Feature: Ambitious Task

Feature: Ambitious Task

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A Shakespeare lover sets out to see all of the Bard’s plays

Marin Shakespeare's Macbeth
‘Macbeth’ has been one of the many Shakespeare plays staged by Marin Shakespeare Company over the years. Photo by Steven Underwood.

By David Templeton

It is generally accepted that William Shakespeare—aka the Immortal Bard, aka the Upstart Crow, aka the Sweet Swan of Avon, aka the greatest playwright the world has ever known—wrote 37 plays during his lifetime, which ended exactly 400 years ago last April 23.

He possibly wrote more. Possibly a lot more. Possibly even a play called The Two Noble Kinsmen. Though there’s still an argument about that one. As I shall reveal. But all of that said, there are at least 37 Shakespeare plays, for certain. They are commonly known as Shakespeare’s  canon (the canon).

I was 21 years old when I set myself the task of seeing every single play in the canon—even the bad ones. Even Cymbeline. Even Henry VIII. Even Timon of Athens, which I’d heard was basically “unstageable.”

I would do that one, too. Basically, if Shakespeare wrote it, I wanted to see it. And no, movie adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays did not count—though to this day I still mark Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet, with Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, as a major turning point in my life, because, well … because Olivia Hussey.

I was nine years old at the time, watching the film at a drive-in theater in Glendora, part of a double feature with something called Battle Beneath the Earth. I can’t even remember that one. But I do remember Romeo and Juliet. And though I could only barely fathom the meaning of the words, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep,” I knew upon hearing them that they were somehow kind of sexy and appealing and beautiful, and that Olivia Hussey-as-Juliet was totally worth, you know, dying for.

But where was I? Oh, right. The canon.

At the time, I’d only seen a handful of Shakespeare’s plays performed live. The first, for the record, was Richard III—or Dick 3, as I affectionately came to know it. That production, notable for its spirited sword fights and unconvincing ghost effects, was performed by students from the theater department at University of California, Irvine, in Southern California. Three months after being dazzled by the language of Dick 3, I caught a production of Macbeth, starring a young Danny Glover, at the Actor’s Theatre Los Angeles. That production was set in a post-apocalyptic future, with Scotland transformed into a bombed-out shopping mall. It was awesome.

In quick succession, I saw professional productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet, and was hungry for more. By then, I had fully recognized that among my other major life’s goals—becoming a screenwriter, winning an Oscar, meeting Olivia Hussey—I would somehow, someday, experience all 37 of the Bard’s plays. It was a goal I believed I might conceivably accomplish within nine or 10 years, possibly completing the canon by the neat-and-tidy age of 30.

It took 26 whole years longer than that. But last July, up in Ashland, Oregon—home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF)—my impossible literary-nerdy dream came true as I crossed off one final play title from the long list. The show? Timon of Athens.

It was not, as advertised, “unstageable.” It was, in fact, quite grippingly directed by Amanda Dehnert. But it was very dark—the tragic tale of a generous Athenian who loses faith in humanity after giving away all of his money, and finding that none of his former beneficiaries will bankroll his recovery. In the OSF production, there was a whole lot of the great actor Anthony Heald (Silence of the Lambs, Boston Public) wandering the stage in his underwear, rolling about in large piles of garbage, then hanging himself. It was also awesome.

Best of all, as I stepped out of the theater into the warm Oregon sunshine, I carried with me the heady, giddy delight of having just completed a remarkably ambitious task, one that most theater fans never even attempt, and very few ever actually accomplish.

My giddiness, unfortunately, did not last long.

The next day, I met Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, a literature instructor whose bona fides include his being the Ronni Lacroute Chair in Shakespeare Studies at Linfield College, and also Scholar in Residence at the Portland Shakespeare Project. He was in Ashland leading a group of school alumni, many of whom were in town for the very same reason I was.

“A lot of the folks I’ve brought with me are excited for Timon, because now they can cross it off their list,” explained Pollack-Pelzner. “One or two of them will complete the canon with this afternoon’s performance. Though I have to say, as a Shakespeare scholar, there are a number of reasons why Timon of Athens is an exciting play to see, separate from its ‘bucket-list’ quality.”

“So,” I asked, “you’re not one of those who count Timon as one of Shakespeare’s ‘bad plays?’”

