SAA Provocation: Shakespeare and Fan Theory

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog post, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been writing! I’m working on a bunch of projects as I navigate the academic job market (again). So here’s something new that I tested out on my Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) workshop group. I’m hoping to build this idea up into an article, so any feedback will be very much appreciated 🙂

It’s a provocation: adaptations of Shakespeare should be more like fan fiction.

Building on Abigail De Kosnik’s work in Rogue Archives, this provocation theorizes adaptations of Shakespeare in relation to fan fiction. Can we understand the derision that sometimes follows adaptations of Shakespeare as similar to the derision that accompanies fandom? Do Shakespeare adaptations occupy a queer and feminine space in the way that De Kosnik suggests fan fiction does? What does fan theory offer scholars of Shakespeare in adaptation and adapters of Shakespeare that other theories of adaptation do not?

Shakespearean adaptation—like fanfic—is both granted and stripped of legitimacy by virtue of its relationship to the source text or ‘canon.’ Fanfic, like some of the best adaptation, often grows out of a love-hate relationship with the canon: fans obsess even as they recognise the shortcomings of their chosen source text. As Aja Romano puts it in her analysis of Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical sensation, “Hamilton is fanfic, which means its function is partly to argue with its canon, not to simply celebrate it” (np). In Shakespeare terms, this impulse to “argue with the canon” can manifest along a spectrum from Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female casts at the Donmar Warehouse to wholly re-written or re-imagined takes on the plays such as the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

For the purposes of this short paper, I am particularly interested in De Kosnik’s assessment of fan fiction archives as queer and feminine spaces. Without claiming that these “rogue archives” “close gaps in computing access or skill between large numbers of people”, De Kosnik does argue—convincingly—that they are “archives of women’s digital culture and queer digital culture” (10-11, 12). Put another way, fan fiction archivists “pry open ‘the archive’—digital cultural memory writ large—to include their idiosyncratic repositories, and thus foist some measure of democratization onto the field of contemporary archival practice” (18). They appropriate the tools of traditional, institutional archivists (18) in order to rewrite and even transcend the canon (21). Indeed, De Kosnik argues, rogue archives are “intrinsically opposed to the very notion of canonicity” (21).

De Kosnik’s ground-breaking work obviously has a number of implications for Shakespeareans. Here, however, I aim to focus on the opposition to canonicity developed through spaces that are explicitly and emphatically identified as female and queer. De Kosnik identifies fan fiction sites and their archives as “sites in which women and girls can feel that they are participating in a tradition of female writing and reading, and can experience a sense of safety in numbers” (135). As a result, “fan archives facilitate numerous acts of representation and communication that exceed the bounds of heteronormativity” (135).

De Kosnik also identifies in female-authored fan fiction an impulse that drives many adapters of Shakespeare: she reads female fan authorship “as a response by women and girls to a media culture in which they rarely see their own narrative priorities and preferences play out, and so feel compelled to create their own versions” (142). While she is not uncritical of the links that have been made between fan culture and queer culture, De Kosnik also notes that fan spaces can function—“as explicitly queer spaces do”—“as simultaneously ‘safe spaces’ and spaces of targeting” (147). Fan archives are also queer in the sense that they shift the center of the conversation, creating spaces for a cultural archive that is not canonical or mainstream. Fanfic therefore has much to teach Shakespeareans not only in terms of a more relaxed relationship to a canon, but also in terms of providing models for taking genuine risks in terms of casting and dramaturgy. Fanfic frequently recasts the main characters, bringing in a more diverse range of voices than is typically encountered in the canons it represents. And so, I suggest, Shakespeare adaptations, particularly those commissioned by major companies, should be more like fanfic in its willingness to depart from canon and take genuine risks in terms of casting, dramaturgy, and politics.

A useful lens through which to consider this provocation is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “contemporary translations” because of the tension between the democratizing intent of the project and the potential pitfalls revealed by its parameters. Play On! proudly includes voices of women and people of color among the playwrights commissioned for the project (“Play On!”). OSF is also well known for its inclusive casting policies.

