What a piece of work is a man

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Since I’ve done a string of how-to pieces, I thought I’d try something a little different today. In truth, also, my train of thought was hijacked by turning on the TV on Wednesday evening mid way through the PBS airing of the BBC film of the most recent RSC Hamlet directed by Greg Doran. Enough acronyms for you? If that doesn’t convey which one I’m talking about, it was the one starring David Tennant (of Doctor Who) as Hamlet, Patrick Stewart (of Star Trek TNG, X Men etc.) as Claudius, Mariah Gale as Ophelia, Penny Downey as Gertrude and Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius. More to the point it was mesmerizing: beautiful, touching, real, exciting and loaded with surprise.

I started watching during the “To be or not to be” soliloquy (here moved to the earlier First Quarto position, for those following along at home) and stood there immobile for about ten minutes before finding my way to the couch where I stayed till the credits ran. Part of my fascination is that I know the play and have a particular nostalgia for this production which I was fortunate enough to see live in Stratford two years ago (and got to hang out with the principals in the pub afterwards: they all signed my program, yours for about 50 grand). But that doesn’t explain how utterly sucked in I was.

Now, I am a Shakespearean. I’ve read this play a thousand times and taught it almost as many. I’ve seen countless productions on stage and screen over the years. It is familiar to me: a known quantity. Except that this production made it fresh. Suddenly, it was like hearing the words for the first time, full of urgency and life, the characters pulsing with blood and breath, and the raw stench of humanity, passion and mortality redolent everywhere. It was electrifying. Every line came from thought and feeling, every moment was charged with humor or menace, insight or sadness, sometimes all competing for space in the same instant. It felt new and real.

I’ll spare you my musings on how I think this was achieved, nor will I try to head off the inevitable complaints from those who didn’t like the production for one reason or another, and say simply this: There is nothing new under the sun when it comes to fiction. All our stories have, in some sense, been told. Yes, we color them with new tones drawn from our own lives and cultures, but much of what drives our stories would not be out of place in Shakespeare. What we need to do is make them feel fresh and insistent, breathing life and imminence into them as did the actors and crew of this production of Hamlet.

That’s all I want to say today. The production reminded me, above all, that character is king, that whatever we do with world building or intricate plotting, the heart of our stories is in the people with which we populate them. They are the link to our readers, and whether we set our yarns on other worlds or in imagined pasts, those characters should feel familiar, true, complex and driven by thought and feeling. We should see ourselves in them because art, to paraphrase Hamlet himself, is to hold the mirror up to nature. These are the stories I want to write.

What about you? Anyone care to share moments of inspiration about writing from beyond our genre? And, of course, I’ll be happy to chat about Shakespeare too, should it come up…

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23 comments to What a piece of work is a man

  • I didn’t know about this production. I’ll have to see if I can Netflix it. Sounds great. Somewhere in my queue is Kenneth Branaughs version. I saw a live show in Philly in my college days that was okay, and of course, as a theater major I’ve seen countless scenes acted out, but I’ve yet to see a full version of Hamlet that satisfied me.

    As for writing, I agree with your sentiments and add this thought — Sometimes when I’m in that rut of “Who am I fooling? I can’t write anything new!” I remind myself that even Shakespeare stole material from every source he could get his hands on. It’s not the “newness” of the idea but what you can do with it. Shakespeare spun gold from other people’s straw. I shoot for gold but I’d settle for some hearty wheat or barley. :)

  • Stuart, take this one over Branaugh’s any day…

  • AJ, like you, I passed by the TV and stopped dead. I curled up with the dogs on the sofa and watched as the very old was made new and intense and full of passion. It was an amazing experience. The actors’ interveiws afterwards gave a view into how *they* felt about it, and you could see the sense of awe on their faces as they talked, and the way their body language opened and changed as they talked. Really really really great experience for them and for me.

    And I had a feeling that you might blog about it today.

  • heteromeles

    Personally, I think you’ve got your blinders on. What about the other popular playwrights of Shakespeare’s day? Are we still putting their plays on the telly?

    When we see something from X centuries ago that resonates with us, we say that there’s nothing new under the sun. The stuff that doesn’t resonate with us sits in rare book collections, slowly moldering away, waiting to see if those after us will be more interested in it than we are now.

    Just yesterday, I checked out a copy of The Tain (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) in translation. On thing that struck me in the prologue was how the “translator” (it’s a loose translation) mostly used one of the two extant versions, because the second version was written in a “prolix” twelfth century style that was unappealing to modern readers. He also mentioned that prior to the Kinsella translation in the 60’s, the Tain was essentially unknown to the public, not because it hadn’t been translated many times, but because translators prior to Kinsella had been more literal, and as a result, they were difficult reads by modern standards. Things have changed a lot since the story was written down.

