Favorite Quotes Vol. XXXI: Let Shakespeare entertain you. Let him make you smile.

I talked to an angry author a couple of weeks ago, who was irritated that his “important” play had not attracted a wider audience.  I tried to explain in the nicest of all possible ways, but like his play, I also failed.  Then I stumbled upon this quote from Robert Greene’s book that summed it up so much better than I ever could.

“Shakespeare is the most famous writer in history because, as a dramatist for the popular stage, he opened himself up to the masses, making his work accessible to people no matter what their education and taste.”

It’s like a comedy of errors that Shakespeare is considered one of the great geniuses in the history of the written word, when his primary objective was to entertain. Obviously his work went way beyond making people laugh, cry and get angry, but he never let any message get in the way of the entertainment.  His plays are like a perfect cake – with delicious and beautiful frosting on the outside, but underneath is where the real buttery goodness begins.

Writers today who forget why people go to the theater in the first place and put message first run the risk of having less people hear their voice.  There’s nothing wrong with that style, of course.  It’s the choice of the artist.  But you can’t complain when no one comes.

The quote also made me wonder . . . 500 years from now, who will be considered a Shakespeare?  Stoppard?  Sorkin?  Stephen King?

What writers today will be remembered tomorrow for their “baking” ability?


(Got a comment?  I love ’em, so comment below!  Email subscribers, click here, then scroll down, to say what’s on your mind!)

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  • Kristi R-C says:

    Sometimes folks forget we’re in the Entertainment Business – need both of those to be excellently done for the show to be successful.

  • EdWeissman says:

    If a play SAYS it is important, then it cannot possibly be important. Plays (obviously including musicals) must never telegraph conclusions to the audience. If they do, the audience won’t be interested because the play and the playwright have made the audience irrelevant. The audience draws the connections and feels the emotions. From the start, the name of the came is make the audience feel terror and pity. (Aristotle).
    So, as Lehman Engel used to say, the audience must know more than the characters do. If all the emotion inherent in a situation is expressed by the character on stage then there is nothing left for the audience to feel.
    Even as a teacher (which is not what a playwright is) , if one is any good, you can never tell your students, you must show them. The best teaching is when you see a classroom light up when the students ‘get it’

  • Paul Mendenhall says:

    The first duty of any artist is to entertain; they forget that at their peril. And there is nothing less entertaining than a lecture.
    I am put-off by most of what passes for “serious” literature (theatrical or otherwise) today, because it is so intent upon avoiding anything that might be diverting to the average person. Popularity has become synonymous with mediocrity in the minds of too many artists.
    There will never be another Shakespeare, because he was writing at a unique moment in the development of the English language. The richness of that vocabulary won’t come again.
    For me, the three best English-language playwrights of the 20th century were O’Neill, Williams and Lanford Wilson. I don’t know of anyone currently writing at that level. But then, how would I know if there were? Oh wait, there is Bill Cain, whose “Equivocation” is one of the best plays in many years. (Unfortunately, it’s L.A. and NYC productions were mangled.) I find Stoppard unbearably pretentious.

  • Katie O'Brien says:

    Oh my goodness- J.K. Rowling, of course! Her books continue to touch generation after generation so I doubt that that is just gunna go away in the near future! The whole Harry Potter phenomenon is going to live on in history, J.K. Rowling being the mastermind behind it all, the epicenter of the whole event. She is definitely one of the “next Shakespeares”!

  • Hey Ken~
    You’ve probably read this info beginning with the early Robert Greene’s criticisms of Shakespeare (I named my theatre company Tigers Heart Players in honor of those, who, like Shakespeare, would come to their craft without university certification), but if not, enjoy: http://www.penguinclassics.co.uk/static/cs/uk/10/minisites/shakespeare/readmore/marlowe.html

  • Mary says:

    People really disparage romance writers but a recent WSJ article said that english language romances sold 75 millions last year– could be Nora Roberts. I agree with Katie above who said JK Rowlings. (400 millions books is a juggernaut) Really, it could be television, you look at mad men, (the wheel episode in particular) I watch an old twilight zone and I see parables about mid twentieth century life and those messages don’t die. Neil Simon at his best could definitely draw in a smack down with Aristophanes. Hey, it’s just the beginning of the 21st century, still time to develop that genius.

