Saturday, May 22, 2010

Farewell Mapplethorpe Hello Shakespeare

"It's quite odd, really. People keep telling us — that is, professors and CNN commentators and Hollywood actors keep telling us — how very stupid President Bush is. Yet everywhere one looks he is supporting some of the most intelligent and dynamic people ever to occupy their cultural posts... This is the George Bush approach to cultural reinvigoration. Conservatives — by which term I mean people who are interested in conserving what is best from the past — should applaud his efforts." Robert Kimball, the National Review, "Farewell Mapplethorpe, Hello Shakespeare" January 29, 2004

The images in this entry were selected by searching for "Shakespeare America" on Google and choosing the first five images which included a US Flag and linking to the source page

Earlier this year, Lincoln Center announced that it would be building a replica of the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre in the Park Avenue Armory for a six week residency by the Royal Shakespeare Company. They did not say how much all of this will cost, only that it was made possible by a seven-figure donation from Ohio State University and two of its leading donors.

Christopher Isherwood of the New York Times liked the idea, and wants to make the structure and concept permanent. His idea was not exactly popular with everyone. Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal agreed with the artistic director of a regional American theater who decried the disparity of resources given to American artists as opposed to artists flown in from abroad, and suggested the replica be used the following year to showcase US Shakespeare productions. Last week, Michael Feingold of the Village Voice pointed up an analogous imbalance in the favoring of imported productions over the increasingly neglected treasures of Off and Off-Off Broadway theater (“I wish I could see New York learning to value and cherish its own.”)

The vast majority of American artists and American arts organizations are indeed chronically underfunded. They aren't given a fair crack at creating the truly great art I and many others believe they are capable of. In a word, it's heartbreaking. Currently, the only way to correct this imbalance is for the government to increase arts funding, thereby restoring balance to the arts funding ecology.

Some people in the government do get it. Money was included for the arts in the bailout. But this amounted to a paltry 0.0064% of the whole - a third of what the governments of France and Germany (whose populations number a quarter and a third of the US respectively) had each distributed to the arts six months earlier. Even so, some in the US heralded this development as an important breakthrough.

I'm not a fan of Lincoln Center's decision. Not least because I lived in England for a long time, where I saw too many Shakespeare productions to count - even acted in a couple of them - yet still much, much prefer my Shakespeare to be Eastern European, Japanese, African.... or American.

But in the circumstances, I can't blame the messenger.

I submitted a comment to the Wall Street Journal to that effect, basically agreeing with Teachout. It wasn't posted (you can see the ones that were here).

So, I now invite you play a little game, and guess why my comments below were deemed unworthy (unwashed?). I've also unashamedly toyed with the original text so that I could be as unfettered as I yearned to be, so you can also test your wit by trying to spot the embellishments.

"It was disconcerting to see so many resources being devoted in one fell swoop to feeding America’s inferiority complex about/infatuation with British theater when American theater artists and companies could really use those resources.

However, it was understandable. The sad fact is, even if American companies produce Shakespeare at the peak of their abilities, they are at an automatic disadvantage.

Firstly, America does not have a generously funded year-round Shakespeare repertory company like the RSC, with its $50 million budget, half of which is provided by the government.

Secondly, due to that deep-seated infatuation, members of the critical establishment like Christopher Isherwood will routinely compare US companies unfavorably with the superior standards of UK Shakespeare, whether real or imagined.

Thirdly, with particular reference to the Lincoln Center Festival, it is a bit of a tightrope walk to find productions that will fill halls while justifying subsidies (trenchant analysis of the problems by Rocco Landesman here); invigorate the audiences while pleasing the critics; and, last but certainly not least, successfully adapt to Lincoln Center’s institutional culture.

Case in Point #1: a scintillating South African ensemble production of Macbeth presented in the early days of the LC Festival, where the swathes of empty seats dividing the small but enthusiastic crowd were probably a big reason we haven’t seen any ensemble Shakespeare there since.

Case in point #2: two of America’s most accomplished young theater auteurs, Richard Maxwell and Young Jean Lee, have in recent years run the gauntlet with bold and distinctly American Shakespeare productions (to paraphrase Virgil Thomson: the way to make American Shakespeare is simple, all you have to do is be an American and then make it any way you wish).

Maxwell came tantalizingly close to lodging his Henry IV Part I near the very belly of the beast - the Barbican, the RSC’s former home in London. After viewing a rehearsal, the Barbican balked and sent the production back to BAM’s Next Wave, with mixed results. About half the audience walked out, but the half who stayed probably thought like me that although the production was uneven (or worse), it was far more satisfying than the RSC and Donmar Shakespeares on BAM's menu in the tamer Spring Season.

Lee’s deconstruction of Lear played an extended run to smaller, sold-out houses downtown earlier this year, with a much lower attrition rate - I saw only a couple of empty seats after the interval. Yet Lee was taken to task by (who else) Christopher Isherwood in the New York Times for having made a badly behaved play. (At least David Cote of Time Out New York used the critical storm-in-a-teacup as an opportunity to go global with a shrewd and timely re-assessment of what kind of Shakespeare we need, as opposed to what kind of Shakespeare we actually get)

So we find ourselves caught between two stools - the demands of the mainstream Shakespeare audience, for whom no-one can do it better than the Brits; and the ritual bruising that unashamedly American attempts to take the Bard off that British pedestal will inevitably come in for. I don’t know what the solution is, but reconstructing the RSC in New York is definitely not it.

As the theater director Peter Brook - the son of Russian immigrants - cried out once in the title of an essay he wrote in his early days of working at the RSC: 'O for Empty Seats!'"

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