Jul 20, 2009

Random: Shakespeare, Tragedy, Modernism

Left: King Lear or Polonius?

Even with The Bard, sometimes we just have to love the boy in spite of himself. A couple of years ago, in the final scenes of an excellent production of King Lear, the play came to its predictable conclusion of dying humans flopping around the stage like hooked fish flailing on a pier. It might have been worse in Hamlet, sometime later, again in an otherwise excellent production.

This business of death as group seizure, or Shakespeare's intimation of the mosh pit four centuries later, would be absurd under any circumstances. Add to it the sound of bodies thumping against the wooden stage floor and the eloquent dying declarations (as our TV cop and lawyer shows might say, “excited utterances”), and it is all simply comic. Shakespearean tragedies must give directors fits.

All that flopping and thumping ruin my willing suspension of disbelief, along with any empathy or glee I’d developed toward the dying. It makes me long for Gary Cooper in a dusty ten-gallon hat, mumbling “Yes, Ma’am, this here eight-inch hole in my gizzard, it hurts a might.” Or Yogi Berra’s “Pain don’t hurt.”

I know, I know, you don’t go to a Shakespearean tragedy if you want Amy Hempel or Raymond Carver minimalism. But classic theater, along with the excesses of opera, might instruct us on why we have come to value understatement and restraint the way we do. Maybe the Renaissance showed us the idealized human, what we hope we can be at our very best, but an occasional or permanent attempt to see what we really are cannot be an entirely bad development.

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