Thursday, October 2, 2008

Mr. Sandman, Bring Me a Dream

I am often asked how I figure out what to write about. I hate this question. It's like asking someone deep in thought what she's thinking about--as soon as she tries to pay attention to her thoughts, her mind goes blank. Because, in fact, the act of writing is so often an intuitive, or subconscious, act--at least at the initial composition stage--it is impossible to answer that question without making some crap up.

But maybe I have my metaphor wrong, because the images and thoughts that surface in my writing often can be traced to something in real life. Maybe we writers are more like dreamers, chewing the cud of our days' experiences and spitting out some really fantastic, almost unrecognizable dream loogy. But take that loogy to a forensic's lab, and I'm sure a white-coated scientist could tell you what it was made of. Ah, mixed metaphors!

The premise behind Shakespeare in Love, and, I believe, the reason for its popularity, is similar to this dream-cud idea. Young Will Shakespeare (the dreamy Joseph Fiennes) composes one of his most famous works, "Romeo and Juliet," in a semi-conscious cloud of new love. What happens to him in real life inevitably makes it into the play, explaining away the non-appearance of Rosaline (Will was rejected by the real Lady R.), the lengthy musings of Mercutio (Ben Affleck wanted more lines), and the reason for the tragedy at the end. It's all wrapped up in a neat little package (a.k.a. Gwyneth Paltrow) and sailed off to America. Oh, now we get it.

What this version of the play's origins fails to do is address some of its deeper, more interesting aspects. For instance, Friar Lawrence plays a big part as the reasoned counterpoint to the frenzy and unthinking passion of Romeo and Juliet. Will and Lady Viola are similarly frenzied and unthinking, but any voice of wisdom is lacking. Rather we have Geoffery Rush opining that things will all work out in the end...he doesn't know how, they just do. This is by no means meant to knock Mr. Rush's performance. His playing of a harried, lovable theater-owner is one of the highest points in this film. But the plot on a whole is much lighter and sugary than the play it purports to give birth to.

My hope is that the continued success of this movie, and others like it, will bring a new audience to Shakespeare's works. But to say that the play is merely the result of a failed love affair is to miss the point. We writers may not know what we're writing when we first sit down, but by the fourth or fifth draft, we tend to get a handle on it. This movie? Wonderfully entertaining dream-cud. The play? Complex, complicated, and worthy of much deeper study.

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