Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Rushdie: "You will find no trace of me"; Quaid: "I am Falstaff!"

In a speech on Sunday at Emory University, Salman Rushdie said he has erased himself from most of his writing. "Too much of my life story has found itself in the public domain already," the Booker Prize-winning novelist said. "In my later works, you will find no trace of me."

The aversion to autobiographical and topical portrayals in his fiction, of course, springs from well-known sources, and one can certainly understand such reticence, given his own harrowing experiences in drawing too closely from life for too controversial a topic.

Rushdie also told the crowd, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, "Shakespeare had it right... when he left behind no diaries or letters that might lend a window into his inspirations" (the reporter's paraphrase, not Rushdie's exact words).

But Rushdie, whom I personally admire and revere as one of the great literary figures of our time, is nevertheless taking a leap of convenience when he says that the source for his inspirations are now opaque ... and, as luck would have it, so were Shakespeare's.

As regular readers of this space know, it is this writer's contention that much of the Bard's inspirations spring from a single life. (*cough* Edward de Vere, Edward de Vere, Edward de Vere *ahem*) And while no one disputes Rushdie's masterful craftsmanship -- and his right to creatively annihilate all that he wants -- with Shakespeare, the situation is actually much closer to what the author says in Sonnet 76: "Why write I still all one, ever the same/ And keep invention in a noted weed [disguise]? / That every word doth almost tell my name..."

Pace the great contemporary Indian-British novelist and essayist, Shakespeare keeps telling variations on the same life story over and over again. Falstaff, King Lear, Romeo, Hamlet, Othello, Leontes, Bertram, the list goes on... They all convey one man's epic tale. But it's not going to be found in any records or (should they ever turn up) diaries in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The creative vacuum that orthodox Shakespeare interpretations leave behind allows for all kinds of leeway, granted. Great novelists can imagine that, in eliminating themselves from their works, they are following in the footsteps of the greatest writer in the English language. And... not-so-great figures of the page or stage can just thrust themselves into the emptiness.

Near the end of The Merry Wives of Windsor, a humbled Falstaff laments, "I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass." In a $6.5 million contemporary musical adaptation of Merry Wives that just closed in Seattle, entitled Lone Star Love, the girthy braggart evidently didn't need any assistance from the text to do just that. The actor portraying him took care of the asinine bit himself.

Sunday's Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that Lone Star Love was not only a farcical mess dramatically, but backstage the man in the title role (Randy Quaid) earned such scorn from his colleagues as to cause Actors Equity to fine him $81,572 and ban him for life from any future Equity production.

Quaid reportedly engaged in such winning behavior as smacking fellow performers on the head onstage, threatening colleagues who made eye contact with him, and making lewd remarks about an actress's "gynecological instruments." In his own defense, Quaid said he was just staying in character.

"I am guilty of only one thing," Quaid said. "Giving a performance that elicited a response so deeply felt by the actors and producers with little experience of my creative process that they actually think I am Falstaff."

So there you have it. Rushdie is glad we'll never know the source of Shakespeare's inspirations. And Quaid is Falstaff.

Of course, ham-hock thespians will always be able to claim squatter's rights over a Shakespearean character, no matter who the author is seen to be.

But, getting back to Rushdie's point, the true tragedy of Shakespeare today is the fact that a void is perceived where in fact something very different actually is. The Bard's artistic legacy is not of nihilism and authorial self-obliteration -- but rather a compelling and all too tragic biographical odyssey found in the self-revelations of a playwright who ultimately knew his own name would be lost.

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