The OSF website, however, is absolutely clear that “The Play On translations will not be adaptations” because “Everything to do with setting, time period, references, etc. will remain unchanged [
], pop-culture references and contemporary slang will not be appropriate, and the politics of the original plays will not be cut or ‘fixed’ in any way” (“Further Reading”). Despite this, the project claims to be following a path of “experimentation, exploration, and changing the language.” As an adapter of Shakespeare, I’m intrigued by this deliberate separation between “experimentation” and “adaptation.” Experimentation, it seems, is important, meaningful, expository work—an effort that will appropriately “celebrate Shakespeare’s masterworks.” Adaptation, on the other hand, is framed as reductive, destructive, inappropriate, or—worst of all—trendy, informed by “pop-culture references and contemporary slang.” I wonder to what extent these paraded women and writers of color will be able to represent themselves under these restrictions, especially given that American pop culture and slang are derisively coded ‘Black.’ From my point of view, the emphasis placed on fidelity to Shakespeare undermines the potentially subversive work to be done in ‘translating’ Shakespeare for twenty-first-century audiences. Rather than leaving space to “argue with its canon,” the project seems to insist that the canon is unassailable.

Without having seen any of the finished products, of course, it is hard to say what these translations will ultimately achieve. Based on the information made available to the public, however, it strikes me that the safe and inclusive spaces of De Kosnik’s fan fiction archives are not echoed in OSF’s Play On project to the extent that they ought to be. If anything, the ghosts of pale, male, and stale critics, board members, and donors (exemplified, perhaps, by Shakespeare himself) haunt the initiative, preventing it from fulfilling its genuinely revolutionary potential. These spectres raise a chilling question: what is at stake in refusing to capitulate to institutional demands that Shakespeare be kept, somehow, intact? In mitigating these risks, perhaps adaptors of Shakespeare can look to fan fiction for precedents.

 

De Kosnik, Abigail. Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom. Boston: MIT Press, 2016.

Romano, Aja. “Hamilton is fanfic, and its historical critics are totally missing the point.” Vox. 4 July 2016. [accessed 3 Jan 2017].

“Play on! 36 playwrights translate Shakespeare.” Oregon Shakespeare Festival. [accessed 3 Jan 2017].

“Play On! Further Reading.” Oregon Shakespeare Festival. [accessed 3 Jan 2017].

Advertisements

Hamilton & hybridity: a response to Adam Gopnik

I’m taking a break from early modern stuff today to write about a more recent bit of theatre history: the Broadway musical Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s second venture on the Great White Way and the most popular American musical of the year, if not the century. Pitched (reductively) as a “hip-hop musical”, it retells the story of Alexander Hamilton–“The ten-dollar founding father without a father” who “Got a lot farther working a lot harder, / By being a lot smarter”, as the show’s opening number tells us–through an astonishingly complex amalgamation of musical styles, including but certainly not limited to rap and hip-hop. Miranda, as both composer and star, is undoubtedly one of the greatest musical minds of his generation.

Obviously, I’m a fan. But the discourse around Hamilton‘s rise to fame is about much more than musical prowess and progress on Broadway–it’s about the way Americans tell our own histories, and critical responses to the show demonstrate just how fraught that question is. “You have no control / Who lives, who dies, who tells your story”, George Washington tells Hamilton before the climactic Battle of Yorktown. In Hamilton, the story of these white historical figures is being told by a deliberately mixed-race cast: Miranda himself plays Alexander Hamilton; Daveed Diggs, a hip-hop artist by trade, plays Thomas Jefferson; Phillipa Soo plays Hamilton’s wife Eliza Schuyler; and ReneĂ© Elise Goldsberry plays her sister, Angelica. Musically, thematically, and aesthetically, it’s a kind of fantasy portrayal of the “melting pot” we’re constantly told America is. It’s curious and disturbing, then, that Adam Gopnik’s recent review for the New Yorker ties Hamilton expressly to the white musical history of America in classic Broadway shows such as South Pacific, My Fair Lady, and Camelot. 

