Thursday, October 22, 2009

Austen and Shakespeare

It's very common to stage productions of Shakespeare's plays in a different time than they were originally set in, by changing costumes and sets, but not changing the lines. In fact, it's so common, The Onion wrote a typically biting farce about it: Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended.
MORRISTOWN, NJ—In an innovative, tradition-defying rethinking of one of the greatest comedies in the English language, Morristown Community Players director Kevin Hiles announced Monday his bold intention to set his theater's production of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in 16th-century Venice.

"I know when most people hear The Merchant Of Venice, they think 1960s Las Vegas, a high-powered Manhattan stock brokerage, or an 18th-century Georgia slave plantation, but I think it's high time to shake things up a bit," Hiles said. "The great thing about Shakespeare is that the themes in his plays are so universal that they can be adapted to just about any time and place."
Of course, some of his plays are intentionally set up in such a way that they can easily be transposed -- The Tempest is an obvious example. With others, we transpose them with a little forgiveness for a few elements that might not make as much sense (e.g., the cultural acceptance of the idea of ghosts behaving as Hamlet Sr. did that suits Denmark but might not suit all settings in which Hamlet has been transposed), or we let other parts of the play simply get dropped (like the whole Fortinbras part of Hamlet).

We can do this in part because the original settings are already so far remote that transposing them to another setting has little impact: the timely parts of the plays have already become a footnote, while the timeless parts are what brings us back to them, so if we're already in it for the timeless parts, they hold up fine to transposition. Plus there's already a lot of oddness that's accepted because that's just part of Shakespeare, like how readily a little costume change completely disguises someone from their closest friends and relatives, so once you're already having to accept those things, it's easy enough to not think twice about the idea of the Queen of the Fairies in the woods outside a mall in Hackensack, rather than outside Athens.

I wonder if we can ever be so far removed from the world in which the writings of Jane Austen are set (essentially her real world) that her plays can be readily transposed. While it's been done, it was done only by rewriting around a common idea (Clueless is based on Emma in much the same way Forbidden Planet is based on The Tempest) or by integrating the stories into other stories (as in The Jane Austen Book Club or Lost In Austen), not by actual transposition, using the same dialogue in a different setting.

At first blush, the answer seems to be 'no' because any of Austen's writings is much more firmly entrenched in, based on, derived from their setting than even the most historically-rooted of Shakespeare's plays (such as his histories). It might also matter that they're books, not plays, so the idea of transposing dialogue is less relevant given how much of the book is retold in other ways when it's made into a film.

But I wouldn't sell the idea entirely short. If Hamlet can be made sense of by people who don't understand how kings were elected in Denmark, then Pride and Prejudice will one day (maybe not today, but maybe in the future) make just as much sense to people who have little understanding of how scandal could affect a family in Regency England. More to the point, they won't find that any harder to grasp than the idea of scandal working that way in pre-WW1 France, or the Byzantine empire, or any other setting just as alien to the audience as Regency England will be by then.

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