Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Reduced Shakespeare Company

Last in a series about British lefties.

Parodists often pride themselves on skewering both parties of a controversy. When the RSC pokes fun at liberals, they accuse them(selves) of being over-intellectual.

Ooh, I'll bet that stung.

If you go to London, going to the RSC's humorous abridgement of all of Shakespeare's plays -- 37 plays in 94 minutes -- will be one of the high points of your trip. But do not bother to see their other production on the history of America. There are genuinely funny moments. There are even genuinely funny left-slanted moments. But it is mostly an adolescent harangue, trying to correct all the false impressions of our history that Americans supposedly have. Selecting a stereotype and attacking it by pointing out that it is so stereotypical is not a recipe for humor. Or humour, either.

Did you know that some Americans once owned slaves? Had you heard that the USA has sometimes gone to war? That women did not originally have the vote? Really? You knew that? You're not shocked at the contrast between American ideals and American practice?

Of all the bits, one stood out for me even as it was being performed as revealing far more about the prejudices of the performers than they knew. To represent the 1950's, they did a send-up of "I Love Lucy," with a heavy McCarthyism theme (Oh yawn. That's the best that professional writers could do? Sure. Cf. this year's Oscar's). They did the scene in black-and-white, as best as can be in the theater. I have commented before about the odd connection of my generation between the ideas black-and-white morality and black-and-white photography. Condensed version: we attribute black-and-white morality to the people in the black-and-white pictures. We do this for two reasons. We were children then, and the rules for us were simpler. Second, we didn't like some of the rules, and sought some way of putting ourselves above them. So we prided ourselves on our great moral advance by trying to slip-stream in behind the technological one, convincing ourselves that our predecessors were simplistic and unsubtle. I cannot find an example of the phrase "black and white morality" before 1970. (If someone finds one, please let me know)

The Polaroid Swinger was the pivot point, for those of you scoring at home.

So the RSC embraces the same self-congratulatory myth that my whole generation has foisted upon the world. Surprise.

Tangent: I claim that the central idea of the RSC's abridged Shakespeare is taken from Tom Stoppard's one-act "Fifteen-minute Hamlet," especially as that jewel is actually 13-minute Hamlet followed by 2-minute Hamlet. My brother remembers seeing the prototype for RSC at Renaissance Faires in California in the 1970's, and thinks not. He is the theater professional, having made his living in this for 30 years and currently teaching at Smith, while I am a merely a pedant, so he is likely correct. Still, it would be nice to be proved right if anyone knows anything about it.

Series summary statement: The emphasis in the phrase “making the world a better place” moves easily from the word “better” to the word “making.”

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