Respectfully, Mr. Gopnik, I disagree. In musical theatre terms, Hamilton‘s ancestors are not the American book musicals, but operas and operettas, as Hilton Als writes for the same publication (I think it’s worth noticing here that the New Yorker‘s only black critic to have reviewed the show, did so when the show was Off Broadway, whilst its transition to the Great White Way has been covered by its share of white critics who are able to do so without so much as accidentally mentioning the issue of race’). Hamilton is also more like pre-Showboat Broadway, when shows drew explicitly on popular music, than it is like Camelot. But Gopnik’s article also ignores more recent musical theatre history: Miranda’s work clearly builds on the legacy of Rent (whose closing production also starred Goldsberry), Spring Awakening (which also featured Jonathan Groff in the original cast), and In the Heights (also written by and starring Miranda). In some ways, the rap/recitative and leitmotif that drive its plot draw on the tradition of through-composed megamusicals and “rock operas” like Les Miserables and Jesus Christ Superstar, too. Perhaps more importantly, however, Hamilton’s musical influences and its sampling of popular forms run the gamut from jazz and blues to BritPop and Destiny’s Child–there’s a reason Audra McDonald’s recent cover of “Say No to This” as Billie Holiday works so well. Miranda is not the first to attempt this kind of hybridity, but he’s perhaps the first to apply it directly to American Revolutionary history. So trying to tie this achievement down to an all-white, elite, Broadway legacy headlined by South Pacific and My Fair Lady just won’t cut it.

Gopnik’s not the only one to misunderstand this: much of the white press on Hamilton has tried to circumvent or ignore the complex intersections of race, storytelling and American/Broadway history that the show plays with, particularly in the context of Barack Obama’s presidency and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. See, for example, this interview with Chris Hayes of NBC, who manages to talk about Hamilton with Miranda for seven and a half minutes without really talking about the casting, although he euphemistically tells us that Miranda is “re-making our vision of the founding fathers”. And even though Gopnik is quite right to point out some of the contradictions in the casting of Hamilton as an unambiguous hero, his subsequent assertion that the mixed-raced casting of the musical doesn’t change its story is absurd. “Washington and Jefferson and Hamilton and the rest of the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) are all played by black, Latino, or Asian-American performers using an African-American musical idiom—and within seconds this seems neither jarring nor even particularly daring: it just makes sense”, he tells us: “Who else and in what other range? “Hamilton” [sic] is about the mutability of identity in American history. The players change, the story stays the same.”

But changing the players always changes the story; that’s why Miranda’s mixed-race casting of white historical figures is so important and so revolutionary. It matters, fundamentally, that the person making this version of American history is the son of Puerto Rican immigrants whose father learned English whilst completing a postdoc. It matters, as Als points out, that, had Miranda’s family stayed in Puerto Rico, they would have been “American citizens [who] cannot vote”. It matters that Hamilton became one of the biggest hits in Broadway history in the same year that millions of people across America were calling for justice for Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, and too many other black men killed by police officers. It matters, equally, that Hamilton became one of the biggest hits in Broadway history in the same year that millions of others across America denounced #BlackLivesMatter activists as violent thugs or irrelevant shit-disturbers. It matters that Hamilton is the most popular musical of the decade while BeyoncĂ© (but not Bruno Mars) is getting attacked for her Superbowl halftime show. It matters that Hamilton came to Broadway during a presidential election cycle. It matters who gets to tell those stories because when the players change, so does the story. And that, actually, is the fundamental innovation of Hamilton: it shifts the power of narrative in America’s founding mythology.

 

 

Digging In: a response to (responses to) Dana Dusbiber

Those who know me know that I’m all about taking Shakespeare down a peg. But California high school teacher Dana Dusbiber’s now-viral dismissal of Shakespeare really made me think–or, more specifically, the responses to her made me think. Published by Valerie Strauss on her Washington Post education blog, Dusbiber’s article argues that Shakespeare does not serve the educational needs of her students, whom she describes as ‘very ethnically-diverse’. Following a rather weak opening in which she confesses that she simply doesn’t like Shakespeare herself, Dusbiber goes on to raise a few very legitimate concerns:

