Genre of our Age

I have never had a whole lot of time for Ralph Fiennes. But the man deserves his props for making his Coriolanus movie.

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus play, which T. S. Eliot regarded as the finest of the Bard’s tragedies, has hardly anyone in it for the audience to like.

The hero, frequently called proud, cannot justly be convicted of that vice; he bends his knees piously before Rome’s gods. But what he is is hard. And when the one person who can soften him—namely his mother—moves to do so, his softening costs Coriolanus his life (as he foresees).

This hard Coriolanus holds the unflattering title of being the favorite Shakespeare character of the Nazis, who distributed copies of the play to schoolboys.

Indeed, it is impossible for the audience to like Coriolanus, or his mother, or his wife, or his adversaries—neither his military nor his political opponents have any heartwarming qualities. The only sympathetic characters in the play are Coriolanus’ friends among the Roman nobility, particularly Menenius Agrippa.

Coriolanus, though fearless in battle, lacks the courage to accuse himself of his own faults. Menenius, on the other hand, over a glass of wine, manages to indict the craven Roman tribunes for all their foibles, while in the same breath he freely acknowledges all his own.

Brian Cox’s Menenius makes Fiennes’ movie. The ebullience of the longsuffering friend takes the edge off the Rambo theatrics of the battle scenes. Menenius’ suicide (only hinted-at in the play) signals the summary ending of the movie. From here, there is nowhere to go but downhill fast. Only a few minutes later, Coriolanus, too, is dead.

…Bringing us to my real point:

When only one instance of a certain artistic type exists, then it stands alone, sui generis. But when a second instance comes along, Aha! We now have a new genre.

Rarely does every line of a Shakespeare script manage to get itself spoken when one of his plays is produced.

Usually some, if not many, lines are “cut.” This practice shortens the running time, removes particularly difficult vocabulary or obscure references, makes it easier for actors to memorize everything they have to say, etc. When I performed in Macbeth in 1981, we cut the entire scene in which Malcolm and Macduff discuss the state of Scotland. In his movie version of King Lear, Orson Welles completely removed the charater of Edmund.

(Kenneth Branagh’s triumphant Hamlet movie, in which every line of the script is spoken, stands as the ‘anti-type’ of the genre I am preparing to describe to you.)

So: “Cutting” a Shakespeare script has constituted common practice for centuries. But what about when more than half of the lines get cut? More than 75% cut?

What about when: The actors speak lines from the original script and all the action follows the original plotline. But what is actually being produced is not so much Shakespeare’s play, but rather a stylized video, in which some of Shakespeare’s lines are “sampled,” to great dramatic effect, in a contemporary setting?

Brian Cox lovably enacts Menenius

I would call this a new genre.

The idea appears to be: We will have a fast-moving movie depicting a Shakespearian storyline; chunks of the original script will be delivered by all the clever means we can devise (including using cable newsmen on tvs in the background, delivering crucial plot-developing lines); and we will wind up with something genuinely new.

In this new thing, every spoken word will have come from the pen of the Bard, and every frame of film will meet the standards of contemporary movie-making technique. We will draw audiences into an experience of Shakespeare’s poetry that no preceding generation has ever had. We just have to leave 85-90% of Shakespeare’s actual words on the cutting-room floor.

“Sampled Shakespeare.” Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet. Ralph Fiennes 2011 Coriolanus.

Just to prove my point about “sampling from”—rather than merely “cutting”—one example from each movie…

1. In Romeo + Juliet, Claire Danes, trapped into marrying Dave Paris, shows up desperate at Father Lawrence’s apartment. She cries: “Be not so long to speak. I long to die!” She has no more to say in this scene of the movie.

In the original script she adds:

O, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,
From off the battlements of yonder tower;
Or walk in thievish ways; or bid me lurk
Where serpents are; chain me with roaring bears;
Or shut me nightly in a charnel-house,
O’er-cover’d quite with dead men’s rattling bones,
With reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls;
Or bid me go into a new-made grave
And hide me with a dead man in his shroud;
Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble;
And I will do it without fear or doubt,
To live an unstain’d wife to my sweet love. (Act IV, Scene 1)

2. In Fiennes’ Coriolanus, Menenius, via the t.v., chides the hungry crowd that they “may as well strike at the heaven with their staves as lift them against the Roman state.”

In Shakespeare’s script, Menenius goes on to tell the parable of the belly, just as Plutarch himself originally reported (in the source Shakespeare used to frame his play):

He said, namely, that all the other members of man’s body once revolted against the belly, and accused it of being the only member to sit idly down in its place and make no contribution to the common welfare, while the rest underwent great hardships and performed great public services only to minister to its appetites; but that the belly laughed at their simplicity in not knowing that it received into it all the body’s nourishment only to send it back again and duly distribute it among the other members. “Such, then,” he said again, “is the relation of the senate, my fellow-citizens, to you; the matters for deliberation which there receive the necessary attention and disposition bring to you all and severally what is useful and helpful.” (Plutarch, Life of Coriolanus)

Anyway: I love this new genre. (Not as much as I love reading Shakesepare’s scripts, but still–I love it a lot.) Long may “sampled Shakespeare” prosper.

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