One of the many achievements of Ira Glass’s This American Life is that it is a longform approach to storytelling, whether personal or reportorial. By not dumbing down, by not sound-biting, it has become one of the most acclaimed and honored radio programs of this generation, and has turned Glass himself into a well-recognized individual, both by voice and face. As a purveyor of subtlety, nuance, compassion and depth, Glass has connected with a significant community that is desirous of something greater than the clamor of most of what we consume in the media.
So I was very disappointed to discover these tweets this morning:
If there had been only a single tweet dissing Shakespeare, I might have let it pass. But the fact that Glass doubled down makes it worthy of comment. That holds true even if Glass isn’t particularly skilled at Twitter, and didn’t realize that his tweet to John Lithgow was a public message, instead of a private missive. But with his more than 83,000 Twitter followers, and his position as an influential figure in the media, it’s worth taking a moment to respond to what Glass wrote.
I hope that, had it not been 12:15 am, Glass might have realized that perhaps what he wanted to say was, “I, Ira Glass, don’t like Shakespeare. I don’t find his work relatable.” That’s a Twitter-friendly message, and while it’s one which might surprise me, it’s one with which I couldn’t quibble. He could have simply added “IMHO” (that’s “In My Humble Opinion” in social media speak).
I should share that, like many who go to the theatre a great deal, I have a level of Shakespeare fatigue, especially with the parade of Macbeths and Lears we’ve had in New York over the past few years. But, the fatigue for me is play by play; I don’t think anything would keep me from a reasonable diet of well-done Much Ados and Twelfth Nights, such is the pleasure I find in those plays.
I’ve never studied Shakespeare in any structured way, so it would be very difficult for me to make the intellectual and educational argument on behalf of the Bard. But there are literally thousands of books and professors and even autodidacts who would happily do so, and I have a strong suspicion that Glass is going to be hearing from them as today wears on.
I’ll just take a moment to suggest that, perhaps, Glass doesn’t fully understand, smart as he certainly is, the difference between a play and a production. Shakespeare provides the words of what he’s seen, but each interpretation varies. Perhaps he hasn’t seen Shakespeare productions that illuminate the words in ways that speak directly to him. Trust me, I know that there are plenty of those. That said, maybe he’ll never like any of the plays, no matter how they’re done. Never ever.
I haven’t seen Lithgow’s Lear yet (it just started performances last week, by the way) and to be honest, if it weren’t for John (and for Jessica Hecht), I doubt I’d be going. I liked The Globe Theatre’s Twelfth Night with Mark Rylance rather well, though I didn’t care for the Richard III. But the fact is, I’d really be perfectly content to not see Richard III ever again. I don’t care for the play, an opinion forged over many productions, but I certainly don’t dismiss it. I’d look very foolish if I did.
Don’t think I’m trying to make the case for Shakespeare all the time. Our theatres need much more variety, even if school curriculums insure steady group sales for Shakespeare productions, and even if the lack of royalty costs makes them slightly more economical (balanced to some degree by their cast size, though I’ve seen the plays done on occasion with casts as small as five). It’s just that this sweeping generalization from someone who seems such advocate of the arts – and of considered thought and messaging – strikes me unfortunate, since it reinforces the prejudices of others, and even justifies them.
Look I get it, we all don’t like the same things, and frankly, when we’re told it’s good for us, we’re probably even less inclined to like something. We might also be hype-averse, from being told something is the best ever, part of the common online lexicon these days, but also the opinion of many when it comes to Shakespeare. And no matter what the build-up, no matter how much exposure we do or don’t get, there are creative endeavors we each don’t like, for whatever reason. Irrevocably. And that’s O.K.
I will ceaselessly defend Ira Glass’s right to publicly and vocally dislike Shakespeare. But as someone whose voice is amplified and respected, I just wish he’d said that he was sharing his opinion, not declaring an absolute.
Addendum, July 28, 5:45 pm: I just learned that Ira Glass was asked by Entertainment Weekly whether he stands by last night’s anti-Shakespeare tweets. His response: “That was kind of an off-the-cuff thing to say that in the cold light of day, I’m not sure I can defend at all.” So why say anything at all, Ira? He has not, however, sent any further tweets at this point on the subject to suggest that he might have been off the mark.