An “Original” Postscript

I concluded my recent post about expanding our conception of artistic originality by quoting, gulp, Kanye West.

What timing!

Now that he’s torpedoed all his credibility in the eyes of many thanks to a weeklong Twitter tirade, perhaps relying on a more…consistent source would better back up my arguments.

Coincidentally enough, I found such a source in the program for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest take on King Lear, which New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music imported across the Atlantic. Here’s an excerpt from an introduction written by famed Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro (who, equally coincidentally, was a professor of mine back in my Columbia days):

In the summer of 1605 an old and anonymous Elizabethan play, The True Chronicle History of King Leir, was belatedly printed. It told the story of a British king and his three daughters and ended happily, with the old king restored to his throne and reconciled with his youngest daughter, Cordelia. Not long after copies appeared in London’s bookstalls, Shakespeare almost surely acquired one: his version of the story borrows so extensively from the old play that his indebtedness couldn’t have come solely from his recollection of seeing it staged, or even from possibly having acted in it years earlier. The profusion of echoes confirms that reading the recently printed edition proved to be a catalyst for the play now forming in his mind.

King Leir’s survival allows us a glimpse of Shakespeare as literary architect—performing a gut renovation of the old original, preserving the frame, salvaging bits and pieces of its language, and transposing outmoded features in innovative ways (including, for the first and only time in one of his tragedies, introducing a subplot, concerning Gloucester and his two sons, which he lifted from Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia). Three years in the reign of the new monarch, James I, Shakespeare had managed to turn an old Elizabethan tragicomedy into a play that spoke to his own increasingly fraught Jacobean times.”

If THE playwright of all time — he’s called THE Bard (AKA THE poet) for a reason — heavily borrows from his forebears, then perhaps we need to stop clinging to originality so much. Too many people claim there’s nothing new in art, but if the texts we consider foundational also weren’t that new, then perhaps today is not that different from past eras.

I recently came up against this problem in trying to classify Simon Stone’s Yerma, which the Park Avenue Armory — further confirming its place in New York’s theatrical pantheon as the city’s single coolest venue — brought over from London’s Young Vic (with a West End stop in between). It’s LOOOOOOOSELY based on Federico García Lorca’s 1934 play of the same name, but labeling it a revival — as the Olivier Awards (and many other voting bodies) did when they rewarded it the Best Revival trophy — seems like the sort of approach that would lead the “original” scores of the previously mentioned ms. estrada and All These Sleepless Nights to be disqualified from the same awards.

Anyone unfamiliar with the source material before seeing this intensely-modern version would be shocked to learn it wasn’t written today. Yes, the play does borrow the general story structure and explores a lot of the same themes, but is that so different than King Lear and King Leir. In fact, Shapiro’s description of their relationship equally applies to the Yermas: “a gut renovation of the old original, preserving the frame, salvaging bits and pieces of its language, and transposing outmoded features in innovative ways.”

If Shakespeare wrote King Lear today and similarly poached from existing work, perhaps we’d call it a revival as well; our access to historical texts far exceeds what was available to Elizabethans. But that feels like too limited of an understanding of artistic agency. Crediting the past more than the present is an implicit disservice to contemporary artists. Inventive revivals are of course praised and lauded, but often the adaptors are viewed as lesser than their progenitors, perpetuating false notions that yesterday was always better than today (Make Theatre Great Again, right?!).

Those inclined to avoid such rosy retrospections understands that everyone borrows from everything that came before, whether intentionally or unwittingly. That’s life. Knowing history is obviously imperative, but prioritizing that history over the now shortchanges the vital contributions made by every generation.

Simon Stone’s Yerma‘s decision to credit its source material with the billing “After Lorca” lucidly describes this phenomenon. His play could not appear in its current form without Lorca’s original, but in no way in this version “by Lorca” or “translated from Lorca,” because the two plays share very little surface similarities. As such, this new play simply came after Lorca and was inspired by his writing, thus: “After Lorca.”

These sorts of Lear/Leir/Yerma situations aren’t even that rare. Just this season, Bedlam — a company known for radical shakeups of classic texts — set their bludgeoning sights on Peter Pan. And last season, Andrew Upton’s The Present retranslated, significantly altered, and retitled Anton Chekhov’s Platanov.

There’s no specific rule that can be applied to all of these examples; they’re all indeed situational. But when assessing whether a work belongs more to the past than present, we should veer more towards the latter. Let’s stop obsessing about the best NEW thing, because chances are, the best next thing won’t be that new at all, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

If you disagree, take it up with the Bard!

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