Wayne T. Carr played Pericles in this successful run of the little-loved play at OSF this season. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Wayne T. Carr played Pericles in this successful run of the little-loved play at OSF this season. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

If there is any form of religion to be found these days among educated secular Americans, it’s the arts. We worship at the museum, the concert hall and the theatre (always spelled with that stuffy British ending). And high among the sacred scriptures of that religion are certainly the plays of Shakespeare.

So it was with some amusement, and some dismay, that I learned that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has taken on itself the mighty task of translating the entire Shakespeare canon – and that itself is a religious term for all 39 plays – into contemporary English.

Yes, an English-to-English translation. I can hardly wait.

OK, it might be an interesting exercise.

According to the announcement from OSF, the project – with the unencouraging name “Play on! 36 playwrights translate Shakespeare” – will commission 36 playwrights (they couldn’t find 39?) to write what OSF calls “translated texts in contemporary modern English.”

The project will be run by Lue Morgan Douthit, OSF’s director of literary development and dramaturgy.

So what’s wrong with Shakespeare in modern English? After all, just like you, I admit I have snoozed through one or two impenetrable passages of Elizabethan dialog, at Ashland and elsewhere. Why not make “The Tempest” more comprehensible? Perhaps with the right script doctor, “Timon of Athens” will become watchable.

But then I think back to my youth, much of which was spent in private Episcopal-church-run schools, where daily I was forced to endure (much like audiences at OSF) live readings from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Those two “texts,” as the dramaturgs would call them, are – along with Shakespeare – considered to lie at the very foundation of modern English.

Are they sacred? No, not to me. But both are beautiful and elegant, and listening to them daily had a profound effect on my own writing. And both have been repeatedly updated by scholars in an attempt to make them more timely and relevant, often with disastrous results.

The Book of Common Prayer has been modified repeatedly since Elizabethan days to accord with changes in church doctrine, but even in in the 20th century, no one tried to make it more “relevant.” Not, that is, until the version put out in 1979. That’s when this traditional exchange between priest and congregation

Priest: The Lord be with you.
People: And with thy spirit.

becomes the clunkier

Priest: The Lord be with you.
People: And also with you.

Perhaps in 2015 we should change it to

Priest: The Lord be with you.
People: You, too!

“Play on!” probably isn’t going to be that bad, though you never know. It could be wonderful. Jeff Whitty, the Oregonian who wrote the book to “Avenue Q,” has been assigned to take on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” That just might be a dream matchup.

The prolific Kenneth Cavander drew two assignments: “The Tempest,” which would be lovely fun to play with, assuming the new translation doesn’t kill too much of the magic, and the inscrutable “Timon of Athens,” which was produced – as a pilot for the program – at Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 2014.

Rick Harmon, in the Montgomery Advertiser, called the new “Timon” version “brilliant.”

“Cavander, working with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, has spent years tightening the plot and, more controversially, updating some of its language, replacing antiquated terms and wording with lines that can be better understood by modern audiences,” he said.

The project originated with, and has been funded by, Palo Alto philanthropist Dave Hitz, who write to OSF artistic director Bill Rauch in 2010:

I have a fantasy. Before I die, I would love to see a high quality production of
Shakespeare translated into my native language, modern American English.

The idea of upgrading Shakespeare hasn’t exactly drawn universal praise. Writing in the Huffington Post this week, author Lev Raphael kvetched:

Why should some well-meaning pedant be making decisions about what people do or don’t understand, rewriting great poetry and spoon-feeding them Shakespeare Lite?

I’m sure that “Play on!” will produce some howling travesties, but it also should be great fun to go see the new versions of the plays – if only, for some people, for the purpose of getting good and pissed off. Either way, Shakespeare will survive. And maybe some of us in the audience will manage to stay awake longer.

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