The 18th Century English, with their smiley combination of rationalism and sentimentality, were uncomfortable with the sorrowfulness of Shakespeare's tragedies. Versions took the stage where Othello spares Desdemona, Romeo and Juliet live happily ever after, as do Lear and Cordelia. This last rewriting is particularly untrue to Shakespeare because he changed his source, in which Cordelia survives.
We seldom rewrite Shakespeare today, but we often, perhaps usually, reset his plays a different era. We feel at home with his darkness, but estranged from his times. These days we are dismissive of the unfamiliarity of other times. So, it is with opera and in staging of other "classic” playwrights like Molière or Sophocles. But when are they set why?
It has not always been so. Sometimes cultures fall in love with other cultures. The Romans fell in love with the Greeks. Educated Romans, even political figures like Brutus and Mark Anthony knew Greek; wealthy Romans went to Athens to sop up culture, political speeches were made in the Roman Senate in Greek. Can you imagine an American senator speaking in Latin? It was a mark against John Kerry in his presidential campaign that he speaks French fluently.
The Renaissance fell in love with classical culture, mostly Roman at first. That infatuation with classical culture survived into the 19th century; that's why Thomas Jefferson kept the Roman historian Livy and the Greek biographer Plutarch open beside him, making notes in Plutarch in Greek and why we have names like Ithaca and Rome and Utica in western New York and Athens in Ohio, Kentucky, and Georgia
In the 18th century, Russia and many German territories fell in love with French culture. The upper-class characters in War and Peace, true to life, speak to each other in French, as does the German hero with his Russian lover in the classic German novel The Magic Mountain.
Many parts of the world are now in love with American culture. American movies are rolling up box office in Cairo and Kathmandu; there is Saudi and even Chinese hip-hop and T-shirts to match. In many countries across the world, native speakers teach courses in English to other native speakers on subjects like science and business. We are like them; we are in love with ourselves.
In general, the infatuated cultures gain a lot from the object of their interest. The Romans gained sophisticated logic and philosophy as well as a whole system of rhetoric and metrics. The Russians gained a world of ideas with French, including political ideals that at least offered alternatives to the historical despotism of Moscow. The US founding fathers gained fundamental ideas of how to form and maintain a republic. When George Washington withdrew from public life, he was, among other things, self consciously imitating the Roman general Cincinnatus, after whom we have another town in Ohio.
It seems to me that in resetting things like operas and plays we demonstrate how we are in love with ourselves. What do we get from being in love with ourselves? What do we loose?
New settings are often in the present or in the recent past in situations that are ‘relevant’ to our self-absorption. A while ago I saw a production of Comedy of Errors set in Las Vegas; Ian McKellen's wonderful production of Richard III was set in a nameless, fascist country of the 1930's; Ralph Fiennes' recent dumbed-down movie of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus was set in some nameless Eastern European context. The 19th-century librettist set Gounod’s opera Faust in the 16th century, following Goethe. In the most recent production in New York, Faust works in a 1930's laboratory developing the atomic bomb, etc. etc.
In my view, some of these productions work and some have serious problems. For example, I saw the other year in Ashland what I consider to have been a catastrophically bad production of Measure for Measure. It was set in a Latino City in the United States and the Duke was an elected official.
That relocation is nearly as distorting as a happy ending for Lear and Cordelia because Shakespeare was no friend to democracy. He must have read about democracy because he studied Plutarch attentively, as appears in his use of Plutarch in many plays, and Plutarch reports in detail about the various Greek experiments in government including democracy. But, as far as Shakespeare is concerned, giving power to the people means mob rule, as appears in the mobs easily swayed by the speeches of Brutus and then Anthony in Julius Caesar, the mob easily swayed by Richard III pretending to be pious, the mob that taunts Coriolanus. Shakespeare believed in rule by an elite hierarchy. He is deeply concerned with abuses and malfunctions in that system; Macbeth usurps a crown and the result is civil war; Henry VI is not up to the job and the result is civil war; King Lear abdicates his responsibilities and the result is civil war. But for Shakespeare that is abuse of the system; not an inherent flaw in the system.
Measure for Measure is like King Lear in this perspective. It is a comedy, so what results is not civil war but malfunctioning civil society. The Duke is supposed to rule, but he takes a vacation, and lechery and abuse of power break out. He returns chastened and manages to more or less get things in hand. In this production, he never ruled -he was an elected official; he returned to a campaign rally, where he is acclaimed. It makes the lesson of the play meaningless. The best thing in the production was an irrelevant but good mariachi band.
