Inspired by this tweet from @funnyordie and the subsequent responses, I got to thinking about the age old modern versus classic battle. And I am sad to say we often miss the mark worse than the blind bow boy’s butt-shaft in the first three acts of a Shakespearean Comedy.
I have spent my entire cognizant life in education and have spent a little time rubbing elbows with the intellectual elite, and more often with those who imagine themselves as such. I have spent a similarly large portion of time with the average apathetic, disinterested teen and pre-teen, and I have discovered two attitudes with very little middle ground: the classics are amazing and must be protected and revered at all costs or the classics are boring as fuuuuuuuu-. And, sadly, it is often the former that leads to the latter.
I remember my 9th grade English teacher telling the class that the exchange between Sampson and Gregory “was very funny and raunchy” before allowing two barely fluent readers to stumble through the next two pages ten syllables at a time. It is hard to imagine that is what Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote these “heroes of the groundlings”.
We, as a society, as a culture, as readers, as the literati have decided that Shakespeare (e.g.) is elite and so it is. We have decided classic language is to be revered and so it is. But, to slightly paraphrase my favorite tragic hero not named Hamlet, in that hit we miss. Shakespeare was not written for the intellectual elite, it was not written for the aristocracy, it was work for the groundlings—the proletariat, the lay folk, the everyman. It is simply through the evolution –or perhaps, devolution—of language that such works have become isolated and elite. I compare it to legal jargon, a way to keep “our thing” esoteric.
Written work with a sole audience of readers (as opposed to viewers) has had a slightly different journey as there have always been those who could and could not read and those lines have often, if not always, been drawn along socioeconomic lines. However, the simple premise of the problem stays the same: this applies to us, not you.
This elitist attitude tells people they should cling to the classic as the classic, freeze it in time and love it for what it was rather than what it is. My first example of this comes from Baz Luhrman’s 1996 version of Romeo + Juliet. My fifteen year old self fashioned himself a young literati and a Shakespeare guy so I immediately hated the movie. I mean, after all, they didn’t have guns in Shakespeare! What bollocks! Sixteen years, a few degrees, and numerous readings of the script later I have not only come to appreciate the movie, but prefer it to Zeffirelli’s ’68 version for the actors’ clear understanding of character motivations, objectives, purpose, and personality. Of course, this is just me.
But this automatic vitriolic hatred of “messing with the classics” is not only a dangerous, pompous attitude, but truly missing the mark. At the time of writing, these works were (typically) NOT period pieces.
Gatsby, for example is written a mere three years after it is set. It was a modern work. It was a novelization of the world’s most expensive orgy in history… as it took place. Do you think, then, F. Scott would not have been thrilled if the movie option included the newest technology?
I imagine I’m going to get a lot of ‘Murica backlash for this, but the French have us spanked like naughty children in this regard. Visit the palace of Versaille, built in the 17th century, and you will see large, brightly colored sculptures of metal, cloth, and glass that clearly were not designed in the same century as the castle. You see, Versaille was a hot-bed of modern culture and art. And it still is. While the castle’s basic foundation and structure, garden, and original paintings are centuries old works of art – the spirit of the castle, of the work of art, is and always will be in the present. A work of literature should have the same life.
You’re free to disagree, but I hope you know why.