I really don’t think Shakespeare was striving to be an ARTIST very often. I’m not knocking the guy’s chops – he told a great story, he provided a wealth of fantastic parts within each play*, and he had a hell of an ear for a good turn of phrase. Mostly, though, I think Our William was trying to stay at the top of the heap and do his job and get paid and stay out of (excessive) trouble. Your company doesn’t become “The King’s Men” when you’re sitting around jawing about the line of succession and how it relates to James, after all. No, you write a play – one of your bloodier and scarier plays – in which a predecessor of the Stuarts legally and rightfully ascends the throne, which, back in the “present” day, heretofore has been held by Tudors. MacBeth, the play that still strikes fear into superstitious hearts across the Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking acting world, whose subtext might be deciphered, “Yo, James, it’s all good, bro.”
When I was teaching at Carroll University a few years ago, one of the professors there managed to wangle a speech and a workshop out of Nilo Cruz, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for his play Anna in the Tropics. Anna is a three-layered story. The background is a cigar factory in which lots and lots of immigrants are hand-wrapping cigars. The workers would collectively spring for a lector (a reader) to come in and be – essentially – an audiobook for them. Our Man reads Anna Karenina to the workers. Tragedy ensues. In the play, there is the story of Tolstoy’s novel (layer #1). There is the backdrop of the moment in history when the play takes place, as the mechanization of the workplace means all of these people are about to lose their jobs (#2). There is the doomed love that is the emotional core of the play (#3). Cruz wrote this play as a commission. He didn’t write it to be a Pulitzer contender. He just wrote the best play he could at the time.
By the way, Cruz is a charming dude and reads his own work incredibly well. Should you have a chance to hear him, carve out whatever time you need and hie your way over.
In the theater world, everyone is always worried about ART. As in, “yeah that was a good show, but don’t you think they sold out a bit?” Or, “That’s the trouble with things that are too arty – you don’t know where to look.” Does not knowing where to look make it “art”? Couldn’t it just have been a poor execution?
The circle of people in YA fiction who want to write are much greater in number than those want to write plays and the hurdles are drastically different. The medium of theater makes writing a really good play (to my mind) substantially harder than writing good fiction, basically because your palette is so much more limited. So each writes, each polishes, each completes. Both begin the submission process, and for both its an idiosyncratic exercise in banging one’s head against the wall. The playwright has to make a singular connection with a director/producer/artistic director who’s willing to take on their play. The YA author has to make that connection with an agent.
I could go on, but I won’t. The issue is that in theater we torture ourselves with questions of artistic merit, the ghost of Shakespeare standing over us ominously with Damocles’ sword (artsy enough references for you?). In YA, the goal just seems to be GET PUBLISHED. Published means vindication. It means validation. It means you were right and your work is as good as you think it is. Getting PERFORMED has a similar feel in theater, but with the added weight. People in YA don’t seem to be concerned about “artistic merit” in the same way. They want to write good books, yes, with attention to character development, world building, plot twists, and reveals. They want well done. At least that’s the game that everyone’s talking.
I’m curious to learn how the deeper nuances of the hang-ups of the industry work. What are the hang-ups in yours?
*All those good parts is connected to why his plays are so long – lots of subplots, B-storylines, etc. There are almost no dud speaking roles in any given show.