Since I seem to be getting all of my ideas for blog posts on Twitter these days, I’m going to keep up with the pattern. Last week we had this conversation on over on the bird website:

The thing that a lot of people, especially the people who tend toward snobbishness about the “high arts”, is that they used to be mass entertainment. While Opera started out as court performances, it moved into mass entertainment by the 1700s and there it remained for centuries. It’s a similar thing with Shakespeare. Although Shakespeare, as far as I know, started out as mass entertainment. There are so many operas that are basically “I want to speak to that hot person over there”. I can’t think of any Shakespeare play off the top of my head without gratuitous references to sex and I’m pretty sure all of his comedies come with a fair bit of toilet humor.
There’s this thing where the Royal Shakespeare Company absolutely insists on presenting Shakespeare as close to how it was in the bard’s lifetime. And sure, that’s interesting from a historical standpoint. But something that I often come back to is to wonder; is it more important to make sure that art stays exactly as the artist created it after their death, or is it more important for the art to stay alive?

Is the death of the artist even possible?

There’s this idea of the “death of the author” that was created by Roland Barthes. It’s about critique and applying it with the idea that the text should speak for itself instead of the reading of the text being influenced by who the author is. And while I think it’s an admirable idea, the author and their life cannot but help affect the text, by what they say, what they don’t say, and what they think. There are just assumptions that come into your work by way of the life you’re leading. My absolute favorite example of this is A Knight’s Tale.

Now most people who have seen this movie like to rag on how historically inaccurate it is. If you haven’t seen it, A Knight’s Tale is somewhat of a retelling of The Canterbury Tales. I think they call it “inspired by”. The thing is, there’s an element of historical accuracy to it that is missing from movies that are trying to be historically accurate. We have this tendency to think that the past was a lot more serious and a lot more restrained but mostly that’s not a thing. And A Knight’s Tale tries does a beautiful of presenting that, updated for modern sensibilities.

Can the work live?

Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings! In the old days, everyone knew what men were: brave, bold, glory-bound. Only stories now, but I’ll sound the Spear-Danes’ song, hoarded for hungry times.

Beowulf, translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

I’m always delighted when I see an updated translation or a play adaptation that is updated to modern sensibilities. It means that the work stays alive and accessible to people who don’t necessarily want to months of their time educating themselves on the intricacies of Italian operatic expression. And that’s completely fine. There are so many stories that can take the place of the older ones.

Why should people spend their time and money on La Traviata when Moulin Rouge is right there? Will there be a reason for anyone to know the joy of The Taming of the Shrew if acting companies don’t keep innovating and presenting it in new lights? I think the answer is no. Opera companies are already feeling the hurt. So yeah. This has been a long way of saying that I think Susan has the right of it. Just lean into the fact that most of the “high arts” started out as mass entertainment. That way, maybe the work can live, even if the artist doesn’t.

PS. There’s a conversation happening about Asimov’s Foundation on Twitter today, the day of publication, a couple of days after I wrote this post. This post was not written to be in that conversation. There’s a separate conversation to be had about which stories deserve to stand the test of time. This post is not the place for it.