Verbally Attacking ‘Shakespeare Without Words’

July 15th, 2015 § 2 comments

Synoptic Theater's A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Synetic Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Seemingly out of nowhere, The Wall Street Journal published a column yesterday, “A Silenced Shakespeare in Washington: Shakespeare without puns is like French cooking without butter,” which slams the work of Washington D.C.’s Synetic Theater for their movement-based productions of Shakespeare, productions which have garnered critical and popular acclaim for more than a decade. What’s curious about this op-ed cum review, written by a contributor who is not a member of the paper’s arts staff, and certainly not their widely-traveled critic Terry Teachout, is that not only does it seek to demolish Synetic’s work, but to trash anyone who might enjoy or support that work. The author is James Bovard, identified as “the author of ‘Public Policy Hooligan’ and a member of the USA Today Editorial Page Board of Contributors.”

Here’s a few samples:

The latest Shakespeare fashion, at least in the Washington area, is to invite people to a feast of language and serve nothing but grunts, grimaces and grins—with a few gyrations thrown in for dessert…

The company has received numerous grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and its state affiliate, the Virginia Commission for the Arts. Synetic is known for high-energy performances relying on acrobatics, pantomime and special effects. But flips and twists cannot suffice for nouns and verbs….

Silent Shakespeare is akin to mental nouveau cuisine with more flourishes than calories. The fact that many Washingtonians consider Silent Shakespeare an improvement rather than an oxymoron reflects unkindly on the capital’s cultural pretensions. But perhaps we should not be surprised that the city that pioneered obfuscation is now exalting expunging English altogether.

Synetic responded to Bovard’s assault on a blog, but inevitably that will be seen by fewer people than those who read the Journal, one of the country’s largest newspapers in print and online. Here’s a bit of their riposte:

It is unclear to us from The Wall Street Journal’s latest opinion piece whether or not the writer James Bovard has seen a Synetic production, or whether his opinion has been formed from YouTube videos and editorial content from other publications….

Synetic’s wordless Shakespeare has never been recommended as improving upon or replacing his plays produced in the traditional way, focusing on and emphasizing the richness of the prose and poetry as it appears in English (however many a mewling schoolboy would contest that Shakespeare’s language is not English). At Synetic, his words are translated into physical language and visual poetry, just as they have been translated into countless other languages and art forms throughout history….

Perhaps the most contradictory paragraph involves Mr. Bovard’s comparison to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. He states, “…that presentation succeeds thanks to magnificent music and viewers’ familiarity with the characters and storyline.” None of those elements are absent from Synetic productions as audiences at Synetic are just as familiar with Shakespeare’s characters and story lines…

On reading Bovard’s piece, it was unclear to me as well as to whether he had actually seen the work itself (incidentally, I haven’t, which is why I offer no opinion of it). To that point, it’s worth noting that while Bovard took to his blog to write about the responses to his piece, and to take on certain points in Synetic’s response, he was mum on the issue of whether he has ever attended a show by the company.

Synoptic Theater's Much Ado About Nothing

Synetic Theater’s Much Ado About Nothing

As always, I believe critics are entitled to their opinion. However, if the editors at the Journal have given Bovard a platform to opine about the idea of Synetic’s work, rather than the work itself, they have abdicated basic journalism tenets, even for opinion pieces. That Bovard fails to understand that in decrying “wordless Shakespeare,” yet appreciating Shakespearean ballet, he’s really just taking issue with nomenclature, not art form, rather amuses me, as it should anyone taking him too seriously.

On his blog, Bovard even tries to take apart Synetic’s response, as if his broadside in the Journal was insufficient. I wonder, however, if in calling Synetic’s mention of their work’s accessibility to the Deaf and hard of hearing “patronizing,” he understands that while sign language interpretation has indeed been provided for theatrical productions for years, American Sign Language is not English, but its own language with its own unique syntax. This means that ASL has already shifted Shakespeare’s language into a new form, altered from the words that Bovard holds dear – and that ASL is in and of itself a visually based form, one with a particular beauty of its own, even to those who don’t know it.

If it is becoming the Journal’s policy to allow contributors to randomly allow contributors to slam the work of art, artists and companies they don’t like, I trust they will also begin publishing pieces on work that contributors particularly enjoy, even if both seem to supersede the purview of their own critics. That said, I suspect the WSJ critics and arts writers might have their own feeling about such usurpers, and the editors might reconsider such pieces in the future.

From this single essay, which serves as my introduction to Bovard’s writing and thinking, I make the assumption that he is a Shakespeare purist. He’s welcome to that view of works which I too enjoy enormously, though I happen to think they can be performed, interpreted, altered and reconstructed in countless worthwhile ways while never harming the original texts, remaining available to all who seek them or stage them. In fact, just last night I saw the Druid Theatre’s radically cut versions of Richard II and Henry IV, Part i, in which both Henry IV and Prince Hal were played by women, which might also make Bovard apoplectic.

In Bovard’s slash and burn approach to Synetic, I can only imagine that, metaphorically, the theater company somehow killed his father and married his mother, and after interminable dithering, he decided to seek revenge. As we all know, that doesn’t work out too well for all concerned.


Print page

Tagged , , , ,

  • randall mikkelsen

    Bovard first crossed my radar as a vocal critic of farm subsidies in the late 1980s, when I covered agricultural policy as a journalist. He has maintained that opposition and broadened it into a wider libertarian critique of state intervention in the economy. I think the article is best viewed in that light and the key is this paragraph. How he happened to seize on the Synetic Theater is beyond me: “The company has received numerous grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and its state affiliate, the Virginia Commission for the Arts. “….

  • Peter J. Orvetti

    James Bovard is a libertarian policy analyst. He’s entitled to his views about Synetic, but he has no particular expertise in the area, any more than if Paul Krugman started writing about hip hop.

%d bloggers like this: