As with most things, I didn’t think about the end of this article at the beginning. Blame my childhood, when my parents were constantly asking me what my plan was.
Okay, I did have a plan: to see all of the events in Shakespeare 400, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s celebration of the death of the Bard: lectures, food events, plays, movies, concerts, dance performances, symphonic events.
Failure was baked into the plan. Some things I missed because I wasn’t in town or there were scheduling conflicts. Some things were only one night and I had to decide what was more important. Some things I skipped because I didn’t think that they were going to amplify the themes of what I was interested in (like two performances of music from Shakespeare’s time). Some things I listened to (or watched) in the privacy of my own home, like the Newberry’s lecture series with Peter Holland and James Shapiro. Or Peter Brook’s 1971 Lear.
How much Shakespeare was S400 offering? The official number on many of the press releases—“863 events”—was a little misleading. Some things—like “Puck: The Beer” or the Chicago Public Library’s offer of checking out books from their branches “all year long”—hardly qualified as events. And the number 863 counted every night of every show as opposed to each distinct production. But I don’t want to dismiss the ambition or scope of this festival, which as far as I can tell outpaced every other one on the planet. I saw far more Shakespeare than I had ever seen in one year in many more genres and more forms. After a while I gave up on the extracurriculars and focused on the theatre offerings. This article is a memoir of my experiences.
I am not a Bardolator. When I was in college, it was hard for me to pay attention to “Shakespeare” with the scholar David Bevington. It made me uneasy. I suspected (although we didn’t really talk this way then) that it was a course for old white people. Now I am that person. What is Shakespeare to me? And what constitutes “good” Shakespeare? I felt deprived of knowing. Many of my students at DePaul (undergraduates in a theatre training conservatory) resist Shakespeare, even sort of hate him, the way you reflexively hate anything you’re informed is good for you. I’ve been teaching Romeo and Juliet for maybe 20 years, championing the play, and every year the students complain about it.
So I went into S400 tired of my having the same relationship with the same Shakespearean plays, saying the same things about them, defending them the way, I imagine, old married people tire of their spouses.
I had relationships with a few other plays, mostly the tragedies, but most of the plays I could not get beyond vague dislike. I didn’t like the histories or problem plays. “You can’t love every one” had been my defense, as if I was defending my romantic choices. Maybe this was my last chance to love some new Shakespeare plays. I was thinking: Is it too late? Could I learn to like some of the plays I’ve never liked? Maybe I just had never seen good productions. I was looking to be surprised.
In the months leading up to S400, adapting Shakespeare was more in the news. Hogarth Press was publishing a series in which writers novelize Shakespeare’s plays. Oregon Shakespeare Festival had commissioned “translations” of Shakespeare by modern playwrights, and there had been a lot of discussion about whether that was sacred or profane.
Browsing through the Shakespeare 400 brochure made me think of the city’s epic snowfalls: How to climb your way out?
Chicago is the only city I know of where a major Shakespeare theatre is in the middle of what is essentially a county fair stranded on a peninsula. To get to Chicago Shakespeare you have to work. You first have to either drive to Navy Pier or take the bus there, which is not all that convenient. In all the times I waited for the free trolley that goes east from Michigan on Grand Avenue (seasonally), it only came once. The bus takes about 20 minutes from Michigan.
If you’re under 18, a sign at the Pier’s front entrance warns that you must have a legal guardian to enter—a rule made presumably due to Chicago’s prominent gang presence. Inside, you are assaulted by tacky merchandise, bonsai plants, “Chicago” T-shirts and caps. The majority of restaurants are of fried-food/deep-dish-pizza/margarita sort. There is a Starbucks. After you’ve walked for 10 minutes, you get to the sort of hallway you might find in a regional airport where one or two slightly hipper restaurants have recently opened. Then you go up a flight of dowdily carpeted stairs—and there at last is a major Shakespeare theatre.
Actually, two: a 500-set thrust and a 200-set black box upstairs. The ladies room on that floor has a spectacular view of the Chicago skyline and five stalls.
“This will allow us to tap our strength as a city,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel told The Chicago Tribune on Nov. 15, 2015, “utilizing all of our broad-based cultural institutions working across fields, which is how Shakespeare worked himself.”
