The Shakespeare Theater Company’s Richard II and the dumbing-down compulsion

Anyone who went to see the Shakespeare Theater Company’s production of Richard II, which is wrapping up this weekend, and who knows their Shakespeare, was in for quite a nasty surprise at its outset. The first several scenes, running more than 20 minutes into the production, are not Richard II at all, they’re not even Shakespeare. They are from an incomplete manuscript usually referred to as Thomas of Woodstock that is contemporaneous with early Shakespeare, but possibly slightly earlier. Though some people have tried to attribute authorship of the play to Shakespeare, I think there’s almost no possibility that Shakespeare wrote it even though it shares many themes and characters that appear in several of his plays, especially Richard II, because the quality of the poetry simply doesn’t hold up to even his earliest and crudest work. If anyone ever doubted that, the STC production, in which the language suddenly and spectacularly soars when the dialogue switches from Woodstock to Richard, should firmly convince them. I have no idea how much of the audience throughout its run was aware of what was going on (I had no idea until the play started, and my companion was shocked when I told her, “wtf, this isn’t Shakespeare, it’s from a crappy play called Woodstock,” and later when I had to reassure her, “I’ll tell you when the Shakespeare starts”), but my guess is it’s quite a large number.

Now, all things being equal, conflating plays really isn’t a bad thing at all… if it works. Unfortunately, in this case it’s really a disaster. My negative evaluation is not being colored by my short-lived feud with the STC that seems to have been thankfully resolved. The bad blood had to do with my strong objections to some of their recent ghastly productions, especially The Alchemist, which was utterly ruined, and As You Like It, which I most certainly did not. Both were just awful, and there is no other word for it. They represented what is really objectionable about the current STC approach, which is a relentless tendency to dumb everything down in an insulting manner that also seriously degrades the plays themselves. The STC suffers from several endemic problems, the most serious of which are that it is self-satisfied, complacent and committed to gaining the largest possible audiences through pandering to what it imagines are the public’s limitations. This sometimes produces dire consequences, as with the two productions cited above. But not everything they do is awful by any means. The recent Balkan war-themed King Lear starring a Saddam-like Stacy Keach, both of which just received Helen Hayes Awards, was really very good. Twelfth Night was charming and funny and also quite well done. There was some dumbing-down in both of them, but other qualities carried the day, especially Keach’s brilliant performance.

The winding-down production of Richard II falls somewhere in between the two. It’s not a complete and total disaster, but the decision to conflate big chunks of Woodstock into its opening was an absolutely terrible idea that again reflects this unfortunate tendency to underestimate the capacity of the audience to deal with complexity. I can imagine the conversation that led to this atrocious decision quite easily. Richard II is shot through with what can only be described as a conspiracy theory, or a set of conspiracy theories, surrounding the looming political question of “who killed Gloucester?” It haunts much of the play like “who killed JFK?” or maybe even “who killed Laura Palmer?” Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, was one of Richard’s uncles, and Richard II’s first scene depicts an enraged argument between Mowbray and Bolingbroke over the latter’s accusations that the former was responsible for his murder. The play is riddled with accusations and counter-accusations about the killing, and when Bolingbroke finally deposes Richard, a dizzying free-for-all of threats and blame over the murder again erupts in the court like the return of the repressed with a vengeance. But Shakespeare is never clear about who did, in fact, kill Gloucester.

Some scholars like to argue that in his audience “everyone knew” the received wisdom that the chroniclers of the day, especially Holinshed, held that Mowbray had organized the killing on behalf of Richard because of Gloucester’s outspoken criticism of his mismanagement and cronyism. I’m not sure I find this terribly convincing, and besides, if Shakespeare wanted to establish with certainty that this was the case, there are dozens of ways he could have done it. In fact, Shakespeare goes to great lengths to ensure that the question of Gloucester’s death is a zone of almost occult instability that emphasizes the eerie way in which the murder haunts not only Richard’s rule, but Bolingbroke’s as well (until Richard’s own murder supplants it), not to mention the play itself. Here’s where the STC’s dumbing-down impulse takes over. I’m sure Kahn and company were greatly worried that the audience would be confused by this deliberate and careful ambiguity about the actual circumstances of Gloucester’s murder, and all of these obscure implications and vague conspiracy theories. And then somebody had a brilliant idea: import parts of Woodstock that clearly depict Mowbray arranging for Gloucester’s murder on behalf of Richard, and then we will have clarity and the audience will not be confused anymore. Indeed, but at what price?

