O if you raise this house against this house… RICHARD II, IV i

Something that’s been discussed as we begin this multi-season Henriad enterprise at Kentucky Shakespeare, with casting and design that carry over from production to production and year to year until we’re done or it kills us (it’s hot out there), is how to…not change anything about the plays themselves, exactly, but how to convince people that they are certainly no harder (and perhaps much easier) to follow than, say, Game of Thrones.

And yet when you mention Shakespeare’s Histories to even a fairly well-read person, there’s that tendency to recoil, as if the word “history” has already made things sound homeworky and antiseptic. Often the person will be able to bob and weave effortlessly through the subtle complexities of House Lannister or the cultural reasons for dwarf/elf antagonism in Middle Earth, but as soon as the names aren’t made up, they go cold as any stone. Never underestimate the educational incentives that are Boobs’n’Dragons, I guess.

I need to be clear here that I’m casting no aspersions – this is more of a marketing perplexity. I’m an avid watcher of Game of Thrones, a still-avid reader of Tolkien (though there is a point at which I don’t need to read every published napkin he scribbled on, Christopher). I’m working my way through Rothfuss, too, though I’m enjoying it enough that I’m intentionally making it last.

That’s a good example, in fact: the Kingkiller Chronicles have a distinctive world with distinctive rules, but they are being told to you as if you already knew those rules, which you then pick up by context and gradual revelation. And people love it because the writing is good. I don’t think I’m being excessive when I say it would be easy to write the same sentence about the Histories.

I wonder if it would help people to know the plays are wildly inaccurate. Maybe not wildly, but certainly…condensed & made more legendary than factual. Partially because you’re on dangerous ground when you start attaching motives to people whose Houses are still walking the streets and patronizing theater companies and beheading people. Partially because speculation is more interesting, even within those boundaries. Partially because of the bit of wisdom from John Ford (the filmmaker, not the Jacobean playwright – though cf. Angela Carter’s “John Ford’s ‘ ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore’” which is a favorite of mine) regarding whether to print truth or legend (I’m betting both Fords would agree the latter).

In fairness, there are people you’re introduced to whose names you barely know and whose backstory you have to imagine, if you even care to; even a historian would have some trouble digging up useful information on some of the all-but-supernumeraries. But if you put this in a modern scenario, these would be the very characters making a living by making appearances at conventions populated by people who learn Klingon (and therefore can totally handle Elizabethan English). Signing autographs and obscure Kenner figures, taking photos with fans astounded to meet “one of the guys who drowns George, Duke of Clarence!!”

I’m trying to avoid bringing the Hollow Crown series into this so as to duck the inevitable flaming that would follow my true opinion, but suffice it to say that it is not the answer I’m looking for.

Anyway. I don’t have a conclusion to this ongoing process. I’m just musing as I type or vice versa. Fortunately, this is only Year One. We just have to convince audiences to see Richard II, which in this political climate should be a cinch.

Seafaring men, sir. They say they have letters for you. – HAMLET IV vi

In pulling out the previous post title (and remembering one from a couple of months ago regarding the same scene), I’m was hit by the notion that the reason scenes like that are often trimmed mercilessly or cut entirely (besides of course the human bladder) is the very reason people love particular episodes of the better episodes of this New Golden Age of Television we’re in.

Ask fans of Game of Thrones or Mad Men or what have you for a favorite or at least a monumental and point-turning episode and they’ll frequently mention “that one where they dropped sixteen of the seventeen plotlines we usually jump around among and focused on just one for the whole hour”. (“The Watchers on the Wall” and “The Suitcase” episodes of the aforementioned are good respective examples. You no doubt have your own favorites.)

But the moment the Burbage Break hits a play like Macbeth, the whining begins. “That’s not our lead actor; that’s not the main story; can’t we get rid of most of that and get back to a star turn speech or a swordfight?

The Burbage Break, for people who don’t do this all the time, is a colloquial term (one of many – I’ve heard it called other things, but I like plain “Burbage” most) for that moment around Act IV when Shakespeare et al. would leave a nice and probably contractually dictated gap in which the inevitably Richard Burbage-portrayed protagonist would be captured by pirates or something and the actor himself could go have a pee or an ale or a shag or just a seat before coming back refocused for the big swordfight that led to his temporary demise, twice Wednesdays.* And the candles would get their wicks trimmed for the indoor shows, and the audience would have to live with other stuff going on.

(In the midst or rehearsals for Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, I noticed that even in that play’s Act III version of what happens during Hamlet’s Burbage, Hamlet sleeps through most of it. All that nattering is exhausting. And even during his break, Hamlet won’t butt out – he sends a long letter poor Horatio has to just stand and read on stage. There are other people in your nutshell, Hamlet. Make room.)

All this is hearsay, of course, but the fact remains that these rest spots do exist for the big feather-in-the-cap tragic roles – Shakespeare was a practical man; just look at his grain storage.

And that Other Stuff gets fascinating. You don’t notice Lear disappears for several scenes because of the onstage eye-gouging. Hamlet’s gone? Groovy – let’s watch a woman go stark raving mad. Malcolm & Macduff, though, bless their hearts. I’ve seen their long (long) scene done really well, but there’s a long while between the baby-murdering that distracts us from the start of Macbeth’s teatime and Macduff’s grief about something we knew already as Macbeth finishes his biscuit. And most of that long while is a not-even-argument-exactly purity test given in real time. It’s a staging challenge when compared to blinding a man with one’s thumbs.

So TV producers out there, hear me out: do a four or five hour episodic adaptation of one of the plays (instead of doing four plays in that span coughhollowcrowncough); let your star off for Episode Four and suddenly everyone will be all excited about Malcolm and the lingering visuals of the healing hands of Edward the Confessor and of Rosse’s long ride to England and no one will even notice the big jerk was gone.

…I suspect the lack of break for Rosencrantz & Guildenstern was in the back of my head when I thought of this. They don’t rest. There’s no ale. And I’m blogging when I should be memorizing. Back in a bit.

 

 

*I know, I know, they didn’t do twice Wednesdays then. We barely do it now, relatively. It’s an expression. The internet demands such a lot of preemptive defenses against literality.