As Ruby Cohn has pointed out, the most obvious reason for adapting Shakespeare’s plays is to modernize them. 1 In the past this usually meant rewriting scenes and altering endings to correspond to the ethos of the age, the classic example being Nahum Tate’s notorious eighteenth-century version of King Lear. This is still generally the case. Brecht’s version of Coriolanus (1952) or Edward Bond’s Lear (1972) reflected current political issues—class warfare and the triumph of a people’s democracy over the military aristocracy, or the self-defeating necessities of power and the self-sacrificing activism that may eventually succeed in dismantling the structures of fear and repression—while Stoppard’s Rosmcrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) expresses the existential philosophy fashionable in the early 1960s. It should also be noted that these three examples all use a Shakespeare play, or their audiences’ awareness of it, as alien imaginative material. They either present an action so different that it only bears a paradigmatic relation to the original, or decisively alter the perspective, to create a dialectical opposition between their themes and Shakespeare’s vision. And this is partly because adapters from Bernard Shaw to Bond have been motivated by a reaction against the general romanticization of Shakespeare:
As a society we use the play [King Lear] in a wrong way. And it’s for that reason I would like to rewrite it so that we now have to use the play for ourselves, for our society, for our time, for our problems. 2
However, from the end of the 1960s on, there has been a whole series of adaptations that these general observations do not apply to. Instead of modernizing their Shakespearean material, these emphasize primitive or mythic elements. Instead of attacking the popular images of Shakespeare, they use these as subliminal echoes to evoke pre-intellectual responses. In a sense the whole avant garde movement began by adapting Shakespeare in the parody of Ubu roi. But these new adaptations are serious (sometimes
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Publication information: Book title: Avant Garde Theatre, 1892-1992. Contributors: Christopher Innes - Author. Publisher: Routledge. Place of publication: London. Publication year: 1993. Page number: 193.
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