Jun 15, 2012

Vamping at Will

A scene from As You Like It by Francis Hayman (c. 1750)

Why do we keep returning with joy to As You Like It, one of Shakespeare's most plotless works? A delightful suspension of action may be part of its perverse appeal, as I wrote in a program piece back in 2005 for the Center Theatre Group:
In As You Like It, Shakespeare comes as close as he ever did to a kind of Socratic dialogue in theme-and-variations form, with characters gathering in various combinations in their languorous forest exile less to advance the plot than to talk, mock, and muse. The mere wisps of story Shakespeare provides are there primarily to usher the characters into the forest as quickly as possible, and later to provide a quick and painless ending. At the play's center, then, are some of the Bard's great ruminative exchanges on life and love, sharpened by contrasts—male and female, jaded and hopeful, city and country—and leavened by an easy laughter that bubbles throughout like an unhurried brook.

..Comedies are characterized by a movement from discord to harmony, which is why so many of them end in marriages and reconciliations. The special genius of As You Like It—a title whose self-confidence mirrors its heroine's—is that Shakespeare managed to minimize the discord so he could vamp expertly on his chosen themes, like a composer holding a suspended chord in mid-air until he's good and ready to resolve it. It's a rarefied comedy form, certainly, but consider the durability of such plot-light and argument-heavy antecedents as The Importance of Being Earnest, Heartbreak House, or the entire ouevre of Chekhov, who famously thought of his plays as comedies. As You Like It proves, as if we needed proof, that Shakespeare's virtuosity is in his insights as much as his imagination.
I'll be seeing the Shakespeare in the Park production tonight, and the Soho Rep Vanya tomorrow. It will be a ruminative weekend, I think; I'll leave incidents for the police blotters.

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