If You Take a 10-Year-Old To See a Shakespeare Play
If you take a 10-year-old to see a Shakespeare play, chances are she’ll want to know how long the show is.
You’ll tell her you don’t know for sure, but three hours would be a good guess. Before she rolls her eyes, you’ll remind her that the production of Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” you ill-advisedly took her to when she was 7 was about the same length, maybe even a bit longer, and she managed to stay awake for the whole thing, something you yourself found difficult. You’ll add that two years ago, you took her to a musical version of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” at the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park, and both of you really enjoyed it.
She’ll ask if the play you’ll be seeing will be like that one, and you’ll say, “No, probably not.”
You’ll mention that one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines shows up in the title of John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” a book she just finished reading.
She’ll ask if the play you’re seeing will be like that book, and you’ll say, “No, probably not.”
After thinking it over for a while, she’ll ask what the play is called. You’ll tell her “Cymbeline.” She’ll ask what it’s about, so you’ll give her a basic rundown of the plot, but midway through you’ll realize that you’re describing “The Winter’s Tale” and that you actually don’t remember this one. You’ll direct her to a website that provides a cast of characters and a plot summary.
She’ll read over the cast list and point out that J.K. Rowling used some of the same names for her characters, but when she gets to the plot, she’ll stop reading and say she would rather be surprised.
You’ll say that’s fine, and ask if she still wants to go, and she’ll ask if she can bring her Harry Potter book along, and you’ll say yes.
She’ll ask if there will be any other kids in the audience.
You’ll say probably yes, and then you’ll think, “Well, no, maybe not.”
You’ll recall (although you won’t actually say any of this out loud because doing so would be boring and pompous and counterproductive) that, when you were growing up on the Northwest side of Chicago, being dragged to Shakespeare plays seemed as integral to a middle-class Jewish upbringing as being dragged to piano lessons, JCC day camp, Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts, Chicago Bears’ games, plus weekend trips to the Art Institute, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Museum of Science and Industry. You will leave out the fact that most of what you remember about the Shakespeare plays you saw didn’t have much to do with the plays — that when you saw John Gielgud in London as Julius Caesar, he was obviously hammered; that when you saw Glenda Jackson onstage as Lady Macbeth, her performance reminded you of Charlotte Rae playing Mrs. Garrett on “The Facts of Life,” not that your 10-year-old knows anything about Lady Macbeth or Mrs. Garrett. And you certainly won’t mention that the only thing you really remember about James Earl Jones’s performance as Othello was the way he introduced odd guttural syllables into his speech, so that instead of saying “I do entreat that we may sup together,” he said, “I do entreat that we may mooooah-moooooah sup together.”
You won’t say anything about the brief period in your life when you acted in Chicago productions of Shakespearean plays. You won’t mention your supporting role in a production of “Romeo and Juliet” where the actors playing Tybalt and Mercutio stuffed socks down the front of their tights so they would seem more well-endowed when they performed in front of an audience of girls from Good Counsel High School. You won’t mention the time you played Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and, during dress rehearsal, an actress playing one of Titania’s fairies tickled your crotch with a peacock feather and you bellowed, “Touch not my dong, madam,” after which she didn’t speak to you again for the run of the show. You won’t say anything about the fact that right about this time last year Ira Glass was getting in trouble for saying that, for modern audiences, Shakespeare was “unrelatable.” You won’t mention that you thought he was being an ass, but that at the same time you wondered if there was something significant about the fact that, without exception, the Shakespeare productions you’ve most enjoyed happen to be movies, particularly those directed by Orson Welles.
You won’t say any of this because you want your 10-year-old to enjoy Shakespeare as much as you did.
Well, hopefully a little bit more.
When you arrive at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, you’ll ask if she needs to use the bathroom and, when she says no, you’ll feel thankful because the line for the women’s room is already way out the door. You’ll give your tickets to the usher, who’ll ask if you’re in the right section and you’ll hear him say, “F—k, yeah,” after which you’ll turn to your daughter and ask what the usher just said, and she’ll say, “Heck, yeah,” and you’ll say, “Oh.”
You’ll take your seats in Row L, open your program and turn to the synopsis, and ask if she wants to read it. She’ll say no, she has more important things to do, then open her copy of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” You’ll vaguely recall how intricate the plot of “Cymbeline” is, then say, “You probably ought to read this,” and so she’ll start reading it, but stop midway through and tell you it doesn’t make any sense. And she’ll actually be right — but it’ll turn out that it’s not really her fault; it’s more Shakespeare’s fault and whoever wrote the synopsis’s fault. So you’ll let her go back to Harry Potter while you scan the crowd, looking for other parents with kids, and you’ll see only two. You’ll wonder if your parents were outliers for having taken you to see everything from a puppet theater “Pinocchio” at the Studebaker Theater to Laurence Olivier’s “Henry V” at the Skokie Public Library, or if times were different back then, when markets weren’t so fragmented and everything didn’t have to be identified as children’s or young-adult or adult entertainment, or if maybe theatergoing parents of kids growing up in New York these days just have more money to throw at babysitters.
