Well, it happened. Given the scale of the COVID-19 outbreak – and we still haven’t full reckoned with how big and how dangerous this really is – the shutdown I mentioned last week as probably coming is definitely here in New York, and here for the forseeable future. When the notice came that Broadway theatres were closing until April 12, I was in the middle of my usual Thursday planning meeting for the next week’s Tuesdays at Nine – a meeting which was almost instantly rendered moot, as our home at Theatre 80 joined smaller theaters throughout the city in closing along with the Broadway houses. At a stroke, the theatrical life of this city – including my small little part of it – fell silent, dormant for at least a month.
I’m sad, I’m upset, but I’m not surprised. Given the exponential rate of COVID-19’s spread, this was inevitable and unnecessary. I’m still mad about it, as are many other people, and that makes perfect sense as well – months of possible prep time wound up being squandered by colossal acts of stupidity at the highest level. Being angry about our current situation, the desperate quarantine we find ourselves in, is completely understandable.
What’s a little less understandable, at least to me, is the number of people at this historical moment who are angry at William Shakespeare.
As with most weird social movements and irrational anger, this seems to have begun on Twitter. Somebody somewhere took it upon themselves to remind everybody that in Elizabethan England, playhouses were periodically closed due to outbreaks of plague. These periods of enforced downtime did not of course preclude Shakespeare getting some writing done; an extended closing in 1592, for instance, probably corresponds to the writing of the epic poems (i.e. Venus and Adonis) and sonnets. And, as that fateful twitterer remarked, in all likelihood Shakespeare wrote King Lear while under quarantine.
The idea, of course, is to try and inspire us to rise to the occasion, take advantage of these bizarre circumstances and try and make something out of them. It seems like a perfectly sensible message to me. (Heck, it’s the message from my blog post last week.) And yet, Twitter being what it is, the message has been mercilessly mocked. Folks have speculated on the laundry, games of solitaire, or self-pleasuring Shakespeare was doing under quarantine. (Which is a gutsy thing to do in at least one of those three cases, since Shakespeare wrote filthier lines than most of today’s wags can even conceive.) Folks have turned the “remember that (x) managed to do (y) while under quarantine” into a template for the most grotesque jokes imaginable. And others have voiced genuine anger at being asked to compare themselves to Shakespeare – we’ve got enough going on right now in our lives, after all, without having to worry if we’re managing to measure up to the summits of the western canon.
Perhaps it is understandable after all, if we’re convinced that the classics only exist to serve as some lofty, unattainable goal, meant to browbeat schoolchildren and bore their parents. But there’s not a whole lot of ambition in that outlook. And if we’re going to fix the mess we’re in, beyond simply living through it, I think it’s worth summoning up a little ambition. Maybe we won’t write the next King Lear – but at the moment, it’s worth trying something.
And if you’re not a writer yourself, maybe you’d like to take a day during all of this to read King Lear? It’s about a mad king whose society falls apart – you may or may not find it relatable.