09 December 2003

Long post on cutting things short

As old as the human urge to create art is the equally human urge to creatively truncate art. Call it what you will - editing, expurgating, censorship, summarising, adaptation - this urge has remained with us ever since the First Reader yawned on the umpteenth sentence of the First Writer's manuscript. Today, we bring you on a magical mystery tour across the ages on the fascinating and underappreciated human will to cut things short, to simplify, to reduce.

The Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon, whom Harold Bloom credits with "The Invention of the Human", is regarded by most of the English-speaking world as the greatest dramatist in history. Whole forests are sacrificed for scholarly criticisms of Shakespeare's plays.

Yet, there is precious little in these criticisms concerning the bawdy language, crude jokes, and blasphemies that the Bard used. Perhaps the most inventive Shakespearean line that combines all three elements comes from Ophelia, in Hamlet: "Young men will do't, if they come to't; By cock, they are to blame." Act 1, scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet begins with two Capulets making the infamous "maidenhead" joke...

There is no surprise then, that for every William Shakespeare, there is a Thomas Bowdler. The easily-offended prude decided in 1807, that in the interests of family values and politeness, the legacy of Shakespeare should be preserved in an edition where "nothing is added to the original text, but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family." Enter well-meaning censorship. And the world has never quite been the same ever since Bowdler's The Family Shakespeare.

Not that Shakespeare was terribly prolific with blush-inducing phrases and jokes; most of his contemporaries like Ben Jonson had the more inventive phrases like "whoreson base fellow" and "I fart at thee" (not to be confused with Monty Python's "I fart in your general direction"!).

Ever since performance art was unbanned here and with WWE showing at prime-time, our censors have precious little to protect Singapore's morals from. Perhaps they should take a leaf from Bowdler, and produce The Family Diablo: "Re-introducing a popular computer game in a palatable form to the God-fearing Christian family"...

Shakespeare still has fans even in this modern, post-colonial age. The Reduced Shakespeare Company puts on very concise plays (or comedy skits?) that summarise all of Shakespeare's plays AND sonnets in just 97 minutes. And that's just one of their takes on the Bard. There's another offering that claims to present Hamlet backwards and forwards in just 30 seconds flat... In contrast, Kenneth Brannagh's Hamlet runs for an amazing 4 hours.

I'm hoping someone would produce a Complete LOTR (abridged). Doesn't matter whether it's on film or text... but a very abridged version of the book should be top priority.

Or, since the RSC has proven that Shakespeare's plays are so similar to each other that they can be hilariously summarised together as a single play, I'm hoping some guerilla filmmaker will produce a Reduced Wong Kar Wai. Many people point out that the characters from different WKW movies like In the Mood for Love, Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, are all similar right down to their personality traits and quirks, as well as what happens to them in the movies.

Speaking of adaptations, do any of you still remember The Illustrated Bible? It had most of the books intact, except for Psalms, Proverbs, and some of the Epistles, which couldn't really be illustrated. What could be achieved was still spectacular: the Bible as a brilliant, visually-captivating story. Of course, sans graphic nudity (I don't recall many panels with Adam and Eve in Eden, the entire sequence was very abstract and subtly handled) and violence, although graphic, realistic depictions of leprosy and plague were okay.

As a lesson from the inspired creators of the Illustrated Bible, our tax department should put in more effort to release The Illustrated Guide to Filling In Tax Forms.

So, next time we hear about great artists, let's not forget their even greater editors, censors, summarisors, and adaptors.

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