I would argue that this “clarity” does considerable damage to Richard II on several levels. For one thing, it undermines the finely wrought tension in the play between political legitimacy as embodied in Richard’s divine right versus political merit as embodied in Bolingbroke’s skills and effectiveness. Establishing Richard’s culpability clearly makes Bolingbroke’s case a little too strong to sustain the level of tension Shakespeare chose to craft and which the STC chucks away.

Similarly, we lose the extremely interesting interplay of the first three scenes of Shakespeare’s actual text. In the first scene, Richard appears impartial and judicious, almost wise, in remaining studiously neutral between his cousin Bolingbroke and Mowbray. However, in the second scene, another of his uncles, John of Gaunt, strongly implies to Gloucester’s outraged widow that nothing can be done about the murder because the King is ultimately responsible and must be dealt with only by God. This of course offers the potential for a completely different reinterpretation of Richard’s apparent judiciousness in the first scene, suggesting it may well have been a cynical and politically expedient means of hanging Mowbray out to dry. It also brings into sharper relief the question of Bolingbroke’s motivations for the accusation: is he merely pursuing a personal vendetta against Mowbray, or is he launching a long-term strategy aimed at Richard’s power by attacking its weakest point, the murder of Gloucester? There is a distinct and carefully crafted ambiguity about all of these questions, greatly adding to the richness of the play.

In addition, because the first and second scenes combine to create a belated sense of Richard’s own possible culpability in Gloucester’s death, this creates a potential ambiguous dual reading of the third scene, the trial in which Mowbray and Bolingbroke are going to duel to establish the veracity of their competing claims. After a tremendous buildup to the joust, at the last second Richard intervenes and banishes both men, Mowbray for life and Bolingbrook for first 10 and then, on reconsideration, six years. The reasons for this decision are not readily apparent, although Richard claims it is to preserve calm in the kingdom and apparently even Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, reluctantly agrees with this logic. However, given Richard’s evident attachment to and deep belief in the system that has made him King by divine right, a divinely-guided and accurate test of the competing claims at stake may have seemed too dangerous if he was indeed responsible for the killing. If Bolingbroke can establish Mowbray’s culpability through defeating him in the duel, assuming one believes God defends the right, then the finger of blame begins to point squarely in Richard’s direction. So the last-minute intervention and banishment, especially making sure Mowbray, who could betray him, is gone forever, could be read as a cynical effort on Richard’s part to avoid the conspiracy theory developing any further — what Nixon termed “the hangout route” during the Watergate scandal.

The point is that in Shakespeare’s text, both of these readings and indeed others, are plausible given the ambiguity about the actual circumstances of Gloucester’s murder. All of this is lost in the STC production because of the misguided decision to “clarify” this ambiguity by introducing large chunks of an infinitely inferior play by an infinitely inferior poet. I would argue that Shakespeare knew exactly what he was doing, since he was an artist more than capable of shaping clarity and ambiguity to fit his own dramatic purposes. In fact, it’s one aspect of storytelling at which he is an almost unrivaled master. It’s possible that Kahn and the others thought that because in Shakespeare’s own audience “everyone knew” that Mowbray killed Gloucester at Richard’s behest, the modern audience needed a little help. First of all, I’m not at all convinced that “everybody knew” anything of the kind. This assumes a level of detailed knowledge of English history on the part of a lot of illiterate and semiliterate people in Elizabethan London that strikes me as somewhat implausible. But, for the sake of argument let’s say they did. More importantly, everybody really did “know” lots of things that Shakespeare makes crystal clear in his histories for narrative and other artistic purposes, so the question is: why does he go to such elaborate lengths to produce, layer and delicately cultivate this kind of ambiguity in Richard II? Obviously, the answer is because it is a crucial part of the dramatic purpose of the work and I think the STC production makes it extremely clear why that is important because of what is lost when this rich, complex ambiguity is replaced by crude, flattening clarity.

