JAMES SHAPIRO It's not an American writer, not Hemingway, not Emily Dickinson, not Faulkner, who is named as required reading by American high school and junior high school students. Shakespeare is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. This week, we consider William Shakespeare an American icon, enlisted forever in our political fights.
JAMES SHAPIRO It is explosive. It is potentially toxic, but that's why it speaks to us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Plus, how “Love Labour’s Lost,” resonated in Kabul, Afghanistan.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR Before princes take an oath that they are going to study for the next four years and they will not interact with any woman. And that sounded very much like Taliban. And all the actors laughed and said "what?" Shakespeare actually came up with this 400 years ago?
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up after this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
This summer, as the numbers of the vaccinated rise, we get to spend time outside, go to all those favorite places shuttered by COVID-19. Many of us will flock to outdoor festivals, including Shakespeare festivals, where actors once again will be treading the boards. Shakespeare would find all this familiar. According to historian J. Leeds Barroll III, in the four-year period between 1606 and 1610, it's likely the London playhouses were open for all of nine months, if that, due to plague. Shakespeare, a shareholder in some of those spaces, would have been financially devastated, but he did use the occasions of quarantine to write Anthony and Cleopatra and The Tempest, and according to legend King Lear. Emma Smith argued in The New York Times that likely, he wrote most of his plays amid the threat of infectious disease. Thank goodness it didn't derail him. He is America's national poet, our national dramatist. You know that, right? His words are quoted as routinely as the Bible to mean whatever we want them to mean. James Shapiro is professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His most recent book is Shakespeare in a Divided America. What is please tell us about our past and future. Last year, I asked him who owns Shakespeare?
JAMES SHAPIRO Everybody stakes a claim in Shakespeare. Going back to 1776 and even a few years before then, those on both sides of the cultural divide, whatever the cultural divide at that moment was, reached out to Shakespeare, enlisted him in their cause.
BROOKE GLADSTONE John Adams said that the history plays were a roadmap to where we were heading. The treachery perfidy, treason, murder, cruelty, sedition and rebellions of rival and unbalanced factions.
JAMES SHAPIRO Could you imagine writing that in a letter to your son, the future sixth president of the United States? But he did. John Adams was looking around and he saw an America that was divided, that was factionalized, that was at risk. And he imagined one day, and he even did a riff on Henry the Fifth in this imagining, one day we would have a president of the United States put in power by a foreign despot or dictator who had some kind of economic control over him. The divisions that splinter us today have been there from the founding of our republic, as has Shakespeare.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In 1877, a columnist in the New York Herald declared that Shakespeare was an American hero.
JAMES SHAPIRO You would think that having broken from Britain in 1776 and then went on to fight another war with them, that we would not adopt as our national poet, England's national poet, but in fact, we have. There's not an American writer, not Hemingway, not Emily Dickinson, not Faulkner, who is named as required reading by American high school and junior high school students. Shakespeare is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why do you think that is?
JAMES SHAPIRO We want to believe that what started in England ended in America. We keep wanting to rip or wrest Shakespeare away from the English, who don't appreciate him, who don't value him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How do they make that argument?
JAMES SHAPIRO We have a lot more Globe theaters or imitation Globe theaters in our country than they do in Britain. We have far more Shakespeare summer festivals here. There's really a determined effort to make Shakespeare fully American, sometimes in really disturbing ways, sometimes in just plain humorous ways.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So let's talk about immigration and race and difference generally, because in Shakespeare's comedies, which are actually any of the plays that have a happy ending, sort of, you note that the marginalized are always the losers.
JAMES SHAPIRO One of the ways in which Shakespeare has made himself really useful to those who want to weaponize him is through the structure of his comedy. I mean, we all love the way they end in marriage and communal celebration, But that community at the end of all these joyous plays, is premised on somebody being kept out. You define yourself by who you don't admit. So, whether it's Shylock at the end of the Merchant of Venice or Jaques in As You Like It, or Caliban, who is not allowed to go back with everybody to Italy at the end of The Tempest or Malvolio at the end of Twelfth Night. You define who's in by determining who's kept out, mocking them and excluding them. What better way to define who's an American than along this model that is time tested through Shakespearean comedy?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Pause for a moment at Caliban, in The Tempest. This beastly figure who in a 1916 production is a stand in for the unwashed immigrants.
