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Tana Wojczuk: Shakespeare on the Frontier

Is Shakespeare Dead?: A cultural inferiority complex leads to a quirky vision of the Bard.

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Image taken from Orange County Archives Flickr

By Tana Wojczuk

Even far from cities, out on the frontier, the Bard captivated new generations of Americans. English speakers, immigrants, people of all racial backgrounds heard the rough and tumble performances, and the simple act of listening together accelerated the work of democracy.

—Bill Clinton, introduction to Shakespeare in America, an anthology edited by James Shapiro

To grow up in the West is to grow up without a history. Though I grew up watching Shakespeare, Western culture had little influence on the festival productions I hoovered in as a little girl. They were often heavily themed—Romeo and Juliet as the Jets and the Sharks (though this parallel had already been made in Sondheim’s West Side Story), a Pirates of the Caribbean Tempest, or, recently, a Mad Men-costumed Merry Wives of Windsor set in a Catskills resort in the 1960s, with a few early scenes confusingly set in Las Vegas. Oy. While some themes can emphasize and crack open moments in the play—for example, an elementary school production of Hamlet made great use of the kids’ heightened belief in the supernatural to ham up the guards’ horror at seeing a ghost—most heavily-themed productions make the plays seem more artificial, the way a stage set that tries too hard at realism only emphasizes that the foliage is painted on and the stones are styrofoam.

Pirates of the Caribbean Shakespeare is a symptom of a larger problem: the American, and particularly Frontier, anxieties about high and low culture.

I still loved going to these productions, hearing Shakespeare’s language and the surprise of how an audience would react, the unexpected laugh lines and powerful hush as the lights went down. But theming-up Shakespeare was so clearly an economic decision, an acknowledgement that die-hards like me would keep showing up while new audiences could be lured in with the promise of something familiar. The economic realities of doing regional theater are what they are, and in many ways these theaters are only doing what they feel they need to do to survive. A musical puts more butts in seats than Elizabethan drama straight, no chaser. Even 19th-century Americans made Shakespeare more popular by mixing it up with famous songs, burlesques, and after-pieces that could include clowns, dances, and yes, more songs. But there’s also something distinctly pathetic about this heavy-handed application of themes, like pouring on too much cologne—anyone who smells you knows something under there must stink.

Pirates of the Caribbean Shakespeare is a symptom of a larger problem: the American, and particularly Frontier, anxieties about high and low culture. The diagnosis is that people aren’t coming to see Shakespeare because they don’t understand it; the solution is to ladle on more themes, or, as Lawrence Levine put it in Highbrow Lowbrow, getting American audiences to eat our Shakespearean “spinach.” But the more we apply this solution the worse the disease gets. The more Disneyfied versions of Shakespeare American companies produce, the more they reinforce the message: Americans don’t understand Shakespeare.

And yet Shakespeare was once considered popular entertainment on the frontier, performed exuberantly, often on makeshift stages without the benefit of a director’s explanatory note, without overcompensating for the audience’s perceived thick-headedness. “Shakespeare was the favorite playwright at almost every location on the moving frontier” write Vaughan & Vaughan in Shakespeare in America. Traveling actors would perform in barrooms, town halls, and on the backs of their caravans in wind and weather. In his own wanderings, Alexis de Tocqueville noticed this particular affinity among American frontiersmen for Shakespeare, which they were as likely to carry as the bible “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut which does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember reading the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin,” he wrote. And as Bill Clinton notes in his introduction to James Shapiro’s anthology Shakespeare in America, growing up in rural Kentucky, “Abraham Lincoln, with access to so few books as a young man, did have access to Shakespeare, and the results speak for themselves.”

In our desire to emulate European culture what we often created were knockoffs. This was especially the case with Shakespeare.

Americans have long had a kind of inferiority complex when it comes to culture, and this is only exacerbated when it comes to the Grand Don of European letters. Our over-deference to European culture goes way back; America’s first capitol building was a horror show of mixed up European influences—Neo-this and Neo-that, with Italianate columns flanking a Greek tableau of cavorting cherubs (for real, this was the original mural painted in the Senate chambers). In our desire to emulate European culture what we often created were knockoffs. This was especially the case with Shakespeare. In the 19th century, when the superstar American Actor Edwin Forrest debuted in London, critics were appalled by his mountain-man accent and swagger.

This inferiority complex is self-perpetuating, with fears over not being able to do Shakespeare justice resulting in tepid performances or overcompensating bombast. We can better understand this anxiety when we think of America as a frontier culture, where new culture is being created. And we can better understand why Shakespeare is both a symbol of the old guard and co-creator of new American culture by looking at America’s frontier, in the West, where cultural expectations were up for grabs.

