Putting Genius in Its Place : Tom Stoppard and writer Marc Norman took the Bard off his pedestal so they could put him back on top of it.
With long hair curling, Oscar Wilde-like, over his collar, playwright Tom Stoppard enters the sleek dining room of a midtown hotel, an otherworldly presence in the midst of Manhattan bustle.
The contrast is drawn even more starkly when, 40 minutes into an interview, the acclaimed playwright is joined by Marc Norman, the writer and producer who co-wrote with Stoppard the screenplay for “Shakespeare in Love,” the Miramax film that opened Friday to rave reviews. Norman, a freelance screenwriter born and raised in Hollywood and steeped in filmmaking (“Cutthroat Island,” “'Waterworld”), is as tanned and voluble as Stoppard, who lives in London, is pale and reserved and of the theater.
The two worlds are reflected in their irreverent look at the iconic William Shakespeare as “a feisty young man who’s a genius but isn’t treated like a genius,” according to Stoppard. Played by Joseph Fiennes, Will is just another ink-stained wretch trying to make a buck in the wild and woolly early days of Elizabethan drama, when theaters are sprouting up along with rivalries between actors (Richard Burbage versus Ned Alleyn) and playwrights (Christopher Marlowe versus Shakespeare).
Trying to write his new comedy, “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter,” the budding Bard is hopelessly blocked until he meets his muse in the person of Lady Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) and embarks on a tragic love affair through which his “Romeo and Ethel” morphs into “Romeo and Juliet.”
Norman came up with the concept and first drafts; the Stoppardian touch, evident in the witty verbal and philosophical pyrotechnics, was added largely after Miramax took over the project from Universal, and director John Madden (“Mrs. Brown”) was attached to the film. “Tom got interested in the project, and how do you turn down the foremost playwright in England?” says Norman.
Indeed, since his first hit “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” in 1968, the prolific Stoppard has turned out a dazzling array of works, from the dense philosophical and political arguments in “Travesties” to the erotic despair in “The Real Thing” to the tricks of history and architecture in “Arcadia.”
Stoppard talked about taking on Shakespeare, the difference between theater and film, and how the movie’s themes related to his own career. Norman joined the conversation midway through the interview.
Question: Were you daunted at all by taking on such an iconic figure as Shakespeare?
Answer: Marc had broken the ice. He’d invented this very charming story, so it was much easier to just ignore what posterity had made of him and just deal with him as a young man. What would be daunting would be to attempt to write him as he existed in the popular imagination. You wouldn’t be able to lay a glove on him, he’d be so special, you wouldn’t know how to begin.
At the same time, the thing that makes life easier for someone writing fiction about Shakespeare is that there are very few signposts, very few agreed upon facts and lots of spaces to invent. Some of the film is pure mischief. But then again, you’re riding on the back of the most famous love story ever written, so there are lots of strands to work with.
Q: Still Shakespeare, just as a word, resonates so much that you figure one would have to deal with audience preconceptions, particularly in a movie with a title like “Shakespeare in Love.”
A: Well, it sounds as though it has to be an intensely poetical experience for everybody. In fact, it’s a nonconventional romantic comedy. You’re writing about an historical figure already, you’re in a situation where the love story can’t end in a conventional hearts and flowers way. It’s not ‘Sleepless in Stratford.’
“There’s a limit to what you can invent. At the beginning, there were moments when the challenge became, How does Shakespeare speak when he’s just speaking to a friend?: Does he sound like Shakespeare? Does he sound as though he’s going to be Shakespeare, or does he sound like anybody else?
Q: How did you resolve that?
A: Well, in the opening scene, I gave him a line of verse as his first line of dialogue, a quotation from “Hamlet,” I think, “Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt that the earth doth move. . . . " To which Henslowe [the producer] says, “We haven’t got time for that, talk in prose.” I felt that got us through the gate.
Q: It seemed at times that you were sending up all those Hollywood movies showing the genius at work--Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh in “Lust for Life,” or Charlton Heston as Michelangelo in “The Agony and the Ecstasy.”