JAMES SHAPIRO Yeah, those are my grandparents, I suppose, on both sides. Living on the Lower East Side who are called by sociologists of the day, kind of Caliban figures. Just look at their faces, look at their shoulders as they go to and from the sweatshops.
CALIBAN Sometimes am I all, wound with adders with cloven tongues do they hiss me into madness. [END CLIP]
JAMES SHAPIRO Caliban is in the late 19th century, increasingly seen as a Darwinian missing link, half-man, half-beast. And he became a kind of metaphor, or stand-in for those who were not fully accepted into white Anglo-Saxon American culture. A very talented playwright named Percy MacKaye wrote this great masque of Caliban, Caliban by the Yellow Sand and the Caliban figure was supposed to be somebody who was educated successfully into American culture, if you will. Except every 15 or 20 minutes he tries to assault or rape Miranda. He's incorrigible. Even as this was being staged, it undermined its message of acceptance and only underscored that America could not absorb the Caliban of this world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, Othello is no comedy, but he reverberates through history. You recall that John Quincy Adams, who was well known as an abolitionist, had a surprisingly visceral distaste for Othello.
JAMES SHAPIRO It's the saddest chapter in my book. Othello is a fundamental American play. Its history here is completely different from its history in England. In England in 1825, an African-American was actually performing the role of Othello on the London stage. But it would be over 100 years before Paul Robeson could do the same on Broadway.
OTHELLO My wife? What wife? I have no wife. Oh, insupporter, oh heavy heart. Methinks it should be a huge eclipse of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe should yawn at alteration. [END CLIP]
JAMES SHAPIRO The story of John Quincy Adams is the story of my book, which has as its argument, Americans are really not good at talking with each other about things they disagree vehemently about or things they don't want to admit about themselves. John Quincy Adams, as you say, great abolitionist, fought the Amistad case in front of the Supreme Court after he served as America's sixth president, joined the House of Representatives to fight slavery. And yet he could not wrap his head around the idea of a white woman sleeping with a black guy. Just could not do it. He was invited to what turned out to be the worst dinner party in history. He was seated next to the superstar British actress Fanny Kemble, and he spent the evening mansplaining Shakespeare to her, including saying that Othello was disgusting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And the person most to blame in the play is Desdemona.
JAMES SHAPIRO Absolutely. She doesn't respect male authority, and she marries a black guy, and John Quincy Adams says in getting kind of strangled and smothered to death at the end, “she got what she deserved.” What do you think when one of the great opponents of slavery is actually thinking this stuff? And of course, many people think this stuff, but they don't say it or write it. And after that terrible dinner party, she went home, wrote up her notes, and two years later published the conversation. He, mortified, writes this essay on the character of Desdemona, trashing her for falling in love and marrying a black guy. He just couldn't understand why everybody didn't kind of go along and accept his view. And it appeared in major periodicals. And he wrote 2 essays saying this. In fact, the real shocker was Fanny Kemble wrote a letter that was later published to a friend in which she quotes Adams using the N-word to describe Othello. I just can't believe it. You want to imagine a kind of more pristine American past. One of the ways of learning what we weren't taught about American history in high school is through how we talk about Shakespeare.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your chapter on Manifest Destiny, when the nation embarked on exploiting or exterminating nonwhite people coast to coast, you observed an interesting evolution in the notion of masculinity. One that played out both in that policy and in the productions of Romeo and Juliet.
JAMES SHAPIRO If you look at the American stage at this time, the model of what a man should be, which is sober and serious, hard-working, is replaced by a blustery, aggressive, heavily sexualized, violent type. The upshot of this was, when it came to casting Romeo, every guy who was trying to play that role - failed in it. Because at some points in the play has to be, as Shakespeare calls him, effeminate.
ROMEO [CRYING] I defy you stars! [END CLIP]
JAMES SHAPIRO And at other times you have to pick up a sword and kill people and be really kind of masculine. So, women began taking over the part. 20 women played Romeo at this time, and the greatest of them was Charlotte Cushman. It tells you something about changing roles of masculinity when only a lesbian can play Romeo successfully in America. The most amazing thing I stumbled on in writing and researching this book was on the eve of the Mexican-American War when 4000 American troops are gathered on the border to cross the Rio Grande and the officers decided to build a theater and put on plays with all male casts. And one of the first plays they did was Othello. And they couldn't find somebody to play Desdemona.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And then they found this rather slight, pretty young officer...
