Twice a week David Scott Kastan, the George M. Bodman professor of English, waxes on William Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies in a Linsly-Chittenden lecture hall.
In conjunction with the Yale Dramatic Association’s production of “The Winter’s Tale,” Kastan sat down with the News to discuss the play, bears, and why he likes “10 Things I Hate About You,” “O” and Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet.”
Q The Dramat is doing a production of “The Winter’s Tale.” It’s referred to as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” Can you talk a little bit about the play and what you think of a college theater group taking it on?
A It’s a late play. When it was first printed it was printed in the group of plays called “comedies.” But it does seem different from the other comedies, so people tend to think of it as a romance, a tragicomedy, a late play. No one has a great name for it. It seems to me it’s a wonderful play to be done not only by a college group but by any group, because it’s a play so radically about theatricality, so self-conscious about its own theatricality. It seems to me it’s just a fabulous play to be done and I’m delighted it’s being done here.
Q What do you mean “radically about theatricality?”
A Many of Shakespeare’s plays are more or less familiar to us aesthetically, characters, they make speeches, they engage with each other, but somehow it’s a world that is kind of recognizable to us as a version of something like the world we inhabit. “The Winter’s Tale” is much stranger than that. There’s a 16-year gap of time, so right in the middle of the play it sort of calls attention to itself as artifice, as a kind of “meanwhile, back at the ranch.” There’s one of the most famous stage directions in Shakespeare where Antigonus is chased off stage and the stage direction is “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Just think about how would you do this theatrically. Presumably for the student production they don’t have a trained bear to play this role, so then you have an actor in a bear costume or a bear head so it calls attention to itself. It just makes visible that this is some kind of dramatic artifice. Those moments, too, are some of the great ones in the play for directors and companies to make interesting decisions. The play asks for a director or a company to think very hard about what you are doing in the very act of making art.
Q This production is said to involve punk rock. Do you have any take on adding modern elements to Shakespeare plays?
A A lot of Shakespeare scholars I think resist these kinds of anachronistic modernizations. I actually don’t. The question for me is always, does it illuminate something about the play? Shakespeare in his own time was always played cut, which modern productions do, and in a sense it was always played in some form of modern dress. So in fact, modernizing was then the way plays were performed, so this seems to me, if it’s interesting, if it’s important to what it is the director sees is interesting in the play, then why not? Sometimes it’s gimmicky, sometimes it’s willful, but there’s no reason not to do it, and often there’s a way of making something that is powerful and urgent in the play itself clear to a modern audience in a way that doing it more traditionally would obscure. I have no theoretical objection to this at all. I think it can often be very interesting.
Q Do you personally like seeing Shakespeare performed?
A I love Shakespeare that’s interesting and I love to go when it’s interesting. The problem is I think often, less so in America than in England, productions are pious, they get stuck somehow both in a kind of encrustation of the theatrical tradition. You find actors instead of thinking about what the lines are saying are thinking about how did Kenneth Branagh deliver this line, because the theatrical tradition is so rich and deep and dense. I think often English productions are sort of play of a theatrical history rather than sort of thinking about the text itself.
Q What do you think about modernizing takes of Shakespeare like the Baz Luhrmann “Romeo + Juliet”?
A I really like the Baz Luhrmann “Romeo + Juliet” and it made some things so brilliantly clear, that insistent Catholicism of that world. If you think back to that movie, the crosses are just everywhere, including tattooed on Pete Postlethwaite’s [who played Father Laurence] back. That seemed to me a really brilliant use of transforming the setting, the visuals of the play, while keeping the language. I think one of the problems of doing Shakespeare and especially doing a play like “Romeo and Juliet” is that nobody comes to it for the first time. And I think what is interesting about modernizations is when they reveal something to you about the play that might not be visible so easily anymore, so it really never bothers me.
Q And what about the teen movie adaptations like “10 Things I Hate About You”?
A The [adaptations] are different, “10 Things I Hate about You,” “O.” I actually like that. One, in those particular cases, Julia Stiles was a student of mine, she took my Shakespeare course at Columbia [University], so I always feel some ownership of those. There’s a whole, long rich history of Shakespearean adaptations that always tell you something about the Shakespearean original but also about that moment in time when the adaptation becomes necessary. The adaptations start very early, they really start in the 17th century, mostly after the Restoration, after 1660, when you found people wanting to stay in touch with Shakespeare but actually already finding him dated, often calling him “old Shakespeare.” They would adapt the play in ways that are not dissimilar from what these films have done. If nothing else, it’s made Shakespeare interesting and available to a new generation that, after watching “O,” which I quite like, go back and read “Othello,” and you find “Othello” ’s actually better.