In For a Penny: What’s in a Name?

IamShakespeare3a.indd
“Well, that was bloody Shakespearean! D’ya know who Shakespeare is? He wrote the King James Bible!”
Gangs of New York, screenplay by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan

It’s a bit empty ‘round the ‘Pub offices these days. Yes, there are Theater Pub offices. They’re located within a classified, heavily-guarded location that may or may not resemble the ThunderCats’ Lair. Within the great hall – which bears a strong resemblance to the Childlike Empress’ throne room in The NeverEnding Story – we ‘Pubbers gather to feast on divine ambrosia, sip unicorn tears from The Holy Grail, and plot world domination. We also occasionally write plays.

But yes, these days our hallowed halls aren’t as occupied as they once were: no more dispatches from the rainbow over Cowan Palace; the Working Title now reads “Happily Ever After”; Everything has moved on to Something greater; The Five are too busy making every moment count; and I sincerely hope no one else has been Hit by a Bus – to name but a few written columns. There’s a genuine last-day-of-school feeling to it all. So as I pack up my monogrammed silken robes, my golden quill, and the two-headed axe given to me by Xangô himself, I decided my penultimate entry should cover something near and dear to we ‘Pub folk, so as to distract from its pending conclusion.

No, it’s not the incredibly thorough spreadsheet I’ve nearly completed (that’s not a joke: as I type these words I’ve got Excel open in another window as I try to finish the definitive ‘Pub factsheet titled “SF Theater Pub – By the Numbers”. It has every ‘Pub writer, actor, director, location, and guest musician cross-referenced by each and every show. Every. Single. One.), but rather our dear 452-year-old friend William Shakespeare. As some of you may have heard, the fine minds at Oxford have concluded that Shakespeare co-wrote his Henry VI trilogy with fellow playwright Christopher “Kit” Marlowe. As such, Marlowe and Shakespeare will now share credit in all future Oxford editions.

A shocking development to be sure – “scandalous,” some might say – but I’m not here to debate the evidence or credentials of some of the finest scholars in the western world. Having said that, I’d be remiss not to mention how this brings up the mosquito in the ear of every Shakespeare-lover (myself included): The Authorship Question.

What, you may ask, is “The Authorship Question”? Well, if you have 24 minutes to kill, you can watch a thorough (and hilarious) breakdown of it in this video. If you don’t have 24 minutes, here’s the TL;DR version: there are people who believe Shakespeare’s plays – with their magnificent turns-of-phrase and adventures in foreign lands – couldn’t possibly have been written by a poor kid from Stratford-upon-Avon with no higher education. These people, quite simply, are wrong. There is conclusive empirical evidence to show that they are wrong. This hasn’t stopped these folks (known as “non-Stratfordians” or “anti-Stratfordians”) from pushing this conspiracy theory since the 1800s.

Because everyone should have Rummy's worldview.

Because everyone should have Rummy’s worldview.

Still, the folks at Oxford say The Henry Trilogy was co-authored by Marlowe. Putting aside whatever fuel this adds to the non-/anti-Stratfordian fire, why is the idea of such a collaboration a bad thing? Shakespeare still likely wrote all of his other plays alone, so what’s wrong with him seeking help for his epic three-play cycle? Probably because most people don’t really know how art is created.

The public often knows of artists two ways: through the art they create and they mythology of that creation. Many a tale’s been told of how The Great Artist was one day struck with the lightning bolt of inspiration which lead him or her to immediately run back to the studio and create THE greatest thing the world has ever seen in merely a single draft. Right… Even more tales are told of aspiring artists who give up early because their first drafts are shit. They hear artists throw around phrases like “write what you know” and think all their work must be autobiographical and pristine from the get-go. Anyone who’s ever dared to take art seriously knows the terrible secret these folks don’t: all first drafts are shit.