I do not believe that a long-dead, British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition. […]

I am sad that so many of my colleagues teach a canon that some white people decided upon so long ago and do it without question. I am sad that we don’t believe enough in ourselves as professionals to challenge the way that it has “always been done.” […]

So I ask, why not teach the oral tradition out of Africa, which includes an equally relevant commentary on human behavior? Why not teach translations of early writings or oral storytelling from Latin America or Southeast Asia other parts of the world? Many, many of our students come from these languages and traditions. Why do our students not deserve to study these “other” literatures with equal time and value? And if time is the issue in our classrooms, perhaps we no longer have the time to study the Western canon that so many of us know and hold dear.”

I’ve been disappointed to find that most of the counter-attacks from the Shakespeare scholarly and theatrical communities have taken one of two approaches: they appeal to an outdated argument regarding Shakespeare’s unique grasp of the human condition, or they suggest that Dusbiber has never been exposed to “proper” Shakespeare.

If we’re going to argue for keeping Shakespeare on a national curriculum, the first approach clearly will not change Dusbiber’s mind or the mind of anyone who agrees with her. She says right in the article that she doesn’t buy Shakespeare’s supposed “universal” applicability–and to be frank, neither do I. Reminding us that Shakespeare wrote about people of colour and women will not erase the fact that he was, after all, a white dude from a relatively privileged background who wrote for actors from a very similar demographic. I don’t think we can still get away with arguing that Shakespeare uniquely speaks to some kind of essential humanity that transcends race, gender, and social class (not to mention geography and chronological time). Reminding us that everyone can relate to themes like love and loss will not change the fact that other writers (as Dusbiber points out) are equally capable of engaging with them. This essentialist approach isn’t going to help Shakespeare’s case, no matter how ardently you believe in his universal applicability.

The second approach follows a similar logic, in that it implies loving Shakespeare is the default setting of humanity, and so the problem is not with Shakespeare but with ineffective pedagogy. It comes in many forms, perhaps the most popular being the argument that Shakespeare isn’t properly taught as literature at all–that he needs to be staged or at least analysed from a perspective of performance in order to be really appreciated. While I happen to agree that teaching Shakespeare exclusively at desks is ineffective, I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that anyone who doesn’t like Shakespeare must not have been exposed to the more theatrical way of learning his plays. Some people will never connect with Shakespeare because–despite centuries of protestations–his plays aren’t actually universally applicable (cf. Artaud). No one’s are. There’s no such thing. Yes, the plays are wonderfully varied and quotable, but there’s only 37 of them for goodness’ sake. Lots of people will find it easier to understand and appreciate Shakespeare when they’re taught the plays from a performative point of view, but that doesn’t mean the ones who don’t walk away adoring the Bard are somehow defective humans.

Of course, the proponents of these defences of Shakespeare have no intention of insulting the very humanity of those who don’t appreciate him–they simply want to share the joy that they’ve found through engagement with Shakespeare. And it’s entirely understandable that Dusbiber’s article would provoke that kind of response: she repeatedly tells us that she feels no personal connection to Shakespeare, despite being a ‘voracious reader’. But both these kinds of responses conveniently avoid the central question buried beneath Dusbiber’s muddy appeals to personal taste: What is the place of Shakespeare–and indeed of the traditional Western literary canon–in an increasingly expanded curriculum?

If we’re going to argue for Shakespeare’s place in the classroom, we’ve got to come at it from a place of historical contingency. Shakespeare was once just a white dude from England who wrote some plays, but in the 400 years since his death he has come to signify much more than the cultural circumstances within which he lived. Shakespeare is now not only part of the Western literary canon, but he has been adapted and adopted by people all over the world–often in ways that speak back to the conservatism of the traditional canon and to the imperialism that brought them the canon in the first place. An obvious example is AimĂ© CĂ©saire’s Une TempĂȘte, which uses characters and situations from The Tempest in order to engage with issues of power, race, and imperialism. As Sonia Massai and Preti Taneja pointed out in a recent BBC Radio broadcast on Global Shakespeares, his plays were part of a British imperial agenda, and they have now become part of a worldwide conversation across literary and performance genres. They’re no longer limited to England, or even to the English language. That distinction between Shakespeare the man and Shakespeare the cultural icon is one of the arguments we can make for the continuing relevance of Shakespeare in the classroom. It’s not that Shakespeare is somehow better at speaking to us about the human condition, but rather that he’s now so entrenched not just in Western literature but really in global literature. I certainly wouldn’t say that the plays are universally relevant, but it’s also hard to argue that they are completely irrelevant. Opening up the curriculum to include creative responses to Shakespeare allows a teacher to demonstrate the ways in which issues relevant to Shakespeare might also be relevant to us, while still questioning the canon and empowering students to critique and speak back to Shakespeare’s authority.