“I may not know who I am, but I know where I’m from” writes Wallace Stegner in Wolf Willow, a hybrid native of the West, both fiction and non, that Stegner once called “a librarian’s nightmare.” His son, Page Stenger, writes in his introduction that the book is “autobiography used as an adjunct of history.” In Wolf Willow Stegner returns to the West of his childhood. Through memory, biography, and historical research, Stegner tries to map himself onto the frontier landscape, attempting to understand his own shape. But the landscape of the West is a shifting one: sand dunes move across the desert, light races the clouds across the grass, and your shadow is never where you thought you left it. Interminable change that builds toward nothing, and this this is the mirror in which you try to catch your reflection. Wolf Willow is, as Page Stenger writes, “a writer’s meticulous attempt to realize himself in terms of his own regional sources.” Wallace Stegner’s need for these regional sources was like a “vitamin deficiency”: “I realized I didn’t have a single place to which I could refer myself. I had no crowd, I had no gang, I had no sociological matrix or context.”

Partly, this feeling of impoverishment, this lack of historical context, comes from the history of migration to the West as much as the mercurial landscape of the West itself. The people drawn to the West were often intentionally pulling away from the familial, social, and cultural contexts that had defined them, and so their interest was in making new communities from scratch rather than relying on the old recipes. The West symbolizes a largely fictitious idea of American individualism—early settlers may have lived miles apart, but they relied on each other for their lives and livelihoods. And because this idea is fictional, because going West as a young man means chasing a billboard dreamed up by the Marlboro advertising geniuses (and earlier by a promotional campaign called, brilliantly, Manifest Destiny), because the West as a physical and mythological place are so conflated, one arrives to find no history—no mythological in the physical and no physical manifestation of the myth.

Education on the frontier means learning European history, while familiar landmarks are considered ahistorical.

For Stegner, this disorientation was worsened by education. “I was educated for the wrong place,” he writes, referring to the European history he learned in school. He would learn nothing of Eastend (or Whitemud as he calls it in Wolf Willow) until he returned there as an adult, still hungry, hoping to unlock his memory through research and powerful mnemonic devices like the smell of Wolf Willow along the banks of a river where he once spent whole days sheltering from the wind between its green slopes. His childhood education made him feel inadequate, the country bumpkin who could only aspire to the cultural references of the Old World. “We had that set of Shakespeare,” he would later tell an interviewer, “[my father] got hooked by some traveling salesman. It always impressed me because it was bound in red calf. It looked very gorgeous. I don’t recall reading any of that Shakespeare; God knows, I couldn’t have. It was too remote from my dialect and anything that I understood. I don’t think I ever read any Shakespeare until high school.”

Education on the frontier means learning European history, while familiar landmarks are considered ahistorical. The frontier originally meant the end of the map, the edge of known territories. And if landscape is a map onto which we, like Stegner, locate ourselves both physically and epistemologically, the frontier can be understood as the edge of meaning. When no physical evidence connects what we learn with our own experience, learning becomes hypothetical—meaning and significance totally separate from the landscapes we see around us. So education’s goal stops being something that helps us understand our own experience, that helps us explain ourselves to ourselves. It becomes totally passive, a matter of faith rather than of experience, just as religious instruction can be either a tool to understand and contextualize your experience or a doctrinaire how-to guide whose maxims are handed out like white elephant gifts.

It makes sense, then, that de Tocqueville, touring the American West in the 19th century, would find a copy of Shakespeare accompanying the Bible in every homesteader’s log cabin. Shakespeare, like scripture, helps create new maps for meaning. But it only works this way when engaged with in just that way—as a map onto which we locate our own meanings, as a changed landscape can nonetheless be a mnemonic time-machine. They do not work this way when taught as instruction manuals: patronizing, parental, and requiring passive reception. Instead, Shakespeare, like the Bible, can be used to tweak us, to raise questions, as a challenging text that makes room for individual interpretation. The power of nostalgia in early settlers’ taste for Shakespeare is overplayed and oversimplified. It is not about clinging to Europe—though there is definitely some of that. Instead, it is about clinging to those things that connect us to the past while giving us the tools to create our own future.

When he returns to Eastend, Stegner discovers his father’s set of Shakespeare, in its costly red calfskin, in the town dump. It feels like a failure, but whose?

“The dump had very little wood, for in that country, everything burnable got burned,” Stegner writes. He goes hunting in the dump like an anthropologist in search of a lost civilization. “For rummaging in its foul purlieus I had several times been surprised and shocked to find relics of my own life tossed out there to blow away or rot. Some of the books were volumes of Shakespeare that my father had bought, or been sold, before I was born. They had been carried from Dakota to Seattle, and Seattle to Bellingham, and Bellingham to Redmond, and Redmond back to Iowa, and Iowa to Saskatchewan.” But these volumes, being unburnable (they had been “stained by a fire,” but survived) were thrown away. This speaks less to the harsh conditions for survival on the frontier than the constant erasure of history, how difficult it is to hold on to family heirlooms when they become purely symbolic, when the stories they were once valued for are lost or understood too late.

Tana Wojczuk’s essays and criticism have appeared in the New York Times, The Believer, Tin House, Bomb, Paste, Lapham’s Quarterly and elsewhere. She is a lecturer in the Undergraduate Writing Program Writing at Columbia University.

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