He Didn’t Say Play On What, But I Still Think It’s a Marvelous Idea!
So, a few weeks ago I wrote a bit about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s perplexing Play On! project to “translate” Shakespeare’s plays into more modern English. I ended with the hope that I’d have the chance to talk with someone at OSF to get a clearer picture of what they were after.
Well, I’ve now had the chance to speak to the woman in charge of the project. Unfortunately, the picture I got from our conversation is, if anything, more puzzling and muddier than it was before.
As it was explained to me, the project began several years ago with a grant from a long-time supporter of OSF to produce translations and adaptations of 5 plays, with the aim to reach audiences who might be alienated or distanced by the language of Shakespeare, by the way in which, say, a pun you don’t get takes you out of a scene. The donor was motivated by his own experience, and his suspicion that audiences generally shared this experience, and would benefit from a Shakespeare that could be understood more readily. The money included not just commissions for the authors but money for development through workshops and such, and extended beyond literal translation to more wide-ranging adaptation efforts.
The first play undertaken was Timon of Athens, and the text that resulted from the effort so impressed that they decided to go back to the well and ask for more money to do literal translations of the entire canon, while still undertaking other projects like a hip-hop adaptation of Two Gentlemen of Verona by the Q Brothers. The translations would be literal, never cutting or adding scenes or characters, but updating the language to make it more readily comprehensible to a modern audience. And thus was born Play On!
The project is completely funded by the grant; no money is coming from OSF. Meanwhile, OSF is only getting the right to publish a bound volume of the various translations. They are making no commitment to produce the plays, and will not produce them as part of their plan to complete the Shakespeare canon. And the various playwrights will retain all rights with respect to future productions – they could, if they so desired, put their translations in a drawer and never let anyone produce them at all.
Several times during the conversation I asked questions about the purpose and aim of the project, and the answers were invariably equivocal. Was the intention to produce texts that could be readily performed, or were they more intended as resources for directors and dramaturgs working with the traditional Shakespeare text? Either or both. How are plays like King Lear or Hamlet where there are important textual questions going to be handled – will the playwrights be working off a particular version of the play, and if so which? That’s a good question! In general they’ll work off the Folio text, but yeah, there are important speeches in Hamlet that aren’t in the Folio, so . . . ?
I asked whether they expected the level of opposition they have encountered. Well, in fact there were just as many skeptics within OSF as there were supporters. But – nonetheless they were quite surprised to face the kind of vitriol they have encountered.
I have to say, by the end of the conversation it seemed to me that the whole project must have been donor-driven to an alarming degree. It didn’t sound like this was something that OSF had long wanted to do. But there was a lot of money on offer to do something with translating Shakespeare. Could they possibly just say no? Of course not. But since they didn’t have a very clear notion of why they were doing what they were doing, they were reluctant to make any firm commitments on that score, in terms of planning productions, or making the texts available to community theaters, or – well, anything else besides fulfilling the donor’s explicit requirement that they commission literal translations.
And as such, it’s a real cautionary tale. I was out drinking the other night with a classically-trained actor friend, who had just completed a table reading of Antony and Cleopatra with a bunch of younger classical actors, and he was struck by the casually disparaging attitude they evinced towards OSF. As he noted, only months ago they would have looked on any kind of affiliation with Oregon as an aspirational goal. Now, overnight, it had become a punchline.
That’s not going to last, of course. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival will continue to do great work, and that is what will matter over the long haul. But if they don’t want Play On! to be their New Coke, it behooves them to figure out why they are doing it. And then, if necessary, adjust the terms of the grant and the project to be better aligned with that specific rationale.
Personally, I’d nudge them away from producing “literal translations” of the canon, and towards creating, on the one hand, a publicly-available resource for directors and dramaturgs looking to speed the process of updating the language in particular scenes – which directors do all the time – and, on the other hand, commissioning truly new plays that are adaptations of Shakespeare in the mold of David Ives’s adaptations of Molière – modern verse plays that both draw on and recall the original but are invested with the spirit of the modern playwright.
And, frankly, I’d urge them to look to doing translations that really are necessary, to reach communities for whom there is an inarguable barrier to fully appreciating Shakespeare as traditionally performed. I’m thinking these guys might have some pointed ideas in that regard.