A few weeks later, it was announced that Navy Pier renovations scheduled to be completed in time for the launch of Shakespeare 400 would now be done for fall 2016, at the end of the festival. So maybe the institutions were “utilizing” Shakespeare, as opposed to the other way around.
At around the same time, video footage of a cop shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times went viral. When violence in Chicago surges, I find it difficult to believe that our city has “strength” no matter how great the offerings on stage.
CST is one of the most successful theatres in Chicago. No other theatre has staged so much or brought so many productions of Shakespeare plays to Chicago. In 2008 it won the Regional Tony Award.
My experiences at S400 were tempered by my knowledge of Barbara Gaines, CST’s founder and artistic director, who is around 70. Gaines’s idea of Shakespeare and what it should be is grounded in the American idea that Shakespeare is for everyone. “There is no gap between Shakespeare and who you are,” she told The Chicago Tribune in 1988.
Although Gaines is among the few female directors of a major American theatre, she does not seem interested in women’s issues; I have only read her talking about sexism to say she has never experienced it. And I have seen condescending headlines like “married to the Bard” (from a 2012 Chicago Sun Times profile). No newspaper would ever use that phrase to refer to Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater and the New York Shakespeare Festival.
Gaines’s story is a not atypical American one. She grew up in Port Chester, N.Y., where her father was a commercial TV director. She graduated from Northwestern in 1968. In 1980, after working as an actor in New York, she returned to Chicago. In 1982, she founded a Shakespeare workshop. (Three decades earlier Tyrone Guthrie had tried to start a Shakespeare theatre in Chicago but, having been told to get lost, headed north and started the Stratford Festival in Ontario.) A Chicago Tribune from the time said that Gaines “vows to present Shakespeare as you like it,” as if the greatest playwright who ever lived could be bought like a relish-swathed hot dog.
Gaines gained a reputation for taking on the unpopular plays, problem plays. Early on she displayed her affinity for the Henriad, which she saw as her duty to stage in the macho way that Susan Sontag once saw it as her responsibility to stage Beckett. “I didn’t think this city needed another production of Twelfth Night,” she said in 1985. Productions of Henry V, Troilus and Cressida, and Cymbeline were successful. She moved to Navy Pier in 1999 and christened the company Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Over the years, she has done fewer interviews than many heads of major theatres. I don’t know whether this is because Chicago media is not interested in personality journalism about artists or because she does not want to talk about her work. She has said that she never thinks about the past. In the interviews she has done, the meatiest of which marked the CST 25th anniversary, she comes across as an enthusiast.
She is obviously thinking about her legacy. She was granted an OBE, and CST was the only American theatre that went to the Cultural Olympiad, the artistic celebration before the 2012 Olympic Games in London. But Gaines, like many women artists at her level, is more known for luring acclaimed auteurs, like Joe Dowling and Peter Brook, to Chicago than for being one herself. “Delivered a reputation for sound productions” is the faint praise she received in 1991 in a scholarly journal. It may be a measure of her being quarantined in Chicago, or that she herself is not a writer, or that intellectuals sometimes take the theatre less seriously than other genres. In any case there there are few evaluations of her as figure, or of her work as an oeuvre.
I was willing at the beginning to give Shakespeare 400 the benefit of the doubt. By this I mean: I wouldn’t blame the festival for my prejudices. Take Measure for Measure, the first thing I saw. I could not fault the coproduction by the fantastic British company Cheek by Jowl and Russia’s Pushkin Theater for not being able to overcome Isabella’s silence at the end, when it is announced that she will marry the Duke; she just stands there as the Duke, who has abused her, announces he will have her.
No staging could soften that moment, which I find more unsettling than the one at the end of Lear in which the king is holding Cordelia’s dead body. At least Lear shows regret. The Duke does not. It also bothers me that there seems to be more of a critical conversation about how The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic and therefore should not be produced than about how Measure for Measure is misogynist (and therefore shouldn’t be produced). Or, to be more precise, Measure for Measure shows a world where misogyny rules. I don’t think any director should avoid Measure. I just think that starting with this show felt a little like starting a game of Monopoly in jail.
