New York Times recently sent an e-blast with a Theatre Update to their subscribers about ‘Maximum Shakespeare.’ Evidently, there are a lot of Shakespeare productions in New York this season. One of the Times’ staff theatre critics, Charles Isherwood, wrote a piece entitled, “Too Much Shakespeare? Be Not Cowed.” Besides the forced title (which I cannot judge too deeply because of my own struggle with titles), I was excited for Isherwood to tackle the question, “[Are we doing] Too Much Shakespeare?”
However, the article does not address the title question at all. Instead, Isherwood splits his personality, in order to have the part of himself “who cannot get enough of this work” to convince the part of himself that is “Shakespeare averse” to attend even just one of the multitude of Shakespeare productions this season. For the purposes of this post, I will address “the Shakespeare averse” side of Isherwood’s personality as The Dude (a name derived from how often this character uses the word “dude,” not the Big Lebowski), and the one “who cannot get enough” as The Fanatic.
The entire article shows The Fanatic convincing The Dude to see Shakespeare. With this narrow conversation, Isherwood misses other, more significant questions. He never questions if theaters should still be doing Shakespeare: What makes a successful Shakespeare show? Is this material relevant? With so much Shakespeare in New York, what shows are we not seeing? Where does our culture meet the Elizabethan tradition? What are theaters doing, or lack there of, to engage audiences in this material? Do contemporary plays lack something that Shakespeare knew?
Part of the reason the conversation never goes that in depth is because The Dude and The Fanatic are stereotypes, both derived from the guy writing the article. Isherwood is not talking to real potential or disillusioned audience members who lead dynamic lives. He is talking to himself! The Dude, represents only one shallow, misogynistic, apathetic part of the community. The Fanatic solely represents an elitist, desperate, pretentious part of the community. This binary is not inclusive of the diversity of New York, let alone national audiences. The irony of a critic writing about audience engagement who speaks to himself (rather than reach out to actual people) displays Isherwood as an artist who is out of touch with his community.
Within this conversations, problems abound. The Fanatic’s base appeals to The Dude annul his high praise for Shakespeare. The Dude is arguably one of the worst candidates for this conversation; there are other parts of the community who we should be reaching out to before people like The Dude. The Fanatic advocates for Shakespeare in general, only citing celebrity details and potential hooking up in local productions. And more!
With Isherwood’s poor example, I am left to ponder what is the role of the Theatre Critic. Theatre critics serve as a type of audience advocate, discovering which productions are worth people’s time and money (and expose us to the shows that are not mainstream, but are worth seeing). They cannot measure the success of a production by whether or not they liked the work or not. They have to examine its form and content, and to question if that content is needed right now. To accomplish this, a theatre critic must be acutely aware of local and national communities, politics, and art. Therefore, “Too Much Shakespeare?” is not a worth-while piece of criticism. It’s just taking up space.