    See, the thing is, tastes change. The stories we prefer are largely new under the sun. Yes, people have been writing things sort of like them for millenia, but we only lionize the ones that suit our current conceptions of good art, often when they are “updated” or “translated” into something that suits our tastes. We ignore the rest.

    This is what I’m reading right now. It’s not the real Tain (if there ever was such a beast), but only the latest redacted version, of a story that’s been embroidered and redacted many times. And it’s a strange thing. I’m reading it out of curiosity, not as a long-lost friend.

    If you want to say that there’s nothing new under the sun, you need to compare all of the art of Shakespeare’s time to all of the art of our time. Or better, imagine you have a time machine, so that you can try explaining the popularity of Lady Gaga to Mozart.

  • I’ve been wanting to watch this production. I’ll have to keep an eye for a reshowing. Hamlet has always been a difficult play for me. I have to really be in the mood for it. I’ve seen a few versions that I’ve enjoyed, but I too have yet to see a production that really nails it for me.
    When I reach for movies for inspiration, to get the blood flowing again, especially when flailing about attempting to write great dialogue, I turn to Henry V. So many great lines in that one. I happen to like Branagh’s version there. I love the music in that one.
    Another movie I go to is A Man For All Seasons (the Paul Scofield version). I think that stands as my favorite screenplay. The dialogue is just brilliant.
    Getting back to Shakespeare, I gravitate also to Julius Caesar, though to me it’s really the tragedy of Brutus. I’ve always found his character’s flaws and downfall the more fascinating aspect of that play.

  • I was blown away. The teenager and I sat through the whole three hours together, and we were both impressed. I especially loved Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius – he was such a windbag!

    When I dance, I perform better if I stop thinking and let my body do what I’ve taught it to do. If I worry about how my arms look or panic that I don’t remember what comes after the shimmy section, I end up looking as uncomfortable as I feel. When I let the music fill me and trust myself to dance the dance, I enjoy myself and please the audience at the same time.

    What does this have to do with writing? When I write, if I sit and stare at the page and worry that a reader might take offense at a word choice or panic that my lack of sailing experience might result in a horrendous inaccuracy, the writing shuts down. It’s only when I stop thinking and allow the words to flow that I achieve the results I desire.

  • That second to last paragraph in the post — “Character is king” — if readers come to this site only once, and read only one thing, that’s what they should read. You put it so simply, so elegantly.

    I’m sorry I missed this production. I’ll have to look for a rebroadcast or a DVD version. Sounds marvelous.

    Over the weekend my wife and I took our daughters to see the Nashville Ballet’s production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. It was strange and wondrous seeing Shakespeare without the words. Perhaps because I could hear so much in my head as I watched, following the story wasn’t a problem. The dancing was terrific; the costumes and sets understated, yet very evocative. But still, what made the whole thing work for me were tiny quotes from the play itself, which were projected onto the curtain before the ballet began, at the intermission, and at the end (Puck’s farewell). These small tidbits of poetry tied it all together and brought magic to the production.

  • Faith,
    glad you enjoyed it too and felt something of its power.

    Het,
    well, yes, but that’s not really my point. I’m not saying that Hamlet is our contemporary. I’m saying this production made it seem so. I’m not making an argument about universals and transhistoricals (which I don’t accept), I’m saying we should approach the process of writing with an eye for freshness and vitality, because most of the stories we tell are, broadly speaking, familiar. And I do think several of Shakepseare’s contemporaries are emminently stageable. That they are performed less frequently has at least as much to do with name appeal, funding, and their place in educational curricula than it does with inate merit or whether their stories have somehow aged less well.

    Ced,
    I’ve nearly finished my book on Julius Caesar’s performance history and it’s fascinating to see how audiences’ sense who the star of the show was have evolved. Different periods have found new points of focus, new ideas about whose play it was and what it’s “about.” But that’s sort of my point: when we approach familiar plots, we have to try to find ways to make them feel new and fresh.

    Interesting, Misty. I’m almost the opposite, in that if I don’t force myself to think things through I lapse into familiar patterns, but I can see how it might work the other way round for other writers.

  • That’s lovely, David. Interestingly, the ballet version cast a long shadow over conventional production of DREAM right up to Peter Brook’s famous 1970 production, another instance of rethinking a classic for contemporary resonance.

  • I am so glad I’m hearing so much good about this adaptation. I’ve had it saved on netflix since I first heard from the David Tennant site on FB that it was coming out. I didn’t know it was aired on PBS (sad panda moment). It’s available the 4th of May on Netflix.

    Love David Tennant and Patrick Stewart and can’t wait to see this!