I’m always trying to figure out my relationship with the theatre. There are few things I find as lonely as showing up there. It is hard to find dates. Shakespeare is the worst. I had to beg. No one wants to go except theatre people and professors. Who are already there.
The second thing I saw was the Belarus Free Theater’s production of Lear, which had already toured internationally, but not to Chicago. I still see images from this production in my mind: the scene where Edgar is alone on the moors and smears himself with shit, which my students informed me was peanut butter. (They could smell it.) The nationalistic-sounding chanting. The blue tarp representing the sea. The simplicity of the whole endeavor. Where I often find it irritating to not hear the language (or at least follow it with supertitles), here I didn’t care. I could just watch the old man who destroys himself, his kingdom, and his family. It was extremely satisfying.
Given that lots of great artists have wanted to kill Shakespeare, hanging over any production of any play is the question of who it is for. Shakespeare 400 dealt with this question by announcing its accessibility. The program was filled with artists “speed reading,” “remixing,” “being on the edge,” “breaking the border.”
A number of S400 shows hinged on audience participation or parody. These spectacles were all performed by men. Take Tim Etchells’s Table Top Shakespeare, performed over the course of several evenings at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Etchells boiled down plays into short chunks, enacts them at a table with condiments, ordinary household objects as characters. Sometimes this was funny. It was also one-note—Blue Man Group sitting down. Its main revelation seemed to be that the plots are banal. Well, sure, the plots are ripped off from other sources. I’m just not sure I want to see several evenings of ketchup Shakespeare.
Another conclusion you could draw from S400 is that the Brits are better at Shakespeare than the Americans. Americans are too caught up in identity and in who Shakespeare is supposed to be for. The Brits assume it’s for you, whoever you are. The Americans have to make a case for it. The Brits are more inventive. The Americans are always insisting on educating you.
There were several instances where, deprived of one element of Shakespeare’s theatre—plot, characters, language—I was enormously moved. The most memorable of these were the gorgeous offerings at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet, and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest, Opus 18. My favorite was the wild, sexy, romantic Tempest.
Yet it was fascinating to learn that even some of the supposedly great 19th-century adaptations could expose the lesser quality of the adapter: Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet subtracted the great language from the play and added mediocre music. A fight scene with 100 people onstage did not compensate for Gounod turning the tragedy into a soap opera with music, or the production costuming Juliet in a puffy pink dress straight out of the Disney princess playbook.
One virtue of Shakespeare 400 was also its Achilles heel: being able to see plays multiple times in multiple forms led to a multiplication of both attraction and repulsion. Even as I was turned off by S400’s utilitarian approach to quality, the groupings could sometimes lead to revelation. Catch My Soul, a rock musical film based on Othello from 1974, starring Richie Havens, was oddball enough to forgive. In the film, directed by Patrick McGoohan, Othello is a Christian rocker and Iago is the devil; the action takes place in the New Mexico desert. There are a lot of cool hippie scenes. The revelation: that talented, powerful people can fail to make the classic play work.
Meanwhile, British director Jonathan Munby’s staging of Othello revealed the play in its fury and splendor. (Munby was also responsible for the fantastic Merchant of Venice that toured to Lincoln Center and then S400). I loved this Othello not because it was set in the present, in some indeterminate African country, or because there were soldiers onstage, but because the acting and the story were alive. Because the play dramatized how Othello’s very humanity leads him to do the wrong thing, trust the wrong people. Unlike Richard III, Othello is not a sociopath. And also unlike Richard III, the play is a perfect train wreck. It has the same forward motion as Romeo and Juliet or Lear.
It was also worth watching because it is about race and we’re in Chicago. And because in Munby’s Othello, Emilia, Iago’s wife, was a human being, even a feminist, not a cardboard dupe.
On Mar. 2, 2016, two months after the festival started, more Navy Pier expansions were announced. There would be a new hotel, new taller Ferris wheel, new restaurants. The target opening would be in April or May. The showpiece of Chicago Shakespeare theatre’s $35 million renovations would be the Skyline stage, a circus tent redesigned into an amazing performing arts center called the Yard, a combo rock arena and theatre that would move from 150 sets to 850. The phrase that the press releases kept using to describe the moving towers of seats is “as large as a city bus.”
