Sunday, April 26, 2009

Happy Baptism, Billy S.!

Hundreds of years of convention dictates that we celebrate Shakespeare's birthday on April 23 (also the anniversary of the day he died) but we don't know his birthdate for a fact--all we know is that today, April 26, is the day that he was baptized. So, let's take a moment to celebrate, shall we? We have these plays, and that's so much more important in the long run than knowing the exact date their author was born, isn't it?

In 2016--just a few years away, really--I expect there will be a massive outpouring of interest in Shakespeare to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his death. Which got me thinking: this means that nearly all of Shakespeare's plays have also turned 400 within the last 15 years or so--and the remainder, such as The Tempest, will very soon follow. So why hasn't there been more of an interest in commemorating this? Why haven't I seen plays advertised as "The 400-Year Anniversary Production of Hamlet?" Sure, it sounds a bit crass and commercial to put it like that, but since the theater is a huckstering and commercial art form anyway, why not take advantage of this anniversary?

Furthermore--from a more idealistic standpoint--wouldn't it have been wonderful if at least one theater company, somewhere in the world, made an effort to produce each of Shakespeare's plays exactly 400 years after it was first performed? Yes, I know that the chronology of Shakespeare's works is disputed, so the order of performance would never be strictly accurate. But we do have a general idea of the order in which the plays were written, and it would be amazing for everyone involved--the artists and the audience--to be able to trace the evolution of Shakespeare's style in "real time," the way his original audiences did. Why didn't the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, or a similar organization, commit to this? (I assume this would have to be done by an established company, because it is a huge undertaking that would have to go on for about 20 years. Pleasant as it is to imagine a scrappy little theater company taking on this task, beginning in 1990 with an enthusiastic production of Henry VI part I, they'd probably fold by 1998 and the Henry IV plays.)

Maybe there is some theater company that's doing this--but if so, I haven't heard of it. Or maybe it's just a lost opportunity that I'm acknowledging too late to do anything about it.

As I said, I've never seen a "400th anniversary" production of any Shakespeare play, but I did see a 100th-anniversary production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard in 2004. In nearly every respect, it was a dreadful and misconceived endeavor, but the one part of it that really moved me is the speech where Gaev pays homage to the family bookcase:
But Lyuba, do you know how old this bookcase is? I pulled out the bottom drawer last week, and I looked, and there were some numbers burnt into the wood with a poker. This bookcase was built exactly one hundred years ago. So how about it? We could celebrate its centenary. It’s an inanimate object, but all the same, whichever way you look at it, it’s still a bookcase. […] Dear bookcase! Most esteemed bookcase! I salute your existence, which for more than a hundred years now has been directed toward the shining ideals of goodness and of truth. For a hundred years your unspoken summons to fruitful labor has never faltered, upholding, through all the generations of our family, wisdom and faith in a better future, fostering within us ideals of goodness and of social consciousness. (source)
Naturally, I could not help thinking about the one hundred years that Chekhov's play had endured and how it, too, is a monument to truth and to fruitful labor. I can only imagine that the effect would be similar if one was to hear some of Shakespeare's beautiful poetry that deals with the nature of time and memory and existence (e.g. "Age cannot wither her...") exactly four hundred years after it was first written...

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