Early this century, on New York's Lower East Side, where the Yiddish theater thrived and Shakespeare was an audience favorite, the playbill for a famous Second Avenue production read: "Hamlet, bei William Shakespeare, fartaytch un farbessert" -- Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, translated and improved.
The urge to translate and improve upon the master turns out, unfortunately, not to be the exclusive property of recent immigrants. It is by now the norm. One citadel of translation and improvement is Washington's renowned Shakespeare Theatre. ("The nation's foremost Shakespeare company" -- the Wall Street Journal.)
I got hooked on the Shakespeare Theatre about four years ago, by a brilliantly staged production of Henry V. I was so impressed, I took out a subscription. But I have since paid a heavy price: So much translation, so much improvement, so much wincing, nay, recoiling.
I am not talking here about such conventional devices as abridging the text or using period costume. I am talking about the directorial flourishes that deliberately invade the text, often in pursuit of some crashingly banal political or social statement. Such as staging Othello with colors reversed, the Moor being white, Iago and Desdemona and the rest being black.
Or take this year's The Trojan Women (the season includes one or two non-Shakespeare classics) with costume and scenery -- ominous, heavy metallic architectural forms -- making loud allusion to the Holocaust. And for those who don't quite get it, there is a gratuitous opening moment before any dialogue when a woman prisoner runs naked across the stage into an open shower.
And now King Lear. They can't really ruin Lear, can they? Prepare yourself.
I don't object to the Edwardian period dress. But why, in God's name, the giant birthday cake in the opening scene? Candles lit, it is brought out to Lear and then -- I'm not making this up -- the whole assembly of daughters and courtiers bursts into a rendition of Happy Birthday.
The trope is then reinforced when Lear divides his kingdom among his daughters by carving a map of icing on the cake. This knowing, winking anachronism (lifted from The Godfather II, in which Hyman Roth similarly carves up Cuba) can only be described as camp. It's a joke on the play and the audience, in which the audience is supposed to join in taking ironic distance -- that modern conceit -- from the play itself.
Some of the other clang devices are by now routine for the Shakespeare Theatre: the minimalist staging (a flat set, Godot-like in its barrenness, barely changing whether it's supposed to be a raging heath or a sumptuous castle), costumes as deliberately flattened as the sets (the King of France in tux), and, once again, the ever-present coarse metallic background (the cliched Holocaust-totalitarianism motif).
But one device is not routine at all. Even after the cake, it comes as a shock -- an in-your-face, look-at-me piece of directorial arrogance. When it is the turn of Cordelia, the good daughter, to speak, she does so -- in sign. She is mute. As she signs, her lines are spoken to the other characters by Fool (and later, by France).
Of all the people to be robbed of speech: Cordelia. And robbed by whom? This coup of political correctness is particularly egregious because it so contradicts Shakespeare. In his dying moments, Lear says movingly of Cordelia, her voice was ever soft, / gentle, and low, an excellent thing in a woman.
It is one thing to take liberties with ambiguities. Or to seize upon holes in the text to drive through one's own sensibility. But to do it in contradiction to the text is sheer willfulness.
This willfulness is, of course, in perfect synchrony with the prevailing academic notion of the critic being superior to the author. Indeed, the author must be stripped of all authority over his creation, lest we lapse into authoritarianism. He loses control of the text the minute pen leaves paper. There is no real text, only what the reader makes of it. And the reader -- which in this case means the director -- can make of it what he wants.
Just a few months ago, the company's production of The Merchant of Venice totally inverted the character of Lorenzo. His every profession of love is undermined by a stage action -- fingering Jessica's jewels or throwing a knowing wink -- that tells the audience that he is a knave and that every word Shakespeare put in his mouth is meant to be taken ironically.
The coup de grace occurs when one of Portia's suitors, the Prince of Arragon, arrives. Says Shakespeare: "with train." Says the Shakespeare Theatre: with dwarf, racing silently about making lewd gestures. As if modern audiences cannot take Shakespeare straight without some camp conceit for comic relief.
If this were the story of just one theater (albeit one the Economist calls "one of the world's three great Shakespearean theaters"), it would be an amusing curiosity. Unfortunately, the Shakespeare Theatre of Washington is not at all unique. Modern artists everywhere feel impelled to draw mustaches on the work of the great. It is, in part, an act of defiance. But it is more often a sign of desperation, an unwitting acknowledgment of the smallness of our time.
And yet, despite these travesties, the Bard still triumphs. We are still moved. He still speaks to us above and around and despite these febrile attempts at translation and improvement. That is the good news. The bad news is about us, plagued by a narcissism that forces even Shakespeare to struggle to be heard above our preening din.
Across town, the rival Folger Shakespeare Theater is putting on a production of Hamlet in which the role of Hamlet is divided (within each performance) among four actors, three of whom are women in cross-dress. Says Kate Norris, one of the quarter-Hamlets, "We have so much fun on this thing." Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were executed for less.
Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.