Losing Sight of History
From The American Spectator .
November 29, 2007.
Not that anyone could be surprised at the feminist production of The Taming of the Shrew at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington this fall, but it has got me wondering if anyone will remember, in another generation or so, that people used to be different from the way they are now — or the way they will be by that time. Oh, people will know it in theory, perhaps, but they will have got so far out of the habit of trying to imagine themselves back into the world of their great-grandparents that stories of their curious customs and habits will appear to them as fairy tales do to us, or the Greek myths. People will as soon believe that the abduction of Helen of Troy caused the epoch-making Trojan war as that the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused the equally epoch-making World War I. It just won’t be credible. People don’t do those sorts of things, any more than they converse with gods and giants.
Here’s how the director and the female star of the Shakespeare Theatre’s Shrew, Rebecca Bayla Taichman and Charlayne Woodard, conceived of the play, according to The Washington Post:
Their Kate is in a rage "from some deep-seated hurt and betrayal" — her father is, in a sense, prepared to auction off his motherless daughters to prospective grooms. "These girls are controlled by men and money is at the very center of the whole thing and that is a disgusting thing. And that is a truth of a lot of women in the world to this day," Woodard says. Kate, she adds, "sees the unfairness in the world, so she decides I'm not playing this game. . . . Then she meets Petruchio and sees that this man is not afraid of her . . . right away, wonderful."
Now it is simply not possible that this view of the matter could have been Shakespeare’s — or, probably, that of anybody who lived for at least two centuries after his time. But these ladies care nothing for that. They see no virtue in trying to recover what Shakespeare thought. On the contrary, their feminist re-imagining of his work is inspired precisely by the fact that the play as he wrote it is "irredeemably sexist." Therefore, their Shrew is an exercise in exploiting the Shakespeare brand in order to market their own view of the world. Kenneth Branagh’s dire As You Like It which turned up on HBO last summer did the same. It was a play almost shockingly unrelated to anything that could possibly have been of concern to its author. Rather, it provided an excuse for Ken to show how clever he is by transporting the Forest of Arden to medieval Japan, filling it with his thespian friends and telling them to be entertaining.
He wants the Shakespeare brand because it sells tickets. People think that what they get under that name is "culture" and, therefore, that it must be good for them as well as entertaining. Why should it matter, then, if it never occurred to Shakespeare to have his Petruchio show up to marry his Katherine wearing a wedding dress? Why should it matter if the Shakespearean edifice has been knocked down solely in order to provide the materials for Ms Taichman’s or Mr Branagh’s jerry-built structures? Why should it matter, too, if Joni Mitchell’s new album markets under the brand name of Rudyard Kipling a version of that poet’s best known poem that transforms it into a banality?
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And — which is more — you'll be a Man, my son!
Or so wrote Kipling. Joni substitutes for the sexist language the following:
If you can fill the journey of a minute
With sixty seconds worth of wonder and delight
Then the Earth is yours and everything that's in it,
But more than that I know you'll be all right —
You'll be all right ‘cause you've got the fight
You've got the insight
You've got the fight
You've got the insight
There are no unforgiving minutes where Joni comes from, presumably, only wonder and delight in more than full measure — in which case it may occur to some of her listeners to wonder for what purpose her sexless interlocutor needs that "nerve and sinew" mentioned earlier, that resolution necessary to "Hold on!"
Such people look at the past and its cultural artifacts and they can only see themselves reflected in them. Soon, perhaps, that will be true of everybody. All historians will be like Ken Burns, who showed us earlier this fall that even the brand name of World War II is susceptible to being put on something barely related to the original event and exploited for commercial gain. Marketed — and how! — as history, his TV series "The War" ran for 15 seemingly interminable hours in September and October on PBS and was almost without interest in the past as it was before it was the past, which is to say, in the political or military realities of World War II, or the cultural reasons why people thought at the time that it was "a necessary war." No, Ken Burns is only interested in why Ken Burns thinks it was a necessary war — and in congratulating himself and his subjects for having the right feelings about it now. All this retrospective emotion! All these weepy violins and plangent pianos! All this scolding of people long dead for their racial and sexual attitudes! It’s another imposition of the present upon the past, another manifestation of our increasing inability to see anything among the generations who have lived before us but less-perfect versions of ourselves.
Movie remakes are an instructive lesson in how this colonization of the past by the present works. Mr Branagh has another example for us in his re-make of Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth. Once again, it is the Sleuth brand he is interested in, not in anything which led Mr Shaffer to create it in the first place. In some ways, this is a relief. Shaffer’s banging on about the British class system as he did was quite fashionable at the time — the play dates from 1970, the film from 1972 — but it was out of date even then and is of course much more so now. In any case, all that has been taken out, along with nearly everything else Shaffer put into it except the bare bones of the plot, and another playwright, Harold Pinter, employed to re-write it and put his own, unmistakable stamp on the thing. Besides the title, there is little else to certify the brand’s authenticity, but Mr Branagh had the bright idea of hiring Michael Caine, the younger of the two actors in the film of 35 years ago, to play the part played by Laurence Olivier in that version. That should reassure any doubters that this is the genuine article! Close enough, anyway.
You get a nicely book-ended illustration of the process of remaking the past as the present by a comparison of the original version of 3:10 to Yuma from 1957 and James Mangold’s remake half a century on. The 1957 version is a simple moral tale of a man who didn’t seek out heroism but, driven to undertake a dangerous but necessary job that no one else wanted to do by a desperate need for money, who then realizes that he has taken on more than he bargained for and cares about something else more than the money, however desperate his and his family’s need. The key line comes when the situation looks darkest and Leora Dana as Mrs Dan Evans asks her husband (Van Heflin), "What are you going to die for? $200? Why?"
"I’ve got to, that’s all," he replies, just like Gary Cooper in High Noon from five years earlier. "The town drunk gave his life because he thought people should be able to live in peace and decency together. Can I do less?"
Neither he nor Cooper uses the word "honor," because honor had become morally and culturally tainted over the previous 30 or 40 years, but honor is what they were talking about: the honor of having stood steadfast against a determined foe no matter how great the danger or, in the end, how certain it was to cost him his life. And, in the 1957 version, Dan’s honorable deed elicits an answering one from even so hardened a villain as Ben Wade (Glen Ford). None of this survives in the 2007 version, which is morally as well as dramatically incoherent and as wedded as Ken Burns is to the idea that the only art that matters lies in the portrayal of strong and unbridled feeling. Nobody believed that up until our own time, but then almost nobody in our time really cares about what people believed before it, except to condemn them for believing it and to congratulate himself for not believing it. A few years ago, Francis Fukuyama wrote — rather prematurely, as most people now think — about "the end of history," but soon we may see history’s real end. Or, rather, we won’t see it because we won’t even know that history was there in the first place.