They don’t stop, unbelievably enough, at importing chunks of Woodstock. The STC production actually completely rearranges the structure of the first three scenes I described above, with the John of Gaunt/Duchess of Gloucester (Woodstock’s widow) scene that is the second in Shakespeare’s play coming before the other two, and the first and third scenes of Shakespeare’s text — the argument in the court and the duel scene respectively — incongruously and clumsily conflated. In the process, all of the carefully and delicately constructed ambiguity, tension, conspiracy and conspiracy theory about Richard’s relationship to Gloucester’s murder is completely lost. Of course, it’s every director’s and every company’s right to rearrange scenes however they want in any production, but the audience has a right to ask: does this work? In this case, unambiguously not.

And it gets even worse than that. In Shakespeare’s first scene, the argument at court, Mowbray angrily claims:
“For Gloucester’s death,
I slew him not, but to my own disgrace
Neglected my sworn duty in that case.”
What this “neglected duty” refers to is entirely obscure, and Shakespeare deliberately leaves it so. If Mowbray was implicated in the murder at Richard’s behest, since Gloucester died how did he neglect any duty? If he was not, what duty did he then neglect? According to Holinshed, Shakespeare’s main source, Mowbray wanted to spare Gloucester but was compelled by Richard to organize the killing. So, is Mowbray denying any connection to the murder? Is he appealing to Richard for protection? Is he disclaiming responsibility on the grounds of compulsion? Is he quibbling that he slew him not because he ordered other people to do it for him? Is this the line that sets up Mowbray for banishment because it implies that he might spill the beans? All of these readings and many more are opened up in Shakespeare’s text because of the carefully crafted ambiguity about the circumstances of the murder and in Mowbray’s oblique comment. In their lamentable drive to replace rich Shakespearean ambiguity with their own version of “clarity,” STC obliterates all these questions by going so far as to invent a new line for Mowbray following “Neglected my sworn duty in that case,” continuing the sentence with “by not apprehending the culprits” or something like that (obviously, I didn’t bother to write it down, but it leapt out at me like a giant wad of spit from the mouth of a hooligan).

Well, they certainly added clarity. They inserted it in the play with a bulldozer in the opening sequences jerryrigged from Woodstock, and with a scalpel in this little sliver of text deftly inserted in Mowbray’s speech like a bamboo shoot under the fingernail. With blunt force and surgical skill, STC got rid of one of the most intriguing and multivalent aspects of Richard II, largely I think because they just didn’t believe that we, the poor stupid audience, could possibly handle Shakespearean ambiguity and complexity. They’re wrong of course. I think any audience carefully paying attention, whether Renaissance or contemporary, is more than able to handle Shakespearean ambiguity and rich complexity, texts and plots that are open to a wild proliferation of signification and interpretation. Otherwise the plays wouldn’t have had the hegemonic cultural power they have wielded for so many years and in so many cultures and countries, far beyond the English-speaking world. This impulse the STC are gripped by to dumb everything down like this is the Achilles’ heel of what ought to be the most important theater company in Washington. Instead, one tends to look to productions of the Folger or even by the upstart Taffety Punk Company for genuine inspiration. What a shame.

Richard II is my favorite of Shakespeare’s early plays, and I think it’s obviously the one he spent most time and care on, in many ways. Not only does that mean I was greatly displeased by this extremely misguided adaptation because I think so much richness was lost, but it also means I have a great deal more to say about Richard II, and I’ll do so in an upcoming posting that puts the STC production aside and looks again at this astonishing masterpiece on its own terms.