Thursday, April 26, 2007

Belated Birthday Greetings Billy!

Have you ever noticed that you always forget the birthdays of people who matter most to you? A couple of days later, you're smacking your head, going "D'oh!" and wondering how you'll make it up to them. Queen Victoria, the little baby Jesus, Washington and Lincoln, their birthdays you couldn't miss if you tried. But this year, what with one thing and another, I forgot Bill again -- and he's real important to me.


Bill would have been 443 this year. Ironically, he also died on his birthday and maybe that's why it isn't celebrated as much as it should be. Hard to know if you're marking the day to toast his arrival or in the hope you've seen the last of him. And being thankful for seeing the last of him is how a lot of people feel about Bill Shakespeare. I figure it's true of at least 99 out of every hundred who had to read one of his plays in high school, because I used to be one of them.

I hated Shakespeare the first time I had to study him. Grade nine. A half semester of English was taken up by "MacBeth". I cannot describe how much I loathed that play! But it wasn't Bill's fault.

You see, over the last 400 years, Bill got so famous for the plays he wrote, that he was morphed into some unfathomable genius who could only be approached in reverential terms.

Even in grade nine, I kinda wanted to be an actor. So I knew Bill's stuff was something I had to get my head around. I'll never forget my English teacher gently opening his copy of the play and reading the first scene. By the time MacBeth walked in a page later, I was sure I'd been handed some chunk of indecipherable code. Words that didn't make sense. Sentences that didn't give you the first clue of what was going on. No stage directions saying who was who and why they were wherever.

And then my teacher smiled and closed his text and did an hour on what that one page meant, ultimately leaving me even more confused. I looked around and all the kids from good families or who were really into theatre nodded and cooed and made respectful comments. I just kept thinking, "Well, 'A' this proves you're an idiot and 'B' if you still want to be an actor, you better learn to shoot guns and stuff so you can be in action movies."

It's no wonder so many people look at going to the theatre as an experience to be endured rather than enjoyed. They too once sat in a classroom as some teacher opened "As You Like It" or "Hamlet" and promptly robbed them of encountering the greatest writer who ever lived.

Five years after I slept through "MacBeth", I was in theatre school, had done a couple of Shakespeare's plays (still without really understanding a word of them) and was in England for the first time, with a group of theatre students from all over Canada and the USA who had come to soak up the culture.

My first day there, slightly under age but truly enjoying an evening in an English Pub, one of my pals struck up a conversation with a couple of lads at the bar, mentioning that we wanted to see a play by the Royal Shakespeare Company. (Well, he did. Me, not so much.) One of these English guys was a bricklayer. The other drove a truck (sorry, a Lorrie). They were both about 18 and as working class as you get.

One of them wondered aloud what the RSC was doing in the next month. The other reeled off a few titles. His friend nodded, "Yeah, well, I wouldn't bother with the 'Hamlet'. It ain't up to snuff." His mate took umbrage with that, insisting that it was a lot better than the "Hamlet" somebody'd just finished in the West End. All of this leading to an argument I thought would come to blows. Two things struck me immediately. First, everybody here went to the theatre; and second, even these guys knew more about Shakespeare than Mr. Fancypants Actorboy!

About a week later, we were on a bus to Stratford Upon Avon with tickets to see "King Lear". Oh Boy! A four hour play about an old king who goes nuts! By then I had a new girlfriend, a very hot actress from NY, who was really into Shakespeare, so, of course, I was doing anything to appear both cool and intelligent in her eyes.

We spent the afternoon wandering the quaint tourist traps of Stratford Upon, buying Shakespeare bust mugs so we could drink beer out of Bill's head and postcards and some kind of candy you could eat in the theatre without getting shushed. Just before dusk, we ended up at Holy Trinity Church.

We went in and approached a velvet rope that cordoned off the Chancel where Bill's interred. There was an old man at the rope with a box for donations, a small sign indicating the fee for taking a peek at Bill's final rest. Between us, we only had enough for one admission. So, appearing gallant, but not really giving a shit, I paid and she went in.

Alone in the church, I busied myself looking at stained glass and things carved in the wall. The old man started gathering up his lunch pail and his book, making ready to go home. He gestured me over and lifted the rope, so I could go in. I hesitated. "Go ahead," he said, "We're not trying to make money here." And then..."He was just another fella from the village."

Those words struck me. All of the reverence. The scholars. The reams of essays and critiques parsing virtually every word the man wrote. Just another fella?

That night I finally saw Shakespeare played the way it was meant to be played. I not only undertood every word, I understood exactly what that old man in the church had meant.

I wasn't watching a play meant to be dissected and worried intellectually. It was a real story that grabbed you from the first moment. The emotions were utterly true and nothing about it was delicate or precious or to be treated with respect. In fact, during the scene in which the Duke of Gloucester is blinded, there was so much blood onstage, these great actors were literally sliding around in it.

When the climactic storm arrived and Lear went mad, it felt like my heart was breaking and I left the theatre finally understanding the meaning of tragedy and with more insights into life and people than I could possibly keep track of, let alone put into words.

And that old man in the church was right. No doubt Bill was a talented genius, but he wasn't any different from you and me. All he was doing was saying what all of us feel and know or believe in our hearts about the world. Unfortunately for Bill and his plays and the rest of us, somebody decided along the way that what he wrote was "Art" and had to be treated differently from other stories. That took away their humanity, which is what gives any story life.

The best description of writing I've heard is that it's the act of trying to remember things that haven't happened yet. And that certainly describes the pain that's often involved. But I think it's almost exactly the opposite of that. I think writing is the act of remembering all those experiences that are embedded in our DNA, a personal cellular record we all share and carry of everything everyone who's gone before us has experienced and felt and understood.

I also think what makes writing hard is not making the connection with those truths, but trying to get past the reverence we're taught to have for what we write. Those English teachers and scholars and critics are in our heads reminding us this is hard and only special people like William Shakespeare can do it well; when, in fact, he was just another fella from the village.

Happy Belated birthday, Bill. Just wanted you to know I celebrated by blogging this and watching a hockey game while drinking a beer out of your head.

2 comments:

wcdixon said...

"Thou'rt a scholar; let us therefore eat and drink (and watch men on skates?)"

Twelfth Night



Lovely post...

Bill Cunningham said...

Gee, I spent Shakespeare's birthday filling a 2 liter bottle with my urine so you could have this little "Hockey pool drug test" of yours...

I can see you lifting the bottle and reciting, "Alas poor bastard. I knew him well."

(I take no responsibility if it eats through the plastic by the time it arrives)