Friday, September 18, 2009

Revisiting Shakespeare in the Bush

Bohannan, Laura. “Shakespeare in the Bush.” Natural History August-September 1966: 28-33.
Rpt. in Pen America: A Journal for Writers and Readers 1.2 (2001): 66-76.

Some considerable time ago, I wrote on the notion that a production of Hamlet was like a game of chess. The analogy I proposed was designed to enable contemplation of the way meaning and form relate. I suppose (to put it in [perhaps] needlessly-Saussurian terms) the rules of chess are la langue while a specific game of chess is une parole. In other words, the rules of chess are its grammar while a game of chess is a text—a manifestation of those rules.

The question, when taken from linguistic theory through chess to Hamlet, becomes complicated. Is the text of Hamlet the equivalent of la langue and a given performance of the play une parole? Or is the text of Hamlet itself une parole—one that points toward a meaning that lies beyond itself? If it is the latter, then there may be different forms that draw upon the same meaning presented in Hamlet. If it is the former (disregarding the question of which text of the play is the text of the play), then any specific performance can either be described in terms of its adherence to the rules or be used as a way of determining what the rules of Hamlet are.

Hamlet delivers meaning in a highly-specific form. Another form may deliver similar (or identical?) meaning. The issue becomes whether such a form would be Hamlet or just be like Hamlet.

At this point, I need to repeat the sentence that my grandmother often said: “I told you that to tell you this.”

In 1966, the article "Shakespeare in the Bush" by Laura Bohannan was first published. It has been reprinted in numerous places since, and it’s available on the web in an authoritative version here.

The narrative itself is extremely interesting, even though its presentation leaves a great deal to be desired. Indeed, the title itself may be considered offensive: the word “bush” here is a charged term that conveys a sense of superiority and condescension that is genuinely intolerant, intolerable, and imperialist (cf. the OED’s example quotation, written by J. S. Huxley in 1942: “Over most of Africa . . . not 10 per cent of the schools are anything but the most primitive sub-elementary bush-schools.”

The condescension in the title carries over into the narrative. Bohannan is an anthropologist who has travelled to a remote section of Nigeria to study the Tiv, one of the people groups that live there. Because she isn’t able to witness the ceremonies that she went there to study, she becomes morose and withdrawn. Eventually, she is asked to tell one of the stories of her country. She tells the plot of Hamlet. The members of the Tiv raise objections. The conclusion is that Hamlet cannot be transplanted or translated or transmigrated into the Tiv culture.

I think I’m ready to concede if the play were translated word for word and plot point for plot point into the Tiv language that it wouldn’t be a very good play. If a culture doesn’t believe in (or cannot suspend its disbelief in) ghosts, and if a major portion of the plot hinges on the nature of ghosts, the play becomes less comprehensible. It would be as if a play where a man from Mars appears to the protagonist and tells her what she ought to do was presented to playgoers who cannot suspend their disbelief in extraterrestrial beings. It would make a certain amount of sense, but the general reaction could be summed up in the phrase “Yeah, right!” and it wouldn’t be taken seriously.

But the extraterrestrial plot could be modified so that it would make better sense to a non-extraterrestrial-believing audience. The man from Mars could be presented as a CIA agent who has disguised himself as a man from Mars. Or the man could be presented as a man from Mars, Pennsylvania.

Likewise, it seems like a careful consideration of Tiv beliefs (which an anthropologist working among them would have) could make the transmission of a comprehensible Hamlet relatively easy and poignant. The objection to the ghost of Hamlet’s father could be overcome by presenting that character as either “an omen sent by a witch” (29) or “a dead body the witches had animated to sacrifice and eat” (30)—in other words, a Zombi—suggestions made by members of the Tiv during the course of the conversation. Claudius could also be held responsible for Hamlet’s madness because of witchcraft, and Laertes could have “killed his sister by witchcraft, drowning her so he could secretly sell her body to the witches” (33).

Maddeningly, Laura Bohannan did not immediately bring in a film crew, a screenplay writer, and an anthropological consultant to produce a Tiv Hamlet with a Zombi Hamlet, Sr.; a witchcraft-practicing Laertes; a Gertrude who, according to local mores, was entirely right to marry Claudius; and a Hamlet who was bewitched into actual madness instead of merely pretending to be mad. What a show that would be! What a production! What a story! What a play! Using Tiv culture to tell the story of Hamlet instead of smashing the story of Hamlet into Tiv culture is both a brilliant and attainable idea!

But would it still be Hamlet?

It’s clearly like Hamlet, even if the original language is abandoned and some major plot points are altered significantly. A play like the Tiv Hamlet here imagined would still be recognizable as Hamlet. And it might be the only Hamlet comprehensible in that culture.

A game of chess played entirely without pawns or a game in which players make two moves per turn would be recognizable as forms of chess. Acknowledging that this parole is a departure from the absolute norms of la langue while still being indebted to them may be a reasonable qualification, but it shouldn’t detract from the interest in studying the differences it makes.

In “Shakespeare in the Bush,” the old man says, “We believe you when you say your marriage customs are different, or your clothes and weapons. But people are the same everywhere” (33). People, like Hamlets, are not identical everywhere, but there are enormous similarities. Recognizing and studying the similarities and differences will make for better understanding among people everywhere—not to mention better Hamlets for everyone!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Modernized Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure. Dir. Bob Komar. Perf. Daniel Roberts, Simon Phillips, Kristopher Milnes, Dawn Murphy, Simon Nuckley, and Josephine Rogers. 2006. DVD. Lucky Strike Productions, 2007.
The tag line for this production is "Prepare to be Judged."

