Last night, I read a review of a production of As You Like It in 1897. It was written by George Bernard Shaw and the focus was on Ada Rehan in the part of Rosalind. He’s very fond her. I would even go so far as to say that he might have a bit of a crush on her. But much of the review is about how he doesn’t actually know if she can act. And the reason he doesn’t know if she can act is that he always sees her in the same part, just with a character of a different name in a different play.
He wrote of Rehan, “I must live in hope that some day she will come to the West End of London for a week or two, just as Rejane and Sarah Bernhardt do, with some work of sufficient novelty and importance to make good the provincial wear and tear of her artistic prestige.” This rather reminds me of William Goldman’s contention that the only thing that matters in a screenplay is structure. And before film, I think that was largely true of the theater. Thankfully today, the theater is more likely to produce actual interesting characters.
One of my biggest complaints about the way people idolize Shakespeare is that they will gush about the great characters that he created. To this, I always respond, “And what characters would those be? I would certainly like to know.” Yeah, in some of the tragedies there are some characters that begin to be something other than standard parts going back to the ancient Greeks. But in the comedies? Come now!
Shaw loved Shakespeare (As do I!) but he wasn’t blind his many weaknesses. In his discussion of Rehan, he wrote:
Yesterday, I was listening to an interview with Stephen Sondheim about Sweeney Todd, and he talked about how for over a hundred years, the title character was just this evil man. It wasn’t until 1970 when the British playwright Christopher Bond took the character and provided him with motivation. In other words, he turned it into a revenge play. The revenge play was around in Shakespeare’s time, of course. That’s what Titus Andronicus is, after all. But Shakespeare’s plays do an especially bad job of providing motivation for female characters, who are basically just four types: passive youth, quick witted youth, whore, and old hag. And as much as I love the dialog that Shakespeare wrote for Beatrice, once in love, she is not much different than Hero.
Above all, I hate the idea of Shakespeare as theatrical or literary broccoli. My impression is that most people who claim to like Shakespeare don’t appreciate it enough to much enjoy it. And fundamentally, we keep seeing the plays and movies because the performers love them. And it is true now if it wasn’t in Shaw’s time: actors commonly turn standard parts into something much greater. Certainly, Kenneth Branagh did that for Iago in Othello. But even Ian McKellen couldn’t overcome the Snidely Whiplash depth of his character in Richard III. It’s all still very much enjoyable. But great and edifying? Rarely.