The establishment strikes back: Contested Will

A statue intended to represent William Shakespeare adorns the gardens of the Festival Theater in Stratford, Ontario

Nothing changed in 2010: the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) still doesn’t grant that William Shakespeare, the actor from Stratford, England, might not actually have written Richard III, King Lear, or the other “Shakespeare” plays.   The programs for Shakespeare plays still recite the same stale “facts” about the life of the Stratford man and still blithely credit him with the plays.  As we wrote in this space a couple of years ago, the question of who wrote Hamlet just doesn’t seem to be up for discussion. 

We don’t blame Stratford General Director Antoni Cimolino for keeping mum on the subject — how better to keep people from being mad at  you!  Still, we must point out that on the other side of the continent, Oregon Shakespeare Festival executive director Paul Nicholson has now joined the long list of theater luminaries on record as doubting that the Stratford man deserves credit for writing Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice.  (Nicholson runs the largest Shakespeare festival in the United States, nearly up to the scale of the Stratford Festival.) 

Paul Nicholson

According to a September 23, 2010 article in Southern Oregon’s Mail Tribune, Mr. Nicholson has noticed how implausible it is that the Stratford man could have had the intimate knowledge of law, falconry, life at court, and English history that the playwright clearly did.  Mr. Nicholson also points out that William Shakespeare was only in his twenties when the sonnets were written; most of the sonnets, of course, are poems written from the standpoint of a man of mature years in relation to a much younger man.  Mr. Nicholson is one of several other actors and directors at at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival who recently signed the “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare,” which has been circulating online since it was drafted in 2007. See this website. (Presumably the Oregon Shakespeare Festival itself takes no official position on the question of authorship.)

What Mr. Cimolino, Des McAnuff, Lucy Peacock, Martha Henry, Brian Bedford, and others at the Stratford Festival really think about the authorship question, we’d love to know.  Some of them, we suppose, think it doesn’t matter and don’t take any interest in it; we’ve met a a surprising number of Shakespeare lovers who feel that way.  Personally, we think it does matter.  A work of art has so much more interest when you know a bit about its creator and his life. 

At any rate, we are gratified to see that the debate over who wrote Shakespeare is heating up, as evidenced by this well-written, well-researched new book by James Shapiro.  To the author’s credit, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare gives Shakespeare lovers something different from the usual Shakespeare “biographies,” which invariably rehash familiar material about the historical and cultural climate during which the plays were written but have little to say (because little is known) about the Stratford man. Contested Will gives us, instead, a history of the controversy over who really wrote the works of Shakespeare.

It’s a good story, with plenty of colorful characters. There was William-Henry Ireland, who in 1794 first began “discovering” correspondence to and from William Shakespeare (including a letter to him from Queen Elizabeth!), then manuscripts of the plays (King Lear!), then “lost” plays of Shakespeare. (We were reminded of P.D.Q. Bach, whose compositions, like The Short-Tempered Clavier, the “Erotica” Variations for banned instruments and piano, and the opera A Little Nightmare Music, have been “discovered” by Peter Schickele over the course of the last 40 years.) James Boswell was among those taken in by Ireland before he was exposed as a fraud (though not until a new “Shakespeare” play, Vortigern, was debuted in London).

Another forger, John Payne Collier, produced so much phony Shakespeare memorabilia in the 1830s and 1840s that it took Shakespeare scholars decades to sort it out from the real thing. And then there was Delia Bacon, the first major proponent of Francis Bacon as the author of Shakespeare, a pioneer (as a woman) in the field of literary scholarship who got the attention of Hawthorne and Emerson, but whose monomania and paranoia (she was afraid to publish her findings for fear that others would steal her ideas) eventually led her to the madhouse.

It wasn’t until we were halfway through Shapiro’s book that we realized that we’d been taken in ourselves. It gradually dawned on us, as we were reading about what Emerson, Mark Twain, and Freud thought about Shakespeare authorship, that Shapiro had an agenda: he intended, ultimately, to portray Oxfordians and other anti-Stratfordians as mere dabblers in the subject (Twain), or perhaps a little neurotic (Freud), or caught up in passing trends like the “Higher Criticism” that had challenged traditional notions of authorship of books of the Bible.

Edward de Vere

Not till the latter pages of Contested Will does Shapiro get to the present-day groundswell of support for the authorship of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.  By then, though, his mask is off and the book’s pages drip with scorn and ridicule. True it is that there has been no shortage of nutty ideas associated with the question of who wrote Shakespeare. Here we think, for instance, of those who not only maintain that Oxford wrote the plays and sonnets, but also insist that the Earl of Southampton (presumed subject of the homoerotic sonnets) was also the love child of Oxford and Queen Elizabeth. Personally, we don’t have much trouble telling the loony stuff from the solid arguments for Oxford; Shapiro, clearly a smart guy and a scholar, ought to have been able to do it too. But he chose not to.

For the last couple of decades, the main tactic of Stratfordians has been simply to ignore the doubters (and the Oxfordians) and to marginalize the whole issue by preserving a chilly silence. Now, clearly feeling the heat, they’re starting to fight back. Contesting Will represents one of the first open counter-attacks.

