by Kyle Moore
These days, the shelf life of your average film, TV, music or internet superstar is measured in months, if not weeks. More often than not, if someone is getting their 15 minutes of fame, chances are they’ll have overstayed their visit by about 13 minutes, and an “overnight sensation” is just that – forgotten overnight. That’s why it’s a little mind-boggling to think that the works of an English poet, scribbled out by hand some four centuries ago, can still hold such sway throughout the civilized world. But an amazing thing happens when it comes to Shakespeare.
It’s true, his works can be a bit off-putting, One glance at the text, and the first thing someone might notice is all the “thee”s and the “thou”s and the “thy”s. Nobody talks that way anymore, after all, and if they did, they’d sound like Darth Vader kneeling in front of the Emperor’s holographic image, rumbling, “What is thy bidding, my master?” Shakespeare’ densely-flowered language conjures images of the Lady’s Auxiliary of River City reciting Shakespeare – make that “Shakespeah” – in their idea of High British accents, with haughty, rounded tones and rolled “R’s.” And if that were the case – if Shakespeare were just some relic handed down from antiquity due to a semi-justified tradition of reverence he and his works would have most certainly dried up and blown away ages ago. But Shakespeare was no mere upper-crust snob. His theatre packed in not only the wealthy and the Elizabethan-era fabulous, but the ragged, stinking poor as well, and he wrote his plays to appeal to each and every soul in the house. In applying his wondrous scope and sly wit not just to kings and queens, but to scoundrels and servants and everyone in between, he surveyed the width and breadth of the human experience and captured all of it.
And that, more than anything, is why Shakespeare survives and thrives into the 21st century. The fact that there are so many characters, so many human emotions and so many situations contained within them, a collection of the complete works remains to each succeeding generation of theatre artists a vast undiscovered country. They are an Olympic-level challenge, and an irresistible temptation to actors looking to measure their own talents. Either they’ve seen a brilliant Shakespeare production and want to experience its thrills for themselves, or they’ve left thinking, “No, this is how that should have been done!” They are delightful, challenging, all-consuming things, and the passion and enthusiasm they generate among actors and audiences alike tends to be contagious.
Ellen Geer got Shakespeare from her father. Will Geer instilled in his precocious daughter a love of Shakespeare’s works. “Now, Ellen, do Juliet,” he’d murmur, and she’d recite scenes from memory. By the time she was 16, she’d read the entire canon. “in coming to understand all the human emotions contained in Shakespeare, I never needed a therapist.”
Today, the willowy actress sits among the gardens her father planted at the Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon, and she is a woman deeply in love with the work she still has yet to do. This summer the company will stage “Julius Caesar” for the first time, followed later in the season by the lesser-known “Cymbeline.” A top priority for her, though, is that each May they bring in busloads of school children to experience Shakespeare, many of them for the very first time. “They get spurred on,” she says, “and what people don’t understand is that kids doing Shakespeare, whoo! They take off with it, they go further than any adult as new people broaching an elevated language. And it elevates them as human beings as well, because of that language. Because it makes you feel better when you speak well. It’s like when you dress well.”
And so it continues. Somewhere right now, an actress in the twilight of a career that has spanned decades might be taking off her makeup after a performance as Lady Capulet, and she thinks of a moment that occurred on stage that night. “How is it that I never noticed that before?” she muses. “What if I try it a different way next time? Ah, yes, that’s it! That’ll be good!” So with a new discovery freshly mined from the 400-year old play, she sets her sights eagerly on tomorrow’s matinee. At the same time, a young man is riding home from that same performance in the back seat of his parents’ car, and his thoughts drift quietly to a girl in his freshman English class. “See how she leans her cheek upon her hand! O, that I were a glove upon that hand, that I might touch that cheek!” He may have dozed at times during that evening’s performance, but he remembers those lines – and he resolves to sneak a peek at the rest of the text tomorrow to see what else this old guy had to say about love.