JAMES SHAPIRO ...who looked great in a dress, Ulysses S. Grant. This is kind of pre-50-dollar bill grizzled Grant. He was girlish in those days. The guy playing Othello couldn't get up enough emotional excitement. They sent to New Orleans for a professional actress to sub for Grant, who went on to bigger and better things. But it was great to think of a future American president playing a woman in love with a black man. I mean, that tells you something about where this country has been.
BROOKE GLADSTONE British portrayals of Shakespeare protagonists, especially Macbeth and Hamlet, were very different from the American portrayals.
MACBETH Do not muse at me, my most worthy friends. I have a strange infirmity. [END CLIP]
JAMES SHAPIRO True. In part because the lead American actor at this time, a guy named Forrest.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Edwin Forrest.
JAMES SHAPIRO When they found him finally at the end of his career, dead in bed, they found a pair of hand weights at the foot of his bed. He was one of the early advocates of the pumped-up actor. His first great homegrown male Shakespearian actor, and he defined it in opposition to that kind of thoughtful, brooding, reflective English Shakespearean.
HAMLET Am I a Coward? Who calls me villain? Breaks my pate across? Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face? Tweaks me by the nose? Gives me the lie of the throat? As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Macbeth and Hamlet, who we just heard were portrayed as warriors in America. They even cut the parts where they looked weak out of the plays. And that brings us to Lincoln's assassination.
JAMES SHAPIRO John Wilkes Booth is notorious as the man who assassinated Lincoln at Ford's Theater in April 1865. But he was also one of the great Shakespeare actors of his day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE John Wilkes Booth played Macbeth, what, about a hundred times? But it was the character of Brutus in Julius Caesar that seems to have been the true inspiration for what he did.
JAMES SHAPIRO He loved the character of Brutus, as many in 19th century America did. This is a man who opposed tyranny. And the South saw Lincoln as a tyrant. Booth only acted once in this play, but he recited the speeches all the time. After assassinating Lincoln, he leaped onto the stage, a little leaping trick he stole from his Macbeth productions, and he shouted “sic semper tyrannis,”– thus always with tyrants. Playing momentarily the part of an American Brutus right after his assassination of Lincoln.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Talk about the very controversial production of Julius Caesar you were involved in a few years back, put on by the Public Theater in Central Park, it roiled the political right.
NEWS REPORT Conservative protesters disrupt the controversial performance of Julius Caesar in New York City. [END CLIP].
TUCKER CARLSON Are you a sad progressive who dreams about President Trump being knifed to death? Well, you're in luck. A new production of Julius Caesar in New York lets you live out your fantasy. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Caesar was dressed like Trump had certain of his mannerisms. Plus, a wife, Calpurnia, who sported a Slavic accent. And, of course, he's murdered in cold blood. Can you blame the right for being upset?
JAMES SHAPIRO I don't blame the right for being upset any more than I would blame the left for being upset with a year or so earlier, Rob Melrose's production of Julius Caesar that had an Obama lookalike assassinated on stage. The tradition of Julius Caesar in this country changed permanently when Orson Welles staged this play in 1937 at the Mercury Theater.
ORSON WELLES If there be any and this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar's to him, I say that Brutus does love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar. This is my answer. Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. [END CLIP]
JAMES SHAPIRO His Caesar was just like Mussolini, and he completely politicized how this play was done. It became a template for how we did Caesar after that. Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of Public Theater, he wanted to show that saving democracy by undemocratic means, like killing a Trump like Caesar, was a greater disaster than anything else. I think he wanted to create a sense of whiplash in that liberal audience at the Delacorte Theater. And one of the ways he did that was to have fifty actors hidden throughout the audience so that when Brutus and the conspirators kill the Trump-like Caesar, they're screaming, they're yelling, they're castigating him for doing that. They're calling him out. The problem was when real protesters followed the fake protesters. Audience members didn't know where the protests were coming from or who was protesting what. So that invasion, if you will, of the Delacourt by protesters who were paid to disrupt the show, ruined the possibility of conversation and dialog. Or maybe we're just not ready yet for conversation and dialog in this country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But Shakespeare does seem to be used like the Bible in the sense that anyone can find a defense for whatever they believe in his text. Do you think his message, his intentions, his morals were more explicit in Elizabethan times and the times they were written?
