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Shakespeare According to Mandelbaum

 article about Mandelbaum
 

The problem with Shakespeare was language. Mandelbaum had thought long and hard, parsed and perused, explicated and analyzed, and all his study had left him with but one conclusion: language. Language was the problem with Shakespeare.

It was not merely that Mandelbaum again and again found himself unable to speak the bards speeches in audition after audition. He had never had the opportunity not to speak them in performance, the former inability essentially obviating the possibility of the latter, as it were--since Mandelbaum found himself unable to speak the speeches of any and all of the bards fellow dramatists, not his Elizabethan contemporaries alone, but all his fellows, ancient and modern, and everyone in between. While this may have been an insurmountable handicap for some actors, Mandelbaum found it a challenge, and a challenge he had often managed to overcome. Had he not been a success as Mr. Spinalzo in a touring company of Arsenic and Old Lace? Had he not had two call backs for the part of Bernie in Weekend at Bernies, 3, losing out in the end, he was assured, only because his size made him difficult for the other actors, two puny types who could have used a few more hours in the gym, to carry around? Had he not--but why go on, the point is that it was not Mandelbaums difficulty with language that was the problem, it was Master Wills.

Mandelbaum had seen enough productions of Shakespeare to know that language more often than not got in the way of what otherwise might have been an excellent story. The Kittaning High School staging of Romeo and Juliet, the Highlands Community Theatres Lear, the Allegheny Junior Colleges courageous attempt to synthesize Hamlet and Shylock in their highly original Merchant of Denmark: all doomed to disaster in a linguistic morass. Rousing good stories, ghosts, witches, weavers with the head of an ass, crept not to a petty pace but to a halt with the mouthing of some show numbing monody on life and death or something in between.

Words filled with sound and fury signified nothing.

Speeches were filled with clichs enough to fill a book of quotations. The man had no shame. Phrase after phrase, example after example, one could hardly read a page where some such filching, faintly familiar or conspicuously common, did not fairly jump off the page.

There were those who blamed the actors, but Mandelbaum knew better. These were thespians who had no trouble with David Mamet, with Neil Simon, with Sam Shepherd. There were those, nationalistic defenders, who blamed some congenital defect characteristic to Americans. But leaving aside the gross provinciality of such argument, English is after all English and Americans speak English, Mandelbaum could not abide such jingoism. There were those that blamed the times, the schools, even fluoride in the water. It was, Mandelbaum decided, time to put the blame squarely upon the shoulders that deserved it.

And Mandelbaum was not alone in pointing the finger. Mark Twain had struck tellingly at the guilty party in Huckleberry Finn, Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby. That great disertator on the history of roast pig had seen the necessity of rewriting the playwright in language made comprehensible to native speakers of the language, and not Americans either.

Of course had you asked him, Mandelbaum would have been no more capable of putting these thoughts into words than any of the other thoughts that meandered through his head. Still it was this inarticulateness he felt he had in common with the poetaster, and it was this feeling of communion, this understanding that Shakespeare was really just another Mandelbaum with great thoughts and inadequate means of expressing them, that set the actor--was this similarity not another portent--on his crusade: it would be his task to inseminate the ovum that was Shakespeare for the new millennium.

And what is even more important, he would effect this pregnancy by rejecting that simplistic reliance on language that had so handicapped both him and the bard. Instead he would use that very flaw, that failure they both shared, and make of it a virtue. He would use silence--it was so simple, he was shocked no one had thought of it--he would strip away useless language layer by layer and replace it with the eloquence of silence.

There is power in utter stillness, more than that, there is majesty.

The conceptualization resolved, all that was needed was its actualization. While at first this did not trouble Mandelbaum, he assumed that in his own silence there would be room for that of the poet too, he soon realized that rather than an aid to his task, this was in fact a source of grave concern. For was it not essential for him to distinguish for the audience the silence of the interpreted from the silence of the interpreter, the silence of Shakespeare from the silence of Mandelbaum. A conundrum, indeed.

Mandelbaum puzzled over the problem for days and every time he thought he had an answer, closer analysis found it wanting. Days became weeks, weeks, months, still with no acceptable solution. Then one day, one day in June, while walking on Seventh Avenue, as he crossed 46th Street, he chanced upon a crowd surrounding a street performer, and he experienced what can only be described as an epiphany.

For there in the middle of the crowd, painted over in a golden metallic makeup stood without motion, without even so much as an eye blink, but even more significantly without sound, verbal or otherwise, a human statue. For Mandelbaum there was the shock of recognition: the veritable Eureka. Here there was no inability to distinguish the silence of the performance from the silence of the performer; here there was precision, clear and definite, no blurring of lines.

Moreover, added to this sudden insight was a new element, something he had not thought of before, but something absolutely right--street performance. Not only would he make Shakespeare "speak," he would make him speak to the masses, washed or unwashed as the case might be. He would bring him to the pavement.

Within a week Mandelbaum was ready.

He had chosen his play, his time and his place. And so it was on the following Saturday evening amidst throngs of tourists, aliens, legal and not so legal, and even a few New Yorkers born and bred, Mandelbaum took up a position on that very same corner. He placed an old Pittsburgh Pirate cap upside down on the pavement in front of him, breathed deeply and slowly began to curl the mass of his body into the misshapen form of the Shakespearian hunchback. His face contorted into a mask of evil. His right leg splayed out in limping uselessness. He erased the noise of the traffic, the furor of the city. In his mind, he stood on a battle field in England. In his head he heard words unspoken: "A horse, a horse. . . ." He was become that misshapen villain, lying in the arms of the mother whose babes he had bloodied.

And as he transformed himself, a crowd of people began to swell around him, hanging breathless in anticipation on even the slightest movement. A circle of rapt spectators enthralled by the bard? Entralled by Shakespeare. . . . according to Mandelbaum.



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