By now you’ve probably heard that a hapless gang of brain-dead students at the University of Pennsylvania — an Ivy League school, no less — removed a portrait of William Shakespeare from the main staircase of Fisher-Bennett Hall, where the English Department is located, and replaced it with what appears to be a large photocopy of a photograph of Audre Lorde, a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” If you’ve never heard of Ms. Lorde, don’t beat yourself up. I haven’t either. And I did four years of doctoral work in English Literature. She has devoted readers, but she’s no Shakespeare.
What’s so terrible about Shakespeare that his portrait must be consigned to outer darkness? Lack of diversity. I admit, he was not black, nor a lesbian, nor an activist seething with outrage over Lord knows what. But he was one helluva poet. Now, if the little darlings at Penn want to enshrine their icon of Audre Lorde, swell. Hang it up right next to Shakespeare. And hang a few portraits of other literary lions, too. But, no. In the students’ rigid, bigoted, myopic worldview, only Audre Lorde must be praised. Shakespeare must sink into obscurity.
In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Steven J. Fluharty, dean of the School of Arts & Sciences at Penn, said, “A meeting is scheduled for January to determine a new location in the building for the Shakespeare portrait and to decide on an appropriate set of images for the main entryway of the building.” Okay. So among this “set of images,” an image of Shakespeare would be inappropriate? And since the kids care so much about inclusion, how do they achieve inclusion if they exclude the gold standard of English poets?
I have a hunch that the students who swiped the Shakespeare portrait are incapable of recognizing what is good, true, and beautiful. They are fanatics. Fanatics are a pimple on the ass of civilization. They are unteachable. And, if you’ve ever had the misfortune of trying to talk to a fanatic when he or she is in full frothing at the mouth mode, you’ll discover that the person in question is utterly humorless. Which is where Cole Porter comes in. I know. That’s a segue that gives one pause, but bear with me.
The most brilliant, insightful, and oftentimes really, really funny poet/playwright in the English language was William Shakespeare. There. I’ve said it. And if ever there was a playwright, wordsmith, and songster extraordinaire of the American theater, it was Cole Porter. Porter was born in 1891 — this year marks in 125th birthday — and he died in 1964. But to this day, his fans are legion. Among them is Father George Rutler, one of the finest priests of the Archdiocese of New York, a great preacher, an incisive writer, a perceptive and compassionate confessor, and a man with a razor-sharp wit. Writing about his taste in music, he said that when he’s in the mood for pop he listens to Gilbert and Sullivan, but if he’s in the mood for something edgy he listens to Cole Porter.
The history of Broadway is top-heavy with catchy tunes, but for effervescent wordplay, Cole Porter stands alone. Well, Stephen Sondheim’s pretty damn good, too. Porter wrote unforgettable romantic ballads that can make your heart melt — “In the Still of the Night,” “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To,” “What Is This Thing Called Love?” But you see how skillfully Porter played with language in songs such as “Anything Goes” and “It’s D-Lovely.” And speaking of wordplay, Shakespeare was pretty good at it, too. It is part of Porter’s genius that he blended is own verbal wizardy with Shakespeare’s in what for me is Porter’s best musical comedy, Kiss Me Kate, a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, a comedy written by the sexist, racist, classist, homophobic William Shakespeare.
Porter’s musical debuted on Broadway in 1948 and ran for a whopping 1,077 performances. Shakespeare completed The Taming of the Shrew in 1594, which means it’s had a run of 422 years — not that Penn’s portrait purloiners would know that.
Porter understood what Shakespeare was shooting for, and in words and music, with zaniness on-stage and more zaniness behind the scenes, he presented an updated version of The Taming of the Shrew that nevertheless was what Shakespeare intended it to be — a wildly entertaining battle of the sexes, with Kate and Petruchio going nine rounds in two acts (Shakespeare, as usual, had five).
The verbal back-and-forth between Petruchio and Kate is vintage Shakespeare and vintage Porter. For example:
Petruchio: Hearing thy mildness praised in every town,
Thy virtues spoke of, and thy beauty sounded —
Yet not so deeply as to thee belongs —
Myself am moved to woo thee for my wife.
Kate: Let him that moved you hither
Remove you hence.
You hear banter of this caliber, and you can be certain that at no point in the play will Kate descend to whacking Petruchio with an inflated pig’s bladder. Furthermore, Kate and Petruchio’s repartee set a standard that has been imitated ever since — from Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy squaring off in Pride and Prejudice, to Sam and Rebecca sparring on Cheers.
Porter spotlight’s Kate’s trouble in a great song with a very direct title, “I Hate Men!” It’s great fun, but it also exposes Kate’s primary flaw — her man-hating shtick is over the top and immature. Just because a woman prefers not to marry does not give her the right to screech at the neighbors, smash the crockery, and beat up her more conventional baby sister. Kate has to learn that she is part of society, that exercising a little self-control and showing some consideration makes it easier for everyone to get along. Granted, the concept is so basic it’s banal — but it is a concept that has eluded Katherina, just as it has eluded the miscreants at Penn. Part of the fun of this play is watching Kate evolve as she finally figures it out — it would be nice if the Penn kids did, too, but I’m not holding out much hope.
The most memorable number in Kiss Me Kate is the show-stopping “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” a hilarious duet sung by a low-level crime boss’ pair of enforcers. Taking his cue from the Bard, Porter loaded his lyrics with double entendres. For example:
If she says your behavior is heinous.
Kick her right in the “Coriolanus!”
Just recite an occasional sonnet
And your lap’ll have honey upon it
When your baby is pleading for pleasure.
Let her sample your “Measure For Measure!”
Porter could get away with that on Broadway, but not in Hollywood. When Kiss Me, Kate was made into a movie in 1953, the studio kept the song, but deleted the naughtiest lyrics. And there were a lot to delete.
For years now we’ve seen this kind of behavior on campuses across the country — unrestrained oafishness from a handful of students, and utter spinelessness when the oafs confront members of the administration and senior faculty.
Fortunately, we can always fall back on the wisdom of Cole Porter.
But the poet of them all
Who will start ’em simply ravin’
Is the poet people call
The Bard of Stratford on Avon.
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