“Actually, I’m fascinated by which plays we think of as Shakespeare’s ‘good plays’ at different times in history,” he replied, taking a seat on a bench on “the bricks,” the outdoor courtyard surrounded by OSF’s three separate theaters. “Right now, Hamlet is the one play that most modern scholars think of as Shakespeare’s best work. But it didn’t seem to have been thought of that way for at least its first 200 years or so. It was performed. But it was never thought of as the supreme Shakespeare tragedy until right around 1800 or so, when writers and critics of the Romantic period started to value such things as individuality, and alienation, and ‘interior monologue,’ as great qualities in a work of art. Many of those things—Prince Hamlet’s extreme sense of self-involvement, the play’s over-emphasis on the interior life of one character, its strange mix of comedy and drama—those things had always made the play seem weird, and sort of sloppy and weak. But, those virtues suddenly being valued rather than scorned, Hamlet suddenly seemed brilliant.”

According to Pollack-Pelzner, many other of Shakespeare’s “good plays,” were also once seen as the flip-opposite of “good.”

“People used to hate King Lear,” he said. “They thought it was unperformable as written, and way too bleak. It wasn’t until after the horrors of WWII that people began to appreciate Shakespeare’s vision of a world torn apart by madness in the seats of power.”

Timon, ironically, was once a very popular play.

“For what it’s worth, it was Karl Marx’s favorite Shakespeare play,” Pollack-Pelzner said with a smile. “He thought it was a brilliant articulation of the pernicious power of money, a condemnation of how the pursuit of money becomes a god to many people. I actually think this is a great time for Timon to reemerge, as the culture talks openly about economics and wasteful spending and the power of money to transform social relationships.”

Pollack-Pelzner adds that Timon’s star has been rising around the world ever since the global financial crisis of 2007-2008.

“Suddenly, Timon of Athens feels ripped from the headlines,” he remarked. “It now feels uncomfortably contemporary.”

So far, so good. A nice conversation with a guy who clearly loves Shakespeare as deeply as I do. But then, things got weird. When I informed Pollack-Pelzner that I had just completed the canon myself, he smiled the gentle smile of a man who’s become accustomed to letting people down gently.

“Well, as a Shakespeare professor, I have to say, OK, you think you’ve completed the canon—but what are you

Luisa Frasconi and Dameion Brown were the stars of Marin Shakespeare Company’s production of ‘Othello’ last year. Photo by Steven Underwood.

calling the canon?”

“Um, you know, the 37 plays that Shakespeare wrote,” I replied, fully aware that some purists consider The Two Noble Kinsmen to be Shakespeare’s 38th play, but confident that I could safely leave it off the list. None other than Bill Rauch, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, had assured me of it a year previously, when he announced that Timon of Athens would be one of the plays that would kick off OSF’s commitment to present all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays between 2015 and 2025.

I believe the way I put the question was, “I hope to see all of Shakespeare’s plays before I die, but I still have to see Timon and possibly The Two Noble Kinsmen. So, when I see Timon next year, do I have to keep going until someone does Noble Kinsmen, or can I go ahead and die?”

“See Timon of Athens, he said with a laugh. “Then you can die. Shakespeare might have written a few paragraphs of Two Noble Kinsmen, but that hardly counts. The official stance of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is that Shakespeare wrote all or most of 37 plays—and Two Noble Kinsmen is not one of them.”

“Them’s fightin’ words,” said Pollack-Pelzner, when I shared this anecdote. “We have really good evidence that Shakespeare collaborated on a lot of plays, not just at the beginning and ending of his career, as we’d once thought. Some believe he contributed to, or wrote, several other plays not generally considered part of the canon.

“He might have been a hired gun on Sir Thomas More,” Pollack-Pelzner added, in reference to a play commonly attributed to Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle. “And then there are the ‘lost plays, like Cardenio, which we know Shakespeare wrote, but no longer have a script for, or Love’s Labour’s Won, a possible sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost, which is referred to in several sources, but we don’t have a script for either. Some suggest that was another title for the play that became Much Ado About Nothing.

“So,” my articulate bubble-burster continued, “the issue of completing is, for me, never quite a final process, because we can never be sure when we’ve reached the true boundary of the canon.”

Complicating the question, Pollack-Pelzner added, is the awareness that early on in his career—when no one knew or cared who William Shakespeare was—he may have allowed theater owners to slap a more popular playwright’s name on some early work. Conversely, later in his life, when he owned his own theater and his name had become golden, he may have allowed his “brand” to be applied to plays he was producing, but had little creative input on.

“It makes it very complicated to really know what’s what,” he said. “But it doesn’t stop any of us from having plenty of great fun, seeing as many of Shakespeare’s plays—or his possible plays—as we possibly can.”

