The real case for Oxford won’t be found in the movie Anonymous

In the past we’ve groused (see, for instance, this post) about how the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has flat-out ignored the Shakespeare authorship question and has snubbed those who think that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, rather than Will Shakespeare, the actor and businessman from Stratford, was probably the real author of Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar.

But we can’t complain any more, because in the last several months the Festival’s boss of bosses, general director Antoni Cimolini, has been all over the subject. It is said that one of Mr. Cimolini’s distinguished predecessors in Stratford, Tyrone Guthrie, who directed the very first Shakespeare performances in Stratford in 1952, very much doubted the traditional attribution of the plays. Unfortunately Mr. Cimolino (who will be directing Cymbeline at Stratford in the summer of 2012 and is also apparently the leading candidate to replace Des McAnuff as Artistic Director after the 2013 season) doesn’t take the issue seriously.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford

The reason for all this talk is that movie critics have been interviewing prominent Shakespeare people like Mr. Cimolini about the new Roland Emmerich movie Anonymous, which we’ve finally seen. Just like Shakespeare in Love, this new movie has plenty of historical characters, a few historical facts, a number of historical inaccuracies, and a wholly invented story. When we first heard about it, we hoped that it might draw attention to the real case for the Earl of Oxford. Unfortunately, Anonymous — whatever its merits in strictly cinematic terms, on which we express no opinion — is downright counter-productive on the authorship question.

In the movie, the Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), portrayed by Rhys Ifans, is in the closet as a playwright because it doesn’t befit a nobleman to be mixed up with theater. By the early 1590s, Oxford has written one unperformed play after another, tied them up in neat bundles, and piled them on a shelf — Henry V, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, and plenty more. He writes compulsively.  His wife, frustrated because he neglects his other affairs, comes into his library and says, “Writing plays again? You promised!” (The producers clearly didn’t blow their budget on screenwriters.)

The actor Rhys Ifans, who plays Oxford

Oxford wants to see his plays performed, and fortune delivers into his hands a chance to blackmail Ben Jonson into making it happen. Oxford insists that Jonson put his name to Henry V, but Jonson doesn’t want credit for it and arranges for an vain, illiterate actor named Will Shakespeare to claim authorship instead. The play is a smash, and at the final curtain, when the audience cries “Author, author!” (surely audiences didn’t do that back in 1593!), the oafish Shakespeare comes forward to accept applause. As more of Oxford’s plays are produced, Will Shakespeare continues to take credit. Oxford’s stash still hasn’t given out when he dies in 1604, so “Shakespeare” plays continue to be brought forth for years to come.

But there’s more. It seems (in the movie) that Edward de Vere was the bastard son of Queen Elizabeth, secretly raised and educated as a nobleman’s son. Later, de Vere has an affair with the Queen (his own mother, though neither knew it!), resulting in the birth of the Earl of Southampton, whose mother is thus also his grandmother.

The movie gives Stratfordians new pretexts for piling ridicule on Oxfordians and for ignoring the real case for Oxford. It’s “snobbery,” says Stephen Marche in the New York Times, for Oxfordians to insist that a glovemaker’s son from Stratford with a grammar school education could never have become a brilliant writer. Mr. Cimolini piles on in the Toronto Globe and Mail: “inherent snobbery.”

But (and I think I speak for most Oxfordians) this isn’t the Oxfordian argument at all. Who actually insists that Will Shakespeare was an illiterate bumpkin, as one of the characters in the movie says he was? A few Shakespeare doubters may think that, but most of us don’t. Why shouldn’t such a man have gotten a decent education? And of course Oxfordians recognize that men and women with little formal education can come to write timeless literature.  We just don’t think Will Shakespeare was one of those persons. “Snobbery” is a classic “straw man” argument.

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Then there’s the “conspiracy” card. J. Kelly Nestruck, who reviews theater in the Globe and Mail, says that he “made the leap from ambivalence” about Shakespeare authorship to “ardent defender of the Bard of Avon” when he met somebody who not only believed that William Shakespeare did not write the plays, but who also turned out to be a “truther” — one of the paranoid screwballs who think the Twin Towers were brought down by George W. Bush and the Jews. Nestruck charitably lumps Oxfordians with some of the better-known examples of ignorance and hatefulness: “Shakespeare denial is part and parcel of a dangerous, anti-rational mode of thinking,” a “gateway drug” to becoming a Truther, a Birther, and a believer in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

What rot! Emsworth, who is willing to bet that he’s read a lot more of Richard Hofstadter than J. Kelly Nestruck ever has, and who firmly resents the imputation of anti-intellectualism, can’t think of a single conspiracy theory, from “who shot JFK” to ” who fixed the Super Bowl” that he ever bought into.

