T.S. Eliot was far too hard on April: Summer is the worst season, and if there is a cruelest month, it is August. Autumn offers the promise of renewal to those of us whose lives are eternally synchronized with the academic calendar; winter brings both austerity and festivity, and a welcome spell of holy quiet; spring brings light and relief. What does summer serve up? Mosquitoes, heat, humidity, grown men wearing shorts in public, sweat, grime, the rising black stink of slowly boiling asphalt, and — worst of all — Shakespeare in the Park.
New York City is the great American amplifier: What’s good in America is better in New York, and what’s off in America is at its rancid sour worst in our first city. Summers in New York — and I write this as someone who has endured the hot seasons in both Houston and Bombay — are unbearable, the stink of garbage alone being enough to make one dream of a tidy, hygienic life as a Mormon fundamentalist somewhere in Utah. In all my travels, I have found no place that does Shakespeare in the Park as unbearably, stupidly, or incompetently as does the cultural capital of these United States. I’ve sat through Shakespearean performances in Dutch, a language I do not speak a word of, that made more sense to me than does the farrago of bullsh** served up annually in Central Park by New York’s terribly prestigious Public Theater. From rampaging Muppets to stump speeches by Chuck Schumer and Bill de Blasio, you never know what you’re going to get at New York’s Shakespeare in the Park, but you can be confident that it seldom will be Shakespeare.
Once, there was refuge. For example, the cheerfully low-rent Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, in which the Drilling Company puts on such plays as Love’s Labour’s Lost and Cymbeline in a downtown commercial parking lot. The parking lot is open for business during the performance, so sometimes the actors have to improvise their way around a Toyota Camry seeking harbor. The genius of Shakespeare in the Parking Lot was that the unconventional location usually satisfied the directors’ craving for novelty.
Novelty, and not the Baconian hypothesis or the sneering ghost of Robert Greene, is Shakespeare’s mortal enemy. Directors and producers, who often have no real feel for theater or love of the material, grow bored with Macbeth and King Lear, and they feel compelled to whore the plays up in various stupid and tawdry ways. It’s the drama version of the way in which working to shock the jaded palates of professional restaurant critics and pretentious suburban foodies has all but ruined the top tier of American restaurants: Alinea with its ridiculous edible helium balloons and the octopus lollipops at Burj al-Arab are the Public Theater of food.
Novelty is a nearly irresistible force. And so such purportedly highbrow outfits as the Royal Shakespeare Company come to New York City and decide to make Romeo and Juliet “relevant” by reimagining it as “urban” and putting the Montagues and Capulets in underclass streetwear — which was an interesting and reasonably original concept back when it was called “West Side Story” and the play was augmented with the songs of a musical genius. The same thing inspires the clods over at the Public Theater to fill the stage up with their Muppets and political hacks.
Excrement rolls downhill, and Shakespeare in the Parking Lot has become infected with the same taste for cheap novelty, as have little alfresco summertime Shakespeare productions around the country. This year, the Drilling Company is doing Hamlet. But, of course, it’s not doing Hamlet — nobody does that, anymore. Instead, the press release promises,
director Karla Hendrick will stage the character as a modern young woman of intelligence and wisdom. . . . Hamlet, clad in skirts, is rendered powerless when her uncle, Claudius, inserts himself into the line of succession and thrusts her aside. . . . Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will both be women and Polonius will become Polonia, a mother. Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia will be a lesbian love affair.
Novelty for its own sake is usually an error, but this kind of novelty isn’t even novel, as the Drilling Company itself acknowledges. Women have been playing the title role in Hamlet for centuries: Charlotte Clarke played Hamlet in the early 1700s (she also worked as a sausage maker and as valet to a nobleman who was ruined after selling a young kinsman into slavery in order to secure his title; hers was a colorful life), and Sarah Bernhardt played the character both on stage and on film at the tail end of the 19th century. The idea of Hamlet as a female character (rather than a female actress in a male role) is ancient, too, going back at least to the 1920 German silent film starring Asta Nielsen. And anybody who thinks a little titillating lesbianism is new to Shakespeare hasn’t seen what directors have made of Macbeth’s witches lately — the beards are long gone.
It isn’t that there isn’t room for innovation. Richard Eyre’s Nazified Richard III, which you can see on film (the 1995 movie starring Ian McKellen), was based on a genuinely interesting idea — an idea related to the matter of the play itself: Hitler, like Shakespeare’s deformed usurper, was a villain with motives that are difficult to understand, who apparently retrofitted his politics and his ideology to his preexisting pathology. Sleep No More, a genuinely interesting reimagining of Macbeth, was Alan Cumming’s (almost) one-man version. I’ve seen Lysistrata delightfully reimagined as a high-school musical, and the great American tale of gender-jumping — Jurassic Park — reinvented as a musical told from the dinosaurs’ point of view. “Let’s make Hamlet a chick!” is the laziest, least interesting attempt at novelty imaginable.
The contagion has spread well beyond Manhattan. In Dallas this summer, Jenni Stewart will present The Taming of the Shrew as — I am not making this up! — a “hilarious, delirious tangle of masquerades and misdirection [that] plays out against a backdrop of the affluent society of the Hamptons during the American suffragette movement in 1910.” How about Comedy of Errors? “The madcap comedy is set on the Isle of Ephesus and is populated with popular television characters from the 1970s” — J. R. Ewing and Gilligan, to judge by the promotional material. They’re doing Titus Andronicus in Los Angeles and hyping it in Hollywood style: “This Game of Thrones for the Renaissance stage was a young Shakespeare’s first big hit.” August 11 is Goth Night, and on August 16 there’s a pie-eating contest. All things being equal, I’d rather watch theatrical cannibalism on a nice night in Southern California than be eaten alive by Texas-sized mosquitoes in a park in Dallas while . . . something something suffragettes . . . but that’s less to do with bards than Beach Boys, I think.
Shakespeare, opera, the New York ballet, a Miami Dolphins game, Easter Mass: There isn’t anything so sublime that it cannot be ruined by politics. And there is no summer evening so fine that it can’t be improved by the genius of Willis Carrier and the promise of an early bed.