- Historicizing Shakesfear and Translating Shakespeare Anew
"Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art translated."A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (ACT 3, SCENE 1)
In 2011, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), helmed by artistic director Bill Rauch, started an experimental project to "translate" Shakespeare's plays into contemporary English. The project was funded by tech entrepreneur Dave Hitz and led by Dr. Lue Morgan Douthit, then director of literary development and dramaturgy at OSF. The experiment started with a single text: Timon of Athens. Poet and translator Kenneth Cavander, known for his work translating Greek plays into English, was chosen to undertake a trial "translation" of this lesser-known play into twenty-first-century English.1 In approaching this translation, Cavander did not paraphrase and worked to maintain the poetic integrity of the original, without writing in iambic pentameter.2 It was important for Douthit and Cavander that the new version not fall into the realm of either revision or truncation. They wanted "no editing, no cutting, no fixing, no personal politics, no regionalisms," any of which might transform the translation into an adaptation.3
The experiment became reality when Cavander's version of Timon was produced at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in April 2014, where it was, in Douthit's words, "incredibly well-received by critics and audiences."4 Indeed, Rick Harmon, the reviewer for the Montgomery Advertiser, called it "brilliant," "sleek, understandable and affecting" due to Cavander's "updating some of its language."5 Bolstered by the apparent success of this venture, Douthit, with the [End Page 211] financial support of Hitz, commissioned thirty-six playwrights (each partnered with a dramaturg) to create translations of all thirty-nine of Shakespeare's plays into modern English.6 To promote the idea that this project is simply a new way to play with, and thereby get to know, Shakespeare's works, the project was called Play on! Artistic Director Bill Rauch reassured skeptics that "The Play on! translations are not being commissioned because we despair that people will never understand the original language" but rather to create a new arena of engagement with Shakespeare's texts.7 This newness is twofold: (1) the nature of the project, which calls for translation rather than adaptation and (2) the demographics of the translation teams. More than half of the thirty-six playwrights are people of color and more than half are women.8 The aims of the Play on! project are to allow these important and emerging theatre practitioners a chance to intimately know Shakespeare's language and to have Shakespeare interpreted by a diverse body of artists.
When the Play on! project was formally announced in September 2015, there was an instantaneous outpouring of both censure and support. On one side of the debate, the initiative was lambasted as a disturbing, misguided travesty. These detractors feared that translated Shakespeare would once again take the great playwright from the stage, as in the eighteenth-century adaptations of Shakespeare. On the other side of the debate, the project was praised as a solution to the dread that Shakespeare, a treasure of Anglophone culture, was quickly disappearing from American life due to the density of his language. As the articles appeared one after another, the fear on both sides of the debate was palpable. Ultimately, both proponents and opponents of the translations were afraid of losing Shakespeare. In this article, I examine three of the major Shakes-fears stimulating the Play on! controversy and place those anxieties in historical context to demonstrate how these concerns have fueled the Shakespeare industry since the Restoration.9
Fear One: Audiences
As students are taught in introductory drama classes, an audience is essential to theatrical performance; per Eric Bentley's famous formula, "A impersonates B while C looks on."10 For theatremakers, the audience is not only the consumer of the theatrical product but also the fuel that keeps the theatre running. According to American Theatre's 2014 "Theatre Facts," ticket sales account for 53 percent of the earned income of theatres in the United States.11 This significant [End Page 212] figure means that artistic directors and producers need to estimate accurately the appeal...