I am on a roll. This weekend I finished a draft of my B is for Broken story and sent it out for feedback, and went right into some research for another story I have been thinking of. It has to do with Macbeth—the opera, not the play, though the play is obviously related—and takes a bit of inspiration from Dario Argento’s Opera.
Gratuitous illustration here:
It makes me feel like I am firing on most, if not all, of my cylinders again, in a way I haven’t felt in a while. And then I dug into my research . . . and I learned something I was overdue to learn, I think.
So this particular book is called Verdi’s Shakespeare, and it’s by Garry Wills, and whatever you may think about Wills’ politics the man is very good at distilling enormous amounts of scholarship into readable prose. Here is the cover, for reference:
I learned a lot about Verdi’s Macbeth, but I also learned quite a bit about the creative process of both Verdi and Shakespeare, which I am still churning over a couple of days after the fact, because it was so startling.
Here’s the thing: both Verdi and Shakespeare wrote to spec.
Many of you may know this, so you can stop reading now and instead just marvel at how a person can go through years of higher education and not learn this. I had not. I have sat through innumerable literature and creative writing classes, and always Shakespeare was held up as an “artist”—a creative force who generated out of old myths these eternal works that transcend everything. I imagined him scribbling away in isolation, in his house or some little inn room, perhaps in his grand estate if he was in fact nobility like some people posit. He would then present his play and it would be eagerly snatched up for production.
But that’s not the case at all.
He wrote it to spec.
Then, the process began with the actors. They chose the playwright, not vice versa. They owned the play, to publish it or withhold it from publication. Each troupe had limited resources—often, nine to twelve adult actors (all male), and far fewer boy actors (sometimes as few as two). A Swiss traveler in 1599 saw “about fifteen” players handle the forty-five speaking parts in Julius Caesar. An aspiring playwright had to bring his idea to these actors (or their representatives) with a plot accommodated to the number and talents of the particular troupe. The parts he was describing had to be arranged to allow for multiple doublings . . . The plot had to be tailored for the company from the very outset. (Wills, 5)
Similarly, Verdi wrote for the available singers in an opera company, and it was only later in life that he could demand, say, a particular soprano for a role he had in mind. And still he tailored his arias to fit a singer’s capabilities, just as Shakespeare would amend work to fit the abilities of the troupe, the design of the stage, and so on. The famous “Exit, pursued by bear,” Wills claims, is because the troupe in question had a tame bear as part of their repertoire and it was common practice to use whatever bells and whistles were available.
I never knew any of this. For years all of my writing happened in an academic environment, with a very art-for-art’s-sake philosophy; publishing was something that simply happened, at some point, when you sent out your art on 8.5 x 11 paper in a nice manuscript box and got a contract in return.
But the more I read, the more I see that these icons of Art were as entangled with commerce as any of us—and why wouldn’t they be? People need to eat, they need clothes on their backs and roofs over their heads. How many works that fill museums now were done for money, how many of the “classics” we’re encouraged to read were written to satisfy a very commercial marketplace?
A lot more, I think, than I ever realized growing up.
As with so many things, there is a kind of synchronicity to this realization. I was surprised at how strong my B is for Broken story turned out. I dug deeper than I have in some time and it shows, it shows in every damn line. And that was, in a sense, written to spec—to a theme, with constraints on the title and the timeframe. It’s the same way that “Marigolds” came—seeking to hit a particular call for submissions, with thematic and space constraints, with a hard deadline.
Is there something about constraint, then? Something about taking a small, framed area and trying to fill it as beautifully as you can, that can produce where “unfettered” creativity cannot?
Perhaps for me, at least.
And speaking of taking a set of parameters and filling them with beauty, here is Callas live. I said at WisCon that an angry woman is a beautiful thing; I would amend that to say that a woman in control of her power, wielding her power—be it her rage or her art or a combination of the two—is a spectacularly beautiful thing. As the lady is here.