Originally published on April 3, 2018 by Jennifer Schuessler in the New York Times.
Four years ago, the news that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival had commissioned modern English “translations” of all of Shakespeare’s plays drew headlines, and no small alarm, from purists who saw it as a kind of literary vandalism.
Now, the public will have a chance to judge the full fruits of the effort for itself.
The Play On! Festival, to be held at Classic Stage Company in New York from May 29 to June 30, will feature readings of all 39 translations. While some have previously had public readings, or even full productions, this is the first time the full Shakespeare canon will be presented.
[Read more about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s project.]
The purpose of the project, Lue Morgan Douthit, the longtime head of dramaturgy and literary development at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, explained at the time, was not to “improve” or junk Shakespeare’s language, but to challenge a diverse group of playwrights to engage deeply with it, line by line.
More than half of the playwrights — who include Marcus Gardley (“King Lear”), Ellen McLaughlin (“Pericles”), Lloyd Suh (“Henry V”) and Mfoniso Udofia (“Othello”) — are women or people of color. They were charged with considering meter, rhyme and rhythm, and conveying Shakespeare’s meanings and metaphors in accessible and contemporary (but not slang-y) English. The first rule was “Do no harm.”
“No one felt they’re going to out-Shakespeare Shakespeare,” Ms. Douthit said in a statement announcing the festival. “Instead, the project asked what would happen if we weed and weave the language a little bit? If anything, I think we have even more respect for Shakespeare than we had when we entered this.”
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One thing the playwrights were absolutely not supposed to do was “fix” problematic aspects of the plays, inject political critiques, add or subtract characters, or adapt the story to new settings and situations, though participants may go on to do that on their own.
The playwright and performer Taylor Mac translated “Titus Andronicus” for the project, but declined to have his work in the reading series, according to the festival. Separately, he has written “Gary: A Sequel To Titus Andronicus,” which opens April 21 on Broadway. (A spokesman for “Gary” did not respond to a request for comment.)
Instead of Mr. Mac’s translation, the festival will feature a “Titus” from Amy Freed, who also translated “The Taming of the Shrew.”
As for the impact of the project on the playwrights more broadly, Ms. Douthit, in an email, said it was too soon to tell, and also hard to untangle the various strands of influence.
“It has been an interesting couple of years for some of the writers — at least six of them are deeply engaged in writing for television,” she said. “That will certainly affect their playwriting too, I suspect.”
She added, “One of the most moving aspects of the project has been watching playwrights and actors dive into the machinations of these large scale plays.”