Every time we attend a classical theater performance in which characters like Don Juan, Hamlet either Sigismund they wear a suit and tie, the discomfort of certain spectators can manifest itself from a disapproving grimace to getting up from their seats in the middle of the performance to leave the theater.
Following Patrick Pavisany rereading of the classics is an adaptation –including new interpretations, translations into other languages and, of course, staging–, so we rule out from the outset the impossible claim of a totally purist representation of any classic work.
“Recover” the Golden Age
We lack too much information to fully reconstruct the experience of a staging of the Golden Age and, even if we had it, we would find ourselves with an insurmountable obstacle: the passage of time.
The great playwrights of the 16th and 17th centuries wrote for their contemporary public, with whom they sought that unique connection that is determined by the historical and social situation of a place and time. Trying to reproduce today that connection with a spectator who no longer exists is an academic exercise of a museum nature that undermines the very essence of dramatic art, which is based on the immediacy of the here and now.
Victor Hugo in the Preface to Cromwell attacked this claim: «Imitating the perfection of the ancients is impossible because we are no longer pagans and the current public will never be able to feel the same as a Greek or a Roman felt».
Therefore, restoring classical theater to the stage involves getting electricity back through its old circuits, not simply walking a corpse. So the update, and in general any adaptation work, is part of a natural process from which we cannot escape even if we try.
“Adaptations are not necessary, but inevitable,” said the playwright Ignatius of Moral. To believe otherwise is, in addition to being naive, to do a disservice to our theatrical heritage. A supposedly archaeological staging reduces the significant potential that a classic can offer us today.
Although it is a paradox, not altering an ancient text can mean blowing up a bridge between the world of yesterday and the world of today.
It is necessary to add that there are different degrees of adaptation and sensitivities in playwrights. From those who strive to capture a philological concern of a historicist stamp to those whose pulse does not tremble to demolish the temple of the golden work with the aim of building an avant-garde building with its ruins. These distances can be measured in the different aesthetic proposals, all of them excellent, Nao d’Amoresof Rum Lala and the protein National Classical Theater Company.
Fortunately, the field of art is wide enough to fit the most diverse proposals and the classic, by definition, is capable of withstanding both the walk with pillows and the dismemberment.
In postmodernity we see all kinds of experiments that tense to a greater or lesser extent the readings and interpretations that classical plays admit and that, sometimes, have their origin in bad readings of the text. For example, in all those that interpret in an erotic way and looking for laughter in a serious passage of ovejuna in which Laurencia says “I am, although dickvery tough”, when Lope was actually referring to a tenacity not softened by youth.
That is where the philologist and any investigator of the history of theater have an inexcusable task. If not, we can find montages that make the works say the opposite of what appears in their texts, without this being the will of the director or playwright.
How many classic montages take the stage based on texts with errors that those responsible are unaware of! The fact that the philologist fixes the texts and advises a theater company does not prevent a postmodern version from being produced: on the contrary, by better understanding the textual basis, the deviations to signify and resignify would be taken with greater awareness and the artistic debate would enrich the production.
As José Sanchis Sinisterra says in the limitless sceneadapting a classic text can be “an attempt to translate the original dramatic principles and solutions into a different, but also complex, coherent and, as far as possible, rigorous theatrical system.”
In short, any current proposal made with cultural heritage should be welcomed, from the most conservative to the most avant-garde, because art advances not only with newly created works, but also with adaptations and versions of previous works.
To that angry spectator who shouted “Betrayal!” leaves the theater mid-performance just because Romeo and Juliet are executives, gangsters, or robots, it would suffice to remind him that even then Shakespeare was adapting for the Elizabethan sensibility a earlier work of the Italian Renaissance and that Cervantes, in the Tragedy of Numanciaarranged the Roman legionnaires as if they were thirds of Flanders.
They, like us, thought of theater as a ritual that needs the strong connection of an audience, beyond mere passive expectation, and they did not stop squeamishly when it came to reusing old materials to resignify them. So whoever wants to get up from their seat, but don’t do it in the name of the classics.