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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well

I knew that in 1687 the Irish poet and hymn writer Nahum Tate was asked to do a re-write of Shakespeare's "King Lear". What they needed was a version that wouldn't rattle the cage of recently restored monarchy and sat more comfortably with the advance of the Enlightenment. They couldn't face the bleakness of Shakespeare's original. Tate's version has a happy ending with Cordelia marrying Edgar and everybody begging each other's pardon for the misunderstanding. What I didn't know until this morning's In Our Time on Radio Four was that for the next 150 years this was the accepted and most widely performed version. Presumably the original was regarded as a mistake. Which makes me wonder, what works from the Canon will we change our mind about in the future?

6 comments:

  1. Anonymous3:36 pm

    An interesting question and I guess it goes some way to validating all those english lit lectures on postmodernism and the death of the author that we endured. Does this mean in 500 years time people might consider the Scissor Sisters version of Comfortably Numb to be the definitive version?

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  2. People wil be told that Ian McEwan and Martin Amis were among the most highly regarded novelists of our age and laugh like the Smash potato alian robots.

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  3. Ken - I'm with you on Amis (a self-regarding show pony who's never actually learnt the art of telling a story - quite important in a novelist, I find), but I can't agree about Ian McEwan.

    While I wouldn't put him in the genius category, he's written some arresting, thought-provoking novels - The Innocent, The Child In Time and Enduring Love, for instance. And even his weaker novels usually contain at least one setpiece that sears itself into your memory - the account of the Dunkirk evacuation in Atonement is one that springs to mind.

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  4. I’ve no problem with McEwan in small doses, Tim. The early short stories a very good, if rather self-consciously lurid, and every novel has a few treats, often involving the description of an emotion which I had not only never seen written down before, but had never realised that anyone else experienced the same way. In The Innocent the scene where the man is hacked apart is deliciously gory but then the sex scene is embarrassingly bad. In Enduring Love the dope dealer is awful (and that’s before I get onto the baddie and painfully bad denouement of Saturday).
    What I can’t see is why he is so revered when, so far as I can tell, he isn’t really up to the long haul of the novel. I hope it’s clear that I’m not putting him down without doing my homework – I’ve read every book he’s published. It just strikes me that the esteem with which he is regarded is as much proof as anyone could need that we are not living in a golden age of the British novel.

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  5. I hope that one day they uncover the alternative ending to The Winter's Tale: you know, one that doesn't include raising someone from the dead...

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  6. At the risk of turning this into a private discussion, I don't think you and I disagree all that much, Ken. I've heard the criticism before that McEwan writes brilliant scenes but unsatisfactory novels, and I can see some truth in it.

    Is McEwan really that revered, anyway? I always think of him as just one of the coterie of middle-aged male novelists who started in the 80s and are still publishing readable novels - Barnes, Banks, Boyd, Swift, Faulks. Amis is the one who tends to be lionised.

    To drag this back to the original question: David, as a Spurs fan, have you thought of giving 'Fever Pitch' the Nahum Tate treatment and changing the ending so that Arsenal don't win the League after all?

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