Reducing Shakespeare

A few years ago, I discovered the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). It is a sketch comedy play which supposedly performs all of Shakespeare’s (36, 38, 39?) plays in just one and a half hours. In fact, they only mention many of the plays. For example, they combine all of the comedies into a single play entitled The Comedy of Two Well-Measured Gentlemen Lost in the Merry Wives of Venice on a Midsummer’s Twelfth Night in Winter. And they do all of the histories in a mock football game. The only plays they actually do are Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus (brilliantly as a cooking show), Othello, Macbeth, Julius Caeser (barely), Antony and Cleopatra, Troilus and Cressida (with Godzilla), and finally, Hamlet, which takes up half of the entire play. Here is their version of Othello:

As I think can be seen, The Reduced Shakespeare Company does not over-revere Shakespeare. Thus, when I saw that two of the actors—Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor—had written a book called Reduced Shakespeare, I was excited. Unfortunately, the book is a major disappointment. On the plus side, it is a fun enough read. The comedy is often forced, but humor in book form is always a mixed bag. What’s more, for those who know little of Shakespeare, there is much to be learned from the book.

Where the book falls down is in the worship it shows to Shakespeare. Throughout the book, Shakespeare is not just a great writer, or even the greatest English playwright, or even the greatest English writer. No: he is the greatest writer ever. They say, for example, “Ultimately you will understand that Shakespeare is revered above all other writers not because of the kind of man he was but because of his works.” Later, they say that Hamlet is, “In all likelihood … the greatest play ever written.” Really? Hamlet?

I’m not going to go into a discussion of just why such statements are ridiculous. For those interested, I highly recommend Gary Taylor’s Reinventing Shakespeare. But the book missed out on the funniest thing about Shakespeare: the idolatry surrounding him. No one who has read contemporaries of Shakespeare can come away with any thought more than that Shakespeare was slightly better than his peers (and I would not go nearly that far). So how is it that Shakespeare towers over all of the playwrights who came before and after him? Certainly, when it comes to comedy, Aristophanes is far better than Shakespeare.

To be fair, Martin and Tichenor do lampoon Shakespeare idolatry. Unfortunately, they suffer from it greatly without any apparent recognition of the condition. And that is deadly. Thankfully, that is not the case with the play, which I still recommend highly.


The boys have a whole chapter in which they review Shakespeare on film. Unfortunately, in many cases, they admit to having never seen the movie. That’s part of the joke. Get it? Anyway, they review perhaps Orson Welles’ greatest film, Chimes at Midnight (this is not my opinion—I have not seen it—but rather that of Welles himself and Peter Bogdanovich). They start the review thusly:

This is Orson Welles’s[1] crowning Shakespearean achievement, in which he brings a robust magnificence to Falstaff, Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation and a part Welles was born to play. He had a brilliant idea: Create a story that focused on Falstaff by taking the relevant scenes from all the plays in which Falstaff appears (Henry VI, Parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Richard II, and The Merry Wives of Windsor). He even used Holinshed’s Chronicles (Shakespeare’s own original source) for the narration. Welles’s performance is outstanding, and the battle scenes are impressively intense.

Wow. Sounds pretty good, right? But they give it one (out of five) “bards.” Their complaint seems to be that the film has too many technical “glitches” to be enjoyable. They have much the same to say about Welles’ Othello, which they also gave one “bard” to. By their discussion of the film, it is unclear whether they had seen the restored Othello, which is by far the easiest to get today. One would think they would take a little more care with the winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prize. And one would think some mention would be made of the fact this is one of a very few film performances of the great Irish stage actor Micheál MacLiammóir, who is great as Iago.