The Gift Theatre’s Richard III, performed at the Steppenwolf Garage, pitted the inspirational story of an actor against the repulsive titular character of the play. The Chicago actor Michael Patrick Thornton, who is in a wheelchair, played Richard in a wheelchair. At a key moment in the play, Richard stood up and walked, using a “ReWalk™, robotic exoskeleton” manufactured by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, the production’s lead sponsor. He was assisted by professionals.
I find Richard III as tough to watch as Measure for Measure but for different reasons. Richard is unsympathetic. The play has too many characters, too much bloodshed, too many plot twists. It’s like being at a long dull dinner party where all people want to talk about is violence.
But in this production, I found the ReWalk™ distracting. I focused more on Thornton’s story than on Richard. “Disability gets consigned to the inspirational triumph story where a saint-like patient quietly bears the load and teaches us all how to appreciate what we have,” Thornton said in an interview, “That is not Richard III.”
Okay—except that Thornton ignored the possibility that his recovery, saint-like or demonic, would overshadow the role of Richard III. Just watching Thornton is its own inspirational story. The result is that it was difficult to think about the acting, and easy to think about what strange times we live in, when this kind of verisimilitude is in vogue.
Seeing a lot of Shakespeare, the biggest impression is that it is stupid to trust anyone around you. Especially those you’re intimate with.
I missed the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel’s talk, “What Are We Worth” (I had seen his program, Harvard University’s “Justice with Michel Sandel,” where he discussed Shakespeare). He had delivered versions of “What Are We Worth” many times, at the Aspen Institute and at the Public Theater; the talk can be viewed online. In it, the engaging Sandel discusses how to measure human life in non-instrumental terms, an issue Shakespeare deals with many times in many places. One issue he takes up is that we should try to measure pleasure in non-monetary terms. I wonder how Sandel would respond to the question of Shakespeare 400’s approach to this question, where the richness of the programming often felt like a kind of poverty.
I also tried to imagine what Michael Sandel would say about the the Culinary Complete Works, a festival of Shakespeare-inspired dishes prepared by 38 various chefs at various restaurants across the city. This part of Shakespeare 400 lasted all year. In theory I loved the idea. I mean, I love “Chef’s Table.” In practice it infuriated me. Who was this supposed to be for? What was the relationship between the dishes and the plays, really? Did anyone who loved Shakespeare eat any of these dishes? Did any critics evaluate them on the basis of how well the chefs understood the playwright?
I know. I sound cantankerous. What of it? The copy in the program seemed like the perfect example of how a good idea can veer wildly out of control. Under the heading “Othello: The Cuisine,” we read, “Chef Manion tackles Shakespeare’s iconic tragedy by paying homage to the Cypriot influence on Brazilian culture and reflecting on the violent impact of Othello’s blind jealousy, which leads to disastrous consequences. Experience the all-consuming passion of love and jealousy with a dish of Grilled Chicken Hearts served with kale tabbouleh, feta, and smoked eggplant puree.”
I’m not opposed to arts organizations profiting from Shakespeare by selling books, mugs, and the like. But this somehow crossed a line. Maybe because it was impossible for me, an ordinary human being, to evaluate the food–would I somehow be able to tell whether the chef took a college-level course in Shakespeare? Maybe I went too far when I asked CST if the chefs might comp me for all the meals so I could write about them. Their solution: to send me to a Youtube video of Alpana Singh explaining the whole thing.
“Binge-watching” the Bard is how Gaines described her two six-hour segment mashup of the history plays, “Tug of War.” Gaines’s first installment is “civil strife”: Edward III, Henry V, Henry IV. Part two is “foreign fire”: Henry VI, Parts Two and Three, and Richard III. I’m not opposed to this; I liked Wolf Hall. But here was an instance where if I had been binge watching I would have changed the channel. I didn’t make it to the end in either instance.
Gaines is an expert in these war plays. She has been interested in them for more than 30 years. She first staged Henry V on the roof of a bar in 1985. Perhaps that’s why she chose this as her institution’s major contribution instead of Hamlet or even Cymbeline. Still, though “Tug of War” was the festival centerpiece, for all its length it seemed thin, like those Netflix series that spin out on irrelevant plots and characters. It did not help that Gaines seemed to think we were in the Allstate Arena. Here (again) were covers of Richie Havens, Pink Floyd (yikes), Leonard Cohen, Nina Simone.
