Thursday, April 17, 2014

Storyteller's Workshop: William Shakespeare's Star Wars

Lately I’ve been enjoying a word I don’t often use or ponder: pastiche.

Isn’t that a great word? Try it out a time or two and let it roll around your tongue. It looks like it might be pistachio flavored, but in reality it’s rather pasty. According to the Oxford Dictionary, it comes to us from French and Italian, based on the late Latin pasta, meaning (no, not spaghetti) 'paste'.

This makes sense, because a pastiche is essentially a pasting together of styles. It is (to quote the dictionary again) “an artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period” or “an artistic work consisting of a medley of pieces taken from various sources.” I like the notion of “a medley of pieces” – somehow when that combines with the notion of “paste,” I come up with a visual image of a mosaic.

The pastiche that has me thinking about all of this is William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, a New Hope. This delightful book by Ian Doescher is a 169 page iambic pentameter riff on the original 1977 Star Wars film. Think of it as the Bard of Avon with a light saber in his hand, a rumble between imperial forces and William Shakespeare and George Lucas (“Great, kid! Don’t get cocky!”), or a mosaic picture of Darth Vader made up of thousands of tiny words. Words that make up 3,076 lines, to be precise. The author counted them, and assures us in his afterword that this is about the average length of a Shakespearean play. 

When I stumbled onto this book on our library’s new book shelves, just the thought of it made me smile. Star Wars and Shakespeare seemed like a potentially happy marriage, and in Doescher’s hands it really becomes one.  His love of and familiarity with both worlds makes the dance a smooth delight, as though Luke, Leia, Han and our other beloved Star Wars characters have just been standing in the wings of the Globe theater, awaiting their cue.

It’s a wonderful read, from C-3PO’s opening line: “Now is the summer of our happiness/Made winter by this sudden, fierce attack!” to the ominous prequel-setting ending: “There let our heroes rest free from attack,/Till darkness rise and Empire striketh back.” I think what made me happiest, as I sped through it, was the delightful way the old/new form brought freshness to content I’ve known by heart for years.

The Shakespearean cadences lend extra nobility to the already noble Rebel cause. Luke’s turning to the Rebel cause, in the wake of his Aunt and Uncle’s deaths, feels truly poignant. Han’s self-preserving, scoundrel self is particularly wonderful in Shakespearean mode. When Han appears to take the money and run, in the scene prior to the Alliance’s final attack run on the death star, I love Luke’s bitter play on words “Then take thou care now, Han, thou Solo act,/For certain ‘tis the part thou best dost play” which leads into an introspective soliloquy from Han (after Luke exits). “Without the inner compass of my soul,/How can I vainly hope to pilot life?” he asks, and adds “A smuggler’s heart doth keep calm time inside,/No matter sways a pirate’s peaceful pulse./But something stirs in me I ne’er have felt:/Is this a rebel’s heart I feel within?”

Obi-Wan gets the smallest makeover, but I think that’s probably because Alec Guinness delivered all his lines with Shakespearean gravitas to begin with. Darth Vader seems darker and more tragic. R2, whose beeps fall into iambic rhythm, gets asides (in English!) that help us understand his feisty droid soul. Leia gets a “sing hey and lack-a-day” lament song for Alderaan. In short, this is a brilliant bit of pastiche.

Creative Prompts and Exercises

  • Time for you own pastiching. (And yes, the Oxford dictionary says it can be used as a verb!) Try choosing content you know well – a story or a scene from a story – but writing it in a completely different form than the original. Borrow a well-known form or voice to do it. Here are some possibilities:

Borrow the Bard’s favorite poetic cadence, iambic pentameter (an iamb is an unstressed/stressed syllable pattern; just put five together for pentameter) to write a speech from the perspective of a favorite character. This could be a re-write of an already existing speech or a quiet soliloquy spoken at a time when the character doesn’t originally speak in the story (but you have a feeling you know what’s going on in their heart and mind).

Borrow Dr. Seuss’ simple sing-song cadence and love of nonsensical words and re-write a favorite scene from a novel, short story, or fairy-tale.

Borrow a classical fairy-tale form (read Grimm, Perrault, Andersen stories for inspiration) and re-tell a non fairy-tale, perhaps a contemporary, modern story, in that mode.

Choose any writer whose style you find distinctive and enjoyable to emulate and give this exercise a whirl. Hemingway’s short, jabbing sentences; Tolkien’s meandering yet purposeful world-building prose; Bronte’s gothic or weather-drenched atmosphere making; Lewis’ kind-uncle story-telling narrator voice in Narnia – choose one of these or another writing voice you know and love well, and try telling a completely different story through it. Feel free to borrow liberally from your source materials – familiar words, phrases, story moments, plot devices. They won’t mind. (At one point, Doescher has Luke hold up a stormtrooper’s helmet and exclaim “Alas, poor stormtrooper, I knew ye not,/Yet have I ta’en both uniform and life/From thee…”)

Doescher paired Star Wars and Shakespeare because, despite their vast differences, he saw similarities in them (especially in the way Star Wars utilized “archetypal characters and relationships”). You may want to make a similar choice – maybe a modern character you love has always seemed ready to walk into the pages of a Dickens novel – or you may want to try unusual pairings that don’t seem to have anything in common at first glance. Who knows? You might discover connections between them or new nuances in character. At the very least, you’ll have fun!


Erin said...

Pastiche is awesome! Such fun for folks who love finding connections as much as I do. That's why I love James Hance and so many of the artists on TeeFury so much; they do such a wonderful job of combining characters and styles from different sources in a way that makes it seem as though they always belonged together. Methinks I should see if I can find this at our library...

Beth said...

Yes! Some pastiches just seem silly, but some combinations really work together beautifully and spark all kinds of creativity. I think you'd like this one!