Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Shakespeare in the News. Again!

Speaking Shakespeare's language

Ron Rosenbaum hopes his new book deepens interest in the Bard's words
By Mark Feeney, Globe Staff September 24, 2006

NEW YORK -- Ron Rosenbaum's new book, ``The Shakespeare Wars ," bears the dedication, ``To Peter Brook and the cast of his `Dream. ' For changing my life forever."
That's a strong statement, but neither Rosenbaum nor the now-legendary production of ``A Midsummer Night's Dream" that Brook directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company 35 years ago is a stranger to strong statements.

Rosenbaum, one of America's ablest (and most idiosyncratic) journalists, has been making strong statements in print for more than three decades, perhaps most notably in his 1998 book ``Explaining Hitler. " And the Brook ``Dream" continues to inspire them. With its trapeze-riding fairies and white-on-white set, it has come to be regarded as one of the defining stage productions of the 20th century.

Not that Rosenbaum knew this when he bought a ticket in Stratford- upon-Avon one September evening in 1970. He just wanted to see some Shakespeare, as what former Yale graduate student in literature wouldn't have, and ``Dream" was what happened to be playing.
In a sense, ``The Shakespeare Wars" is Rosenbaum's way of paying the debt he incurred that night, an attempt to share the overpowering excitement Rosenbaum felt then -- and that Shakespeare has produced in him ever since.

Rosenbaum speaks tomorrow at 7 p.m. at Brookline Booksmith and Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at Wellesley College.

Shakespeare's works have never lost their popularity. But the past decade has seen an upsurge of interest: the success of ``Shakespeare in Love" ; such other films as Julie Taymor's ``Titus" and the Ian McKellen ``Richard III "; the best-selling status of Harold Bloom's ``Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human" and Stephen Greenblatt's ``Will in the World."

Rosenbaum hopes to deepen that interest -- not through describing great performances of the past or Shakespeare biography (``just raking over shopworn anecdotes for the tenth time," he says), but through what is most glorious in Shakespeare , what is most Shakespearean , his language.

``What I want to do," Rosenbaum says, ``is bring to the reader a lot of what I find to be incredibly exciting controversies over how to speak Shakespeare, how to play Shakespeare, how to listen to Shakespeare, how to watch Shakespeare. Controversies that have scholars at each other's throats, that have directors and actors pounding the table."

Literally pounding the table, as the director Peter Hall did, while describing to Rosenbaum his crusade to get actors to pause, ever so slightly, at the end of each line of iambic pentameter as they speak it onstage. A chapter examines the merits of printing Shakespeare's text with the original spelling (which makes more sense than you might think). Another relates the ongoing debate among scholars over agreeing on a standard text for ``Hamlet " and ``King Lear. " Or there's Rosenbaum raising the possibility, in the endless debate whether page or stage is the better way to appreciate Shakespeare, that screen may trump both.

``These controversies open Shakespeare up to people who've read him but maybe don't go back to him a lot. There's an excitement there you don't get from your usual regional theater productions or through just trying to plow your way through the works once again. But if you hear these directors and actors and scholars arguing about something like this, it's a way to reconnect, I think, with some excitement that's there that you may have lost or never experienced."

Rosenbaum, 59, is sitting in the Yale Club. Vaguely Tudor, its baronial splendor is probably as close to a Shakespearean space as you're likely to find in Manhattan. In this setting, he looks like an actor -- a dark suit for costume, an open beer bottle and crumpled napkin for props -- but not one likely to be appearing with the RSC. Rather, with his scraggly beard and intense gaze, Rosenbaum could be Billy Bob Thornton's spiffier, riffier older brother.

Rosenbaum speaks with a nervy intensity. Shakespeare matters to him, and he wants Shakespeare to matter to you, too. He brings a nervy intensity to most things he discusses. His Edgy Enthusiast column, which runs biweekly in The New York Observer , is something special in US journalism, a unique blend of intellect and loquacity, rant and celebration. In the column, Rosenbaum has mourned his late cat Stumpy , decried the popularity of ``Seinfeld, " and proposed marriage to country singer Rosanne Cash .

``When Ron is writing something there's a level of involvement, a level of obsession," filmmaker Errol Morris says of his friend. ``Ron looks at a problem and he looks at how people look at problems. His way of getting closer to Shakespeare, the meaning of Shakespeare, the cultural significance of Shakespeare, is to look at the same time at other people looking at Shakespeare, interacting with Shakespeare. It's a very powerful device."

One of those people was University of California, Berkeley English professor Stephen Booth , whose close readings of the sonnets move Rosenbaum to a level of passion he otherwise reserves for Rosanne Cash. What's it like to discuss Shakespeare with Rosenbaum?

``Very, very pleasant," Booth says. ``No energy was going into him looking good. His topic was what are all these Shakespeare scholars doing and why. What most struck me was his intelligence, his ability to focus instantly, really, on what he was concerned with, his absolutely unaffected modesty."

``The Shakespeare Wars" may have begun with Brook's ``Dream," but it needed Adolf Hitler to get rolling. ``I was in a really deep depression after finishing the Hitler book," Rosenbaum explains. ``I lucked into listening to some Shakespeare cassettes and CDs and then I couldn't stop. I'd walk from room to room carrying a boom box, so I wouldn't miss a word. Then I'd be on the subway. I have a distinct memory of hearing a great audio tape of `Richard III' on the No. 6 local of the Lexington Avenue line. It was somehow appropriate: Richard III at his most malevolent through the roar of the tunnel."

Asked which Shakespeare character he'd most want to play, Rosenbaum says, ``I like the fast-talking Shakespeare characters, Mercutio, Hotspur, Cassius, Ulysses, even the villainous Edmund. If I had to choose, Mercutio."

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com


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