    Yeah, when my friends talk about movie scripts or trying to make something original and new that’s usually the old line I reach for. There are no new tales, only fresh and different ways of telling them. So, my advice to them is always to find that hook or twist or emotional evocation that brings something fresh and new and possibly surprising to the story. Something that the reader/viewer doesn’t expect from the story. Some of my favorite stories are those that seem the same ol same ol, but then hit me with something I didn’t expect. This comes up a lot with my slasher horror indie film making friends.

  • Thanks Daniel. I’m confident you’ll enjoy it.

  • Emily

    AJ> I have this on my DVR! I know, for those interested, that it is available for sale through the PBS “Great Performances” site. The preview on the web nearly made me cry. I have to find a 3 hour block to watch it in, and then I will. (Hockey ended up taking precedence–it was Game 7 after all).

    But I’m right there with you in terms of characters. I can’t think of a book I love that I love for reasons OTHER than character. (There may be other things I love that aren’t character, but the books near and dear to my heart are so because of character).

    I love Much Ado about Nothing because I love Beatrice and Bendick. I love the Lord of the Rings because I love Sam. I love Guards! Guards! Because Vimes is one of my favorite characters of all time. I could go on, but I won’t.

    I do think that there is truth in the idea that there are only so many fundamental stories and plots, and that what makes them great is the telling–mostly character.

    I’m consistently surprised (though I shouldn’t be) at how touched and moved I am by really old stuff. Homer, Virgil, etc. Stuff that is 1000s of years old, but that still I find moving. Now, I’m not reading them in the original language, so translation has occured, and all the choices that go with it, but I’m still moved by these characters and their stories.

    I just about wrote “these people” in the line above, and switched it to “characters.” But that’s the thing, when I read, when I’m invested, they aren’t characters, they aren’t just words on a page, or faces on a screen, they are people. A historian I was taking a class with a few years ago (another student in the class) made this comment about us folk studying English: “It’s so werid. You treat the Wife of Bath like she’s a real person!” Almost every lit person in the room said (aloud or silently) “well, she is…” That, I think, is the essence of what we do, at least when we do it well: make characters real.

  • Thanks Emily. I agree. I think we bring to fictional characters elements of ourselves, flesh them out through our own imaginations, but yes, the written “character” has to feel real or the book dies. Like all writers I sometimes fail in this, but I do think that character should lead, more than plot, more than sentence level prose, more than world building, research etc. It’s as close to a benchmark of quality as I can think of.

  • Sarah

    A.J. – Absolutely! I was struck this semester how it’s character that is often the hook by which modern students are pulled into very alien works from previous eras. My Chaucer class struggled mightily with Middle English dream visions, but once they caught an affection for Geoffrey the character their enthusiasm for the material grew and they were more willing and more able to get through the language barrier. Once they had a sense that there was a person in the story they could get acquainted with, the material seemed less alien to them. Several admitted that Troilus and Criseyde actually made them cry. It was the same way for me when I first read T & C. Somewhere in the course of reading I started to care about Criseyde, to want her to survive.

    I’m not suggesting that style doesn’t matter (nor do think AJ is), but i do think that real depth of character might transcend style. And a lack of deep character makes even the grandest style not quite enough. Milton for example; Satan is so much more compelling than Adam and Eve, largely, I think, because Satan is a fully realized character and Adam and Eve are just templates of Milton’s ideal humans. They aren’t individual personalities to nearly the same extent Satan is. (And Eve offends me, but that’s a separate issue.)

  • Sarah

    Emily – Yes! I remember that moment in class with the historian. And the looks of condescending pity he got from the literature people. I think everyone was feeling what a poor sad life it must be not to have contact with people like the Wife of Bath and Aeneas and all the rest of them. And there was a strong does of scorn too – I think more than one of us said (very quietly, afterward) what a dull, limited person he must be not to understand what we meant and why we cared. And he pretty obviously thought we were juvenile and naive.

  • Sarah,
    yes, I think it’s no accident that the last couple of years has seen a revival (more theoretically and historically savvy this time) of character criticism in leading edge literary studies. Some of this is being driven by work in neuroscience which is creating a greater sense of continuity between periods in terms of how we experience the world. Character work need not be sentimental, unhistorical or theoretically naive. Quite the contrary.

  • Judy B

    Hey AJ,
    As soon as I heard the announcer say “Sir Patrick Stewart”, I sat down and watched the whole thing! As my British friend would say “F#%king Brilliant”.

  • Judy. Sometimes those are the only words that fit :)

  • heteromeles

    While I had a wonderful day outside, there’s something about a sunburn that makes me feel contrary.

