Can we please finally agree that The Taming of the Shrew is a dead play? Please?
I probably should backtrack and start over.
Many years ago, I joined a group of aspiring playwrights who liked to attend a play together and then have a few beers afterwards to discuss what they had seen. Not sure which is more important; sometimes it seems humans invented theater as something they could do to provide an excuse to have a few beers afterward. All of the other playwrights were at least a score of years younger than yours truly, a point that will soon become important.
Once and only once during a show, the entire group left at intermission and did not return. The play in question, Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, had a fine cast and a good director with an interesting vision for the script. The script itself has held a prominent place in American theater since its Pulitzer Prize winning debut in the late 1980s. And yet we walked out at intermission.
The other playwrights, especially the women, expressed virulent disgust with the writer’s portrayal of women in the script. Those of you who have read or seen the play might feel quite surprised; the cast consists primarily of female characters and traditionally has a cast of five women and three men. I agreed that the women characters were poorly written, focusing on one particular lesbian character who was so one-dimensional that a homophobe would call Wasserstein a compadre. But I had a bigger reservation.
“Let’s face it. The Heidi Chronicles is a dead play.”
“What do you mean?” asked one young woman
“In this particular case, it’s hopelessly dated, it’s stuck in its time, it doesn’t resonate with anyone younger than me, it doesn’t resonate with any of you. I mean, nothing says ‘dated’ quite like a Laura Nyro joke.”
Everyone laughed. Then another young woman said, “Who’s Laura Nyro?”
I don’t know much about theater (even after almost thirty productions of my own plays), so I don’t know if the concept of “the dead play” or perhaps another term with the same meaning has any place in the business. But sometimes plays just don’t work anymore. Almost all of 19th Century American theater is dead, and rightly so; the plays sucked. In The Heidi Chronicles, the problem lies with most of the characters, cliches flatter than the 2 of Clubs in a deck of cards. The play does still resonate with a tiny sliver of the theater-going world; aside from my group, the audience consisted almost entirely of women in their 60s or older. I have serious doubts that anyone will want to see it in a few decades.
And yet people will still want to see Shrew.
I have read the play, a complete primer on the ever-so-splendid art of spousal abuse (please tell me you spotted the sarcasm). It’s all here, and you can check them off, one by one: physical beating, check; starvation, check; sleep deprivation, check; psychological abuse in myriad varieties, check, check and check.
And people want to produce this?!
Modern productions resort to a lot of tricks to try and redeem this garbage. Typically, they will delete scenes which make people uncomfortable, and/or portray Kate a willing participant who thinks the whole thing is a joke. I saw one production last week (a friend played Kate’s father) where they tried to excuse the whole thing as a sham, where the actors played actors playing The Taming of the Shrew as a sort of “play within the play” as part of an elaborate prank played by a rich nobleman on a homeless man.
As if adding practical jokes at the expense of the homeless makes everything better. And to do this in San Francisco?! In a theater on a block that includes among other things a homeless shelter?!
Yes, William Shakespeare was a playwright for our time and for all time; he was also a man of his time, with the prejudices and conventional beliefs of his time. It does nothing to diminish his greatness to state that sometimes he just plain sucked. The closest thing to a virtue this play retains is that it might remind viewers that in our time we have our own prejudices and conventional beliefs and how a few centuries from now they might seem quaint at best and dangerously wrong at worst (he wrote, suddenly thinking of a recent Irish vote).
The Taming of the Shrew is just a creepy (by the standards of our times) misogynist (by the standards of our times) misfire from a guy who–like us–didn’t even know that sometimes he was blind to the prejudices of the era in which he lived, prejudices that he might not have known that he had. No one can do anything to redeem the play short of changing it so drastically that it ceases to be the play that Shakespeare wrote. He wrote a play glorifying spousal abuse because he thought spousal abuse was a good idea. By the standards of his time, William Shakespeare might have been a comparatively good human being. He’s still one of the greatest writers ever.
But he’s still just as human as the rest of us.
And The Taming of the Shrew is just as much garbage as the dust in my vacuum cleaner.
Vonn Scott Bair
PS–If you do not know who Laura Nyro is, for heaven’s sake please do yourself a kindness and head on over to the iTunes store and start downloading.
PPS–The Merchant of Venice is also dead. Come on, people, stop trying to pretend that Shylock is a tragic figure, a sympathetic character. So what if he speaks eloquently on his behalf? So does Richard III. So do all of Bill’s villains.