Hmmmm. I guess I can’t die yet.

Or can I? For what it’s worth—professor Pollack-Pelzner’s excellent argument aside—there are still plenty who hold to the view, as I had not so long ago done myself, that there is too much speculation and uncertainty about who wrote what, to be able to convincingly claim those other plays—the Shakespeare “Apocrypha,” if you will—as deserving of being called part of the canon.

“I’ve definitely completed the canon, and I’ve never seen any of those plays,” said Eddie Wallace, Associate Director of Communications for OSF. Convinced that one can comfortably separate the canon from the Apocrypha, Wallace said that he completed his own Shakespeare canon in 2012, when he saw Henry V, one of the Bard’s most popular plays. “That’s an odd one to complete the canon with, I know,” he said, “since it’s produced so often—but somehow I always missed it. I had seen the Kenneth Branagh movie version.”

“But the movies don’t count, of course,” I pointed out.

“So I’ve been told,” Wallace said with a nod. “And I really wanted to see a live presentation of all of them, anyway. It was a big moment, for me, I have to say. I’ve devoted my life—first as an actor and then later as a Shakespeare Festival administrator—to promoting the works of the Bard. And it did feel really, really important to see all of them.”

It’s for that reason, he continued, that companies like OSF, and a handful of others around the globe, have committed themselves to presenting all of the canon—and not just the most popular ones. The 2017 season, for what it’s worth, includes a mix of both: Julius Caesar, and Henry IV, Part One (which opened in February), plus The Merry Wives of Windsor (opening in June) and Henry IV, Part Two (opening in July).

The two Henry IV plays, Wallace acknowledged, could possibly complete the canon for many who’ve never found a company willing to stage them. And since they are the plays where the character of Falstaff first appeared, there is a pleasant symmetry in getting to see Merry Wives too, since Shakespeare invented that story to give one of his most popular characters extra life.

“You can’t write off the lesser works of any playwright or novelist or filmmaker or musical group,” Wallace said. “What doesn’t speak to you at age 20 might speak to you very strongly in your 50s. When I think of the bands that I’ve been passionate about in my life—Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin and Rush, to name a few—there’s no way that I would not want to find and listen to every album they ever made.

“So,” he added, “for anyone who expresses a love, or even just a like, for Shakespeare, and if you have a chance to see all of them, then why not? Arguably the best playwright ever? Why wouldn’t you want to?”

Well, as a lover of Shakespeare, myself, one who’s actually completed the entire canon—yep, I’ve decided to just go with it—I can say that there is a special feeling that comes from claiming the “canon completion” badge.

But still, there is a quiet voice that has begun to question whether my Shakespeare-watching work is really done.

It belongs to Lesley Currier, Managing Director of Marin Shakespeare Company. She, it turns out, has seen all of the canon also. Except, she says, for one.

“I’ve seen all of them,” Currier recently told me. “All of them but Two Noble Kinsmen. It just seems like it should be included.”

Currier, apparently agreeing with those who believe that any trace of Shakespeare’s DNA makes a play worth perusing, points out that as scholarly research deepens around the world, we are learning more about the Bard all the time.

“There are now, I think, seven plays that scholars believe Shakespeare had a hand in writing,” Currier said, “including The Spanish Tragedy. That gory, revenge-filled epic—which Marin Shakespeare staged a few years ago—is traditionally credited to Thomas Kyd, but bears a strong resemblance to Shakespeare’s bloody Titus Andronicus.”

Ultimately, offering a variation on Wallace’s point about one’s favorite bands, Currier thinks that if you like the work of William Shakespeare, it just makes sense to see it all—even if the Bard only changed a line or two. And reading such works is not enough.

“It’s always best,” reminded Currier, “to see a live performance, by skilled actors who have studied the play and the characters, and can bring them to life with intelligence and passion.”

Speaking of passion, it’s possible that I may have just stumbled into a new one.

I’ve actually seen The Spanish Tragedy. If it was, indeed, partially written by Shakespeare, then perhaps I’ve actually already begun my next theatrical pursuit—seeing all of the Apocrypha on stage, in a theater. It’s not going to be easy.

It might be possible to find a production of The Two Noble Kinsmen, but what about the others? What about the lost plays?

It’s possible that they might actually turn up in some dusty archive. And when they do, some enterprising theater company will certainly stage them. And canon completers like me will be there to watch it.

Apparently, I really can’t die yet. I might have to live for a long, long time.

To read some of David Templeton’s reviews from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, click here

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