This is just changing the subject. As a class, we Oxfordians aren’t suckers for conspiracies. How exactly it happened that Oxford didn’t take credit for the Shakespeare plays and sonnets, we don’t know, but we doubt very much that it was anything like the elaborate conspiracies postulated in Anonymous. The movie recycles several of the least likely of the speculative scenarios that have cropped up around Oxford and the question of authorship and gives Stratfordians plenty to mock. There’s no historical evidence that the Virgin Queen was actually a promiscuous slut or ever had any bastard children, but in any event why should the love life of Queen Elizabeth or the parentage of Henry Wriothsley, Earl of Southampton, have anything to do with the question of who wrote Hamlet? The movie leaves viewers with the false impression that to believe in Oxford’s authorship of the “Shakespeare” plays is to buy into an imaginative set of wildly improbable conspiracy theories. We assure anyone who’s actually interested in the subject that it’s not necessary.

Then there’s the crude slur that to doubt the Stratford man is to have a screw loose. Stratfordians generally begin talking about Shakespeare authorship by sneering about the name of one of the early Oxfordians (Mr. Marche is typical: “the aptly named J. Thomas Looney”), and some them have wasted a lot of ink over the last few months on amateur psychoanalysis of the supposedly paranoid tendencies of people who would doubt something so “incontrovertible” as the notion that the man from Stratford wrote Hamlet. James Shapiro, the writer of a generally interesting book about the history of the Shakespeare authorship question (see this Emsworth comment) is one of the quickest to impugn the mental stability of authorship doubters.

Sadly, the public comments of our Stratford man, Mr. Cimolino, over the last several months don’t suggest that he’s actually reviewed the substantive case for Oxford. He asserts in the Globe and Mail that there is “in fact no evidence to connect Oxford with the plays, and no reason to suppose that anyone other than Shakespeare wrote them. To which Oxfordians retort, ‘Of course not: Oxford deliberately deliberately hid his authorship.'” No, Mr. Cimolino, that’s not what we say.  True, there’s no “smoking gun,” no single, irrefutable document that conclusively proves the case for Oxford.  But there really is plenty of evidence, much of which is reviewed, very soberly and with considerable erudition, by such organizations as the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition (here’s its website) and the journal Brief Chronicles (here’s its website).  Viewing it as a whole, we find it persuasive.

No doubt Mr. Cimolino did not set out intentionally to insult the many patrons of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival who doubt the authorship of the Stratford man, and we’re slow to take offense.  But we invite him to take a closer look.

Not enough color at the Shaw Festival?

(October 2008) To his dismay, Emsworth has belatedly learned that the diversity police have been hectoring Jackie Maxwell, Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, for not bringing more actors of color, more directors of color, and more plays by playwrights of color, to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The hue and cry is being led by one Andrew Moodie, who is apparently a Canadian playwright of some distinction. (Emsworth makes no pretense of being up on contemporary theater, especially in Canada.) Moodie’s campaign, which he calls “Share the Stage,” was seconded not long ago by J. Kelly Nestruck, the redoubtable theater critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail, who claims he was “suddenly struck” earlier this year with how “white” the Shaw’s company was.

The wedge here is the Shaw Festival’s friendly competition with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, an institution which Nestruck patronizingly says is now up to snuff, diversity-wise.  Jackie Maxwell gets credit for “gender diversity” (what an dreadful phrase!) at the Shaw Festival, but they’re blaming her for not trying hard enough on race.

Well, now — how is she to do this at the Shaw Festival? It’s an institution whose every season is anchored around two plays by Bernard Shaw himself, a white guy who wrote plays about white folks. And all its plays (per the Festival’s “mandate”) are supposed to have been written, or at least set, during Shaw’s lifetime (1856-1950).

We pause for historical reflection.  Here in Rochester, we’re steeped in the American suffrage movement, because Susan B. Anthony lived here and her 19th-century home, now a museum, is here.  History tells us that before the Civil War, abolitionists and suffragettes made common cause.

But Anthony’s relationship with Douglass (together again in bronze in a Rochester park) cooled when black leaders wanted to put women’s rights on hold while civil rights for black people were being consolidated. So there’s a tiny touch of irony when Jackie Maxwell is accused with putting racial diversity on the back burner now that she has gotten “gender diversity” at the Shaw.

There are plenty of new plays by and about people of color. But unless they’re set before 1950, they’re not plays that the Shaw does. So how, exactly, is the Shaw Festival supposed to diversify, color-wise?

Well, Moodie and Nestruck want the Shaw Festival to feature more actors of color in plays by Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Noel Coward. After all, when The Glass Menagerie is played in Bombay, doesn’t it have an Indian cast? When they do Blithe Spirit in Lagos, isn’t the cast Nigerian? There are people of all ethnic backgrounds in Ontario (as in New York State). So if Denzel Washington can play Brutus (see the picture above, with Stratford Festival veteran Colm Feore, in the foreground, as Cassius, in a Washington, D.C. production last year), why can’t there be a black Undershaft at the Shaw Festival?

If that were to be, Emsworth would nominate Derrick Lee Weeden. On the basis of his breath-taking performance as Othello at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater last winter (with Paul Niebanck as Iago), Emsworth ranks Weeden with the best actors we’ve seen in Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake, not excluding Christopher Plummer or the late William Hutt. But Weeden is, regrettably, not part of the Shaw’s repertory company, and the Shaw Festival is at a disadvantage in trying to recruit an actor of his ability. (He’s acted with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for many years; see this link.) The Shaw Festival doesn’t do either Shakespeare or contemporary plays, and from 1856 to 1950, there just weren’t that many important plays written by or about people of color.

