On Anthony Burgess’ Nothing Like the Sun, John Reed’s All the World’s A Grave, and Jason DeBoer’s Annihilation Songs
For a writer who passed away four hundred and one years ago, it’s amazing how beloved and relevant the works of William Shakespeare still are for us. The most popular dramatist of his day was Christopher Marlowe and the greatest argument for the ascension of one against the waning of the other can be made about the quality of the writing itself. Anthony Burgess is known to have once opined, “It is assumed by most of us that Shakespeare is the greatest dramatist in the world… but take the poetry and the incredible psychological insight away and you have artificial plots that were not Shakespeare’s own to start with, full of improbable coincidence and carelessly hurried fifth-act denouements.”
No matter how you dress up a Shakespearean production, what matters most in his work is the words. Even at the poorest performances of a stripped down play with nothing to dazzle an audience anywhere, you should still be able to close your eyes, block out everything else, and revel in the writing.
Burgess supported this thesis this when he wrote his brilliant novel, Nothing Like the Sun, about Shakespeare’s life. For one of the most famous writers in human history, we know conspicuously little about Shakespeare’s life, so little that people have theorized that William Shakespeare might not actually be the author of the works of Shakespeare. Burgess doesn’t delve into conspiratorial territory, but he does fill in the gaps with his own hypotheses. The brilliance of Nothing Like the Sun, however, rests on the linguistic might of Burgess, the man responsible for such works as the novel, A Clockwork Orange (which features the slang language Nadsat), and who wrote the “language” of the pre-historic people in the movie, Quest For Fire (which mostly consists of grunts). His novel of Shakespeare’s life is full of puns and linguistic games and told through an Elizabethan-voiced third person narrator, play-structured dialogue, and Shakespeare's imagined stream of consciousness journal entries. One of the best examples of this last form is when Shakespeare must come up with the play A Midsummer Night's Dream in time for a commission:
And so I lay on my back a space and watched the fire sink to all glowing cavern and it was like a dance of fieries, I would say fairies. And then came the name Bottom, which will do for a take-off of Ned Alleyn, so that I laughed. Snow falling as I sat to work (I cannot have Plautus twins for most will have seen C of E but I can have the Pouke or Puck confound poor lovers) and the bellman stamped his feet and cursed, blowing on his fingers. Yet with my fire made up I sweated as midsummer, and lo I got my title.
Burgess continues like this, showing Shakespeare engaged in composition, decisive self-plagiarism, appropriation of the world and culture around him, and ultimately hanging it all on the words. This is the agenda of the novel, but also what makes reading it so enjoyable. Burgess isn’t just giving us a historical fiction of Shakespeare’s life, he is doing his Burgess thing, loving language on the page and in the mouth and ear, and he is doing it through Shakespeare’s words. Burgess makes language and life inseparable for Shakespeare.
It’s been over fifty years since Nothing Like the Sun, and writers have followed in his footsteps in veneration of Shakespeare’s uncanny deftness with words. In 2008, the writer John Reed published, All the World’s A Grave, a book billed on the cover as “a new play by William Shakespeare.” To read the book, a five act play, is to read of struggles of love between old Hamlet and young Juliet, struggles of war between Hamlet and King Lear, struggles of family where Hamlet’s mother has killed his father and married Macbeth, more struggles of family between Lear and his daughter Juliet, and struggles of friendship where Iago deceives his king, Hamlet. This might sound like “Shakespeare, the Greatest Hits,” but really it’s Shakespeare the remix.
In All The World’s A Grave, Reed is a director, an orchestrator, and an assembler taking what was present to work with, and making one brand new Reed/Shakespeare partnership play. He says it’s a Shakespeare play, but really it’s a Reed. How could it not be? Reed does to Shakespeare what Shakespeare did to himself. However, this is part of his big question, his radical literary populism, asking where is the author now, where lies the genius when John Reed can scramble him up and make him coherent again.
In the Afterword, Reed states, “it is precisely because Shakespeare’s plays were monsters assembled from other monsters that a fresh monstrosity can be assembled from Shakespeare." Reed gives his true radically populist motives for this remix:
“Greatness is a myth—and one that very few people in the arts can take seriously. But it is a cancer of our cultural mechanism. The artist as hero, the artist as individual/persona. It was a strange feeling when I first drafted ATWAG: to have it on my computer—a new play by William Shakespeare that nobody had seen. I could touch it, I could put my cup of coffee on it—and even if I couldn’t fully metabolize its creation, and experienced zero sense of propriety, it was there. I feel a sense of marvel when I flip through it; but there is also something blunt and pragmatic about it—this is how it was done, and here it is again.”
Of course, one could counter Reed that the success of All the World’s A Grave as a play is actually a true testament to Shakespeare’s genius; not a single word in this play is Reed's own.
The enjoyment of a collage or pastiche is often in seeing the demarcating lines still present. Those only exist here for someone already familiar with Shakespeare’s canon (as most of us are). For someone unknowledgeable about Shakespeare this play could fool them. Of course one of the subtle points Reed is making is that Shakespeare did this with his own material all the time—plots, character-types, actual characters, expressions, phrases. So Reed gives us a remix, a scramble, a cut-up made whole and seamless.
