Monday, August 20, 2018

Shakespeare (Not) On Stage

Roderick Cardwell as Richard Burbage
in "The Great Globe Itself" (2015)
Photo by Ryan Labay
Several years ago I wrote a play about the Globe Theatre, one which described three different buildings which have used that name, from three different eras in two different cities, each which was built to feature the works of William Shakespeare. My play was titled The Great Globe Itself, and toured northeast Ohio, in libraries and schools and theaters.

Shakespeare does not appear.

Over twenty years ago, my wife and I saw The Herbal Bed by Peter Whelan, a fiction inspired by the once long-forgotten-to-history accusation of “lechery” against Susanna (Shakespeare) Hall, eldest daughter of Stratford merchant and landowner William Shakespeare. The case was found in favor of the defendant, and the play begins as a bodice-ripper which soon evolves into the Puritanic courtroom drama not unlike The Crucible in its torturous circumlocutions.

Shakespeare does not appear.

This summer I read Lauren Gunderson’s The Book of Will, a fanciful imagining of the hands the collected, collated, edited and published the First Folio. inarguably the most significant publication in English literature. (see my blog post on The Book of William)

Burbage dies (almost three years after Shakespeare of Stratford) and it suddenly occurs to their surviving contemporaries that so much of what gave the work its power was locked inside the heads of those who spoke his lines. If not written down, they would be lost to history. The scramble to create a proper volume of the complete works -- in fact, determining what a complete works should consist of -- is as delightful to read as I am sure it is astonishing to witness.

Shakespeare, who as aforementioned was already dead, does not appear.

Finally, my brother sent me a play script from England for my birthday; I Am Shakespeare. Written by Mark Rylance, Oscar and Tony Award-winning actor and former Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Rylance is also a notable Shakespeare-denier, an Anti-Stratfordian, one who does not believe the “Man From Stratford” (as they like to call him) wrote the works attributed to him.

And yet, Shakespeare does appear in I Am Shakespeare.

At least, a version of him does. Rylance’s play falls into that category of “debate” plays that Shaw was so fond of creating (see my blog post, Shakespeare On Stage) though is Shaw’s case the argument was on the works’ merit, not its authorship. Shaw was openly scornful of those who proposed or defended such theories.

In Rylance’s play, William Shakespeare, as a character, arrives in the present day at the garage of Frank Charlton, a man obsessed with the “Authorship Question” and who hosts an online chat program that would appear to have a small, devoted following. The program has also ruined his marriage.

(Rylance uses Charlton as his stand-in, and wrote the role for himself to perform. He acknowledges, it would seem, that many who share his unorthodox views are not successful and lauded actors and directors of stage and screen, but more likely to be tin-foil hat wearing losers.)

Shakespeare, the character, has arrived from the past or elsewhere to debate the legitimacy of his achievement. He is soon followed by Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, and Mary Sidney, all to make the same claim. Attention is also given to Marlowe, who is obviously too cool to make an appearance.

It’s all a fun exercise, and very witty, though much of the humor stems from a wide knowledge of and deep appreciation for the works of Shakespeare. You already have to be in on the joke.

When writing The Great Globe Itself I had several agendas. The play was meant to illuminate the significance of the Globe Theatre (three Globes, as I said) as a unique acting space, one specifically suited to (most of) the works of Shakespeare.

I also wanted to tell the story of the theater Shakespeare’s made legendary in such a way that anyone without any knowledge of his life or work, could appreciate and enjoy it.

Ultimately, and here’s the kicker, I wanted to see if I could get away with writing a play about Shakespeare that also suggests the "Man From Stratford" didn’t write his own works -- but that no one would notice.

You didn't notice, did you? It was probably the impenetrable accents. My mistake.

Read "The Great Globe Itself" at New Play Exchange.

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