I’m on a first-name basis with Billy Shakespeare. Have been, since college. As playwrights, we all need to remember that Billy was a human being and, dare I say it, a non-contemporary colleague. Like any artist, he had to balance his creative spirit with the need to feed himself and his family. Not all of his plays are works of genius; some are crap. His later work often rips off his earlier work. But when Billy is on his game, he’s really freakin’ good.
Last weekend, while hanging out on my front porch with my friend, Tim, he asked me about Billy. See, I’ve been more-or-less boycotting him for the past fifteen years, mostly because of overexposure. So much Billy is done. The capper was somewhere around 2005 when, counting a ballet, three productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream were produced in Philly. Not the same year, mind you…the same season. Insane.
Also, he isn’t very relevant. Whenever a young, aspiring playwright asks me for a reading list, I tell them not to read Billy (not at first, anyway), because it will screw them up. You can’t write a three-act play in iambic pentameter with seventeen characters and expect it to sell. Billy wrote in a specific form from a specific time period that doesn’t make sense on a modern stage unless you’re Billy Shakespeare. Also, despite his genius, Billy couldn’t resolve a plot to save his life, so you have these gorgeous pieces of unbelievable eloquence that don’t make sense. Plotlines are ignored. Intriguing questions are dropped in favor of sex and fart jokes. Characters rarely solve their own problems; instead, clowns overhear the villain “monologuing” or a god shows up to marry everybody (and then they dance). If you read a dozen Billy plays and then write a play, it will suck.
And, to be frank, I have professional problems with the guy. Part of my job is convincing theaters to produce one of my plays instead of yet another production of Midsummer. Midsummer is a known commodity; a production will guarantee a certain number of butts in seats. When I sell a play, I need to couch it in terms of money-up-front, e.g., Snowglobe requires two female actors and a single set which will cost X, Midsummer requires a hundred and eighty actors and two hundred and twelve sets which will cost X plus a gazillion dollars. It’s hard enough selling a play. I take umbrage at competing against someone who’s been dead for four hundred years.
Sidenote. I was told once, by an important literary manager, that my strategy is flawed: I shouldn’t be arguing why someone should do my play instead of Billy’s; I should be arguing why they should do it in addition to Billy’s. From a bottom-line perspective, I should see it as Billy’s production funding my own. This strategy is, obviously, more realistic, but I wonder what Billy would think. Maybe he had to champion his plays over yet another production of Antigone. While I find it funny that, a hundred years from now, my plays might piss off some working playwright who can’t get a production, I would just as soon take the money now.