  • Eva says:

    I’m very curious who the author was and why he considered his play so important. Also now is not the best time to put on a play if you want people to come because it’s very crowded with all the plays opening to be noticed for Award season.
    People don’t want to be entertained they want to feel superior which is why they like crap like August Osage County and let Neil Simon’s beautiful,touching and funny and entertaining Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound fall by the wayside.

  • Russell says:

    The desire to entertain is critically important, I myself was liberated from years of thinking too much by this lesson. But what are you entertaining them with?
    Shakespeare is so legendary because like Mozart, for example, he balanced very disparate features of art and of life. I mean come one, he had fucking witches–doing real magic–in one scene and in another scene he had Lady Macbeth going through her crazy ass psychological drama. Take that Harry Potter. That’s variety….and that’s life.
    In his plays he shows life the way it is. Not just a section of it. I mean jeeze, our shows have gotten so damn specific; it’s four people in one room acting in certain way and speaking in one style without a set change arguing over one specific issue.
    The best way to entertain an audience is by holding a mirror to them. Not by showing them the way you think they look or the way you think they should. Just show them the way they fucking are. In this moment. It’s far more thrilling to write that way anyway.

  • Russell says:

    and the funny thing is, as a writer/performer, you realize you actually can think MORE when you have the clear focusing objective of taking in your audience and entertaining them.

  • RaceMcCloud says:

    Actually, I’m going to go out on a limb and say Harry Potter is massively successful because it is A.) entertaining, and B.) insightful. A lot like Shakespeare.

  • AcePPO says:

    Been saying this for years. Your “message” means nothing if nobody is entertained enough to hear it. Theater is entertainment, above all else and first and foremost.
    Also been trying to tell my students for year that Shakespeare has survived for centuries BECAUSE of accessibility, not IN SPITE OF accessibility.

  • alex says:

    Sondheim is the only author I think we have today that lives up to the epic quality / through the ages. Unfortunately today’s playwrights are limited by production costs — even if someone wanted to write something entertaining and meaningful (and we do!) it can’t get produced – esp if you’re an unknown/ emerging. We’re limited to cast sizes (for plays) of 4-5 or even less if you want to get produced, no costumes, few sets.
    All the “greats” who could have been amazing playwrights are writing movies. Because they get paid better. And have venues/ film companies will produce them.

  • Katherine says:

    Thank you, Ken for this wonderful reminder of Shakespeare’s practicality! We artists DON’T WANT to be market-ers. It’s hard. But that’s one reason I subscribe to your blog, Ken. You are a clear and innovative marketing guy, an example that marketing need not be drudgery.
    Oh, and 500 years from now? Nope. There’ll still be no one to match Will Shakespeare.

  • Michael Pizzi says:

    As a rehab therapist, frankly, I love those works of art that authors call ‘message’ plays. “Rabbit Hole” for instance was UH-mazing ! Somehow Abaire made the work a fantastic message play while making the death of a child and the family drama entertaining…..HOW the hell did he do that? (probably fantastic casting to start 🙂
    As a professional actor, cabaret artist and sometime producer, I KNOW my audiences need and pay for entertainment. And I love going to the theatre and love all forms of entertainment – from “Sister Act” to “Benagal Tiger” to “Angels in America” and anything Ken Davenport produces (Ass-kisser 🙂
    Seriously – it is the truth telling of a story that will be both entertaining and CAN be a great message play. That is my foundation for the playwrighting that I am doing based on my many years experiences working with the disabled and watching such resilience and perseverance prevail over adversity ! Will those works be message plays? You betcha ! Will they be entertaining? One can only hope. Any words of wisdom on making both work are more than welcome (mptouchinghumanity@gmail.com)
    So thanks Ken for this post – it made me think a bit clearer about what I do on and offstage to make a difference in people’s lives. Life can be (and is for me at least) one big entertainment – it’s all in how you perceive life to be !

  • Tom McSherry says:

    You’ve summed up exactly what irritates me most about writers who see themselves as the ‘artiste.’ So caught up in the self-importance of their own work they over-reach, and in clutching for critcial acclaim before focusing on creating a basic human story, they fall short of the mark on all counts.

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