I have to take some responsibility here. I find it hard to be interested in battle scenes or in political jockeying. Reading the critics’ reviews of these shows, especially Garry Wills in the NYRB, made me feel like some essential part of my brain was missing. I certainly saw good cameos by actors, like Karen Aldridge.
Because I went to so many press previews, I often saw the Chicago theatre critics: Chris Jones, Hedy Weiss, Tony Adler. Reading their reviews often made me feel like I was on a different planet. But that’s hardly surprising. Once you know anything about what is being reviewed, you become aware, not that the reviewer’s opinion is arbitrary, but of how many other things are affecting the reviews, including the pressures of daily journalism, especially now. Still, I would have liked fewer reviews that boiled down to: Gee whiz, what a cornucopia of Shakespeare! And more longer reviews of the more obscure pieces.
Few critics confront theatre artists the way they do visual artists. I’m not sure whether this is because theatre is understood as a collaborative art, and so it’s unclear who to confront, or because there is not the money in theatre that there is in visual art, and so confronting is understood as not being worth the time.
I was influenced by a 2012 piece I read by the Tribune critic Chris Jones, one of the few writers to do more than assess Gaines’s work with thumbs up or down. Reading Jones is like reading your mother, alternately scolding and praising. He sums up the last 25 years of CST, pointing out the perception of Gaines as a populist, not an auteur. He mentions a disastrous Taming of the Shrew with a prologue by Neil LaBute. But he ultimately celebrates the populism CST embodies: “The rough and tumble of the pier, a kind of concrete boardwalk empire, alleviates the charges of elitism.” But why do we have to address those charges in the first place?
Another kind of confrontation takes place in Women Direct Shakespeare in America: Productions From the 1990s, a 2004 book by theatre scholar Nancy Taylor. In it Gaines says that Shakespeare is a humanist, which Taylor labels a 1970s-style evasion. Gaines denies that Shrew is misogynist; maybe she means that it shows misogyny as opposed to endorsing it. Taylor writes that Gaines disdains critics. She quotes her as saying: “Many scholars don’t understand anything about the theatre.”
All the time I was going to Shakespeare, I was also working on a book about Betty Friedan, and one of the things I thought a lot about was Shakespeare’s women. The plays I didn’t like often had female characters who lacked agency or ended up obliterated. Or the director had not figured out a way to be in dialogue with our era. It was not the first time I thought about this but usually I tried to minimize it. Now seeing the plays all together, it was difficult to avoid my discomfort.
On Memorial Day, The New York Times published “A Weekend in Chicago,” tallying “3 days, 64 people shot, 6 of them dead.” I don’t normally like this sort of reported piece, because it repeats the same story that has been repeated at least since Alec Kotlowitz’s 1992 book There Are No Children Here—that of the irrevocable violence of the city. But the story made watching fake bloodshed onstage difficult to concentrate on. “The year, so far, has been steeped in blood,” wrote the Times. “Shootings — 1,177 as of the Friday morning before Memorial Day — are up by 50 percent for the year. Two hundred and thirty-three people are dead.”
Gaines must have changed her mind about whether the city needed another Twelfth Night. S400 staged it frequently. There was Twelfth Night rock & roll, Twelfth Night in the Park, pocket Twelfth Night. But I never saw the equivalent of Munby’s Othello to make sense of Viola, Illyria, the shipwreck, the gender-bending. The production I remember best, performed by teens and kids with Down syndrome, the Shakespeare 400 program advertised as “breaking limits and expectations.”
It did so for the parents, who packed the audience and cheered on their kids. Maybe it did so for the kids, who had the support of actor-coaches without Down syndrome standing onstage next to them, feeding them dropped lines. But the production made me think of how, decades earlier, Grotowski had shifted the point of theatre from transforming the audience to transforming the performer. It got a standing ovation.
As the most direct of arts, theatre is often burdened with a responsibility to address injustice directly. At the same time, there is little record of it for the ages. We can’t go to the museum and see a production from 1616 on the wall.