    I won’t argue the brilliance of the Hamlet production. Sadly I didn’t see it.

    Nor am I going to argue against writing strong characters. I’m absolutely with you on that.

    In terms of eyeball share right now, worldbuilding is key. Not just in stories, although Dune, LOTR, and Harry Potter are still best sellers (as is Earthsea, Wheel of Time, , Diskworld, Valdemar, Pern, Darkover, etc. etc. etc.). How about Star Wars and all the other series tie-ins? There are communities around every one.

    And then there’s the real money: films like Avatar and MMORPGs. Those are about, well, not strong characters really, but…

    I’m not having much luck remembering enduring SFF stories where the character was strong and the background was forgettable. Then again, I like worldbuilding, so I’ve got my own blinders. It would be great to have a counterexample, where the characters alone made the bestseller.

    Still tastes change over time, and much is new under the sun. A lot is recycled too. Sometimes it’s just better to write the best story you’ve got, I guess.

    Anyway, if you read this far, have a great weekend.

  • I’m becoming more interested in Shakespeare lately. I didn’t know he imbued our language with so many new words.

    Thanks for reminding me to make my characters complex and driven by thought and feeling :)

    *Off to write*

  • Sir Laurence Olivier, King Lear. Personal fav. I’ve Brannagh’s Hamlet, Othello and Midsummer Night’s Dream in the cabinet, but I’ll have to look out for this one.
    Thanks,
    -NGD

  • AJ,
    I told you it was great. For those of us who had seen the theatrical version, it was a bit difficult to explain that the film version was even more brilliant. We loved the camera work with the CCTV and the soliloquy shots. I think the close shots in the doorway have to be some of my favorite film scenes ever. Patrick Stewart’s performance as Claudius and the Ghost is far better than his previous Claudius for the BBC TV/film collection of Hamlet. If you like Shakespeare most of the BBC collection do a good job, some better than others. We had to buy them for Gerald’s grad school (it was cheaper to buy the whole box on special from the RSC shop than buy all the singles we needed).

    We watched Tennant’s Hamlet in London on BBC2. With Hamlet and DW on over the holidays, David Tennant apologized for his television ubiquity while he was broadcasting over Radio 2 on boxing day. Later that night more than a million of us in the UK watched this Hamlet on BBC2 for its first airing, which even for the country the Bard originates from, was pretty impressive viewing numbers. Even the punk rockers working in the video department of HMV (music and video store) in Covent Garden knew what it was on DVD release day. This film leaves other things PBS has said were Great Performances in the dust by miles.

    AJ, I have a UK DVD edition which we won’t need shortly, if you would like to borrow it (I assume you have discovered region-free players since I’m sure you have other UK stuff you like, perhaps like Gerald you couldn’t live without Captain Scarlet or Spiderman cartoons). My US blu-ray version is in the Amazon box making it’s way to us now. I’ll let you know how it looks in 1080 later in the month (or at ConCarolinas). The US DVD and Blu-ray were released on May 4.

    We have had great experiences in the past two years going to theatre and panto in the UK. We have now moved panto to our version of Mars in 2364; we even made up a new panto for them to attend which uses characters drawn from classic SF versions of Mars. In the second book have our heroes visiting Stratford Upon Avon for Shakespeare theatre but getting caught up with some bad guys and having a bit of a river chase/crash.

    So obviously our experiences have had an influence on our writing, originally we had moved UK culture to Mars as the first settlers were from Glasgow and Belfast, but did not really have a good idea how this appear story-wise until we did some traveling. In the last 4 months of 2008 I spent 5 weeks in the UK, so got a good dosing of the culture and how they celebrate the holidays. We even did Hogmanay in Stirling, Scotland. This changed how some characters and their families were presented in the book and led us to look at how parts of the UK and the Martian colony might view each other.

    We also discovered that as Scots-Irish we had many things in common with the Scots and the Welsh, which although we knew it should be true, from NC it was more difficult to see it. It was a bit disconcerting to find an amazed woman in a Scottish clanwear shop when we opened our mouths, she couldn’t believe were from the US. We looked completely Scottish to her and apparently she had never realized the impact of mass migration from
    Ulster. All the US people she had met, even those buying clanwear, apparently were not from NC and simply did not look celtic to her.

    So we are taking that idea and using it for Martians and Scots. The Martian character who is very short at home, will get boggle eyed amazement from Scots that she is Martian (everyone expects Martians to be taller due to the gravity).

    Oh, sorry this got rather long, but this topic is very interesting.

    Angela Blackwell

  • Alan Kellogg

    My favorite rendition of Shakespeare is Kurosawa’s Ran. Very faithful to the original, and done with bravura and class. Some day I need to get a copy of the film.