There's a Will
Why a Shakespeare Festival doesn't
always translate into much Shakespeare
By Lou Harry
Gadfly March 1999
of my favorite books on the world of theater is
Five & Eighty Hamlets
(New Amsterdam Books), an obsessive volume by
J. C. Trewin. This English critic has been Dane‑watching
since 1922, catching a staggering four score and
five productions of Hamlet: Prince of
a lifetime of Elsinore haunting, Ophelia maddening,
Polonius jabbing and To‑Be‑Or‑Not‑To‑Be
reciting, Trewin offers a virtual who's who of
twentieth‑century British theater history.
Among the Danes he has witnessed are Jonathan
Pryce, Richard Chamberlain, Roger Rees, Laurence
Olivier, Nicol Williamson, David Warner, Derek
Jacobi, Alec Guinness, Michael Redgrave, Tom Courtenay,
Maurice Evans, Albert Finney, John Gielgud, Ben
Kingsley, Ian McKellen, Raymond Massey, Peter
O'Toole, Michael Redgrave and Paul Scofield. And
those are just some of the more recognizable names.
it's jealousy more than pissiness. Even after
a couple of decades of aggressive theatergoing,
I'm still two and eighty Hamlets behind Trewin.
Even if my pace increases a bit, it's still likely
that I'll only see another half dozen or so before
I shuffle off this mortal coil. Why do I care?
is a damn good play, that's why—possibly
the best that ever was (yeah, I know, I'm really
going out on a limb here). It is also both familiar
and elusive—and has steadfastly avoided
being defined by one production.
blame the gap between Trewin and myself in large
part on the conditions of my birth: That is, I
was born American. We get surprisingly few homegrown
Hamlets on these shores, given how actors claim
to covet the part. New Yorkers have it a little
better, and there are isolated pockets around
the country with significant Shakespeare festivals
or theater (Ashland, Oregon; Washington, D.C.;
Montgomery, Alabama), but for the majority of
us, the chance to see a Shakespeare production
worth watching is dictated by the whims of a few
regional professional theaters. These regionals
sometimes throw one classic work into their mix
to legitimize themselves and attract lucrative
school groups. But that slot can be filled by
Shakespeare, Moliere, Shaw or even Arthur Miller.
In Indianapolis, there hasn't been a mainstage
Shakespeare production for three seasons, not
since the Indiana Repertory Theatre's artistic
director Libby Appel put up a strong version of
The Tempest before leaving town to run the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Since then, there's been a targeted‑to‑teens
truncated Midsummer Night's Dream,
a couple of collegiate Twelfth Nights
and little else.
of us Midwesterners lucky enough to get an occasional
are still unlikely ever to see a professional
company of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Coriolanus, Pericles, All's
Well That Ends Well
or, my personal favorite, Love's Labours
though a city may claim to hold a "Shakespeare
Festival," that doesn't automatically translate
into a heavy dose of Shakespeare for patrons.
The Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, for instance,
stages one show a year (this year, it's The
Taming of the Shrew).
The Texas Shakespeare Festival in East Texas has
a schedule of five shows but only two of them
are by Shakespeare (this year, Two Gentlemen
and Antony and Cleopatra). The Florida Shakespeare Theatre doesn't have any
of its titular playwright's works on the schedule,
unless you count the satiric Compleat
Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged). Funny stuff, but not the real deal.
quick check of some educated, occasionally theatergoing
peers revealed that none had seen more than three
Shakespeare plays since high school—and
many didn't see any then. It's a situation difficult
for me to fathom, since I caught the Shakespeare
bug early. An English teacher, Ms. Struble, had
us read Hamlet aloud,
taking parts, so that we could at least hear the
play. From my boyhood home at the tip of south
Jersey, there was little chance to encounter Shakespeare.
Hell, we didn't even have a McDonald's until I
was in seventh grade. To compensate, I weaseled
into school trips to a Taming of the
Shrew at McCarter Theatre in Princeton and a landmark Othello in New York.
then, I have yet to live in a city with a significant
output of Shakespeare, so I've had to play catch
as catch can, catching some pretty terrific stuff
along the way. Among it has been James Earl Jones
and Christopher Plummer in the aforementioned
Othello, Kevin Kline doing Hamlet in New York, a magical Love's Labours
Lost at the
Shakespeare Theatre in D.C. and The
the Indiana Repertory Theatre. I also frequented
the once‑a‑season Shakespeare pick
by Philadelphia's Arden Theatre Company and the
similar occasional offering by the now‑defunct
Philadelphia Drama Guild and the still lively
People's Light & Theatre Company.
above productions and troupes were performed by
Americans. That's not necessarily a bad thing,
of course; an English pedigree is by no means
mandatory in making the words of Shakespeare come
alive. Nor is it really an option for most people.