There’s no reason why actors of color can’t be cast in many Shaw plays, as indeed they sometimes are. As Mr. Nestruck points out, Nikki M. James has one of the lead roles in Caesar and Cleopatra at the Stratford Festival this season. But in many cases, color-blind casting in a Shaw play would tend to confuse audiences and to distort social relationships that are at the heart of the plays.

And many Shaw plays are largely concerned with subtle gradations of class, and with interactions between English people of different ranks of life. Pygmalion is the story of a poor flower girl who encounters a rich, upper-class intellectual. Getting Married (one of the highlights of the Shaw’s 2008 season, highly recommended by Emsworth) has a lot to do with a lower-middle-class greengrocer’s relationship with the family of an English bishop.

The precision with which Shaw sketched class relationships in his plays is at the core of his genius. So how disorienting would it be for audiences if a person of color were cast as either the greengrocer or the bishop in Getting Married? In 1902, could a black greengrocer possibly have been on such familiar terms with an upper-class white family? — we’d be asking ourselves. Or would a white greengrocer really relate in such a way to a black English bishop and his wife? The didactic Bernard Shaw fervently wanted people to think about his plays — but those are not the questions Shaw wanted his audiences to be asking. A director shouldn’t interject race where it would confuse.

Or take Mrs. Warren’s Profession, also at the Shaw Festival this year (see the Emsworth review). The most interesting relationships in the play are between Mrs. Warren, the former courtesan with lower-class origins, and her middle- and upper-class friends (and former clients) in the aristocracy, the arts, and the church. What would happen to the already challenging social dynamics of these relationships if either Mrs. Warren or the men were black actors? Indeed, since the paternity of Mrs. Warren’s daughter is in question, how would it be anything but confusing if all these actors were not of the same race?

Race is already an element in many American plays that the Shaw Festival performs, just as it is in many plays by contemporary black playwrights (like Mr. Moodie, one assumes). Where a character’s ethnicity is part of the play, an ethnically appropriate actor is needed. Would anyone cast a white actor in an August Wilson play? Of course not — black actors are needed to portray African-American culture. Mr. Moodie says one of his plays wasn’t considered by the Shaw Festival because it called for more black actors than the Shaw could muster. I’m betting that Mr. Moodie wouldn’t be happy if white actors were cast to play black characters in his plays.

In The Little Foxes, playing this year at the Shaw Festival, Lillian Hellman’s key lines about the Hubbard family’s exploitation of black people wouldn’t make much sense if the actors portraying the Hubbards were themselves black. On stage, To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t make sense unless Atticus Finch looks like a white man and Tom Robinson looks like a black man. In fact, since interracial marriage was rare in England and North America before 1950, casting a husband and wife as persons of different races in Shaw-era plays would often be jarring and incongruous.

Mr. Moodie and Mr. Nestruck might argue that audiences today simply overlook an actor’s skin color. Maybe so. After all, every theater performance requires an audience to suspend disbelief to one degree or another.

But a director needs to be careful how far she imposes on audiences. As I commented in an earlier post, one of the problems with Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Festival this year was the director’s decision to make both sets of parents of Romeo and Juliet mixed-race couples. It was a seriously distracting element.

Theater is visual, and appearance has always mattered in casting. We audiences strain if an actor doesn’t look the part. We wouldn’t buy the Shaw Festival’s Michael Ball as Jack Tanner, because he’s too old. We wouldn’t buy Deborah Hay as Tanner, either; she’s too female. (But at the Stratford Festival next year, we’re going to buy Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell!) We don’t buy Eliza Doolittle unless she’s truly pretty enough to dazzle a prince at the Embassy Ball.

Ethnic appearance won’t be important for every Shaw-era play or character, but it matters often enough that a director usually has little discretion as to the racial composition of her cast. Sometimes, of course, the question of race can be neutralized by choosing all-black casts, as was done, apparently with success, for a recent Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring James Earl Jones, among other distinguished black actors. Could the Shaw Festival mount an all-black production of Private Lives or Waiting for Godot? It could happen, one supposes — they’re plays with small casts.

But in general, the Shaw Festival’s perennial need for a relatively large company of white actors will tend to preclude all-black casts. To Emsworth’s sorrow, for the late August Wilson, a fellow native of western Pennsylvania, is one of his favorite playwrights, that probably means that Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, plays comfortably within the Shaw Festival’s mandate, aren’t likely to be presented there. But you can’t have everything everywhere.

Couldn’t the Shaw Festival hire well-known actors of color for particular productions? That’s not its policy. The Shaw Festival casts from its own repertory company. So even if Morgan Freeman were willing to commit several months to acting in Niagara-on-the-Lake (don’t we wish!), it’s not the Shaw’s practice to bring in “stars” to play lead roles. Should the Shaw Festival redefine itself or change its policies to placate the diversity establishment? This member doesn’t think so.