Shock of the New, or a Ploy from the Past? Thoughts on OSF’s Play “Translations”

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Allen Elizabethan Theatre. Featured is the set of OSF's 2013 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Allen Elizabethan Theatre. Featured is the set of OSF’s 2013 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Much ado about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which has announced plans to ‘translate’ all of Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English.

The Play On project is commissioning 36 playwrights (each paired with a dramaturg) over three years  to produce modern renderings of the entire Shakespeare dramatic canon. For OSF, the plays are companion pieces, not replacements; they plan to keep producing plays in Shakespeare’s original words.

Lue Morgan Douthit, the OSF’s director of literary development and dramaturgy, has candidly admitted to NPR  that she “can’t understand all of [the plays] all the time”. And if the staff of the venerable Shakespeare festival in Ashland, Oregon, can’t understand the plays, then probably some audience members can’t understand them either.

Predictably, OSF’s decision to rewrite Shakespeare has sparked both approval and outrage. Approval, because what’s the point of staging the plays if they’re incomprehensible? Shakespeare “wins” when his plays are adapted to make them comprehensible. Outrage, because the genius of Shakespeare resides in his sacred words. Shakespeare “loses” when his original texts are violated. Who’s right?

A little historical perspective can help. The high-water mark for rewriting Shakespeare was in the Restoration, when London theaters, after remaining closed for nearly 20 years, reopened in 1660 at the command of King Charles II. With only a few exceptions, Shakespeare’s plays were vigorously rewritten for performance on the Restoration stage.

Nahum Tate famously wrote a “happy ending” King Lear (1681), in which both Lear and Cordelia survived. In William Davenant’s semi-operatic version of Macbeth (1664), the role of Lady Macduff was substantially enhanced—as a foil to Lady Macbeth—while audience members like Samuel Pepys applauded the “variety of dancing and music,” as Pepys wrote in his diary. In this all-singing, all-dancing tragedy, the witches provided musical entertainment.

 

Most popular of all was Davenant’s and John Dryden’s spectacular version of The Tempest (1670), which included entirely new characters. Prospero gained a second daughter, Dorinda; Caliban acquired a twin sister, Sycorax (Shakespeare had given Caliban’s unseen mother that name); Ariel had a companion, the female sprite Milcha; and Prospero looked after his ward Hippolito, a man who had never seen a woman. Less than a third of Shakespeare’s original text survived in the Restoration version of The Tempest, but audiences flocked to see it.

Restoration adaptations of Shakespeare—far more radical than what the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has planned—were hugely popular and elicited few complaints about tampering with Shakespeare’s original texts.

Today, these plays are occasionally revived. Earlier this month, Hidden Room Theatre in Austin, Texas, performed Tate’s “happy ending” King Lear. And last year the Folger Institute devoted a weekend workshop to Restoration Shakespeare, in which Folger Theatre actors, Folger Consort musicians, and a group of international scholars worked on scenes from Davenant’s Macbeth and Charles Gildon’s adaptation of Measure for Measure (1700).

Restoration Shakespeare in performance reminds us that earlier generations of audiences and theater artists did not see Shakespeare’s words as sacrosanct. It was the exception, not the norm, when his plays were performed as written.

The plays as originally published, both in quarto and in the First Folio (1623), are there for anyone to read at any time, to say nothing of the many modern editions and performances of Shakespeare, including those produced by the Folger. The plays as they have come down to us are safe and sound. They aren’t going anywhere. Maybe that’s the point. In my opinion, to take Shakespeare somewhere—to take him with us, down the centuries and around the world—we have to adapt him to the “form and pressure” of the time. I think history tells us that to rewrite the Bard is to revere the Bard.

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