JAMES SHAPIRO I don't think so. And I think that's why we still turn to Shakespeare. Shakespeare presents America's worst nightmares. The assassination of a ruler, a black man sleeping with a white woman, a Jew cutting the pound of flesh from a Christian. This is not the stuff in the Bible, and when we stage these things, we're forced to confront the stuff we don't really like confronting as Americans. It's right in our face.
BROOKE GLADSTONE James Shapiro, author of Shakespeare in a Divided America. Coming up on the relatively lighter side, the Bard's use and abuse in American sexual politics. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. There's a fair amount of hanky panky in Shakespeare's plays, cross-dressing, animal attraction, but very little sex. Maybe “Romeo and Juliet.” There's passionate but platonic same sex love. In his day, same-sex sex was a capital offense. The sexuality of Shakespeare himself is a matter of speculation. There's plenty of sexual politics in his plays, though. We see women sometimes defending, sometimes demeaning themselves. We see men sometimes punished for their greed or vanity or cruelty, sometimes not. In “The Taming of the Shrew,” fortune-hunting Petruchio is prone to all three, yet he succeeds in starving and bullying unwilling ill-tempered Kate into apparent submission. And the musical take-off “Kiss me Kate,” two divorced actors find themselves playing Kate and Petruchio, and once again, the rascal has his way. On stage and back-stage. James Shapiro is one of our leading Bards of the Bard. Let's start with the original.
JAMES SHAPIRO Boy, that's a radioactive story. I mean, it ends with a woman putting her hand beneath her husband's foot
KATHARINA My reason haply more, to bandy word for word and frown for frown. But now I see our lances are but straws. Come and place your hands below your husband's foot, and token of which duty, if he please.
[LONG PAUSE AS MUSIC SWELLS]
My hand is ready, may it do him ease. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Could you describe the evolution of Kiss Me, Kate, from Taming of the Shrew?
JAMES SHAPIRO From 1941 to 45 American women are told, become Rosie the Riveter. Enter the workforce, become independent financially and personally.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You observe that at some point it's really common in film and movies and on stage to depict a woman being spanked. And it changed practically over the course of a few months.
JAMES SHAPIRO Women are told by the government, get out of the way, become the happy housewife and if your husband is going to beat you, just grin and bear it. And I'm really not exaggerating. Kiss Me, Kate is written at that moment, and at the center of it is something that was never in Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew – being spanked on stage. And spanking a woman is not only domestic violence, but it turns her into a child in a very explicit way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It was on all the posters.
JAMES SHAPIRO Ooof, and it was in The New York Times when they reviewed it. That's the image from this play that stuck.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now there is a warring couple playing the two leads, Kate, in Shakespeare's play. She's too much of a shrew for anyone to actually want to marry, so she's auctioned off to this guy passing through named Petruchio. The backstage story seems to follow, similarly, at least the woman decides it is the better part of valor to simply bow to her husband's will. Wink, wink, nod, nod, or maybe not. You tell a very interesting story about Cole Porter, who found himself with an almost intractable conundrum.
JAMES SHAPIRO You know that two great collaborative geniuses behind this musical. One is Bella Spewack, one of the two women writing Broadway plays at this time, and the other is the great lyricist Cole Porter. This is a hard story to tell. Front stage, you have this restaging of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. Backstage, have gang members collecting debts, divorce. There are white people, there are black people, kind of like real life backstage, and front stage is this artificial Shakespearian world. And they couldn't figure out how to end the play. And they bring out a couple of gangsters to sing a rousing song, Brush Up Your Shakespeare, which people love, and at the finale of the whole musical as well. And it's a song about basically justifying domestic violence.
[“Brush up your Shakespeare” plays]
If your goal is a Washington Heights dream,
Treat the kid to "A Midsummer Night Dream."