I wonder how many critics have used that as a preface to their review. Too many, I imagine, to allow me to use it with any flavor of freshness—especially as I haven't managed to see the entire film and am, therefore, not prepared to judge it completely!

When I purchased Bob Komar's Measure for Measure from (it hasn't been released in the U.S. yet), I thought that it was a derivative version of the play. I thought that Shakespeare's language had been abandoned but the plot retained in the manner of the BBC's Shakespeare Retold series. Instead, it's an adaptation—a modified version of the text, but one that retains Shakespeare's language. It's setting is modern: we're in the British army now.

Again, I haven't watched the film in its entirety, but I have seen enough to be interested. The moral laxity of Measure for Measure's Vienna is translated to drinking, drug use, and debauchery in the troops, and that seems to be a careful decision rather than a flippantly-random setting. On the other hand, I am somewhat skeptical of the cinematography, which is highly influenced by reality-show conventions.

The main concern I have so far is the film's sporadic approach to the text. For example, Angelo's "'Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, / Another thing to fall" (II.i.17ff) is removed from its context of a discussion between Angelo and Escalus on Claudio's life and the nature of temptation and presented more or less as a set speech:

'Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus,
Another thing to fall. I not deny,
The jury, passing on the prisoner's life,
May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two
Guiltier than him they try. What's open made to justice,
That justice seizes: what know the laws
That thieves do pass on thieves? 'Tis very pregnant,
The jewel that we find, we stoop and take't
Because we see it; but what we do not see
We tread upon, and never think of it.
You may not so extenuate his offence
For I have had such faults; but rather tell me,
When I, that censure him, do so offend,
Let mine own judgment pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial. (II.i.17-31)
That said (and that shown), I'm still interested in seeing how Komar works his way through the rest of the play. The setting seems both reasonable and thoughtfully-chosen, and the acting (though not brilliant) isn't to be scorned. Furthermore, the idea of a female Escalus is an intriguing one. Once I'm more prepared to judge it, I'll attempt to do so, recognizing that my own screenplay of a Measure for Measure derivative will be judged by the same standards I apply to this adaptation.
Links: The Film at IMDB.

Click below to purchase the film from
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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Love’s Labor’s Lost in Space

“Love’s Labor’s Lost in Space.” By Matt Groening. Perf. Billy West, Katey Sagal, John Di Maggio, and Lauren Tom. Dir. Brian Sheesley. Futurama. Season 1, episode 4. Fox. 13 April 1999. DVD. Fox Film Corporation, 2006.

In a similar vein to "Much Ado About Scrooge," we have "Love’s Labor’s Lost in Space." Unlike the Ducktales animated Shakespeare-related show--which has references to a number of plays and some pretense to biographical details--Futurama's falls into a classification known as "titularly parasitical." Not much more than the title has any connection to Shakespeare.

Links: The Film at IMDB.

Click below to purchase the film from
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William Drakespeare

“Much Ado about Scrooge.” By Karen Willson and Chris Weber. Perf. Charles Adler, Victoria Carroll, Will Ryan, Russi Taylor, Alan Young, and Chuck McCann. Dir. David Block. Ducktales. Season 1, episode 18 [according to the DVD—variously listed as episode 11 or episode 23 in other sources]. Syndicated television. 14 October 1987. DVD. Disney DVD, 2005.

My attention was briefly drawn away from more serious endeavors late in the spring semester by someone mentioning a Shakespeare-related Ducktales episode. Our library had it, the wait wasn't too long, and I found time to watch it.

It isn't terribly good. The plot involves a search for the lost play—the last play—of William Drakespeare (since it's all about ducks, all the puns have to be about ducks, too). The intrepid Scrooge McDuck and his three nephews journey to an island populated with characters out of Shakespeare, all making duck-related puns.

That's about it! I'm just filling in the gaps of animated Shakespeare as I find them!

Links: The Episode at IMDB.

Click below to purchase the show from
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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Freely Adapted as a One-Act Play from A Midsummer Night's Dream

McMahon, Luella. The Lovers in Midsummer. Chicago: The Dramatic Publishing Company, 1970.

Something odd just fell off my shelf. I used to remember the history of most of the books I have—it's part of the joy of book ownership to be able to say, "Oh, yeah! I got that at Lobster Lane Books in the late 1990s" instead of "Oh, yeah! I downloaded that to my Kindle at an airport somewhere sometime." But I have no idea where this volume came from!

It's a pretty maudlin adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream designed (I deduce from the chart on where Upstage Left is) for amateur productions. It cuts the rude mechanicals, adds a maid named Felicia for Hermia, and gives us some Shakespeare-sounding speeches—e.g., "But these be modern days and modern ways" (5).

What struck me, however, was the opening advice. We are advised to avoid "declaiming Shakespeare as if reading a song, as read, for example, by Sir John Gielgud" and to follow the manner "made familiar by Richard Burton" (4) instead. Embodied in that brief note is a really interesting slice of stage history—and one that continues to evolve. Contemporary amateurs might be advised to avoid the Burton and cling to the Branagh—or to skip the Branagh and go for the Tennant approach.

There are a few used copies available at—starting at $15.00. Perhaps I won't put this out on the free table after all!

Click below to purchase the play from
(and to support Bardfilm as you do so).

Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
All material original to this blog is copyrighted: Copyright 2008-2039 (and into perpetuity thereafter) by Keith Jones.

The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest