Long before the 20-second sound bite was even a gleam in CNN founder Ted Turner’s eye, Cliff Hillegass began serving the needs of the impatient, the overwhelmed, the confused, or just in a hurry among us all.
Fifty-five years ago in Lincoln, Neb., Hillegass began publishing the first examples of the academic staple known today as CliffsNotes with summaries of the works of William Shakespeare.
He wasn’t the only one to condense the Bard’s compendium of plays and sonnets into a form you could easily carry around without a shopping cart.
Mesa Encore Theatre is presenting “The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged)” through Nov. 3 at the Black Box on Brown, 318 E. Brown Road.
“Compleat” is a parody designed to make audiences laugh, not pass an exam. I haven’t seen it or read it, but I’m guessing it has such deconstructions of, say, Hamlet, that read like, “Question: Be?”
Nonetheless, distillations of the real thing have long become more commonplace in our sorry-gotta-run society. (It’s certain, for example, that many of you are bailing on this column right now, just to prove my point. Thanks!)
Thinking about how far this truly has gone, I searched the Internet for what comes up under “War and Peace in one sentence.” And several attempts to summarize — with the use of only one period — the traditionally designated longest novel ever written actually came up. Here’s one from achangeinthewind.com, which quoted the summary of a man named Gary Shtenygart:
“I looked up War and Peace and it’s about this guy Pierre who fights in France, and all this terrible stuff happens to him, but in the end because of his charm he gets to be with this girl he really loves, and who really loves him even though she cheated on him.”
And there, dear readers, is what just saved you from an entire semester of Russian literature.
Don’t have time to read the above quote about Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece all the way to the end? Here’s an even shorter summary from sidewaysstation.com:
“Look, listen, love – and try not to get run over by history.”
And somebody named augie6_1 once answered a request on answers.yahoo.com to tackle Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with an equivalent economy of words:
“Arguably the most famous love story of all time, this play tells the tale of a boy and a girl from warring families who meet and fall in love. Fate is not on their side, however, and they eventually choose to kill themselves rather than live without each other.”
All right, that was two sentences. Well, you try doing it, if you think it’s so easy.
I suppose the reason why there aren’t more one-sentence summations of hefty works of literature — or even of lighter reading such as the original Obamacare bill — is that it’s tough slogging. First of all, you have to be the one — maybe the only one — who first has to read the original work all the way to the end.
And summaries, by their very nature, leave things out that some might find to be important.
Attend a public meeting sometime, then wait until the official minutes of it are published.
I remember covering such meetings, writing a story that included the most pithy or most stinging comments that were made about the big item on that evening’s agenda, only to find the official account ended up reading something like, “After discussion and public comment from 172 people, the council approved the proposal.”
Accurate, yes, but even that sentence was too long for many of us.
We could all use more summaries. Yes, the miracle of downloading means we can watch all 92 episodes of those cable dramas everyone talked about at work but we never caught the first time. But why anyone really has the time to see them all bunched together if he never found just one hour at a time to do it mystifies me. The answer is summaries, just enough to get us through those water-cooler conversations.
Perhaps Shakespeare himself had the foresight to predict that most of us might appreciate a summary of his works, for as one of the characters in Hamlet said:
“Brevity is the soul of wit.”
(As a public service this column is approximately 50 words shorter than usual. OK, I’ll try harder next time.)
Read Tribune contributing columnist Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here on Sundays. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.