If she fights when her clothes you are mussing,
What are clothes? "Much Ado About Nussing."
If she says your behavior is heinous
Kick her right in the "Coriolanus."
Brush up your Shakespeare
And they'll all kowtow,
JAMES SHAPIRO You know, five years after this brilliant stage version Kiss Me, Kate became a movie that was completely sanitized and all the African-American stuff is removed. And the story in which a woman has real choices is by the early 1950s, a story in which women no longer have choices.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So now take us through the strange and perilous journey that was the multiple Oscar winning film Shakespeare in Love.
THOMAS And I leave to be if I be -
WILL Take off your hat.
THOMAS My hat?
WILL Where'd you learn how to do that?
THOMAS I -.
WILL Let me see you, take off your hat!
THOMAS Are you Ma- Master Shakespeare?
WILL Wait, there! Wait there! [END CLIP]
JAMES SHAPIRO The first script of Shakespeare in Love was written by a screenwriter named Mark Norman and he building upon what we know about Shakespeare from the sonnets and much else imagined a Shakespeare who's married to Anne Hathaway, but who discovers himself falling in love with another man and comes to terms with that. It was way too far ahead of what Hollywood thought Americans were ready for, so they brought in Tom Stoppard, the greatest English playwright, Czech-born, but he's British. Then he gets rid of the gay stuff. And the infamous Harvey Weinstein is the producer trying to bring this thing to the point where it's going to win a gazillion Academy Awards. He's leaning on the director and he's leaning on Stoppard to fix the ending because Americans don't like adultery. And Harvey Weinstein’s ideas turn the female lead, the Gwyneth Paltrow character, into a woman you keep on the side and throw parts to in exchange for sex. Or in other words, turns into the Harvey Weinstein story. And Stoppard luckily resisted that. And the final film version gave Americans just what they wanted.
WILL If I could write the beauty of our eyes. I was born to look at them and know myself.
THOMAS A-and her lips?
WILL Her lips, the early morning rose with wither on the branch, if it could feel envy.
THOMAS And her voice like lark song.
WILL Deeper, softer. None of your twittering larks. I would banish the nightingales from my garden before they interrupt her song.
THOMAS Oh she sings too?
WILL Constantly. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE You also talk about who gets to perform Shakespeare. What does color-blind gender-blind casting mean in the current American context?
JAMES SHAPIRO To be fully American is to be able to be in a Shakespeare play. And one of the most poignant stories I came across while researching this book was a short story by Toshio Mori, a Japanese American who was born in the Bay Area and was moved at the beginning of the Second World War. Like many Japanese Americans to the Topaz relocation camp in Utah and he writes a story called Japanese Hamlet about a young Japanese man whose only desire in life is to play Hamlet and nobody can bring themselves to tell him it ain't going to happen. It's another way of getting at who we really think is fully American.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is there any one way that Shakespeare's texts can serve as a framework for historical memory?
JAMES SHAPIRO I think they help us see what has been airbrushed out of the story we like to tell ourselves, and I actually think Shakespeare is a terrific force for good. I speak with a lot of people who are conservatives, who love Shakespeare. I speak with a lot of people who are liberals, who love Shakespeare. There's not a lot we actually can talk about and share in this country. I like to think that if we are going to do some healing in a post-coronavirus world. Theaters, as they were for Shakespeare, who lived through an age of plague. They're are places where people flock to after trauma. And I'm hoping that they are going to provide some kind of clarity and solace as we put our nation back together again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's funny you said, you know, people on the right love Shakespeare and people on the left love Shakespeare. And you'd expect that of something that was blandly, broadly appealing. And yet it's quite the reverse. His body of work is almost combustible.
JAMES SHAPIRO It is. And that's the great secret of Shakespeare. It is explosive. It is potentially toxic, but that's why it speaks to us. We get it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much.
