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Re-inventing the classics

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1988. Re-inventing the classics. Canadian Forest Service, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Staff Newsletter, September-October:18–19.

There's a seemingly strange movement afoot in modern theater (actually, there are several such movements, but I have one in particular in mind): this movement is characterized by the notion, most often among otherwise intelligent and creative individuals, that the traditional works of the master playwrights must be continuously reworked and reinterpreted in light of the new society that will be watching the plays. Although I started this essay by disparaging that idea, further reflection suggests that there are both merits and demerits to the idea, as there are with most interesting notions.

An obvious merit is that even our old favorites can become boring when one becomes sufficiently familiar with them; indeed, unvarying repetition may diminish the joy one takes in the production of a beloved play. From the standpoint of the actor, repetition of the same role for an entire season (let alone a lifetime, for those unfortunate enough to become typecast) must seem tedious, for once the role is learned, there is little new challenge in repetition, and the reward of acting lies in more than just entertaining the audience; actors, like other professionals, want to challenge themselves to reach new heights and attempt new things. Similarly, directors must grow weary of a career spent repeating the same production (with the same actors?) with no hope of change. Indeed, the creativity that gives rise to the work of art must be offered a challenge if it is to improve, and staid repetition of a performance does little to nurture this creativity. Innovative reworkings of traditional pieces breathe new life into them, reinvigorate the artistic process, and ensure a theater that remains alive and continues to grow.

On the other hand, there is magic in the old words, magic that has kept Shakespeare's name (for example) a household word for centuries, despite his occasional failings as a writer. In the richest works of theater, there is always a depth that allows for slightly new interpretations, for ever-new discoveries, despite an outwardly rigid and unchanging format. Artists can strive for a long time to perfect a role, to extract the last essence of hidden or overt meaning from the same old worlds... and then, when the job is done to their satisfaction, they can move on to other roles. Directors have the joy of bringing familiar, beloved works to new audiences, leaving newer directors to explore new horizons. As well, there is a certain feeling of belonging, arguably one of the warmest of human feelings, that comes with tradition; in the case of theater, the belonging is to a great old tradition that stretches back to the dawn of the performing arts. To hear some actors talk, this belonging is almost a religious feeling in some ways.

Hence, there are both positive and negative sides to the modern revisionist movement in the performing arts: revision attracts new creators (both authors and actors) and keeps the art form young and vigorous, whereas tradition links the art with its past and preserves what has stood the test of time. It strikes me as odd, however, that neither the traditionalists nor the revisionists recognize the truths inherent in the other side's opinion. For my own part, I tend to prefer the traditional interpretations, as many of the modern revisionists seem to revise solely for the sake of being different. Shakespeare's Hamlet need not, it is true, be set in the Denmark of yore to be a fascinating study of the character Hamlet—but why set the play in Sault Ste. Marie simply because of a perception that the Denmark of Hamlet's time would be irrelevant and thus uninteresting to a modern audience? The view of revisionists often assumes that human beings have changed so much in the few centuries since Hamlet was written that the modern theatergoer can no longer recognize any similarities between himself and the characters in the play. I, for one, don't believe this for a moment; a large part of the pleasure I get from reading old books, including plays, is the recognition that the characters share many of the traits that make me what I am. In many characters from older literature, I see reflections of my own self, and I suspect that this is one of the things that causes great literature to be preserved across the centuries.

Although I sympathize more with the traditionalist than with the revisionist, this is by no means a cut and dried preference. The problem I've found with traditional interpretations of old works of art is that they can be either "an innovative use of archetypes" or "a lame use of clichés", depending on whether or not one enjoyed the particular piece of art. Those who frown on tradition ignore an important facet of human nature: that what is old and stale to someone who has seen it a hundred times before will inevitably be new and exciting to a younger generation experiencing it for the first time. For this reason, I feel disappointed by those who write about our future (e.g., certain science fiction authors) and base their writing upon changes in certain traditions: a typical motif is one in which mankind evolves to the point where family life is no longer deemed exciting enough to hold the interest of individuals and, as a result, society begins to die off. To me, after a thousand generations of Harts (and miscellaneous other ancestors) have raised families happily and well, this sort of speculation strikes me as meaningless: the adventure of love and of starting a family is as exciting to me today as it no doubt was to my earliest ancestors.

In the same way, certain traditions, though not exempt from updating now and then, are an integral part of what makes us human. The classics, when the magic of the human experience that they capture is properly conveyed, are good examples of this. Let us praise tradition, but only so long as we don't let this praise stifle our need to create something new when appropriate!

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