Forms of human expression are in an eternal state of transformation. In language, art and music, metamorphosis is essential, not exceptional: Today’s French was yesterday’s Latin, true painting with perspective did not exist before Brunelleschi, nor did music founded on syncopated rhythm emerge before the 1890s. We recognize and process this kind of historical mutation most readily when stark contrasts present themselves in the familiar forms, but less readily when venues are unfamiliar, or when change tiptoes about in intermediate zones of perception. Moderate degrees of change, even if not radically transformative, can interfere with our ability to honestly evaluate a piece of art. Two recent theatrical productions in New York demonstrate this usefully, and oddly enough they are the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Richard II and Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.
Shuffle Along is being taken as a resuscitation of a past that was actually quite different, to a degree that would alternately puzzle and bore us if we could experience it. The original 1921 production, an all-black show, played almost a century ago and became an historical landmark in introducing Broadway to jazz, as well as to the “hot” dancing associated with it. The performances in the new show are stellar, but when critics like Ben Brantley marvel that “routines first performed nearly a century ago come across as defiantly fresh,” they miss the key recognition that performances at the Music Box today have a similar relationship to the 1921 Shuffle Along that the RSC’s Richard II has to the way that play was performed at the Globe Theatre in the 1590s—which is to say rather distant.
The songs are scored to jam, sounding brassy and busy in a way now typical of musical theater scores, but which didn’t yet exist in 1921. The score was celebrated at the time as “jazz,” but this was not yet the “funky” music we cherish; it was basically acoustic Joplinesque ragtime with a hint of blues. A recent recording of the original arrangement of Shuffle Along’s medley overture brings to mind not Duke Ellington but straw hats and lemonade. The “Lowdown Blues” that Billy Porter brings the house down with thanks to its shouting, foot-stomping style was a tinkly little job in the original show; the gospel-inflected style Porter uses didn’t yet exist either. Dean of modern tap Savion Glover’s tight, dazzling tap numbers are fantastic, but in the original show then-contemporary dance styles wowed audiences. Tap was only one of many elements amid what was described at the time as the chorus’ “wiggles” and “gyrations”—it had not yet become a solo dance motif. To wit, there are no “routines first performed nearly a century ago” at the Music Box.
Nor should there be: Musical theater arrangement and performance in 2016 are richer, subtler, and, frankly, better than they were in 1921. However, the general impression that today’s Shuffle Along is a revival of the original in any way—with the producers having actually sought to have it classified for the Tonys as a revival—suggests but a dim awareness of the massive extent to which musical theater style has changed over the past hundred years.
Yet there is now a massive historiography of American musical theater history and an extensive legacy of vintage audio and video recordings of it available at the press of a button. The musical theater world, with its endless revivals, historical documentaries, and cabaret shows plumbing bygone decades, has a highly historical self-consciousness. I suspect that the issue here is more specific: a tacit sense that black musical theater performance must always have had the essence it has now—specifically, the jazz, the funk, the “hot.” It didn’t; “hot” has evolved like everything else, and the time traveller to post-World War I black America would find the music there, as everywhere else, curiously less electric than they might expect.
That theatergoers may not be aware that they are not experiencing the original Shuffle Along performances is, in the grand scheme of things, harmless. Blindness to change is far more problematic when it comes to the RSC’s Richard II.
Here, the problem is language. Everyone even remotely familiar with serious theater is familiar with the effort that it takes to process Shakespearean language performed live. We are taught that the issue is a mere matter of effort: We must “reach up” to the poetry and the archaic syntax. It is also commonly thought that actors with the proper training can convey the lines’ meanings, with being British apparently a major advantage.
I presume that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s training and extraction render them a fitting test case, and my three experiences of their work suggest that training, especially, can go a long way to making Shakespearean dialogue comprehensible delivered live. However, there remains a good deal of language in a play like Richard II that is opaque to a degree that no amount of vocal or gestural training could remediate, much less having a British accent. When Richard’s queen says, “Tis nameless woe, I wot,” only with previous study can we know that wot meant “know” in Shakespeare’s time. In a play in which keeping track of family relations is already tricky, cousin is used where we would use nephew and niece. Words such as appeach require context to understand, others such as appeal are used in ways unfamiliar today, and at times we even stub our mental toe on now-defunct usages of prepositions: Richard says “I have a king here to my flatterer,” meaning “for my flatterer.”
