|Print | Back||February 26, 2009|
In The VillageDo we want an LDS Bard?
by Orson Scott Card
I hear Mormon artists talk all the time about President Kimball's call for Mormon Shakespeares and Goethes and Wagners and Michelangelos.
I hear some of them moaning that we don't have such great artists in the Mormon Church because the audience is not smart enough to recognize them.
Others say that we might already have them, but only time will tell.
Still others claim that artists can't achieve greatness while living by the rules of a morally "oppressive" society. Or that great art always offends and attacks the surrounding culture so that the Mormon Church will always regard it as a threat.
It's worth remembering, though, what President Kimball actually said.
I was one of the editors who worked on the July 1977 issue of the Ensign -- the first and, as far as I can recall, only issue of that magazine devoted to celebrating and encouraging Mormon art.
President Kimball's essay for that issue was adapted from his speech "Education for Eternity," given to BYU's faculty and staff ten years earlier.
He cited many examples of great artists -- and he knew, as he did so, that some on his list would be controversial.
How many of them lived exemplary moral lives? Artists who are famous and wealthy from their art face great temptations -- and often succumb to them.
Quite apart from the ordinary vices, there's the temptation of pride: the belief -- almost forced on artists by adoring critics and promoters -- that whatever they think and want and feel is more important and valuable than the thoughts and wishes and feelings of ordinary people.
And fame also magnifies even the most ordinary human failings, so that no matter what artist you mention as "great," someone can say, "Well, he wasn't that good a man."
Works of artistic genius don't excuse the artist's sins; but neither do the artist's sins debase the quality of his art.
President Kimball knew he was going out on a limb when he listed "A Man for All Seasons, Doctor Zhivago, Ben Hur" as great writings. Especially Ben-Hur, by Lew Wallace: "Critics might not agree with me, but I feel that it is a great story."
I agree with him completely -- both about the quality of Ben-Hur and the judgment of critics upon it! But one man's "great" is another man's "beneath notice."
Then President Kimball talks about Shakespeare: "Has anyone else ever been so versatile, so talented, so remarkable in his art? And yet could the world produce only one Shakespeare?"
Yes, President Kimball -- so far, the world has produced only one Shakespeare. A writer who, working within a despised tradition, raised his entire genre to the level of great art and great popularity.
But let's look at what Shakespeare actually did.
He had little formal education -- which hardly matters, since the quality of formal education in his day was quite low and largely irrelevant. Self-directed reading was the only education that mattered, and the only training for playwrights was the stage itself.
Plays were not considered literature -- at least not English-language plays to which groundlings were invited. Real artists would write epic poems, like Spenser's Faerie Queene.
Never mind that hardly anyone, even then, read epic poems, while anyone could watch a play and enjoy it without a speck of literacy.
Shakespeare was part of a theatrical company which had to make money. They all depended on Shakespeare to create plays that would attract audiences. They had to be funny, moving, romantic, memorable.
His history plays appealed to budding English patriotism -- he "waved the flag" as shamelessly as George M. Cohan ever did. Hamlet was, first and foremost, a scary ghost play; Macbeth showed the treachery of the Scots, whose kingdom could only be set to rights through the intervention of England.
His comedies took part in the earthy, bawdy culture of the time. At no time were they lascivious or pornographic, but they took sexual desire for granted and Shakespeare was quite happy to refer to it in his characters' humor.
He and his theatrical company were constantly at odds with the Puritan movement of the day.
Puritans thought that theatre was, by its very nature, evil -- and as soon as they seized power, they banned it entirely. Meanwhile, every play had to pass muster with censors, and Shakespeare had to stay aware of every wind that blew, to avoid giving too much offense at any given time.
His plays had to work -- they had to function on the stage. There was no time for esoteric, lofty artistic concerns. When the trial scene in Merchant of Venice ended, they couldn't go straight on to Portia's and Bassanio's return home and the revelation that the lawyer "Balthasar" was really the lovely Portia in disguise.
Why not? Because the actors playing Portia and Nerissa had to change back into women's clothing -- and there was neither velcro nor zippers to speed the process.
So Shakespeare did what he had to -- he created filler scenes, empty of any importance to the plot, to amuse the audience while the actors changed clothes.
There was no lofty artistic purpose, though often his filler scenes are better than they needed to be. Playwriting was a practical art; it had to work on stage.
Today we usually see Shakespeare performed quite badly, even when the acting is brilliant.
This is partly because English-speaking audiences can't understand most of his jokes -- wordplay doesn't work when the words have changed or lost their meanings -- and partly because Shakespeare is taken so "seriously" that actors try to find greatness in every phrase.
The result is that plays run ponderously long. Directors will savagely cut out huge swathes of his dialogue to keep the running time under three hours.
I, however, follow John McWhorter's admonition and translate the scripts. Not into modern English! I retain the Elizabethan language and the blank verse, but where Shakespeare's words no longer communicate instantly, I replace them with jokes or figures of speech that a modern audience will instantly understand -- as Shakespeare intended.
The result is that I can produce these translated scripts at full length -- not a scene is missing -- and at full speed -- no ponderous declamations -- and bring them in under two and a half hours every time. No intermissions. And entertaining every minute.
My production of Merchant of Venice is playing right now at Southern Virginia University; it takes two hours and ten minutes, with no cuts, and the audience is never bored or confused.
Shakespeare's plays did their job. They made Shakespeare and his troupe of actors rich. They captured the imagination of the public in his own time. They endured in memory and, translated and performed as he intended, continue to entertain us today without having to be decoded or interpreted by professors.
His genius was in creating the motive-based character. Shakespeare shunned the idea of "humours" and concentrated on the self-justification of characters who do things both bad and good. He explored deep issues of the heart and soul; he took human nature as he saw it, and loved people for their foibles as well as for their nobility and generosity.
And a significant portion of the public during his day hated everything he did.
What do Mormons really want when they say they want a "Mormon Shakespeare"?
I think we're just like the educated Elizabethan Londoners who might have said they wanted an "English Homer." They wanted to take pride in having produced a writer with the fame and reputation throughout the world that Homer had.
They didn't realize that their "English Homer" was not Spenser, who tried to be a Homer by writing an epic poem, but rather Shakespeare, who worked in a despised storytelling genre, spoke primarily to the common people while never talking down to them, had to make money with every play he wrote, struggled to satisfy the political and religious gales that blew hither and thither, and through it all told the truth about human nature as best he could.
Not every line of Shakespeare's blank verse scans. Not every mot is bon. He wrote in haste and it often shows.
Remember that Shakespeare's reputation has had its ups and downs, despised in one generation, then venerated in the next, his work bowdlerized in the Victorian era, then made absurdly obscene in licentious times like ours.
Shakespeare lived in the real world. He wrote for a real audience that cared deeply about the stories he told. He helped define and shape his people's vision of themselves. Even now, he helps us understand how human nature works.
But not one person in his day would have recognized that he was the English Homer -- a writer whose stories would inspire people of every culture and in every time.
Do we want a Mormon Shakespeare? Of course we do -- we want as many Shakespeares as we can get.
We might already have them.
But we won't have a clue that we've had these "Shakespeares" till long after they are dead.
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