A: Well, yes, that makes it look very self-conscious, that way at looking at genius. “Shakespeare in Love” takes a very skeptical view of the genius at home. . . . Those movies reinforce the cliches, the agony and ecstasy of it. The thing I like about our movie is that it’s also the agony and the ecstasy but without the quote marks. It’s a comedy.
Q: You yourself have been described in the media as “a genius.” How does that feel?
A: I don’t take any notice of it, but in a particular way of not taking notice. I just recoil slightly. It’s not that I have a low opinion of my own work. It’s just that I have a very high opinion of what constitutes authentic genius. And I don’t like words like that to be devalued. I think I do certain things well, but that’s something else.
You know, the way “star” used to be reserved for a small number of people, and when the star category became so vast, they came up with superstar and then they came up with megastar. Maybe we should start promoting the word, “mega-genius.” Mozart could be a mega-genius and there could be thousands of geniuses writing for the stage, and movies, and so forth.
Q: Did you do much research before you started writing?
A: I did read two or three of the studies on Shakespeare’s life and work, and particularly I read up on the situation of the theater owners and buildings in London. Extraordinarily enough, just when I encountered this story, they discovered the foundations of the Rose Theatre in London [where Shakespeare’s early plays were presented], and I went to look at them. There’s now an office building on top and around, but they found the foundations. It’s quite amazing to go down there and see the scale of it.
Q: One of the central questions in “Shakespeare in Love” is posed by Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I, who asks whether a play can capture the true nature of love. What’s your opinion?
A: I think that’s a legitimate question about what theater is, and what it tries to be and I think that theater on every level has this potential, this capacity to transcend fiction and speak to you in the audience at a very deep level. That’s true of theater whether it’s “Charley’s Aunt” or “Oedipus Rex”.
So the answer is yes, it can deliver the true emotion because we’ve all had these experiences. That’s why it’s survived, presumably, all these thousands of years, and it looks now, after a century of movies nearly, that it looks as though movies can’t replace something that theater does. That’s what this movie is saying.
Q: To what extent did working on “Shakespeare in Love” allow you to revisit the same emotional terrain of “The Real Thing,” “Arcadia” or “The Invention of Love”?
A: No, this was different. This is an entertainment which has the tremendous advantage of being able to incorporate Shakespeare’s poetry and his emotional force as it enters the story--[at this point, Marc Norman enters]. Oh, hello, Marc! Perfect timing. I was halfway through a question, saying essentially that the movie has the benefit of Shakespeare’s words and the intensity of emotions blended through it. But whether it relates to one’s own internal emotions, no, not at all.
Norman: It was personal for me in that I had a certain amount of temerity to take on Shakespeare. I knew I’d better do a good job, because it’s worse than doing a bad job on anybody else. My intention was to knock him off his pedestal and fool around with him for a while and then restore him to his pedestal and have a better idea of why he belongs there. We know him as an icon, but we don’t know what he had to do to get there.
Q: The film’s filled with seemingly anachronistic jokes intended to show the timeless hustle of theater. How accurate are the parallels between Elizabethan theater and modern Hollywood?
Norman: Elizabethan drama reminds me of the early days of movies, a bunch of guys holding this tiger by the tail, the tiger of popular entertainment. The idea of theaters, a place were people would actually pay for a ticket as opposed to throwing money in a basket for street buskers, was a radical and revolutionary idea. I did a lot of research and I came across a lawsuit, in 1610, in which an English company sued a writer for not writing the three plays he was contracted to write. His excuse was the plague, and the company argued back, “That’s no excuse.’
Attached to the lawsuit was a copy of his contract: He had to turn in three plays, he had to be available for rewrites on other plays, he had to be available to write insert jokes, songs, prologues and epilogues, etc. I told my wife, “Hell, I signed this contract last year with Disney!”
Q: So if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be a screenwriter?
Norman: That’s how this idea started, Shakespeare as a screenwriter. I made an appointment with Stephen Greenblatt at Berkeley, who’s one of the foremost Shakespearean scholars in the country, and told him what I was doing and he was very gracious. He thought it was a totally legitimate and accurate way of looking at him.