Characters are defined by circumstance, so even though Reed’s have the same names as Shakespeare’s they aren’t the same character any more. They say the same things that they do in the original plays, but they interact differently through those words as they interact with the different characters. Part of the jarring nature of the reading experience though is recognizing many familiar lines and yet trying to reconcile them to a different situation. It’s the most obvious difficulty with the project as a whole. Shakespeare might have recycled and self-plagiarized a lot, but never his own memorable lines. That might be the whole point of this project, but it’s also its stickiest wicket: it’s the words that matter most. Shakespeare was a thief and a self-plagiarist. Reed is proving he could do what Shakespeare did literally with Shakespeare’s own material and yet does something fresh with it. It is at once an act of homage and conquest.
At the end of 2016, another book came along to take the work of Burgess and Reed to the next extreme: Jason DeBoer’s, Annihilation Songs: Three Shakespeare Reintegrations (Stalking Horse Press).
DeBoer’s approach is far more aggressive than Reed’s. William Shakespeare’s work is literally torn up and stripped down, down to the very word. Each story in the collection is from one specific play, but that play has been “disintegrated” with only its base components left, a pile of words. The process by which DeBoer works therefore is a “reintegration.” A brand new short story is written from only those words. This is all DeBoer, not Shakespeare, and though it might be Shakespeare’s words, there is nothing of the bard left.
Or is there? First, let’s look at what is unquestionably there. Annihilation Songs is made up of an introduction by Tosh Berman, three short stories, and an afterword by the author that explains the whole writing process and lets us know a fourth story is in the works. The afterword also clues us into some of the themes injected or captured in writing the stories. Before the stories an author’s note gives the gist of the work and the play to story relationship: “Puzzles of War” is from Hamlet; “Here Swims a Most Majestic Vision” is from The Tempest; and “The Execution of the Sun” is from Two Gentlemen of Verona.
In the afterword, DeBoer writes, “while constructing my stories, it became apparent how readily Shakespearean language assimilated with the ideas of controversial theorists like Friedrich Nietzsche, D.A.F. Sade, and George Bataille”, establishing his intentions in regards to themes. This comes through in all three stories regardless of where they are set or what is going on. In “Puzzles of War,” during WWII a private named Cornelius deserts shortly after the D-Day invasion and has a darkly erotic experience with a mad woman named Gertrude in a church behind enemy lines before meeting his own dark fate.
In “Here Swims a Most Majestic Vision,” Caliban and Miranda, husband and wife, in a setting that can only be a lower middle class late 20th century domestic setting, exorcise their marital demons before the abused wife finally turns the tables. In “The Execution of the Sun,” a violent love triangle rages in all directions between characters Speed, Valentine, and Julia on a train hurtling towards the ocean. This story, like the two preceding, is supported by an exalting level of gorgeous prose exemplified in almost any randomly selected passage: “A fat, swarthy evening killed the sun contemptuously and without a word. With no light, the desert became only an embrace of shapeless heat. Weary and alone in repose upon the car, Valentine kissed perversely at the black air with his tongue." It is not presumptuous to believe that Bataille himself might enjoy these stories. During the chapter on de Sade in his book, Literature and Evil (Urizen Books, 1973), Bataille declares, “desire alone is active, and desire alone makes us live in the present." That truth is darkly illustrated in all three of these stories.
But what of Shakespeare? These names might be familiar, but these aren’t his stories at all. Is there truly nothing of the bard left after he has been disintegrated and reintegrated? If the words matter most then DeBoer is mining them individually and directly. Perchance there is a literary DNA resonance that lives on in those individual words? If anything from Shakespeare’s literary DNA, embedded in the words (and the psychology of DeBoer), does come out in these stories it is in the interplay of power positions, the illustration of beastly power dynamics. That DNA, in DeBoer’s hands is darker and rawer because it’s more condensed (no story is over eighteen pages). Violent, erotic, and even taboo, DeBoer’s stories are working in Shakespeare’s own wheelhouse, but to read them with no prefacing or context you might have no idea they are the bard’s words originally. And that’s perfectly fine.
Anthony Burgess found a way into William Shakespeare’s life through deconstructing his language. In the process, that reimagination is successful twofold: it gives form and light to a shadowy life, and it reminds us what’s most important about Shakespeare. Even though a dramatist by trade, Shakespeare was a poet who reshaped the English language and literary tradition. Like a true artist he used everything at his disposal, the language of the streets and the court, the works of those who came before, and the shameless confidence to self-plagiarize as needed. His artificial and improbable storylines pale in comparison to his use of language. Following Burgess’ lead, both Reed and DeBoer don't just chase Shakespeare’s ghost, but do something substantial and new with what he left us. Reed’s act is one of radical populism to show the workmanship behind what is deemed greatness. And DeBoer dominates the text to such a breaking point that there is nothing left but to build anew. Through remixing and reintegrating they preserve the words, that glorious language, and say to hell with Shakespeare’s story lines. Story lines are easy, and genius or not, it’s what you do with them that matters.
Jordan A. Rothacker is the author of the novella, The Pit, and No Other Stories (Black Hill Press/1888, 2015), and the novel, And Wind Will Wash Away (Deeds, 2016). He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature and a MA in Religion from the University of Georgia. He lives in Athens, Georgia.