Meanwhile, in southern Ontario just seven miles east of Stratford, a new controversy is brewing that may end up affecting more lives that the debate over who wrote Shakespeare. We gather (solely from the evidence of a number of lawn signs) that transportation officials are proposing to widen that part of Highway 7/8 that runs through Shakespeare from two lanes to five. (This is the route most folks take to get to the Stratford Festival.) A number of houses and shops are already pretty close to the highway, and some are clearly going to have to be torn down or moved if the project goes through. We sympathize with the locals, but take no sides.

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Arthur Miller’s The Price at Geva Theatre

Arthur Miller

Our first professional play was one of Arthur Miller’s masterpieces, and Emsworth wonders if he’s the only person left in Rochester who remembers it. It was 1973, and a community theater group had arranged to put on Death of a Salesman in the Strasenburgh Planetarium.  

This was theater-in-the-round; the stage was on the central platform out of which projection equipment ordinarily protruded.  Designed for looking at stars up on the ceiling, our seats went back nearly all the way. We’d always assumed that a play would have scenery, but on this tiny, unconventional stage there was only a wooden chair.  There couldn’t have been more than a dozen people in the audience; we have a vague recollection of getting there through a blizzard.  

We found Miller’s play powerfully moving. Was it well-acted? Frankly, we have no idea, although we surely thought so at the time. Still in our teens, we were thoroughly susceptible to the raw emotional power of the tragedy of Willy Loman. And with no prior experience with theater, we didn’t know good acting from bad.  

Arthur Miller’s play The Price opened at Geva Theatre here in Rochester a week or so ago, and we went to see it after accumulating 37 years of life experience and theater-going adventures. The Price was written (and is set) in 1967, nearly two decades after Miller wrote his two best-known plays, Death of a Salesman (1949) and The Crucible (1953), and we were surprised to find that it’s more conventional in some respects than either of those plays.  There are no flashbacks, fantasy scenes, or flirtations with the supernatural, and the entire play takes place in the course of a single morning.  

Richard McWilliams and Carmen Roman as Victor and Esther Franz

The Price is the story of Victor and Walter Franz, two brothers who haven’t seen or spoken to one another in many years. Victor (Richard McWilliams), now 50 years old, is a low-paid policeman from Queens who sacrificed opportunities for higher education to support his father, who was crushed by the stock-market collapse of ’29; Victor has spent much of his unglamorous career doing airport security. He is finally eligible to retire, and his wife Esther (Carmen Roman) is anxious for their “life” to finally begin, but neither of them have any sense what that might mean.  His estranged brother Walter (Tony DeBruno), who made no such sacrifices, has become a well-to-do doctor.  

The play takes place in the attic floor of an old house in Queens where Victor’s and Walter’s father lived until his death some years earlier.  Their father’s furniture and antiques are still there and must finally be removed; Victor has made an appointment with an elderly Yiddish antique dealer, Gregory Solomon (Kenneth Tigar), whose name he found in the yellow pages.  He wants Solomon to appraise and possibly to buy the lot. Technically, the pieces belong to both brothers, but Walter has refused to take Victor’s calls inviting him to come for the appraisal. Victor and Esther hope the pieces will bring enough of a price to launch them comfortably into their new life.  

Kenneth Tigar as the antique dealer Solomon, with Richard McWilliams as Victor Franz

Solomon turns out to be an eccentric, charming, and ultimately frustrating old man; only with the greatest difficulty can Victor, a poor haggler, bring him to place a dollar figure on the pieces. (Victor’s repeated question “But what’s the price?” tests the audience’s patience as well as old Solomon’s; we sense Miller’s nod to the then-trendy theater of the absurd.) Just as Solomon and Victor finally settle on a price, and just as the curtain is about to fall (figuratively speaking; the GeVa stage does not have a curtain) on the first act, Walter unexpectedly walks on.  

The second half of the play belongs mostly to the two brothers, who hash out the grievances and resentments that have separated them for so many years.  Secrets and truths long-repressed spill out at an alarming rate.  Solomon retreats to a back room of the attic, emerging only occasionally to offer solomonic advice to the brothers. 

The Price seemed to us to have less in it than Miller’s more famous plays.  Perhaps the themes simply aren’t as great; The Price is much less complex than, say, Death of a Salesman, which has the same number of characters, and it doesn’t begin to approach the latter play’s emotional intensity.  The playwright intended Victor’s great, apparently unnecessary sacrifice of his prospects as a metaphor for what he viewed as the unnecessary sacrifices America was making in Vietnam.  But the Vietnam war has been over for nearly four decades, and we doubt if many audience members, including Emsworth, would have noticed the metaphor if they hadn’t read the essay in GeVa’s program.  

Still, for an audience member like Emsworth who is far enough along in life to reflect, like Victor, Esther, and Walter, on his choices in life and the value of how he has spent his working life, The Price still has a good deal of resonance. And the acting in this play is very, very good — especially the veteran actor Kenneth Tigar, surely one of Miller’s most memorable characters. Tigar brings an almost unwordly transcendence to his portrayal of the old Yiddish antique dealer.  This show has our solid recommendation.  

Tony DeBruno played Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2009

We were interested to see that Tony DeBruno, who plays Walter,  is a long-time member of the company of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which appears to be the only American classical repertory theater of comparable breadth and quality to the Shaw Festival and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, in Ontario, Canada, which Emsworth faithfully patronizes.  Someday we’d like to pay it a visit.