David and Ben Crystal have estimated that ten percent of Shakespearean words are stumpers of this kind, and while they aver that this does not impede meaningful connection with the plays, we might consider that decimate, connoting destruction, originally meant to reduce by ten percent. We are taught that Shakespeare wrote in the language we still speak. However, for those who haven’t studied the play beforehand, even at a top-rate performance such as the RSC’s one is hearing the language as though through a filter, rather like having lived in France for six months, become conversationally comfortable, and then treated ourselves to a Molière play, or took in a modern movie with a lot of slang. The gist? Sure, we get it. But we miss a lot, too, and with the RSC’s Richard II this filtered understanding of the language makes audiences more tolerant of the production’s flaws than it would be of a play in modern English.
David Tennant, most familiar to many of us as the tenth Doctor Who, plays the lead not merely as effete, which is typical of Richard portrayals, but as flamboyantly effeminate. This means that the audience is regularly treated to fey, arch line readings that are handy at getting laughs. At a Shakespeare performance, where one expects that a certain amount of work will be involved, line readings familiar from Will and Grace are perhaps a treat, and I suspect this explains much of why this play has often been considered the “best” of this RSC Henriad. However, this approach to the character comes at the cost of a certain plausibility. If Richard is actually a homosexual—and in this production this is underlined when he and the Duke of Aumerle share a long kiss—then why is his parting from the Queen so extended and romantic? The RSC production has Richard kiss her with markedly less enthusiasm than he kissed Aumerle, but this isn’t enough. The sheer volume and pitch of the dialogue in the scene rather clearly indicates sincere commitment to the Queen. Yes, he could esteem her greatly but not feel physical love for her, and the actors could—albeit stretching the intent of the text a bit—portray that kind of relationship. However, the scene is not paced or colored to convey even that.
This is a lapse in direction that would be less likely to be missed if we perceived the characters’ speech more immediately, such as if the scene were in modern language and the king were played by, say, Will and Grace’s Sean Hayes. No director would have Hayes and Claire Danes as his queen simply deliver the lines as if they were a conventional couple. The same problem renders the character of the Queen something of a muddle. If her husband is obviously gay and is also a horrible human being, then why does she love him so much? In reference to questions of this kind on Shakespeare, aficionados often construct explanations compatible with the facts, such that here we might venture a proposition that, in this Queen’s time, a woman of her station had to bear whomever she was betrothed to. However, an arranged marriage would have left her emotional coherence intact. Again, there are ways of playing, for example, a woman knowingly married for convenience; but no such archness or shading was suggested to the RSC’s Leigh Quinn.
Bolingbroke begins by returning from exile to claim the inheritance that Richard is about to usurp, but revises his goal to take over the country. This production gives no indication of this evolution in Bolingbroke’s thinking, leaving the lines themselves to simply suddenly refer to overthrow. This only begins to feel acceptable in that the ornateness of the language accustoms one to incomplete comprehension, but a better-directed production could have lent a sense of Bolingbroke’s change of heart through acting, pacing, and design (as the BBC version with Ben Whishaw does).
Near the end, Bolingbroke learns that the Duke of Aumerle had planned to kill him, and casually pardons him for no apparent reason. An actor could play this more meaningfully with pauses, facial expressions, and body language indicating some kind of inner dialogue. Jasper Britton does no such thing, and only the distance of the language makes this seem somehow plausible, rather than a frayed edge in the continuity.
With Shuffle Along, no one seeks to make us relate to where things actually started, as opposed to Shakespeare, where we are not only told to relate to where things started but also to look away from the fact that English has changed as much (likely more) since Shakespeare’s time as music and dance have changed on Broadway since 1921. Ever more voices are suggesting that Shakespearean text be adjusted for modern audiences, with the most artistically responsible attempts so far being ones where only words and phrases that truly impede understanding are judiciously replaced by modern ones.
There are naturally those who consider the very mention of such an approach a sign of the end of days. However, I suspect that many of them have internalized a sense that we are only supposed to process Shakespeare like a poorly tuned in radio station, somehow classifying this as a “poetic” experience. Just as Golden Age Broadway composers always insisted that their lasting hit songs should be rearranged and rerecorded in the styles of eras to come, we can be sure that Shakespeare himself would be perplexed at the idea that people 400 years later would insist on hearing his words with only partial comprehension.