In addition, I would argue that teaching Shakespeare for Shakespeare’s sake is much different from teaching a unit, module, or entire course of English or European Renaissance literature. Lots of responses to Dusbiber have critiqued her by saying that Shakespeare’s plays range all over the world, and therefore should be applicable to everyone. His scope seems rather narrow, however, compared with other playwrights of the period. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, for example, ranges all over the Middle East and offers obvious departure points for discussions about racial and religious differences, xenophobia, imperialism, torture, and other issues that are still highly relevant today. So, too, does Fletcher’s The Island Princess, set in the “spice islands”, or modern-day Indonesia. The Island Princess also lends itself to discussions about globalisation and international trade. The subplot of Jonson’s Epicoene allows for conversations about globalisation, too, and its main plot offers plenty of space for discussions about sex and gender identities–as, indeed, most of the comedies from this period do. I could go on.

I realise, at this point, that I might be accused of making exactly the same argument that I refuted above: that the plays of the English Renaissance have some kind of universal relevance. That’s not at all my point in bringing up the various relevances of non-Shakespearean Renaissance plays. Rather, I want to demonstrate two things. First, Shakespeare’s plays are not unique in their ability to speak to contemporary issues. Secondly, and therefore, if we’re going to argue that English Renaissance literature is important, we can no longer limit ourselves to Shakespeare. I could envision an exciting and dynamic set of lessons covering global literature from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which uses English Renaissance drama as a point of departure for a much broader conversation. I could also picture a much less chronological syllabus that pairs a work of English literature with an adaptation or a piece covering similar themes from any period in history, and anywhere in the world. As an example from outside the Renaissance, I remember reading Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea immediately after Jane Eyre in my first year of undergrad and feeling like my entire world had been exploded–in the best possible way.

None of us will be able to convince Dusbiber that she’s wrong about Shakespeare, and Dusbiber probably won’t convince the Shakespeareans and early modernists of the world that we’re wrong about him, either. But if we’re going to argue for the place of Shakespeare and English Renaissance drama (or indeed, English literature more generally) in an expanding canon, then we need to stop countering calls for change by digging in our heels and start looking at how to adapt.

Set Me Free: Notes on a Director’s Note

I always struggle to write director’s notes for the programme. This is what I have so far for Set Me Free. Comments and suggestions are very welcome.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that The Tempest ‘addresses itself entirely to the imaginative faculty’. In our version of the play, we have sought to imagine ways in which movement and music might substitute for poetry. As a result, the text you will hear tonight serves a storytelling function rather than a poetic one. As Laura discusses below, we’ve cut away a significant amount of Shakespeare’s words and attempted to create The Tempest with bodies in space and with non-verbal sounds as much as possible. This means that certain parts of the play as it is set down in the Folio have been abstracted or obscured, whilst others have been highlighted. We have imagined a world in which a lovely young woman on pointe can play Caliban, Ariel can be comprised of four actors, and Alonso and Anthonio can have female bodies and male voices. We also have the advantage of having a practicing pagan as our Prospero, lending us the opportunity to explore the realities of magical arts, both in Shakespeare’s time and our own.

Our inspirations range from Sir Ian McKellan to a sea shanty to a production of The Tempest done in Buffalo, New York; our movement vocabulary has been drawn from Viewpoints, yoga, Laban, ballet, modern dance, stage combat, and everything in between. We’ve significantly rearranged and sometimes reinterpreted what text we have left. Our cast is a collective of postgraduate and undergraduate students with a huge range of movement backgrounds and abilities. And, somehow, we hope to create a cohesive and entertaining experience for you here this evening.

