Today, a treat. I have a guest commentator. Seattle Actor
Megan Cole is here to talk about complexity, simplicity,
and Shakespeare. The University of Houston presents this
series about the machines that make our civilization run,
and the people whose ingenuity created them.
I've been thinking lately about how
some things that seem simple can turn out to be
considerably more complex. Like, say, learning to
whistle. Or making an omelet that doesn't end up as
scrambled eggs. Or conducting a long-term friendship.
The craft of theatre can be like that, too. After all
these years of trying to make sense of its seductive
complexities, I sometimes find that it's the simple
things that offer the straightest path to the heart of
the matter. And the heart of the matter is usually simple
Take, for example, this line from Shakespeare's
Macbeth (and saying Macbeth's name in a theatre
is, of course, superstitiously forbidden, so I'm being
very brave to use it here on radio). The line is spoken
by Lady Macbeth, who is plotting with her husband to
murder King Duncan. Macbeth has just said,
"If we should fail?" and she replies with two words -- "We fail" -- and
then goes on to talk about screwing their courage to the
Well, this seems simple enough. But in fact it's not. How
we say these words makes all the difference. And it
further depends on what edition of the text we use, on
whether the editor chose to use a period, a question
mark, or an exclamation point.
Here: let's say our editor has decided that a period is
what's needed. We fail, period. Let me just try
a couple of end-stop readings:
"We fail." That's -- what? -- indignant. Or:
"We fail." Sarcastic. Or:
"We fail." Ah, the pragmatist.
But let's say our editor has chosen a question mark
instead of a period. Now what have we got? Well, maybe:
Cavalier: "We fail?"
Threatening: "We fail?"
Shocked: "We fail?"
Thoughtful: "We fail?"
Or suppose there's an exclamation point: "We fail!"
Suddenly she's the brazen daredevil.
And so on. The point is:
Here, within two "simple" one-syllable words on a page,
we find lurking at least eight possible readings. And of
course each reading expresses a completely different
personality, and a completely different relationship
between the Macbeths. And that thickens the brew
Suppose Macbeth says fearfully, "If we should fail?" Do
we really want his partner in crime to be equally
uncertain -- "We fail?" -- or do we want her to be a
powerhouse who dominates this milquetoast with a
contemptuous "We fail!"
Here's something else: suppose we change the emphasis:
"We fail?" -- as in, "This is your gig, buster, and don't you forget it."
So, you see what I mean. As Stephen Sondheim said,
"What's hard is simple; the natural comes hard." I guess
sometimes things are just not what they seem to be. The
mind reels. The mind rejoices. I think I'll go make that
omelet, or call a friend.
I'm Megan Cole, and in the theatre we give a great deal
of attention to the way inventive minds work.