Star Wars Shakespeare or Author in Conversation: Ian Doescher

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Author in conversation: Ian Doescher on William Shakespeare’s The Force Doth Awaken (Star Wars Part the Seventh) 25/10/2017, Shakespeare Centre, Stratford-upon-Avon [spoiler alerts]

By Dr Thea Buckley

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To begin with, Ian Doescher explained the origins of his series, long ago, in a country far away: “I pitched it to Quirk Books right after going to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and re-watching the original Star Wars trilogy. I knew they’d done the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies mashup, so I looked them up and found an email on their website and wrote it. I said, ‘Hey, I’m this random dude and I have this idea I think would be great’ and they liked it and said, ‘Send us some writing.’ So I wrote the opening crawl as a sonnet:

 

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope

 

PROLOGUE.

Outer space.

Enter CHORUS.

 

CHORUS

It is a period of civil war.

The spaceships of the rebels, striking swift

From base unseen, have gain’d a vict’ry o’er

The cruel Galactic Empire, now adrift.

Amidst the battle, rebel spies prevail’d

And stole the plans to a space station vast

Whose pow’rful beams will later be unveil’d

And crush a planet: ‘tis the DEATH STAR blast.

Pursu’d by agents sinister and cold,

Now Princess Leia to her home doth flee,

Deliv’ring plans and a new hope they hold:

Of bringing freedom to the galaxy.

In time so long ago begins our play,

In star-crossed galaxy far, far away.

 

Next, Doescher explained how he adapted the film script and plot, saying, “Lucasfilm encourage me to go outside the box. For example, in addition to his regular communications in beeps and squeaks, I gave R2D2 asides in English:

 

R2-D2:

Yet not in language shall my pranks be done:

Around both humans and the droids I must

Be seen to make such errant beeps and squeaks

That they shall think me simple. (1.2.61-64)”

 

Doescher admitted that his chosen format presented some challenges: “With iambic pentameter, now everyone sounds like Yoda! I tried taking him back to Chaucer’s English, but that didn’t work; then, forward to modern English; then, settled on haiku.” Doescher’s permitted liberties with the script also allowed for his individual creativity: “I fit in Hamlet with a stormtrooper:

 

SCENE 6.

Inside the Death Star.

 

Enter LUKE SKYWALKER, holding stormtrooper helmet.

 

LUKE: Alas, poor stormtrooper, I knew ye not (6.1.1)”

 

In subsequent books, Doescher told us, he picked small moments from the films and fleshed them out. For example, in William Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return, at the flesh-eating rancor’s death (1.4.104-139), its weeping beastkeeper is given a long and poignant speech beginning with the Shakespearean gem ‘O that this too, too sullied flesh would melt’ (Hamlet 1.2.129).

 

In his Star Wars Shakespeare series, besides mashing up Shakespearean plays, Doescher revealed that he also delights in mixing in ‘Easter eggs’ or surprise references: ‘unfriended, unprotected, and alone’ from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance; Liam Neeson’s great speech from Taken; or the latest Taylor Swift song. Doescher further noted that in Act Four of each book he inserts a scene that is not in the film, one where two characters make fun of the original film in one way or another. Doescher recalled thinking, “Boy, I hope Lucasfilm lets me do this!” For example, in his seventh and newest book William Shakespeare’s The Force Doth Awaken, there is an extra dialogue between two stormtroopers. They make fun of the similarities between the original film series and its near-identical sequels, and then one reveals his lifelong regret at having let in the droids they actually were looking for (4.4.55-57).

 

Throughout the series, Doescher’s characters develop. In the early books Chewbacca merely growls and grunts, Doescher said, because he did not want to overuse his device for R2-D2. However, in the latest work Chewbacca’s grunts and growls get footnoted in English translation. Chewbacca’s anguished Horatio-like ‘Auuuggghhh’ at his master’s death is thus expanded: ‘O, misery beyond a Wookiee’s sense…’ (5.1.143). For Kylo Ren, Doescher gave him asides that narrate his interior monologue: ‘I do confess that I am torn asunder/From all this pain I fain would be set free’ (5.1.165). As in Shakespeare, here scenes and speeches end in rhyming couplets: ‘No son of Solo I, no longer Ben—/From now, I am entirely Kylo Ren’ (2.5.47-48).

 

To test-drive Doescher’s latest book, next, several Shakespeare Centre actors read out extracts from The Force Doth Awaken, taking the parts of Kylo Ren, Snoke, and General Hux, while Doescher himself read the part of Han Solo. Doescher paused at points to give us added context. He noted that to mirror Shakespearean settings he had moved Solo’s Act Five, Scene One encounter with Kylo Ren from outer space to castle ramparts. Furthermore, Doescher told us, he gave Solo a soliloquy including lines from the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech (As You Like It 2.7), about having watched his son grow up from a ‘puking’ babe (5.1.104), through his own care ‘To steer the ast’roid field of fatherhood’ safely (5.1.108).

 

The evening concluded with a Q and A:

 

Q: How restrictive was the iambic pentameter to write in?

 

A: Mine’s far stricter—I’m not Shakespeare! I break out of it when I need to—songs, Yoda—it rubs off in my everyday conversation!

 

Q: Tell me more about the nods to fan lore.

 

A: Ultimately for Star Wars fans—a big chunk of the audience—things like Han vs. Greedo, who shot first? I reference that. I’m walking a thin line between the Lucasfilm canon and fans who want something else. For Rey’s backstory, for the fans, there’s an acrostic woven into her soliloquies to address theories of her heritage.

 

Lucasfilm approves everything—have to cut scenes sometimes that are too close to canon. It’s always fun, though, because they’re letting me write these books!

 

Q: Have you been to Comicon?

 

A: Yes! London, and the Anakin Skywalker convention. I saw Ian McDiarmid read his ‘Palpatine speech’, in his Palpatine voice!

 

Q: What is your favorite character?

 

A: Han Solo! Always wanted to be him growing up; I’m much more C3PO!

 

You know, today is St Crispin’s Day! I had Han give a St Crispin’s Day speech.

 

Q: Do you include any ‘modern-day villains?’

 

A: I wrote these before the election or even before the candidates were declared, but Quirk Books at one point asked me to enlarge Finn’s speech…it has ‘Trump’ card puns.

 

Q: What about the illustrator?

 

A: Quirk lets me see the list of drawings, and cover suggestions, then illustrations go to Lucasfilm for approval. I met Nicolas Delort (the illustrator) in Paris, in 2014.

 

Q: Are there any restrictions?

 

A: It’s limiting in that I can’t do a lot of foreshadowing. Also, some aspects could be wrong. Also I have to swiftly build up a familiarity with the new films, see them a lot. I wanted to name a character recently and I looked them up on Wookieepedia but in the end I couldn’t use that Jedi’s name…Lucasfilm didn’t say why…

 

Q: What about staging it as a play?

 

A: Right now Lucasfilm isn’t allowing it. Just at book events.

 

Q: What’s it like to create new Star Wars memories? Like Kylo Ren’s babyhood.

 

A: For Han—it was me going back and thinking, what it’s like to be a new dad; it’s exhausting and wonderful; very fun to put that in Han’s mouth.

 

Q: What about Rogue One?

 

A: It looks like I’ll be doing just the main films, not standalone episodes.

 

Q: Are there other things you’d like to Shakespeare-ize?

 

A: Yes—if a book version exists already, I’m a little reluctant—but maybe a film…

 

Watch this space!

 

the views expressed in this post are the author’s own.

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Author:Thea Buckley

Doctor Thea Buckley, researcher of intercultural Shakespeare and Visiting Lecturer at the Shakespeare Institute.

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