JAMES SHAPIRO It is always so much fun speaking with you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE James Shapiro is the author of Shakespeare in a Divided America when his plays tell us about our past and future.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. So you've heard about how Shakespeare became a part of the fabric of American culture and identity, but of course, it's not the only nation that's claimed the Bard as its own. A 2016 British Council study found that Shakespeare was more popular outside of his home country than within it. And according to a more recent study by the University of Leeds, which analyzed Shakespeare's popularity via Wikipedia articles, readers of certain languages show predilections for certain genres. Russian is number two in Shakespeare tragedy page views, but only number five in page views of his comedies. And while Albanian, Greek and Turkish readers show little interest in Shakespeare's poetry, Wikipedia users who read Bulgarian, Catalan, Czech and Dutch seek it out. Shakespeare's appeal also is felt in Kabul, Afghanistan, Qais Akbar Omar helped launch a production of Love Labour's Lost there in 2005 during a brief moment when the Taliban had been pushed to the periphery. In this conversation from 2016, he said that it began with the visit of a French actress, Corinne Jaber, pondering the possibility of a production with some actors. The actors said yes to Shakespeare, but no to tragedy. They had lived that for 35 years.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR We looked into “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but it doesn’t coordinate with Afghan culture and customs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But “Love’s Labour’s Lost” did?
QAIS AKBAR OMAR It did, it did. Corinne actually came up with that play, but we didn’t have access to the translation so she told the actors, there are four princes and four princesses and these four princes take an oath that they are going to study for the next four years and they will not interact with any woman and they will eat one meal a day. And that sounded very much like Taliban, and all the actors laughed and said, “What? Shakespeare actually came up with this 400 years ago?” And Corinne said, yep. And so, what happens next? And she said, well then four princesses come to the court to try to talk to the king about some serious issues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So they set up a tent for them.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR Exactly, outside, which is, again, like nomads, always living in Afghanistan in tents everywhere, all over the country. So that also has a little bit of connection to their Afghan history and culture.
And then they said, what happens? And she said, all these four princes fall in love with these beautiful girls. And then what happens next? And they said, well, let’s read the play.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is one of the notable plays of Shakespeare where there are equal numbers of women and men.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And in the end, the women get to make the decision.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR That was one of the most important message of the play that we choose this one, because for six years the Taliban did not allow women to work and they were locked inside their houses like prisoners. And in this play, the woman get to make the final decision. It was a great message that no, woman always had an important role in Afghan society, and let’s revive that back by this play. Of course, that was happening already but this play pronounced that a little louder.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And do you think the West has a misconception about that?
QAIS AKBAR OMAR They do. They only know of the bloodshed and war, but there is also beautiful other things happening. for example, the love for poetry. We have something called poetry contest. You sit in a circle and I decide two verses from Omar Khayyám and you decide two verses from Rumi.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The great Afghan poet.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR Exactly, yeah. The first word of your first verse starts with the last letter of my verse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE [LAUGHS] Wow!
QAIS AKBAR OMAR And that goes on for hours. And also, it’s not just random poetry. We have to talk about something. Let’s talk about love or let’s talk about – I don’t know –
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you’re talking about alternating verses –
QAIS AKBAR OMAR Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE - based on the last letter and not just verses but verses limited to a particular theme.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR Exactly! People don't know these things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let’s leap from your discussion of the importance of poetry to your problems with getting a translation of “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” You had to go to an Iranian translation from a famous poet in Tehran who had translated into Farsi all of Shakespeare’s plays.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I know that Dari, one of Afghanistan's languages, and Farsi are similar but –
QAIS AKBAR OMAR Very similar.
BROOKE GLADSTONE - they’re not the same. Did you run into a problem there?
QAIS AKBAR OMAR Oh yeah, it was a huge problem. The difference between Dari and Farsi, you know, it’s like the difference between old Shakespearean English with the modern-day American English. But we started to read a little more, we got, you know, hang of it and then we said, oh wow, this is actually very beautiful. And then by the time we gave the play to the actors, it was amazing. It was more like a poetry contest. Some of the actors, of course, could not read. One of our actresses was a beggar who became famous doing a movie called Osama.