It is also worth noting that the the plays these boys claim to be of five “bard” quality are: Hamlet (interesting, but really not that good), Henry IV, Part 1 (Falstaff is fun, but one wonders just how much Shakespeare is responsible for the character), King Lear (about as good as Shakespeare gets), Macbeth (ditto), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (tedious when Bottom isn’t on stage), Richard III (good Shakespeare, but I hate the whole “I’m a villain” setup; see also Don John in Much Ado About Nothing), and Romeo and Juliet (as good as that bard gets). I think they have picked about the best of what Shakespeare has to offer, but if it were up to me, I wouldn’t give any play more than four bards.

And Martin and Tichenor never address the most pressing question: why is Shakespeare always better in Japanese?

[1] I hate this construction. Is there any reason at all to add this extra “s”? No. There isn’t.

Rush Limbaugh: Defender of Oppressed Rich

Rush LimbaughMy father just related something he had heard on the Rush Limbaugh radio show. There was an interview with a fourth grader who stated that he wanted to be President of the United States when he grew up. When asked, the boy said that if he were President, he would take money away from the rich people because they are greedy. This struck me as fairly typical, simplistic moral thinking for a young child. Thus, it just isn’t very interesting. But why did Limbaugh put it on his show? Clearly, it was to show how oppressed the rich are.

Everyone has his cross to bear, and I understand that the rich have their problems and deserve their fair share of our sympathy. However, of all of the people on earth who need sympathy, the rich are hardly at the top of the list. Conservative estimates indicate that five million people starve to death every year. Almost one billion are malnourished. By and large, the only things these people have ever done wrong is to be born in the wrong place.

I have little doubt that some of the rich feel bad that fourth graders over-generalize in stating that all of the rich are greedy when it is merely most. But I’ll save my greatest concern for starving masses. Anyway, with Limbaugh out there publicizing the plight of oppressed rich, my sympathy is hardly necessary.

Netflix is Just Not That Into Movies

NetflixMy biggest problem with Netflix is that the company just isn’t that into movies. I first noticed this when watching Continental Divide via Instant Watch. I liked this film a lot when I was younger, so I know it well. As I watched it, I was shocked to see that it had been cut—with lots of dialog replacement. But there was no disclaimer at the beginning of it. They just grabbed some TV station’s copy and streamed it. I complained to Netflix’s (and I mean this sincerely) fantastic telephone support people. But of course, nothing changed.

I had another experience like this recently. I watched Amadeus on Netflix Instant Watch. Without stating so, the movie that was streamed was not the original but rather the longer director’s cut. I don’t have a problem with this. I quite like the director’s cut; I think it is better than the original release. But there is no doubt that that the original release is a different film than the director’s cut. To see just how far this went, I ordered the DVD and sure enough, it was the original release. If Netflix really cared about movies—the way a real fan does—they would offer both the director’s cut and the original release. Instead, it is just catch as catch can, as though there were no difference between these films.

What all this means is that to Netflix movies are just commodities. Things that film lovers care greatly about do not even register in the Netflix universe. This goes along with the fact that Netflix often offers inferior versions of films. Until recently, they only offered the worst version of Mr. Arkadin, although I see now that they are offering all three, but the description of each is the same, so there is no way for the interested viewer to determine which version to get based upon Netflix’s information. (But I have you covered: get The Comprehensive Version.) They don’t even offer Chimes at Midnight or other great, but rare films.

At the top of my queue right now is the first disc of The Muppet Show. For stuff like this, Netflix is great. But for anything else, it is wanting.

Why No One Knows Medgar Evers

I am doing all kinds of research for a book I am writing. It is just a collection of biographies of a certain kind of person. I won’t tell you what it’s about, but I’ll give you a list of five of the people who will definitely be in it. Perhaps you will be able to figure out what connects them.

Milton Hershey
Albert Schweitzer
Walter Johnson
Jonas Salk
Paul Newman

One thing that links all these people is that they are all white and male. So I’m working on that. As part of that, I’m researching Medgar Evers. If you’re like me, about all you know about Evers is that he was the guy who was killed at the beginning of the film Ghosts of Mississippi. As I recall the film, he doesn’t even have a word of dialog. So the film, despite its honorable intent, really comes down to: important black man is killed, let’s get on to the story that involves white folk. So other than the fact that he lived in Mississippi, I started the week knowing nothing about him.

