By Heidi Madsen
The question “to abridge or not to abridge” can be a dangerous one, particularly when the collection being kicked around belongs to perhaps the most exalted pen in history. Collaborative playwrights Winfield, Long, and Singer, though “unbaked and doughty youth,” must have understood the risks—to be seen as cliff-notes reading undergrads, as shallow punsters, as irreverent mockers. With cited influences ranging from Tom Stoppard to Harpo Marx, they dared to interpret these quasi-sacred texts independent of all dogmatic influences, translating Shakespeare’s 37 plays and 154 sonnets from the exclusive lingua into “slacker-generation idioms and MTV-style truncations” (Dominic Cavendish, Dickens Unplugged: They Did It to Shakespeare [Telegraph.co.uk Feb. 22, 2008]). And what about their critics who believe this kind of satirical reduction dumbs-down the culture? “The opposite is true,” retorts Adam Long, “when works of literature are considered worthy and are segregated off, you get ghettoisation. Ideally, this will point people back to the source material” (Cavendish).
In 1981, inspired by Stoppard’s The Dogg’s Troupe 15-minute Hamlet, Daniel Singer, an American and recent student of drama at the Guildford School near London, dreamed up the outline of what was to become The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). Singer held auditions for his amateur production, which initially was just a half-hour Hamlet and a much reduced Romeo and Juliet (proudly performed in Mall courtyards). Singer, along with Adam Long and Jess Borgeson—who later changed his name to Winfield—emerged as the primary performers, eventual founders of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, and co-authors of the world’s most condensed Complete Works, clocking in at a dizzying ninety-seven minutes. They “juggled Shakespeare’s plays as if they were hot coals,” showcasing their stopwatch performances world-wide, from Washington D.C., to London’s West End, to Israel, Malta and Bermuda” (Mel Gussow, The Essential Shakespeare, as You Might Like It, in Two Hours [Theater Review: New York Times, 1991]). Miraculously, “instead of pooh-poohing this preposterous attempt by three eternally adolescent American[s] . . . the critics went wild with admiration” (Cavendish).
However young at the time of The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) inception, Daniel Singer was no novice to theatre ingenuity; at the age of eighteen he co-founded the General Amazement Theater in Santa Rosa, California, which produced three plays, including Singer’s own musical adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Though he started the mad ball rolling, Singer was the first to flee the fast lane of “Bardian abridgment.” In 1989 he left RSC and went to work as an Imagineer at Walt Disney; here, among other things, he helped design mini-theme parks: Splash Mountain, Toontown, and Indiana Jones. Singer also helped organize another acting troupe, The Flower Street Players, for which he co-produced six plays, as well as directed and starred in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
Before “falling into” the business of Shakespearean performance, which he deemed only a hobby, Adam Long was an accountant, musician, and stand-up comic. However, of the original three, he stuck it out the longest, not leaving RSC until he had delivered Ophelia’s modified line “I’m out of my tiny little mind” more times than even he could count. His particular specialties were Shakespeare’s women, all of whom were said to “look alike and suffer from indigestion,” (Gussow). In defense of the Winfield-Singer-Long paring down of Shakespeare, he cites a poem by Allen Ginsberg: “I saw the best minds of my generation/ Destroyed by madness / Starving, hysterical, naked; / Dragging themselves through the negro / Streets at dawn / Looking for an angry fix” (Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems [London, Penguin, 2009]). “I knew,” continued Long, “that we weren’t [really] the best minds of our generation, but we were starving and hysterical. And we often went without clothes” (Writer’s Notes, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). Long went solo as a writer and director in 2003; he has since abridged another’s distinguished canon, the works of Charlie Dickens, or Dickens Unplugged.
Perhaps the most outspoken of the three, Jess Winfield (because no one could pronounce Borgeson) theorized that “every theater-goer, deep in his heart, wants to see Shakespeare ripped to shreds; we fulfill that fantasy” (Entertainment Tonight, Weekly Edition, July 2, 1989). He must have assumed that the populace felt similarly about James Joyce, for Winfield has since satirically reduced Joyce’s great work Ulysses: Jam Joy Yes, his self-proclaimed personal best. After resigning from RSC, he too, went to work for the magical world of Disney, earning two daytime Emmy awards for his work on the television series Teacher’s Pet starring Nathan Lane and Jerry Stiller. He has also worked on feature films, includingLeroy & Stitch! The Movie. In 2008, he wrote My Name is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs and Shakespeare.
During their illustrious collaboration, Winfield, Singer, and Long displayed supreme confidence in Master Will’s good humour; when asked to conjecture what the orthodox playwright would think ofThe Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), Jess Winfield confidently replied “Shakespeare would not only approve of their play, he would go bowling with them after the performance” (America’s Talking Network, “Break a Leg, with Bill McCuddy,” 1995). Still, however devoutly these men practice the belief that “brevity is the soul of wit,” their acts of abridgment, at least as far as the great Shakespeare is concerned, are not without some conscience: “the deed is done,” Adam Long softly laments. “May the Bard forgive us” (*The Complete Works of Shakespeare (abridged),*xxii).