Shakespeare as Springboard

“Shakespeare lied.
When Juliet died,
Romeo didn’t take poison just because he’d lost his bride.
What did he do?
He got over it.
He went back to junior high, and he got over it.
And so will you.
You’ll get over it.”

A lyric by Carolyn Leigh from the musical How Now Dow Jones (with music by Elmer Bernstein) suggesting a different ending to Romeo and Juliet. Others have had a similar idea. On Broadway now we have & Juliet and last season, off-Broadway, we had Romeo and Bernadette. The former starts with Juliet surviving and moving to Paris (the town, not the character), the latter started with Romeo surviving and somehow being transported to contemporary Brooklyn and the world of comic gangsters. My friend Deborah Zoe Laufer tells me that Juliet is a character in a play she’s working on, too.

Of course, there are other pieces that reference Romeo and Juliet. I didn’t see it, but I know that R&J (adapted and directed by Joe Calarco) was a substantial hit off-Broadway. Robert Simonson described it in Playbill: “The show, which features only four male actors, imagines a quartet of students at a strict Catholic Boys’ School who act out the forbidden text of Shakespeare’s tragedy in secret. The lines between reality and illusion begin to blur as the Bard’s story begins to resemble the repressive atmosphere of the school.” Sounds good. And then there was something called West Side Story. And then there was Peter Ustinov’s Cold War comedy, Romanoff and Juliet. And I hear word of the story being told from the perspective of Romeo’s ex in Rosaline, a film available for streaming.

Oh, we do love to mess around with Shakespeare. I haven’t made a formal survey of it, but it strikes me that most of his plays have been the springboards either for new works or for adaptations so radical as to come close to being viewed as new works.

For example, A.R. Gurney wrote a sequel to The Merchant of Venice called Overtime which suggested that Shylock and Portia had more in common than they did with the mostly dismaying Venetians. Arnold Wesker had his go at the same work with a play known either as The Merchant or Shylock; Zero Mostel died when he was out-of-town with it (Joseph Leon replaced him and the play closed after three days on Broadway). Tom Stoppard established his reputation by bringing supporting characters from Hamlet front and center in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Next season, Fat Ham, James Ijames’s Pulitzer Prize-winning gay/black riff on Hamlet, will transfer to Broadway. There have been several musical versions of Twelfth Night (two of them–Your Own Thing and Love and Let Love–played off-Broadway in the same season, and Marcia Rodd was in both of them). And let’s not forget Taylor Mac’s Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, in which Nathan Lane played a character assigned to clean up the mountain of dead bodies left in the wake of Titus. I could go on and on.

And then there’s the impulse to speculate about Shakespeare himself.

I once had a conversation with playwright Moira Buffini about her play Handbagged in which she wrote about what she imagined was going on behind the scenes between Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher. I noted how many others had written about Elizabeth–including Peter Morgan and Alan Bennett. We arrived at the idea that Elizabeth, by being both known to all as a figure and unknown to almost everyone as a person, had become a screen onto which Moira, Morgan, Bennett and others could project their own concerns.

I would make the case of the same for Shakespeare. Before my wife and I went to & Juliet, on BritBox we watched an episode of Upstart Crow, Ben Elton’s very broad and very funny BBC sitcom about Shakespeare featuring a dyspeptic David Mitchell constantly at odds with family and colleagues. Shakespeare in Love is probably the most famous of the films speculating on his private life (Romeo and Juliet figures importantly in this, too). Few people seem to remember it, but William Gibson wrote a play I admired called A Cry of Players featuring Frank Langella and Anne Bancroft as Will and the wife he will soon desert for a life in London. And there’s a set of DVDs sitting near me called Will Shakespeare featuring Tim Curry in a miniseries written by John Mortimer that I have been meaning to get around to. Like the recently-deceased queen, Shakespeare is someone known to almost everyone about whose private thoughts and behavior we know very little, and so dramatists are tempted to project their own concerns onto him.