As much as we hear of the National Theatre and
the Old Vic, there are only very rare chances
on these shores to see anything in the canon voiced
by Shakespeare's countrymen.
film, of course, the Brits rule, with Kenneth
Branagh and Laurence Olivier dominating. Many
libraries have rarely checked-out copies of the
productions created for the BBC series The
Shakespeare Plays, which is the way to go if you absolutely must see
Cymbeline. But I've found televised Shakespeare to be nearly
impossible to sit through because of the myriad
distractions and small scale. Although I taped
it during the recent public television broadcast,
I have yet to commit to a full screening of Twelfth
Night, starring Helen Hunt. Shakespeare books‑on‑tape
are even more difficult to extract pleasure from
(although I've enjoyed hearing people like John
Gielgud talk about Shakespeare on tape).
less effective—if I dare pissing off every
English teacher within sight of these pages—is
reading Shakespeare. My personal, slightly arrogant
rule is never to set eye on Shakespeare's words
unless I've already seen the play staged. For
all its extrapolation from a few shaky facts,
if the film Shakespeare in Love
teaches us anything, it's that these plays were
not written to be read silently. They were, for
the most part, amazingly complex and beautiful
creations that needed life breathed into them.
Be honest—have you ever tried to read a
Shakespeare play that you haven't seen? It just
doesn't work. Characters are known by three different
names. Ranks are impossible to sort out. You flip
to the footnotes and lose the rhythms. The jokes
not to say that the plays can't be understood.
Shakespeare hand-delivers compelling plots and
interesting characters to his interpreters. But
he does demand interpreters. He requires skilled
artists to make the poetry, the drama and the
pageantry have an impact on an audience. In the
right hands, the glorious, intricate language
does not need to be understood line‑by‑line
to hold the audience at attention. That's what
novice audiences need to be told. When my then-seven-year-old
daughter and I went to see The Tempest,
I gave her a pre‑show rundown on the Act
I action, let her know that it's perfectly okay
not to understand most of the dialogue, and told
her to have a good time. She ended up enjoying
the play far more than the middle‑aged couples
behind us who couldn't get past the wordplay.
was, in hindsight, the perfect first exposure
to Shakespeare for her. There was the text, of
course, but there were also a director who knew
what she was doing, a cast that could handle it
and designers who knew how to capture all the
world on a stage. Good Shakespeare, like the better
barbecued potato chips, should make you crave
more, whether the same piece or something else
from the Folios.
more than the others, but, like Trewin, I don't
feel I'm nearly done with him. Each time I've
been in Hamlet's presence, I've felt the rush
of theater history. Each time, I've felt the greatness
of the play. Each time, I've been pulled into
the drama. Each time, I've felt the vast space
that Shakespeare has left to his interpreters—the
room to create, to make inferences, to spotlight,
to twist. Each time I've been pissed that there's
not more at my disposal.
in Trewin's book, he quotes a bit of light verse
by P .G. Wodehouse:
Hamlet here and Hamlet there
And Hamlet on next week.
An actor not in Hamlet is regarded as a freak.
America, an actor undertaking Hamlet is regarded more as a fool than as a freak. Which of
our "name" actors have given it a shot
on these shores lately? Ralph Fiennes gave it
a go on Broadway, more power to him. Kevin Kline
made a run at it twice at the Public Theatre (I
caught the first show, widely considered the inferior,
and was still enthralled). The media mocked Keanu
Reeves when he dared to try Hamlet in
Canada a few seasons back. I say, bravo. If actors
in America had any spine, doing Hamlet would be a requisite. Plenty of regional theaters around
the country would welcome Eric Stoltz, Robert
Downey, Jr., Johnny Depp or Will Smith. I'd even
tolerate Leonardo DiCaprio if it meant that American
actors were willing to put a single film deal
aside and risk falling flat on their faces. And
if it meant I'd have more of a chance of being
in the audience.