Or consider the recent production of Wagner's Ring directed by Francesca Zambello in Washington and San Francisco.
I have to say I mostly liked this production, but it is very easy to mock. Consider the opening. Das Rheingold opens 'in' the Rhine, not 'on' as Anna Russell famously observed, where the Rhine maidens, sort of libidinous freshwater mermaids, are swimming about and someone steals their gold. But this production was set beginning in the California gold rush and, as the operas go on, reaches the present or the near future. Of course, the Rhine does not flow in California; the Sacramento does. So I had in my pocket a ticket with "Das Rheingold" printed on it, and Rhine maidens (dressed in ball gowns out of a Hollywood western) were singing in German “Rheingold, Rheingold!” while the supertitles read “River gold."
As the production of Measure for Measure abandoned Shakespeare's idea of good government, this production abandoned Wagner’s idea of nature. In Wagner, nature is powerful and all embracing. The Ring is set in the vast, dark forests of northern Europe where even the wandering of a god is lonely and risky. In this production, nature is not powerful; it is vulnerable. Nature as vulnerable is a mostly a late 20th-century idea. Consider the opening scene of the third opera, Siegfried. Wagner set it in a hut in the dark forest. The curtain in this production rises on a small, dilapidated trailer parked under a brightly lit freeway interchange. The hero, Siegfried, at one point leads in a bear to taunt his hapless foster father, and so the bear appears in this production, but how did Siegfried find a bear underneath the freeway? This set also illustrates why this production succeeds in many ways. It's a great set with lots of dilapidated 20th century trash behind which Siegfried can hide and among which he can cavort his manly pranks.
Or consider the scene in the last opera where the Norns, figures very much like the Greek Fates, appear and, in Wagner's libretto to spin and cut the thread of destiny. In this production, they are laying fiber-optic cable.
They wear shiny plastic suits suggesting something to shield against radiation and sunglasses. A truly wonderful animated version of a printed circuit board with streaming bits flashed and jiggled in the background. But ridiculous things happened as when one of the norms complains that she can see only dimly. What Wagner meant is that her ability to see into the future is diminishing as the order of the gods approaches its end. But, in this production, the audience wonders why she does not take off her sunglasses.
In the final scene of Wagner's libretto, the Rhine floods the world. But in this production there is no longer any river. There is only a dry river course framed in concrete and the former underwater hotties have become scavengers searching the concrete for trash, which they stuff into plastic bags and carry away. Finally, after the end of Wagner's opera, after the end of his libretto, after his last thought, an unforeseen child runs on stage and plants a sapling.
Looking at the past through a setting that makes it look like the present has its advantages and disadvantages. Its advantages are that people get to immerse themselves in issues they are immersed in anyway, and so are comfortable and even intrigued. Indeed, some theatre directors seem to believe that we are so taken up with our present selves that we are uncomfortable with seeing out past. The disadvantage is that we lose the perspective to be gained from comparing ourselves to other worldviews. The Romans gained a literature; their whole conception of literature grew from Greek models, which they used, of course, in their own way and were highly successful. The Renaissance gained freedom from the cloying strictures of the Middle Ages, in loosley imitating the classics (The first opera was an attempt to imitate Greek drama). The Russians and Germans gained through French culture access to the artistic and intellectual life of Western Europe, which took for the Germans – not so much for the Russians.
What we miss in the environmental dystopia of the Zambello Ring is the sense of nature as powerful, immense, containing, and nurturing. While nature is in a sense vulnerable these days, it is also still powerful as tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes from time to time remind us, and still nurturing as our source of food. It is well to be in touch with our deep feelings about its power.
What we lose in the production of Measure for Measure, besides coherence, is the experience of how negligence can be abuse of power, and, surely, the present world still needs to understand that.
But there is a threat more general than failing to experience the authentic perspective of this play or that opera. Near the end of one of his essays, almost as an afterthought, Octavio Paz asks the rhetorical question why Mesoamerican civilizations were so bloody-minded. The cannibalism, the torture, the self torture for religious purposes, wars begun to gather slaves, characteristic of the Aztecs, the Toltec’s, The Maya, etc. He suggests that one factor that allowed this development was their insularity, that they had no contact with other urban, civilized societies whose different practices might leaven their bloody anxiety. As movies, television, the Internet etc. proliferate, the planet begins to approach a world island of one culture. That is total insularity. If we abandon performances that display the interests and values of other and past cultures we lose access to perspectives that enable us to evaluate our own.