BROOKE GLADSTONE She was a child then. She basically came into a restaurant where the director was, begging for money, and he said, I got to put you on film. She was brilliant but she couldn't read and she still lived in terrifically poverty-stricken circumstances when you guys tracked her down.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR Yes. I mean, she was famous. She made this movie, but she didn't make much money out of it, enough to buy a piece of land, build a few rooms. She never had a chance to actually go to school during the years of Taliban. And the same thing with some of the other actresses.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Although some of those actresses were real dynamos.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR Yes. Two of the actresses, one Saba Sahar, another, Breshna Bahar, both of them actually worked with the minister of interior as detectives – these are really educated people, they were professional actors, they were, you know, reading it like as if this is their own language, as if, you know, they wrote the play. And one of the actors, his name is Faisal, he believed that Shakespeare was an Afghan who migrated to England 400 years ago and there he wrote probably one or two plays and he got famous and he stopped calling himself an Afghan and he became Englishman.
BROOKE GLADSTONE [LAUGHS] He was convinced of this.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR He really believed it, and I said, why do you feel that? And he said, Shakespeare writes like Rumi. The only difference is that Rumi’s poetry is all about spirituality, God and all these issues, while Shakespeare writes to entertain people, to make people laugh and historical issues. But the quality of the language is the same, so how come two people existed, one in Afghanistan, one in England?
They must be related. And I said, you make a good point.
BROOKE GLADSTONE [LAUGHS] But they weren’t speaking Shakespeare's words. They’d had to go through several series of translations. I mean, can you, as someone who knew the original so well, say that they were speaking the language of Shakespeare?
QAIS AKBAR OMAR You know, Shakespeare, it was very similar to Afghan culture, more than any other cultures in the world, because we still lived like we were in the 16th century, in some parts of the country, and especially with all these rules against women, especially with Taliban just pushed out of the picture, but the memories were still fresh in people's minds. Plus, the quality of the language, when the actors recited their lines written by Shakespeare 400 years ago, it felt very natural.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And the poetry was preserved, you believe.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR Yes, very much so because when you change a word in Shakespeare, the whole thing kind of lose its balance, the whole verse loses its balance, and then you notice something is wrong in here. And it happened a few times in the translation process. One actor or another would say, ah, it doesn't rhyme properly, it doesn't go very well here, something is wrong. I want to replace it with this word or that word. And then we went and studied both the English and the Dari, and they said, oh gosh, yes, this word needs to be replaced with this one. It’s, it’s just amazing. It’s like a formula. If you take one number off, everything doesn't make sense.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Marina Golbahari, the very young girl who played Osama in that famous film. Could she keep up with this?
QAIS AKBAR OMAR Not in the beginning. I had to spend three weeks going to the park every day before we start our rehearsals and I read with her and three actresses. She is an encyclopedia of emotions, and it was just amazing. It just flowed, the whole thing, which is why the first day of the performance we had enough space for over 500 and there were 250 or 300 people waiting outside, and we just could not let them in. They were mostly men, except for a few foreign women who were diplomats.
So these Afghan men, the next night they came back with their whole families, their sisters, their aunts, their mothers, because they did not see that there was anything un-Islamic. It was just a very, very beautiful play. The third performance we had in Babur’s Garden, we had over a thousand people for the audience.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, this garden you mention, a garden that was still undergoing restoration because the Taliban in the civil war had destroyed it.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE While that performance was going on, the workers also just stopped and watched.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR Yes. They just sat cross-legged on dirt on the floor, smiling. And that was everything for us. After the play, hundred people in their 20s came to me and asked me, who is this guy, who wrote this?
And I said, Shakespeare. And he said, who is Shakespeare? And I said, he is an Englishman. He said, yeah, but that was in Dari. And I said, yeah, we translated it. And I said, wow, can we have the script? So I had my script and I gave it to him. And that script was copied probably hundred times until the lines were unreadable, but at the very last page I had my phone number, and they started calling me and asking for copies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How many calls?
QAIS AKBAR OMAR Oh, quite a few, quite a few. I had to go and change my number.
I just told one of the guys, and I said, stop calling me. There is Foundation for Cultural and Civil Society, and I have left a few hundred copies there, then you can make your own photocopies. And that’s what happened. And the funny thing is one of my neighbors one day gave me a copy of it and they said, hey, have you read this thing?
Ah, and I said, yeah, I have read this thing. And he said, it’s amazing, isn’t it? And I said, yeah.
You know, Brooke, this is the thing. People don’t understand that Afghanistan is so thirsty and there is so much talent in that country, all waiting for something to happen so that they can just grab that opportunity and move on with their lives.
