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The Listener (1937) - Much Ado About Nothing?




Shakespeare was an imaginative playwright — he wrote his scenes as taking place in forests and ships at sea. He had almost the scenario writer's gift for keeping the story moving from setting to setting. But, for all his flow of imagination, sixteenth-century stagecraft let him down. It could not rise to the settings of forests or ships at sea — it had not the skill to build him Macbeth's castle as a fitting background to his drama.

Shakespeare, undaunted, used another device. Perhaps inwardly he pined for scenery, but, deprived of a paint brush, he put his colours into the words of his plays. In poetic meter he called upon his actors to make up for the loss and describe the scene supposedly around them in words. A clumsy device, perhaps, but he had no other way out, and all through the years the stage has not once tried to help him. And Mr. Granville-Barker has no intention of doing so today.

The cinema has come to Shakespeare's rescue. This "baby" of artistic expression has seen stage directions in Shakespeare's poetry where decades of theatrical craftsmen have only seen words. The filmmakers have today given Shakespeare a forest where he asked for it — a courtyard where his action pleaded for it (and was denied it) — a banquet hall where Mr. Granville-Barker would have only a trestle table with three planks laid across it. Still firmly convinced that the only thing that matters about Shakespeare is the poetry, Mr. Granville-Barker ignored the pictorial side of the plays. With that trestle table still in his mind he shuddered when in A Midsummer Night's Dream he saw what he told you was "fantastically fine pseudo-Athenian architecture."

Shakespeare, in words alone, builds up a delicately beautiful picture of Titania, the Queen of the Fairies. The screen did justice to his words by casting Anita Louise for the role. Mr. Granville-Barker shuddered. She was too beautiful for him.

Then, what is a clown but a grimacing buffoon? Shakespeare's clowns were the criterion of all clowns, but Mr. Granville-Barker winced... The clowns in the film grimaced too much. And Puck? What is an Englishman's idea of Puck — Shakespeare's idea of Puck? ... A merry laughing little devil, chortling through the woodlands. Mr. Granville-Barker choked... Puck on the screen laughed too much!

"Shakespeare," said Mr. Granville-Barker, speaking on behalf of Shakespeare, "does not want pictures." Speaking on behalf of pictures, I say they don't want Shakespeare. The cinema can do without Shakespeare. The stage and the screen both have their range, with the difference that the screen's range is unlimited. The stage can go so far, but beyond that it comes up against a solid wall. Its power of dramatic expression fails. In its attempt sometimes to surmount this barrier, it produced pitiful results. Stagecraft is so limited that it just can't imitate the devices of the screen.

The screen, on the other hand, can take a novel, a story, a biography, and most certainly a play — and improve it. Adaptation from the stage is an everyday occurrence. Can it be said that the stage has ever successfully adapted anything from the screen?

This great power of improvement that the screen holds is used with a certain judiciousness by filmmakers. Their territory is enormous — the subjects which they can take and produce as films on the screens of the world are legion. But they temper their enthusiasm with a certain caution, for, above all, the film must still retain its universal appeal. The general public will not be talked at, and will never allow themselves to be forcibly educated from the screen. Therefore in the world of films and film production it is the public's appetite that must first be appeased — their natural craving for romance, drama, and comedy that must be sated. This naturally handicaps experimenting with films as an art form.

The art of Shakespeare and the art of the cinema, Mr. Granville-Barker says, are radically and fatally opposed. He is being polite. He means why the devil are the films meddling with Shakespearean art. Why don't they stick to their own art form? He forgets that the stage has had Shakespearean art for over 300 years. The juvenile film industry, in comparison, still has 300 years to go. Therefore, to draw level and in its constant search for an art of its own — its constant probing for something new in ideas — its adoption and discarding of new sources — it lighted on Shakespeare.

Novelty is the essence of a successful film, and the cinema took Shakespeare as something new to present to its millions of filmgoers. It was a bold step, for to the majority of the public anything connected with Shakespeare is as dull as ditchwater. Mr. Granville-Barker will not understand this. I do not expect him to. With due credit to the playwright, the world of Shakespeare lovers (ruled by Mr. Granville-Barker) is a very little one compared with the world of the cinema enthusiasts.

What is poetry to the busy housewife but a lot of nonsense and something they teach her kid at school? To the man in the street Shakespeare is something very dull and too pregnant with classroom memories to smack of entertainment. To the modern girl Romeo and Juliet may certainly be the top in love stories, but she would not be able to follow the dialogue of the sixteenth century. In other words, Shakespeare spells considerable gloom to the average mind of today.

The screen, therefore, took a heavy gamble when it filmed Shakespeare. Hollywood made a projectile, as it were, to break down the barrier of public prejudice. Briefly, the cinema condescended to make Shakespeare palatable. That may be rather blunt, but it is perfectly true. It is no use adopting the rather sacred attitude of Mr. Granville-Barker towards Shakespeare when you are banking on entertaining millions of cinema-goers. With Shakespeare anathema to the man in the street, the trestle table and carefully dictioned poetry methods of Mr. Granville-Barker won't do. They would seal the fate of Stratford's playwright once and for all in the minds of the cinema-going public.

People pay their money to be entertained, and the film of Romeo and Juliet achieved this object. In making this play as a film, the producers sugar-coated the bitter pill of literature. They added the finer essences of romance and vigour — of vitality and pace. It livened Shakespeare — humanized him, if you prefer — and gave warmth to characters that to the average man were lifeless figures out of a schoolbook.

What has Shakespeare on the film done? Earned the undying hatred of Mr. Granville-Barker, alone on his trestle table. But the cinema has popularized Shakespeare. In one showing of Romeo and Juliet round the country, more people will see a work of Shakespeare than will ever attend stage Shakespeare in a year.

Mr. Granville-Barker's little world will swell with the addition of thousands of new Shakespeare lovers in a matter of weeks. Countless members of the general public will develop a new regard for Shakespeare — may become Shakespeare fans. To them the works of the playwright will assume new meanings, new comedy, romance, adventure. And what is going to popularize Shakespeare in England? I am afraid Mr. Granville-Barker will never admit it. The answer is — The Cinema.