I’ve managed to order a couple of books about Evers, but the only one I’ve gotten my hands on is probably the least valuable to me: The Autobiography of Medgar Evers. The problem with the book is that he never wrote an autobiography. The book is just a compilation of “memoranda, telegram messages, personal notes, transcribed public speeches, [and] fragments of written tests.” Fortunately, it has brief introductory articles by Myrlie Evers-Williams (Medgar’s wife) and Manning Marable (who sadly died earlier this year).

The article by Marable is particularly interesting because he discusses a big reason why people like Evers do not receive their due credit.

Their undeserved obscurity and marginalization is partly derived from the politics of gender. As anyone who has seriously participated in grassroots, neighborhood organizing can attest, women are far more likely than males to emerge as the critical leaders in most working-class and poor neighborhoods. Women activists are far more prevalent than males in the building of civic capacity—whether within faith-based institutions or in groups engaged in educational reform, community safety, and/or public health. Day-to-day political-organizing work is rarely glamorous or exciting. Much of it is mundane, boring, and quite difficult: typing and processing letters; making numerous telephone calls; meeting frequently with small numbers of people at their homes; preparing and serving food; fundraising; finding places for people to sleep or to live; organizing childcare; driving people to and from meetings; negotiating with local ministers, businesses, and schools to obtain space for activities; sustaining communication between group members; and representing the interests and objectives of one’s group to other constituencies and organizations. Added to all of this is the profoundly human dimension: the loss of time and intimacy with one’s partner or spouse, children, family, and friends; the financial costs; the physical and emotional pressures; the burden of ostracism and harassment for advocating unpopular views. To be a “leader” in this context is to assume the burden of these necessary responsibilities and tasks. Within a society structured hierarchically by gender, women disproportionately assume these responsibilities. This was certainly the case within the Black Freedom Movement, especially in the patriarchal culture of the U.S. South in the mid-twentieth century.

The general “story” of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-1956 usually mentions the courageous individual action of Rosa Parks, a respected, middle-aged seamstress whose arrest for refusing to surrender her seat to a white man on a segregated public bus was the spark that started the public protest. Yet the focus then concentrates on the public leadership of local black ministers such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy, ignoring other individuals who actually did as much—or more—to make that boycott successful. A key figure in this regard was college professor Jo Ann Robinson. The Women’s Political Council, an African American women’s group chaired by Robinson, was instrumental in the planning and building of the boycott. After Parks’s initial arrest, for example, Robinson mimeographed 35,000 handbills calling for a mass boycott of Montgomery’s segregated buses overnight. Members of the Women’s Political Council made enormous personal and financial sacrifices for nearly one year to win their victory over racism.

Marable provides me with two other names, in addition to Robinson, of unsung heroes of the modern civil rights movement that will help on the other aspect of my diversity problem: Septima Clark and Ella Baker. Time will tell.

New Robber Barons

I have been reading Hershey by Michael D’Antonio, a biography of the remarkable Milton S. Hershey, who is known as much for his humane treatment of his workers as he is for the candy company he created. To put Hershey’s life into perspective, D’Antonio provides a good picture of life at that time. Hershey came to power during the period of the robber barons and continued in business up through the end of World War II. I knew that the period around the turn of the 20th century was a bad one with high levels of income inequality. What surprised me was the fact that this period wasn’t really any different than it is today. At the peak of the robber barons, the top 1% of Americans controlled half of all the nation’s assets. In 2007, the top 1% of Americans own roughly 35% of all the nation’s assets. If you don’t include primary residences, this number jumps to 43%.

Unfortunately, the trend seems to be in the wrong direction. A hundred years ago, many businessmen thought it was important to make workers as happy as possible in order to keep the society stable. They understood that high levels of income inequality might lead to revolution. Today, the dominant philosophy is a Calvinist belief that the rich are morally superior. I dislike both inequality and social disorder. So I am none too happy to be living in this second period of robber barons. We could really use some more people like Milton S. Hershey.

