Tuesday, May 17, 2005


Sic transit gloria Hollywood

I'm reading Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt's biography of Shakespeare. Shakespeare started his career as an itinerant player, the profession of playwrite still nascent. At the time of his first entry into London, Christopher Marlowe was enjoying fame for his play Tamburlaine. Greenblatt writes:
The part of Tamburlaine was created by an astonishingly gifted young actor in the Lord Admiral's Men, Edward Alleyn, at the time only twenty-one years old. At the sight of the performance, Shakespeare, two years his senior, may have grasped, if he had not already begun to do so, that he was not likely to become one of the leading actors on the London stage. Alleyn was the real thing, a majestic physical presence, with a "well tuned," clear voice capable of seizing and holding the attention of enormous audiences.

Will in the World, pp. 190-191.
In other words, the Russell Crowe of his era.

It's interesting. At the time, Alleyn must have been the toast of London, but no one has heard of him for 400 years, while Shakespeare's name will live forever. There were probably noted thespians in Dickens's time, but again, nobody remembers them and everyone knows Dickens.

Part of that, of course, is because we can read Shakespeare and Dickens, while there are no records of Edward Alleyn. The names Eleonora Duse, Sarah Bernhardt, and Sarah Siddons are known, even what they looked like, but not what they were like on the stage.

Makes you wonder - even with movies and TV, DVDs and whatever replaces DVD, will the future remember Tom Cruise or Pierce Brosnan, Meryl Streep or J-Lo? Or will they fade and vanish, except to a few cultural historians? Who today really remembers Gloria Swanson or Douglas Fairbanks? Or even Clark Gable or Claudette Colbert?

Granted, I can't think of too many writers from this era who deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Shakespeare and Dickens. Although they tend to be thought of as "literary" these days, in their own time they were the purveyors of the most popular of popular art. Larry David and David Chase have a very long way to go before they become immortal.

Again, granted, temporary fame is not a bad second place to eternal glory, and most of us would happily settle for the former. But for all their enormous celebrity, the odds are strongly against the future having a clear memory of most of today's biggest stars.
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