The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park series has opened this summer—last Thursday, as this is written—with a transcendent presentation of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, as you would have to be practically New York City's equivalent of Flem Snopes or maybe Mitochondrial Eve not to know. A gala dinner for financial supporters of the Public preceded the play, and movers, shakers, and bond-market-makers were thick on the ground. The play itself is more thoroughly a great theatrical achievement, a perfect showcase for all kinds of characters, than a great work of art, containing, as it does, a little too much clever-clever verbal wit. But it was brought off with enormous beauty and imagination at the Delacorte Theater last week. And yes, it's true—if Anne Hathaway doesn't steal your heart, you don't have one. You could almost imagine that Shakespeare married his earlier Anne Hathaway as some kind of odd prefigurement of this young actress's triumph.
And yes, it’s true—if Anne Hathaway doesn’t steal your heart, you don’t have one.
Shakespeare uses the word “device” six times in this play—more than in any other. This is largely because Sir Toby Belch and his accomplices devise comic deceptions to a) fleece Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the romantic gull, for more money, and b) make a fool of the Lady Olivia's taciturn steward Malvolio. These devices within the play are the playwright's devices, too, to entertain the audience and make them laugh. “Device” and “divide” are etymological cousins; a good dramatic device often divides characters from what's “really” going on. And it divides an audience's attention from the quotidian, workaday world, whether at the Globe or the Delacorte. (“Widow” grows from the same root—a woman divided from her husband by death.)
Or it should. But now other devices have intruded into this self-contained world of live dramas—one that originated in solemn religious observances in ancient Greece. The Public's audience obeyed at least part of the usual injunctions by turning off the audible aspects of their cellphones, but muted iPhones, BlackBerries, Palm Pres, and other such—well, devices—lit up the outdoor amphitheater like behemoth fireflies throughout the play. As they do at almost all live performances these days. The person sitting next to me checked his email constantly. And during the intermission, digital brigadiers milled busily about the outside of the theater. The famously long lines for the restrooms looked like strings of mini-Japanese lanterns. Vapid one-sided-conversation samples littered the air, thinning the communal atmosphere of theater-going.
I do not mean to complain, really. There have been far too many complaints too repetitively written about this general matter. And many of us tend to forget that a New Thing may not be a Bad Thing but only a Different Thing. But the production of this melancholy comedy, with its bonds of love forged only hastily at the last moment and by pure luck, itself seemed melancholy, doubly nostalgic, as if yearning for less divided attention, as if culturally less left to is own devices.
Daniel Menaker was an editor at The New Yorker for 20 years before joining Random House, where he was editor in chief from 2003 to 2007. He has won two O. Henry Awards, is the author of two collections of stories and a novel, The Treatment, and is working on a book about conversation, Can We Talk?