Over the summer, I was in New York, where I went to an opening for An Art That Nature Makes, a documentary made by two friends of mine, Alan Edelstein and Molly Bernstein, about the artist Rosamund Purcell. On the wall were some paintings Purcell had done inspired by Shakespeare, in a collaboration with the director of Folger Theatre in Washington. They were strange, abstract works that approached stage directions like “Exit, Pursued by a Bear” refracted through glass orbs. I found them endearing, mysterious, and more evocative than a lot of the theatre I was seeing. The main difference was that they did not try to represent the plays; they tried to evoke them. It reminded me of how limiting theatre can be.
The fall seemed crammed with global adaptations. In theory I like the idea of watching different performance traditions do Shakespeare. So I should have liked Twelfth Night in Hindi, performed by the Company Theatre Mumbai. In the lobby before the show, I struck up a conversation with an older woman in a sari who informed me that this was “peasant theatre,” the kind one would see in rural India.
I dragged my students to the Newberry Library for “Creating Shakespeare,” a free exhibit with first folios, gorgeous artists’ books devoted to the plays, some “bad” quartos, costumes that Edwin Booth wore in 19th-century productions, annotated books with Shakespeare gossip in them, and other cool stuff from many different collections all over the globe. There was something spooky about this exhibit—that you could look at items that were so close to the man about whom we know so little.
Enamorarse de un inciendo, a collaboration between a Mexican theatre company and Chilean playwright Eduardo Pave Gomez, supposedly based on Romeo and Juliet, did not include supertitles, so the most I could figure out was that it was a loosely grouped of stories about love in a realistic idiom. (But really, I could not figure it out.)
The last thing I saw was a site-specific work called Undreamed Shores, inspired, according to the program, by Shakespeare’s “lifelong fascination with water,” whatever that means. It was an alternate tour of Navy Pier.
Site-specific works often seem pitched at millennials. They celebrate technology and ruthless individualism, and fetishize the service economy. They’re also often discussed like yoga, as if they’re good for you.
But I found Undreamed Shores unexpectedly moving. I was the last person to take the tour that day. It was a beautiful evening, though a little chilly. The sun was setting over the pier. The headphone handoff was stage-managed like a scene from a John Le Carré novel. I was to advised to possibly bring a raincoat, asked if I was right-handed or left-handed, and told to meet someone in front of the “P” statue in front of the pier. When I got there my handler handed me headphones and an iPhone and gave me instructions on how to use them.
Walking through Navy Pier on this treasure hunt, hooked up to headphones and iPhone, made me feel like I had a secret. One hitch: I’m a fast walker, so I caught up with the guy in front of me. Another problem was that the tour was repetitive. Still, the podcast audio led me to a Navy Pier that I had never been to: the tiny stained glass museum, for instance, which I believe was closed to the public in 2014. It’s a chapel with beautiful windows of wheat fields and irises.
The most memorable moment came when the podcast instructed me to lie down and look up at the Ferris wheel while the speaker read some lines. Emptiness and sadness. I finished the tour on the easternmost edge of Navy Pier overlooking the lake. It was dark.
If the Memorial Day New York Times story distracted me from the theatre, the election deepened my fugue state. When real anti-heroes are busy destroying our country, it’s hard to go to the theatre to see Shakespearean anti-heroes destroying their fictional polities. My students asked me what I was going to do. I knew what they meant but I didn’t have anything sustaining to tell them. My answer was more personal, more interior: to try to keep going to S400, to stay open to being internally transformed.
The PR office sent me a press release with numbers: more than a million people, 863 events, an “estimated” 29,000 people who ate the Shakespeare meals.
Year’s end brought another number; 700 homicides in Chicago in 2016.
As 2016 ended, I had to admit I was relieved that S400 was over. It was hard to find room for it. The festival forced me to acknowledge what I was looking for: either an old-fashioned theatrical experience, the kind where you are swept away in the story, or a postmodern one, one that did not confine its storytelling to the traditional container of a play. It did not make me appreciate the plays I don’t like. I found many different Shakespeares, and that was occasionally liberating. Mostly, the theatregoing itself was non-extraordinary, pieces of different things put together. Many times I felt that I was not the intended audience.
In other words, S400 was a lot like life.
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