By Isaac Butler
That was the question that lingered in my head after I read (most of) this interminable and insufferable piece about whether or not there's too much Shakespeare going on. It really must be read to be believed. Because the raw fact of its existence is kind of incredible. Charles Isherwood-- sometimes dubbed "America's de-facto artistic director" because he's the most powerful critic on the new play circuit-- decided to write thousands of words about The Shakespeare Problem and turned in a snarky, insight-free dialogue between himself and his reflection in a mirror that reads like this representative sample throughout:
ME [After a pause] Let’s stipulate, for a moment, that Shakespeare can be boring.
HIM Dude, you didn’t really rock it in debate class, did you? Whose side are you on anyway?
ME The side of right and virtue and truth and beauty, of course, the side of the greatest dramatist and poet who ever trod the earth. But let me continue. Of course, bad Shakespeare is boring. But nobody expressed the state of mind known as boredom better than he did. There’s this soliloquy — er, I mean, bit — in “Hamlet” that I’ll read to you now. His frenemies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ——
HIM I knew a guy who named his dogs that. What a pretentious git. That’s British slang for twit, you know.
ME I know. Shakespeare kind of invented British slang, though I’m not sure about “git.” But to continue. These guys basically ask him why he’s being such a drag, and here’s a little of his answer: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals — and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.”
HIM Well, yes, that’s mighty fine-sounding, but it reminds me: Man delights not me when he’s wearing tights.
I would normally just write a brief little thing making fun of this, but Isherwood's slide into laziness is in many ways more dangerous than the sharpened knife and assumption of bad faith he brought with him to new plays when he first showed up. This article is one long song dedicated to the theme of not working very hard at one's job. There's no original reporting here. There's not even the slightest bit of research, despite the fact that lots of people have been talking about this issue for years, including yours truly who had a long multi-post dialogue with Terry Teachout that lead to the discovery that nation wide, Shakespeare outpaced the next most produced playwright (August Wilson) by over a thousand productions a year.
Instead, what we get is this content free mildly amusing mush of an article. Isherwood doesn't even bother to find out what actually keeps people from seeing Shakespeare, preferring instead to use himself as an interlocutor. But we know at the outset that that is doomed to failure because we know Isherwood likes seeing Shakespeare. As a result, we get complaints like "men look bad in tights." A complaint that literally no one has.
Were this a one-off incident, I guess it wouldn't matter that much. But it seems that nearly every time the Paper of Record invites Isherwood to "think" about something in print, we get this particular brand of inwardly focused thin gruel. This was the guy who recommended people go to Trader Joe's and people watch to get the drama they want during the Broadway strike (FWIW, I asked the Times to fire him on that occasion). This is the guy who penned a plea to the Times readership that he be allowed to not do the parts of his job that he dislikes (again FWIW, I discussed the implications of that here).
If writing is a form of thinking-- and as someone who cares about the written word, I believe it is-- then certainly the quality of thought on display in a professional writer's work is as important as the quality of the writing itself. So while Isherwood's endless dialogue with himself passes some bare minimum measure of competence the thinking behind it is basically nonexistent. I am frankly shocked that it ever saw its way into print, and shocked that a man who does not appear to want to do his job is still given this kind of platform.