It’s been a challenge, to say the least, but we’ve had an awful lot of fun along the way. I think I speak for the entire cast when I say that this has been a journey of learning, and one whose lessons we will never forget. We’ve been stretched creatively and intellectually, and we hope that you will be, too.  Now address yourselves to your imaginative faculties, and enjoy the show.

Set Me Free 4 : Killing Our Babies

Of all the nuggets of wisdom I gleaned from working with the incredible Kelly Straughan last year, perhaps the meatiest was this: learn to kill your babies. 

I’m obviously not talking about real babies (the fanatic pro-lifers can calm down now). I’m talking about intellectual babies. Brain-children, if you will.  All directors have them, and we all need to kill them. That super-awesome genius-level idea you hatched at 3am and brought into rehearsal and spent hours perfecting might not read once it’s on stage. Or it might not work with the costumes. Or it might be impossible to light. Or it might not fit the actor you imagined it on. Or it might not be in the budget. Or there might not be time to rehearse it. When faced with these or countless other scenarios in which an idea doesn’t work, it’s time to kill that baby.

I realise that framing this in terms of dead babies makes it all seem unfairly insensitive, but the baby analogy works for a reason. Directors love their brain-children. We grow attached to the vision we’ve created of how a particular project “should” look or sound or both. The vision, the idea for how the play is going be, has been cultivated over a long(ish) period of time and is ideally grounded in painstaking research. We’ve considered the semiotics of our approach; we’ve considered our audience demographic; we’ve thrown out other ideas in favour of the One–and yet, sometimes, all that theory still falls flat in practice.

What we all so often forget is that that’s ok. Sometimes, despite all the hard work done to make it fit, we have to kill that baby for the good of the rest of the piece. Killing a baby doesn’t make you a failure or a bad director; in fact, judiciously killing a baby will make your show better than it could ever have been with that dead weight hanging around its neck. It’s actually quite a liberating feeling for the director: all the stress of trying to actualize the vision is suddenly gone, and more focus can be given to the rest of the play.

Kelly’s advice has served me well so far, and I hope that it will continue to be with me as we head into the final week of rehearsals for Set Me Free.

 

 

…Just to clarify once again: I do not in any way advocate killing any actual, human babies. I do, however, enjoy eating lamb.

PhD Proposal Process: topic shift

I was told before I started work that the specifics of the topic would change a thousand times, so I’m going to assume that I have approximately 999 shifts in topic left to go!

After realizing that what I wanted to do had pretty much been done by Dobson, Worthen, and others, I decided for a pretty substantial change. The topic now includes the plays of Marlowe and Middleton and will likely focus on editing and editions of the texts and how those relate to adaptation.

As I’ve learned (and probably should have expected), it’s much easier to find stuff written about Shakespeare and adaptation than it is to find stuff written about either Marlowe or Middleton and adaptation. The Exeter library provided several copies of their more famous plays (I’ve never seen so much Doctor Faustus in one place before!) but not much criticism or commentary. A search of online journals and bibliographies has been slightly more helpful, but it remains my experience that there is an overwhelming avalanche of writing on Shakespeare and adaptation and a much smaller mole-hill of writing on his contemporaries and adaptation. This is both concerning and comforting: concerning because it gives me less to work with and raises a very real danger of skewing the dissertation in favour of Shakespeare, comforting because it means that at least I’m proposing something that hasn’t been done to death.

Some key questions have come up as I’ve begun to research this new topic, and I’d love to hear thoughts on any of them:

*Does a Folio/quarto/’original’ text lend itself to a certain kind of adaptation?

*Similarly, does working from a particular modern edition of a text affect the way(s) in which a text is adapted?

*To what extent is choosing which text to work from an adaptive act in and of itself?

 

Additionally, if anyone out there has some suggestions for Marlowe and Middleton-related sources, I’d be much obliged!