Yet the legend of The Perfect First Draft is perpetuated, paradoxically enough, by other forms of art. If there’s one thing I hate about films, plays, or books about artists it’s how they oversimplify the artistic process. I know that for dramatizations they’re doing it for the sake of running time, but would it have hurt the film Frida to explain how Kahlo created her paintings rather than having them seem to appear by osmosis? One of my favorite films about the artistic process is Hustle & Flow because it shows that making art is a messy, exhausting process that has to be done over and over again. Hell, my favorite album of 2016, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, was more or less created in the public eye. West remixed songs, dropped some entirely, rewrote lyrics, constantly tweaked the tracklist, changed collaborators, and changed the title multiple times… all on his Twitter account. Sure, everyone thought he was crazy(-er than usual), but he showed the world what it’s like to tear up a drafts you hate and start over from scratch. And the result was fantastic.

And yes, he had collaborators. Just as the legend of The Perfect First Draft has little basis in reality, so too does that of The Lonely Artist. After all, if you can’t create art all by your lonesome, why even try, right? Quentin Tarantino tried to take sole credit for his screenplays Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Pulp Fiction, and the infamous Top Gun speech from the film Sleep with Me. Turns out those were all co-written (or, in the case of the latter speech, entirely written) by Tarantino’s collaborator Roger Avary. Avary successfully sued his former friend for proper credit and they both won Oscars for the Pulp Fiction screenplay. That’s just one of many stories about silent collaborators (trying looking up the making of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill sometime).
On the other hand, several great artists are open about how their greatest works were collaborations. Francis Ford Coppola – who’d already won an Oscar for the screenplay of Patton – credits Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne for writing one of the most important scenes of Coppola’s The Godfather. Steven Spielberg credits his friend John Milius with writing the USS Indianapolis scene from the film Jaws. And I’ve written before about my affinity for great artistic groups like The Inklings, The Algonquin Round Table, and Lorraine Hansberry’s group of fellow authors.

Art is not created in a vacuum, it’s the result of tireless destruction and recreation in the attempt to make an esoteric idea into something tangible. Even someone as skilled as Shakespeare would need someone as talented as Marlowe to be real with him and say “Will, this is shit.” (To which Shakespeare would likely respond “Yeah, well fuck you and your ‘thousand ships,’ Kit!” before calming down and asking Marlowe to elaborate.) These two became the greatest authors in the English language by bouncing their ideas off one another.

Unabashed Shakespeare fanboy Tom Stoppard imagined such a scene in his Oscar-winning screenplay for Shakespeare in Love. In one scene Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) runs into Marlowe (Rupert Everett) in a pub as the latter basks in the glow of his successful Doctor Faustus. Shakespeare mentions that he’s working on the unfortunately titled “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter”. Marlowe suggests setting the play in Italy because “Romeo” sounds Italian, and to have a scene where Romeo avenges the murder of his best friend Mercutio. And that’s it. That’s Marlowe’s only contribution. Shakespeare writes the rest of the retitled Romeo and Juliet on his own, and it’s great.

Huh. It’s almost as if Shakespeare was as human as the rest of us and needed help from time to time.

I've actually had this facial hair quite often. For I am Shakespeare.

I’ve actually had this facial hair quite often. For I am Shakespeare.

As you probably know, this month’s ‘Pub show will be King Lear as directed by Sam Bertken. He’s rounded up a helluva cast for what will be the ‘Pub’s sixth and final Shakespeare adaptation (the seventh Shakespeare-related when you include Molly Benson & Karen Offereins’ “Hamlet and Cheese on Post”). Shakespeare has often been invited to the ‘Pub because he means something to the ‘Pub, both to those who stage his plays and the audiences that see them. Hundreds of years after his death, the words he wrote – and yes, he did write them – resonate all over the world in a way few other works can. That’s why everyone takes The Authorship Question so seriously: they want to know by what process God created an artist so masterfully adept at writing the words to which so many can relate. Even if it was some poor kid from Stratford.

Shakespeare means a lot to the ‘Pub and it goes without saying that the ‘Pub means a lot to all of us. What does it mean to me exactly? Hmm… Maybe I’ve got one last thing to write from this golden quill.

Charles Lewis III’s favorite Shakespeare-related ‘Pub memory is when he witnessed first-hand how the amazing Neil Higgins took a potential disaster and flawlessly turn it into a live theatre triumph.

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One comment on “In For a Penny: What’s in a Name?

  1. Reblogged this on The Thinking Man's Idiot and commented:
    In which my penultimate entry takes on that one Shakespeare question that just won’t go away.

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