Unfortunately, because of war and Taliban returning back, when the suicide bombers started coming back, oh, you know, in America you only hear about a suicide bomber killed 12 people in Kabul. But in Kabul you see the whole thing on TV, they show the blood on the street and the body parts lying from the trees. When you see that, you kind of lose hope for the future. We were planning to take this play all over the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The popularity of the show was accompanied by a certain degree of risk? Could you describe that?
QAIS AKBAR OMAR Well, the popularity of the show, one thing. Second thing, because it was by an English playwright. Third, it was funded by a foreign organization. Fourth, if the Taliban killed any of us, they would get a lot of publicity out of this. So that's why we just could not risk it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Was anybody hurt?
QAIS AKBAR OMAR One of the actresses – her name is Parwin Mushtael - she is now in Canada with her two teenage daughters and son. Someone knocked on their door. The husband went out to see who was knocking and he never came back. And the next day the neighbors found out that her husband was killed, put in a ditch, in a really brutal way. I don't want to talk about the details of that. It will actually make me sad.
And the women that earlier we were talking about, Breshna Bahar and Saba Sahar, who were both –
BROOKE GLADSTONE Detectives.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR - detectives, yeah, she had to leave her town because people started calling her that she was a whore. And when someone creates that kind of rumor about you, you just have to get out before the crowd kills you.
And Saba Sahar, her family told her to stop making movies. She did not listen because she is a very strong-willed woman and she wanted to do this. So, her husband divorce her and took the children away from her because he is afraid that someone probably will kill her and along the way he would be killed and their children will be killed, as well. So, I don’t know where she is now. She completely disappeared.
All the actors went to different directions, and some who are still in Afghanistan are keeping a very, very low profile, so that they don’t become victim of some stupid people who would get some publicity out of them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let’s conclude by going over what makes Shakespeare so relevant to the people of Afghanistan.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR During the four years of civil war, as soon as you walk out of your house, a sniper from the mountain will shoot you. I mean, that was the reality of life until we had cease-fire briefly for a day or two and people run out of their basements to get some food and then there was war all over again. And when you're in the basement, all you hear is hundreds of rockets raining all over your neighborhood every day. So, I grew up in the basement, and every book we had in the house I read them probably more than 10 times, including a couple of plays by Shakespeare. So, when we decided to do Shakespeare, oh, I was just so excited.
You know, when I read Shakespeare with Corinne and the actors, we all felt like, whoa, this man manages to get so much of his feelings out in the open. After they finished reading their monologues, they start talking with each other about what happened to them during the civil war or the Taliban. They could relate what Shakespeare was saying in those lines with what happened to them in real life. Sometimes you don’t want to talk about the past, but you want to talk about things that happened to you in a kind of opaque but yet poetic way. And that's what was happening among these actors. Sometimes they openly talked about their past. Sometimes they tried to shield it with those beautiful words.
We don’t have therapy in Afghanistan, and that’s, I think, the best therapy they could have, through the lines of Shakespeare. And that was more like a – like, I don’t know how, how to explain it. It’s like freedom, you know? And then you just feel light.
BROOKE GLADSTONE If you were to produce another play in Afghanistan, what do you think it would be?
QAIS AKBAR OMAR I’ll choose another comedy. As one of my actors explained it very beautifully, when we do tragedies one day, we will write it ourselves, and we’ll write it the way it happened. Rockets, bombs, blood, and we’ll show all of those things on the stage for the people. So, I’ll go with something very funny to just make people forget about the past, even if it is for half an hour.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What about “All's Well That Ends Well?”
QAIS AKBAR OMAR That would be nice, except not yet.
If we have peace, yes. But I will hold onto that for now.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE Qais, thank you very much.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR Well, thank you. Great talking to you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Qais Akbar Omar is the author of A Night in the Emperor’s Garden. As he said, in the end, we each have to tell our own stories. But in the 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, it’s pretty clear that he set the template for all of our stories, at once unique and universal. Yes, his words are not our words. As Omar said, that’s why they give us the gift of a little distance, that is, just before plunging us deep into the impenetrable mystery that is every life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE On the Media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender and Molly Schwartz with help from Ellen Li. Xandra Ellin writes our unique newsletter. Our technical director is Jennifer Munsen. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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