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Little Bits

This afternoon I was flipping through the plethora of quotations I have collected over the years–searching for inspiration, killing time, same difference. I found one file name that piqued my curiosity: Escher Silliness. I’ve never thought of Escher as having a sense of humor per se. As it turns out, I’m the silly one.


“My work is a game, a very serious game.” –MC Escher

To which I had added:

“It’s a game of cat-and-mouse. A game of kill-or-be-killed. A game with no room for mistakes–those are kept in a separate container. One slip of the pen, one misplaced etch can mean disaster. It is critical to know and understand one’s opponents. You could even say that you must BECOME your opponents. Ink blots, ruler nicks, constant interruptions–all clever tricks of a clever enemy. Beelzebub, Baby. That’s who I’m talking about.”

There is something seriously wrong with me. Unless anyone finds it amusing; in that case I’m brilliant.

Stephen Colbert: Dream Stalker

My dreams are usually very boring, even to me. Some are so mundane, I can’t remember if I had a conversation with my husband or just dreamt it. That’s not to say that I am incapable of having dreams that would raise Freud’s eyebrows; there are some dark, twisted, one might even say fucked up, bits of weird burrowed in the recesses of my psyche. Some of my sleep-shows have even included famous guest appearances by luminaries such as Michael J. Fox, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, John Krasinksi, and Michelle Obama, to mention only a few (I wish I were joking). Most only show up once, although, according to my official biographer, F.M. Moraes, I’ve dreamt about John Krasinksi before, I just don’t remember it. Obviously it wasn’t worth remembering, much like everything I did yesterday.

I know the thought of having celebrities and dignitaries waltzing through ones dreams sounds glamorous, but it isn’t. They’re just ordinary imaginary figures like you and me. My first celebrity guest was Michael J. Fox. This was many years ago, when his show Family Ties was on the air, and I was an impressionable, lonely young girl. You can imagine the thrill and romance of being near Michael J. Fox! It was as if we’d known each other for years as we discussed the sad state of the California school system (totally true). I must have bored him as he hasn’t been back since. A more recent vision was more inspiring: I watched helplessly (I’m the same person asleep or awake) as Michelle Obama, surrounded by burning buildings, led a group of young children to safety (also totally true). In hindsight, I probably should have written about these encounters as they happened (as my memory is virtually useless)–add some photos and forged autographs and I could publish a nice coffee table book.

Unfortunately, there is one celebrity who has disturbed my sleep and wandered through the back roads of my mind, with whom I have an issue. Who the hell does Stephen Colbert, alter ego of some guy of the same name (different pronunciation), think he is?[1] Swaggering into my dreams, trying to seduce me—perhaps the other way around. It doesn’t matter. Either way, I can say this with the authority of aroused personal experience: Stephen Colbert is an invader of dreams.

stephen_colbert.jpg Portrait by Todd Lockwood.

As a result of this stealthy infiltration into my vulnerable subconscious by a man of virile intelligence, armed with a laser wit that could have taken out Bin Laden ten years ago, and the dark, fathomless eyes of the Galadhrim, I must say I’m smitten. No. I’ll admit it. The truth is, in spite of his inexplicable alliance with the Catholic church, and rumors that his doppelgänger has a wife and three children, I would so do him. (Well, as long as no one was filming us and my husband wouldn’t divorce me.) For a self-proclaimed word-o-phile and amateur pedant, his wordplay is freaking foreplay! He might even appreciate some of my endearing attempts at twisting words into new, sexy playthings: “Elk and their ilk, never wear silk” or “I was taught naught but to tie a taut knot.”

