He let’s characters disappear without a word, loose ends abound. I think he realizes the lack of logic that is involved with human emotions and turmoil, and his writing indulges in that. Even in his most famous of plays, Hamlet, directors and actors have to fill in these blanks.

The Tempest is full of these vagaries and loose ends, allowing for the director to stage things so they make sense and mold the performances so they speak and relate to the audience. One person making an artistic decision does not make it the right or wrong way to do it. It just makes it their way to do it. Their decision. An audience member may not like it, but it doesn’t make it the wrong interpretation.

I’ve personally learned that the stronger your secondary characters are, the more flushed out your main characters will be. For Miranda to have been the one to teach Caliban to speak only gives more weight to Prospero. It would also show Shakespeare’s willingness to continue to break from the social standards of the time. Whoever wrote down that this was Miranda’s line made a good mistake…

Sometimes while the logical choice is apt, the one based on the emotional relevancy of the character is more interesting. Humans in the end are illogical creatures; the best poets and writers understand this, and their writings are littered with what would seem to be flaws in order to mirror our own failings. It all depends on what you’re going for. That’s really the case for all art.

Art in the end should test the limits of logic and what we think is the proper way to do something and not just adhere to a single or a thousand scholars arguments. Our Gonzalo told the students to read Shakespeare out loud and find it for yourself – to understand it for yourself – make it relevant for yourself. Not relevant to a person who told you how it should be relevant over a 100 years ago. Wise words.

And finally what good art should do is get us talking about things like this, not only elements of the story and character, but about art itself. And when a director has made bold choices about how to present a show, and it leads to interesting conversation, then it’s doing it’s job, whether you liked it or not. Otherwise we’re not doing our job…and we seem to be doing it quite well so far.

Talk amongst yourselves…

Artistic Director

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2 Responses to “Fist Fights over “The Tempest” or Keeping Shakespeare Relevant”

  1. Abraxas Says:

    A riff …

    Contextualization of the art in question is important.

    If you’re reading a work, the author’s original composition is of great importance. If you’re witnessing a play; then the importance shifts from the author to the performance artists.

    Primacy ought to be accorded (as one sees, or more correctly, ^experiences^ a work) to the artists NEAREST to the audience’s perception of that work, and to those artists who most completely manipulate all of the stimuli to which the audience is exposed (here, of course, we’re speaking of theater).

    As an analogue – you don’t attend a ballet thinking it’s a work primarily about the art of Shostakovich rather than Balanchine. One contributes mightily to the other, but it’s still the latter that is the motive force behind that work of art known as “ballet” as opposed to the work of art known as “orchestral score.”

    Just as there’s a difference between the author of a script and the director and performers of a play.

    I wrote all of that to write this –

    In many ways (and not to caricature my own thoughts) the authorial intent of a play matters less and less the further we are separated from origination exigencies (date it was written, political and social constraints imposed upon the writer, etc.).

    A play (play, mind you – not script) is only valid as long as it is valid (thank you, Captain Ontology). As long as it has appeal to its audience, it remains relevant. Once the appeal (relevance, if you will) is lost – then any performance becomes less of a work of art and more of a curio – an historical artifact.

    The more enduring work of art (script) can survive and thrive, due to its universality of themes (revenge, love, humility) for 400 years and still have immediacy and relevance to a group of high-schoolers when produced as another work of art – the play.

    There’s a reason no one ever said “… the script’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King …”

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