Of course, there are those who are sick to death of Shakespeare. Some just don’t respond to his works. (All but scholars probably can’t understand chunks of it.) Some are tired of particular plays. (One year, I had to sit through four productions of King Lear, and that was three too many.) Some are tired of having this figure tower above the landscape, implicitly setting standards of excellence. Some can’t stand the implicit values in many of his plays–misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, etc. And then he’s also a straight(?), white male, which is not a desirable demographic at the moment (even if he is dead).

But, even if you want to avoid him directly, you can’t avoid his influence because it’s everywhere.

The influence of some artists creeps beyond their own works. As I have mentioned before, Lanford Wilson once mentioned to me that early reviews of his stuff had noted his debt to Chekhov, which he found amusing since at that point he hadn’t seen or read any Chekhov. I replied that that didn’t matter. He asked why not. I asked him if he had been influenced by William Inge. Well, of course, he said. And I replied that Inge certainly had been influenced by Chekhov, so he (Lanford) was influenced by Chekhov whether he knew it or not. And Lanford said, yes, I was right.

So, whether people have had direct contact with Shakespeare on page, stage or screen, yes, they have been influenced by him. And maybe it’s better to know something about someone who’s influencing you than to pretend that he hasn’t touched your life?

I got to thinking more about this when I went to Brooklyn to see the Bedlam company’s four-hour workshop of Henry IV (an adaptation by Dakin Matthews directed by Eric Tucker which combines chunks of Parts 1 and 2). It’s not intended for review, so I won’t go into detail except to say that Jay O. Sanders (a friend) is building a phenomenal Falstaff.

If pressed, I would say that the Henry IV-Henry V cycle is the Shakespeare that has had the most influence on me. (Two of my plays, in fact, were consciously derived from aspects of the story. No, I won’t tell you which.) To me, the story is about the formation of character. Prince Hal has two fathers: his biological father, Henry IV , and a surrogate father, Falstaff. Henry IV is all duty and guilt; he probably hasn’t smiled in decades and could use more bran in his diet. In contrast, Falstaff is all impulse, appetite and affection, not overmuch gifted with scruples.

Oh, did I mention I wrote a poem about this?

Last year, an outfit called Saint Flashlight and Theatre for a New Audience collaborated on a project called “The Will of the City.” A number of poets and playwrights were asked to contribute a poem derived from one of Shakespeare’s plays. I was one of them. Here was my effort:

“Shape up,” he says.
And sometimes he talks about how he wishes someone else were his son.
Yeah, and get this, that someone else is a traitor who is trying to overthrow him.

“Take the stick out of your butt and enjoy yourself,” says the other.
He jokes and drinks and tries to boff anything that moves.
And he lies and he steals and exploits our friendship whenever he can.
Swell again.

I’m a figure who died in the early fifteenth century,
But, using the gift of foresight granted by the author of this,
I think of Freud (why not?).
You know, super-ego and id.
Guess who is which?
It’s not easy having two daddies.
When they’re dead, I’ll be free of them — right?

If you want to check out how the other writers responded, click this link:

To my eye, Hal metaphorically kills both of them (by taking his father’s crown before Henry IV dies, and by exiling Falstaff, which pretty much finishes off the old knight), and incorporates both. In Henry V, Shakespeare shows how, from scene to scene, Hal draws on them. He’s in a Falstaff mode when he courts the princess, and he’s in a Henry IV mode when he condemns his old friend Bardolph to death for pillaging a church. I think Shakespeare is suggesting that maturity is knowing when to draw on what, finding a balance behind different drives.

By the way, if you want to see one of my favorite tellings of this story, check out Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles’ adaptation which is available on both HBO Max and, along with some terrific interviews and commentaries on the production, the Criterion Channel. Welles once said that if St. Peter asked him why he should be allowed into Heaven, he would reply, “I directed Chimes at Midnight.” I think it’s Welles’ best film and the best film anybody has made from Shakespeare. I once had the good fortune to run into Keith Baxter in a theater lobby. He was shocked when I recognized him as the guy who played Hal in Chimes (at the time, because of competing rights claims, it was next to impossible to see the film) and he sat down on a staircase with me and told me an hour’s worth of stories about working on the film.

Here’s dessert: Cunk on Shakespeare, the great Diane Morgan taking on BBC cultural documentaries.

About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at
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