Now, most of the time I’m not a fool or deluded and now is one of those times. I know exactly what would happen if I actually met Stephen (“May I call you Stephen?”)…. If I actually met Mr. Colbert, it would be magical. Meeting Tina Fey, for example, would not. She would say, “So you think you’re pretty funny huh? Tell me a joke.” Then, the only joke I can ever remember–a joke so offensive that I’ve only told it to three people whom I trust implicitly–THAT joke would pop into my head, causing the entire apparatus to come to a grinding halt. My brain would become one of those stupid fainting goats, and as I mentally play dead, Tina would sneer and say, “Take her away. She bores us.”

But it would be different with Stephen. I would be prepared! Obviously I’d need a new wardrobe, something that says, “Under this mannish, right-wing suit is something that would make Eliot Spitzer’s spitzer stand at attention.” I would also need new, longer hair: blonde and straight or brown and straight? I wish I had a gay friend to help with this… Oh, and I’d have my teeth whitened; veneered if I have time. I want a smile that’s ready for a sexy, head tossed back, I-live-life-to-the-fullest-and-I’m-up-for-anything burst of laughter. (I don’t want a grin that says, “We don’t hold with all that socialist dentistry bullshit.”) I’d also have to get a mani-pedi, waxing everywhere (even if it requires general anaesthesia), and a facial. Fortunately, Mr. Colbert doesn’t see race or color—no worries there! (Unless someone can be too white… what if I’m actually invisible?!) To seal the deal there would be a make-up squad, lighting specialists, and Spanx. We’re talking a lot of prep here, but Stephen deserves it.

After everything is in place (in and out of the Spanx), I would be introduced to the man with the sexiest brain on the planet (no offense to Stephen Hawking’s brain, but mine would shrivel up and die from the exertion of attempting to follow everything he knows about. Plus, I really like a guy who can make me laugh and the inevitable death of the universe is not amusing.) So there I’d be, looking as lovely as our technologically advanced beauty enhancers could manage, gazing into the eyes of a being who can, with the speed of a striking cobra, verbally eviscerate the unworthy. Stephen would take my hand, and say, “Tell me a joke.” At which point I would faint.

Maybe then he’ll stop toying with my emotions while I’m sleeping.

[1] In real life, Stephen Colbert pronounces his last name as it is spelled: cole-burt.

My Subconscious is Abusive

Why am I at odds with my subconscious? First it[1] ruffled the feathers of my comfortably sleeping Chicken of Depression by causing (yet another) dream in which my husband and daughter are angry with me and have formed a coalition to end my benevolent dictatorship. Apparently I’m becoming desensitized to such a hackneyed form of subliminal torment, because my mean-spirited little id switched tactics and stooped to a new low. Enter John Krasinski, the oddly attractive and highly likable actor who plays Jim on The Office. In my dream, I am, for some inexplicable reason, trying to get his attention in a romantic sense (I don’t remember the details. Seriously, so don’t ask). This was bound to go badly all by itself, but my id is so impatient, to move things along it reminded me of my age (among other impediments to such a miraculous union). Then, to drive the point home, it pointed out that even when I was young and fairly attractive, this young man would NEVER have given me a second look. “He’s married to Emily Blunt for Christ’s sake! And, hello, you two look nothing alike.” By this time, my conscious mind has started to pay attention. I became aware that I was dreaming and I actually got angry with my subconscious for being such a spiteful little bitch–and told it so. Who has dreams like that?! Is it any wonder I don’t sleep well? And to make it worse, I KNOW there are people out there whose inner voice is a goddamn cheerleader. “You are so awesome! Here, have a dream where George Clooney can’t keep his hands off of you. That could SO happen!”

[1] I say “it” rather than “she” only because my subconscious mind is malevolently androgenous, however, “bitch” still applies. (Interesting aside: Text Edit’s spell-check does not recognize the word androgenous, causing me to doubt myself and look it up in the stupid dictionary. Text Edit is also a bitch.)

P.S. Now I see that this blog software is also gender-specific, so Text Edit is not a bitch, just stupid.