OK, everyone, who is America’s greatest playwright? Some would say Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill or August Wilson. They would all be wrong. Worthy as this gang is, they are all running far behind Mr. William Shakespeare.
It’s true he lacks the proper birth certificate to officially qualify for this position, but as the birthers are all too happy to explain, this little problem hasn’t amounted to much in practice. And in practice there is absolutely no contest. Some persuasive evidence has been gathered in a new anthology called Shakespeare in America, a collection of writing about Shakespeare since the birth of our nation. From this, I have re-remembered how Shakespeare has been with us from the start.
George Washington left the wrangling at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to see a production of The Tempest, and Alexis de Tocqueville, travelling through America in the 1830’s noted, “There is scarcely a pioneer hut in which the odd volume of Shakespeare cannot be found.”
In 1846, down in Corpus Christi, where the American army was assembled to provoke a war with Mexico, the commanding general oversaw the building of an 800 seat theatre to distract the idle troops. The officers built the sets, painted the scenery and took on the roles. James Longstreet (later a Confederate General) was cast as Desdemona in Othello. But he was too tall for the part, so the shorter 5’8” 135 pound Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant was given the role instead, though he too was replaced by a professional actress when the officer playing Othello complained it was hard to “pump up any sentiment with Grant dressed as Desdemona.” I wish I had directed this fabulous train wreck—I would have made sure Grant stayed in his dress.
Shakespeare was crucial and ubiquitous throughout America’s 19th century. John Quincy Adams wrote an essay on Desdemona in which he concluded the moral of the play was “that the intermarriage of black and white blood is a violation of the law of nature.” The Philadelphia National Gazette and the Georgetown Metropolitan then sharply criticized Adams for his views. Throughout the century, Shakespeare was on stage as part of our national debates on race, anti-semitism and gender equality.
He was a factor in present in national tragedy too. John Wilkes Booth justified his assassination of Lincoln by identifying with Shakespeare’s Brutus, the enemy of oppressive tyranny. Young people were speaking Shakespeare all over the land, required to memorize extracts from the enormously influential McGuffey’s Readers, which had sold 122 million copies by 1922. A German visitor in 1887 concluded, “there
is certainly no land on the whole earth in which Shakespeare and the Bible are held in such high esteem.” Willa Cather, who also served as a theatre critic, summed it up when she wrote that Shakespeare “belongs to two nations now . . . one always fancies if he had been born just a few centuries later he would have been an American.”
You might think the American rage for Shakespeare died down a bit after the 19th century, but in fact he has been even more deeply absorbed into our national bloodstream. Few of us were required to memorize passages—though Bill Clinton had to learn 100 lines from Macbeth at his school in Hot Springs, Arkansas (he admitted he was “not overjoyed” when making his first acquaintance with the Bard). Shakespeare is still studied at school of course, but it’s in the theatre itself where he is now inescapable, and especially at this time of year.
About 125 American theatres are presenting Shakespeare this summer; he is alive and in 3-D everywhere. And most American Shakespeare is living large in the great outdoors—in replicas of open air Elizabethan playhouses, in amphitheaters, in parks and in parking lots—as well as in a certain tent erected out at Rock Ledge Ranch.
It wasn’t always thus. After two decades of playing in the parks, we tried moving Shakespeare indoors when the Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater opened 11 years ago. At last we had parking, a weatherproof stage, comfy seats and real restrooms. It was a no brainer. We produced six summers of Shakespeare and some great plays there. But despite the increased comfort and the enhanced production values, we noticed enthusiasm for Shakespeare had plateaued. So when we had the chance to bring our tent out of the warehouse and put it up at Rock Ledge Ranch, we jumped at it. And guess what? Shakespeare made a huge comeback. It turns out that folks will accept the mud, the heat, the cold, the rain, the wind, long walks in the dark to the restrooms, the more minimal production elements and less cushy seats so long as they can get their Shakespeare in the park.
I was thinking about all this watching The Tempest with a large crowd at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival last week in the outdoor Mary Rippon theatre in Boulder. There were obstacles aplenty: it was a late afternoon matinee, and so the elaborate lighting was washed out, and much of the production was too exposed. The set looked like a Treasure Island leftover, the pageant of the gods were tricked out in large cheap puppetry, and Ariel performed on a piece of hanging white cloth like a pole dancer auditioning for the Bada Bing club. But none of this really mattered. We were there to hear and see Shakespeare, and we did too. By a happy accident the sun went down by the last act, the lights came on, the set looked like a lovely storybook, and the island grew more enchanted as the play drew to its magical close. Sometimes it seems as if the more challenging the elements, the better the Shakespeare experience. People still talk about the night in King Lear when the storm rolled in just as the king went mad in on the heath, a divine piece of celestial timing. They still remember sitting in the back rows and pushing up the tent to dump the hail accumulated in the roof channels.
There are limits of course—we did lose a performance to last summer’s mudslide. Yet on the whole Shakespeare not only braves the elements, but actually welcomes them. It turns out Shakespeare and the extremes of global warming go together, as our play says, “like winter and rough weather.”
Why is this so, and especially in America? I think it’s partly because Shakespeare is both disarming and expansive when played in the open air. There is really no room for snobbery and frou-frou in a tent. As a review of our tent show in Shakespeare Quarterly 30 years ago noted, ”the make-up of the audience was quite different from that of the Colorado Springs Opera festival. There were lots of kids and lots of old people; everybody was in shirtsleeves; and the atmosphere was much more suggestive of a small circus than a ritual homage to the Bard.” Shakespeare outdoors is downright democratic, erasing class boundaries, welcoming everyone equally. On a fine night, and there are many of these, his words bloom, opening like lotus flowers, and Shakespeare’s enchantments seem entirely at one with nature, sharing a common variety, beauty and power.
You doubtless know we are producing As You Like It this summer, a great and popular play which has always found a home in America. It features Rosalind, one of Shakespeare’s most appealing women. Though they were all originally played by boys, and often dressed as boys, Shakespeare’s heroines are both feminine and appealing. The feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote about these women and concluded, “As we review them all, from best-known Rosalind, through all the fair ladies, wise and pure or too gaily disposed, it is their wit, wisdom, courage, ingenuity, perseverance, nobility, cheerfulness, devotion and high duty that we love —in a word, their humanness.”
I have every reason to hope our new As You Like It will be even better than our previous fine production. It’s a play about people—all human, unique and delightful —fleeing oppression and finding love in the open air, in the Forest of Arden. So Rock Ledge Ranch is the best possible place to set our scene. Freedom is the great theme of the play, as it is of America itself. The natural world sets everyone free, and liberty in Shakespeare’s comedy always leads to love, confusion, absurdity and “strange capers.” We think you will appreciate all this and more attending our national playwright where he is most at home—in our democratic tent, in the great outdoors, in the land of the free.