Friday, January 8, 2010

The Play's the Thing: Creative Tropes Revisited

Tropes, the creative tools that are used to tell stories that readers and viewers will recognize and understand, are hardly limited to modern-day examples like the one I explored in Wednesday's essay.  Indeed, some tropes are Older Than Television, Older Than Radio, or even Older Than Steam.  A trope such as "sibling rivalry" can be classified as Older Than Dirt, thanks to the myth of Cain and Abel.  Centuries ago, the greatest playwright known to history used tropes while penning his stories just as modern-day authors use tropes while tappping at the keyboards of their Macbooks.

Part of what made William Shakespeare's plays timeless is that the Bard wove compatible tropes together in beautifully seamless combinations theretofore unseen.  The resulting tapestry created rich, interesting stories with characters from every level of the complexity scale.  One affirmation of the versatility and accessibility of Shakespeare's stories is the success of modern works that are recognizably adaptations of the Bard's plays.

A few of the better-known examples:
  • 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew)
  • Forbidden Planet (The Tempest)
  • Get Over It (A Midsummer Night's Dream)
  • The Lion King (Hamlet)
  • She's the Man (Twelfth Night)
  • Strange Brew (Hamlet)
  • West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet)
Each of those works reimagined one of Shakespeare's original stories in a new setting and era with genre-appropriate characters and social conventions.  This is possible because of the power of creative tropes as tools: the trope is an abstract, and the range of concretes that can be used to express that abstract is limited only by an author's imagination.  Even the Bard's complex combination of creative tropes can still be adapted whole cloth (to stretch the "tapestry" metaphor) into an entirely new expression.

As a consummate game player, naturally, I have figured out a way to make a game out of this.

I am going to perform a writing exercise in this article recasting a work of Shakespeare in the present day.  I will present an excerpt from the opening scene.  It is your job to guess which work I am adapting, and put your answer in the comments section.  First person to get it right gets bragging rights and a cold drink on me next time we meet.  Every work of Shakespeare, including those used in the examples above, is potentially in play.

Go North from 174th Street (excerpt)
by Michael Bahr, 2010

The thump-thump of a bouncing basketball punctuated the white noise of late Friday afternoon in the upper Bronx.  Four men sweated and struggled, two against the other two, while dozens of others watched and waited their turns.  Two of the ebony-skinned men would walk away from the contest twenty dollars richer.  Men had come to blows on that court for smaller stakes.

A newcomer arrived.  Derrick Wilshire thundered along the side of the court, his white sneakers matching the white teeth in his smile.  The newcomer shouted to his companion, a taller man queued up to play.

"Hey yo, T-Bone!  She called me back!"

The taller man shook his head.  "Man, D, you got to be the luckiest brother on this block.  I bet if any other guy here's high-school sweetheart won the lottery, she wouldn't give a brother the time of day."

Derrick grinned and shrugged.  "Brother, I told you, that chick loves me!  Lisa played her v-card with me back when she was 16, man.  She told me come right on out and see her!"

T-Bone raised an eyebrow.  "So what you still doin' here, D?  If I had a millionaire girlfriend, I wouldn't be wasting my time playing basketball."

Other men watching the basketball game chimed in their agreement with T-Bone.  "You damn right."  "Sho'nuff."  "You know it, brother."

Derrick took a deep breath.  "That's the thing, T-Bone.  I'm ready to go right now, but she's at her new place up in Nanuet.  I ain't got no money to get up there."

The taller man snorted.  "What money?  Who gives a flip about money?  Your girlfriend rich, dawg!  Tell her send you a couple hundred for a limo!"

"That's the thing, T-Bone.  My sister heard from her friend Stacey, she's tight with Lisa, and Stacey said Lisa is calling up all her old boyfriends and she's gonna pick one and kick the rest to the curb!  I can't ask for no money or else I look like that's all I want, instead of wantin' the chick!  And if I don't get up there before some other brother work his way into her bed, I blown my big chance!"

"So you out of luck, then," shrugged T-Bone.

"No, man, T, I need your help, man.  You got to spot me $500 so I can rent a nice car and go up there and spend the weekend.  After I get with Lisa, you know I can totally pay it back."

T-Bone laughed out loud.  "Five hundred dollars!  You crazy, dawg!  What makes you think I got that kind of money!  Get out of here, D.  Jump the subway or something.  I'm sure you'll find some way to get up to Nanuet."

Derrick tugged on T-Bone's shirt.  "Look, man, can we talk for a minute?"

T-Bone looked back at the game in progress.  The score was tied at eight; it would end soon.

"I better not miss my turn, D."

The two men stepped aside from the line of basketball players and strolled to the corner of the playground.  They spoke in hushed voices.

"Look, T-Bone, you know I wouldn't ask you if this wasn't important.  Can't you cut me a little action off your... business... just for the weekend?  Back when you got picked up that time, didn't I spend my whole welfare check bailing you out?"

T-Bone blinked and exhaled.  "Yeah, D, you did.  I guess I owe you one.  Business ain't been so great lately, though.  The cops are gettin' a lot more aggressive.  I don't know I can be sure about sparin' half a grand.  I got rent to pay.  Child support.  A brother like me get picked up for driving while black, you know if I ain't current on my child support they'll throw me in the lock-up fast as that."

Derrick grasped at emptiness, gritting his teeth.  "Aw, man.  You were my best hope, T.  My mom and sister ain't got no money or I'd already be gone.  Ain't no one out there we can hit up for the funds?"

A glint of gold flashed in T-Bone's eye from one of the men at the side of the court.  The players exchanged money; the game was over, and T-Bone had lost his place in line for the next game.

"Gold.  That's it, D."

"What's it, T-Bone?"

"You got a suit and a tie, man?"

"One of my dad's should fit.  He's still at Riker's.  He ain't gonna be needing it."

T-Bone nodded, his eyes focusing on the glint of the player's gold chain.  "Go put it on and meet me back here in half an hour.  I can't get you half a grand, but I know a guy I can press for a favor.  I can get him to lend me his Humvee for the weekend, and then I'll lend it to you."

Derrick's face burst to life.  "Really?  Oh, man, T-Bone, that would be perfect!  Lisa would think I had it goin' on!  She'd know I was there for her and not just the money, y'know?"

T-Bone held up his palms.  "Calm down, D, calm down.  All right.  We're gonna do this.  Half an hour.  We're gonna go see a gold dealer named Hanoosh.  He's a few blocks down, in Little Dubai.  This guy is serious, so no joking around and no brother-talk.  You call me Timothy, and you call him Mr. Hanoosh.  Do not forget the 'Mister'.  He did my grill and he still owes me a few more caps, so if we play our cards right, you'll be driving his Hummer out of town by sunset."

And there you have it, folks.  What Shakespearean play am I adapting?  The game begins... Now!


  1. Merchant of Venice.
    I win!

  2. Done in one. That's what happens when you marry a woman with a degree in history. :)