The bull in culture’s china shop

Shakespeare, opera, ballet and other plebeian non-delights.

“A pox o’ your throat you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog.” (Shakespeare)

Peter Warland

Quite recently I had the rare pleasure of a short drive in the local countryside with a young woman. During our somewhat stilted conversation she told me that she loved Shakespeare’s plays and I had to inform her that I hated the man, his plays and his sonnets.

As she sat there apparently appalled at my crass ignorance, I was reminded of a short scene in one of the Rowan Atkinson comedy series where the hero, Black Adder, actually meets the bard in an Elizabethan corridor and takes the opportunity to beat him up for the indignities he causes and has caused English school boys. As for ‘great Shakespearean actors’, to me they are just hams; they are incapable of acting.

We, as kids in school, we told time after time, that Shakespeare was absolutely marvellous. Well, some of us, still conscious after an hour’s lesson, reckoned that Will might have been all right for folk in Queen Elizabeth’s era, but why was he foisted on us?

And, as a local director once told me, “You don’t act in Shakespearean plays; you just stand there and say the lines.”

So, while we’re on the topic of awful actors, take a look at opera.

While I was still a young man, I was lured to an opera by a lovely, young French girl. There, in a huge theatre with lots of other sufferers, all sitting, facing the same way and not enjoying themselves, I had a great time. I’d never before seen such a ridiculous display of over-acting and screeching. Despite the fact that the singers were using Italian and my companion was explaining everything in French, I didn’t ‘get it’. I didn’t do too well with the French girl either. There probably is a French word for ‘uncouth’. Mauvais gout, peut etre?

In fact, many years after that evening, with an even more callous friend, we used to put on opera on the TV, turn off the sound, and, to his wife’s disgust, sing along.

It would probably be wrong, cruel even, to blame my parents for the way I am. It is most likely the stubborn streak that I inherited from my mother, who had a weak heart, was told not to have children, and look what happened.

The problem is: I cannot stand being told what I should like, be it Shakespeare, opera, ballet or art.

Over the past half century or so I have been subjected to ballet. I’ve sat through performances in big London theatres and not been impressed by the leaps and posturing. Whilst visiting Vancouver one year, I was dragged in to see a ballet company from New York. At the time, Paul Kershaw, here in Cranbrook, was directing students in the Broadway musical Anything Goes and the eight school girls that danced in that show were better co-ordinated. There was also a ballet performed at our community theatre and, of course, I was hauled along. For me, the best thing about that show was the fellow seated behind me who, during a ‘pas de deux’, kept yelling, “Where’s the corpse?”. He probably meant the ‘corps de ballet’, but I loved his mistake.

Years ago some enthusiast brought in and displayed several paintings by the legendary Emily Carr, she who was supposed to be really good at totem poles and West Coast scenery. I was lured into the exhibition and there proclaimed loudly that I had never seen such amateurish, muddy painting. I wasn’t actually thrown out, but I am fairly big, bourgeois and stubborn.

In the past, teachers tried hard to persuade me and other spotty youths that poetry was good for our souls. This persuasion was supposed to be accomplished by forcing us to learn whole books full of stuff that made absolutely no sense at all to soulless kids. After all these years I can still recite much of that drivel but, according to a very educated friend (with a soul) only the ‘jingly stuff’. I am so uncouth, and a plebeian to boot.