in the Park
07 Aug, 2009
This was going to be a very intelligent article. After using this space previously to gush about summer blockbusters and iPhones, I meant for this month’s subject matter to be smarter – or, at least, headier.
I fully intended to go for that most of academic of topics, the kind of thing you would have to read in one browser tab with Wikipedia open in another. Nothing less than the plays of the Bard himself – and, specifically, his comedy Twelfth Night – as recently and majestically performed by The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park in Manhattan’s Central Park was, you must know, my starting point.
Except, it’s Monday night and Monday night is (for those of you who still pay for cable) the night that the SciFi Channel airs four hours of back-to-back episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
So I have Star Trek on the brain, and yet I do very much want to share thoughts on this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park. And, if you’ll bear with me, I think we will find more connections between the works of Gene Roddenberry and those of Shakespeare than just the actor Patrick Stewart.
I assert that the plays of Shakespeare are heady and academic with my tongue in my cheek. The way Shakespeare is taught in high schools – and in some cases, colleges – is a misreading of what the man’s purpose was, what he meant for his plays to do. In this way, and without too much uncomfortable stretching, we come to our first similarity between Shakespeare’s plays and the continuing mission that is Star Trek: they are dramas performed in distinct acts, and they have it as their purpose to entertain, enlighten, and engage their audience.
It’s just as difficult to summarize the plot of Twelfth Night as it is to attempt to explain how time travel works in the Star Trek universe. I will say that Twelfth Night involves not one but two cases of mistaken identity, cross-dressing, possible homosexual relationships, and one of the greatest and least understood phrases Shakespeare ever wrote, at least contextually:
Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.
As it turns out, in the context of Twelfth Night these words are not spoken by way of motivation, as they often are used in our culture; rather, they are part of a ruse, a plot to embarrass a character that neither the audience nor the other characters much like. And, in the hands of the excellent cast of The Public’s presentation, this line actually carried with it the appropriate measure of innuendo as well. In short, even this most inspiring of moments, this most serious and heavy charge is, in context, a joke, a bit of entertainment.
Another very important similarity: both works are heavily influenced by their predecessors. At one time among so-called Shakespeare scholars it was very popular to actually try to debunk the Bard. People saw obvious similarities between Shakespeare’s plays and a number of sources that came before him (or, in the case of Christopher Marlowe, works written contemporaneously) and drew conclusions, painting Shakespeare in many shades of crook from plagiarizer to front man to myth.
These days (read: postmodernity) most accept that every story is a re-telling of some story that came before it, or, as my mother and King Solomon like to say, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” And this is fine with us. It is expected. We don’t and shouldn’t tolerate plagiarism, but we also do not fly off the handle every time something seems like something else.
For a more recent example, see the almost-conspiracy around that other widely read British author, J.K. Rowling. At the height of her fame (is she still at the height? will she ever come down?) many people accused her of lifting her tale from Adrian Jacobs’ The Adventures of Willy the Wizard. This is still being worked out in the courts, but barring some major shift, in perpetuity no one will care much that there once was a story about a wizard named Willy that bears many similarities to the more famous Harry.
Star Trek, too, is packed with other people’s stories, be it highly inventive retellings of Greek classics, verbatim performances of Sherlock Holmes and even, it turns out, many examples of Shakespeare’s plays being appropriated and adapted to the twenty-fourth century.
Shakespeare’s plays can be crude and funny, sad and moving, mystical and romantic, and any combination of these things. Mostly, though, they do what the best stories do. Elizabethan English makes them seem untouchably highbrow, but even this would have been funny to Shakespeare because much of his language, to his contemporaries, would have seemed base and coarse, as it suited the characters.
Imagine what the English language will sound like 400 years into the future; imagine how the works of Gene Roddenberry will sound to readers then. Will they be any more “highbrow” because they’re old? Certainly not.
Admittedly, Star Trek probably won’t be read or performed like Shakespeare’s plays are today. I don’t see there ever being a “Roddenberry in the Park.” Shakespeare is certainly on a higher level, but let’s not put him too high up on the pedestal.
Twelfth Night in Central Park ended its run on July 12, back here in the 21st century. It was truly fantastic, with an amazing cast that featured Anne Hathaway opposite several well-regarded Broadway actors. If you missed it, take heart: Shakespeare in the Park will be back next summer with Othello, and in the meantime The Public Theater’s next production, The Bacchae by Euripides, begins August 11.
And Star Trek: The Next Generation is on the SciFi network every Monday night. Make time for both, make time for it all: the plays of Shakespeare, the space operas of Gene Roddenberry, the blue notes of Miles Davis, and the crooning of Duncan Sheik. Find entertainment, enlightenment, and engaging stories wherever you can; really, they’re all around us.