After the show starts and the Harry Potter book gets tucked underneath a seat, you’ll regret that you’re taking the 10-year-old to see one of the most convoluted works in Shakespeare’s canon, and you’ll feel bad, too, for the program’s synopsis writer, because you wouldn’t really know how to efficiently summarize a play about a king with two missing sons and a daughter named Imogen who is in love with a plebe named Posthumus but is pursued by Cloten, the oafish son of her stepmother, a nasty queen who enlists an apothecary to procure a poison but is duped by said apothecary, who instead provides her with a sleeping potion, which is taken by Imogen when she’s dressed as a boy and is palling around with her long-lost brothers, even though she doesn’t yet know they’re her brothers, while she’s pining away for Posthumus, who has been duped by a scumbag named Iachimo, who has convinced him that Imogen has been unfaithful to him. And so on.
During intermission the 10-year-old will ask you how you’re enjoying the play, and you’ll say that you think the performances are pretty terrific. You’ll hear the woman behind you say that Lily Rabe, who plays Imogen, is “frickin’ awesome,” and you’ll say that she’s “frickin’ right.” You’ll ask the 10-year-old how she’s enjoying it, and she’ll say that she thinks the actor playing oafish Cloten (Hamish Linklater) is funny, and that she really likes the small white dog that Kate Burton, the actress playing the queen, carries around with her. You’ll tell her you wish you had been able to take her to see “Midsummer” or “Macbeth” because “Cymbeline” is a little bit zhmenye.
She’ll ask you what “zhmenye” means, and you’ll say it’s a Yiddish phrase your mother uses. You’ll ask if she knows your mother’s phrase “hodgepodge Charlie,” and when she says no, you’ll say it means the play’s kind of a mess, and when she’ll ask you why, you’ll say that it’s kind of a comedy and it’s kind of not and it’s kind of a tragedy but it’s kind of not; it’s really more of a mash-up. She’ll ask you what a “mash-up” is, and you’ll say it’s like when you take Stevie Nicks’s “Edge of Seventeen” and Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” and blend them into one song. She’ll ask you who Stevie Nicks is, and you’ll say it doesn’t really matter.
You’ll spend some time taking in the sights above the Delacorte Stage and think there’s really no better place to see a play in New York. A hawk will flap overhead. Two bats will swoop down. You’ll see two red lights in the trees, and when she asks you if that was a UFO, you’ll say, “Probably not.”
As the play continues after the intermission, you’ll wonder how much of the plot she’s understanding, so you’ll lean over and whisper, “See, those are Imogen’s two long-lost brothers” and she’ll say, “Yeah, I got that,” and later you’ll lean over and say, “See, that’s supposed to be poison, but it’s really a sleeping pill,” and she’ll say, “Yeah, I got that, too.” She will need some help with the vocabulary, though, so at a certain point she’ll ask you what the word “lust” means, and you’ll say that it “has something to do with desire,” and then she’ll ask you what a “clotpoll” is, and you’ll say that in this context, it refers to the head. And when she’ll ask what it means that Cloten’s clotpoll is heading down a stream, you’ll say that it’s because he’s been beheaded. You’ll remind her that “Cymbeline” is kind of a comedy and it’s kind of not, and she’ll say “Yeah, I got that, too.”
For a while she’ll get caught up in the show, particularly in the most broadly comic sections and during the loud battles, but somewhere around Act IV she’ll start to zone out. You’ll ask again what she thinks of the show, and she’ll say she thinks she’s tired and cold. She’ll ask you what time it is, and you’ll say you don’t know because you turned off your cellphone. She’ll ask you how much of the play is left, and you’ll say not much more. You won’t really wonder how “relatable” Shakespeare is, but you may wonder how relatable “Cymbeline” is.
After the curtain call, you’ll zoom down the stairs, then through the park and catch a cab on 81st Street. In the back of the taxi, you’ll ask her how she liked the show, and she’ll make one of those handshake-y comme çi, comme ça gestures. You’ll ask her to rate the show from 1 to 10, with 1 being the most boring thing in the world and 10 being the most awesome thing ever, and she’ll ask you how many numbers there are between 4 and 4.5. You’ll tell her that you saw someone selling tickets online for $193 a pop and she’ll say they aren’t worth that much because the seats are pretty uncomfortable.
After you get home and she has fallen asleep, you’ll think about what you remember most about the Shakespeare plays your parents took you to, and you’ll think of a drunk John Gielgud in “Julius Caesar” and a Mrs. Garret-esque Glenda Jackson in “Macbeth,” and you’ll think of the projector breaking during a screening of “Henry V” at the Skokie Public Library. And then you’ll wonder what you’ll remember about “Cymbeline,” and you’ll think of Hamish Linklater’s and Lily Rabe’s performances, but also of the hawk and the bats and the exchanges you and the 10-year-old had about UFOs and about the play, and you’ll think that the play will not seem nearly as important as the fact that you saw it together.
In the morning you’ll ask her if she’d like to see another Shakespeare play some time, and she’ll say maybe. But then you’ll realize that middle school is coming up soon and that “Macbeth” and “Romeo and Juliet” will be assigned reading, and chances are that, pretty soon, you’ll be taking an 11-year-old to see a Shakespeare play.
Adam Langer is the Forward’s culture editor.