Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Shakespeare triumphs over time and place -- April 25, 2019 column


Visiting America in the 1830s, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville discovered William Shakespeare in the unlikeliest of places.

“There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare,” de Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America.” "I remember that I read the feudal drama of `Henry V’ for the first time in a log cabin.”

Shakespeare would have celebrated his 455th birthday this month, and people around the world ate cake.

Shakespeare was born around April 23, 1564, and left the earth 52 years, 38 plays and 154 sonnets later, also on April 23 – in 1616.

That we still read, argue over and perform his plays is remarkable for many reasons, not least because the First Folio of his plays wasn’t published until seven years after his death.

American settlers carried only two volumes on their travels west: a Bible and Shakespeare. What better company for their long, lonely journey?

Poet Walt Whitman, critical of Shakespeare as antithetical to the “pride and dignity of the common people,” ultimately came around and acknowledged his debt to the Bard.

“If I had not stood before those poems with uncover’d head, fully aware of their colossal grandeur and beauty of form and spirit, I could not have written `Leaves of Grass,’” Whitman wrote.

How much of our contemporary, throwaway culture will survive 400 years?

In our time of disposable tweets, we’re fortunate and grateful Shakespeare is alive and vibrant in towns and cities coast to coast.

I saw a rollicking performance of “The Comedy of Errors” last Saturday at one of my favorite venues for Shakespeare, the Blackfriars Playhouse at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton.

The performance was hilarious and totally engaging. Do yourself a favor and catch a play at this treasure of a theater, now in its 31st year.

The theater will celebrate Shakespeare’s 455th with a free, family-friendly party this Sunday afternoon.

On Broadway, the acclaimed actor Glenda Jackson is playing King Lear. 

Jackson at 82 is proof there are second – and third -- acts in life. The winner of two Academy Awards, she spent more than two decades as a member of Parliament before returning to the stage.

She, who first performed Shakespeare in 1965, also played Lear in 2016 at the Old Vic theater in London. She told The New York Times he “is the most contemporary dramatist in the world today.”

Shakespeare asks three questions, she said: “Who are we? What are we? Why are we? No one’s come up with sufficiently satisfying answers.”

The Times praised her “powerful and deeply perceptive performance” and said the play “has never felt more vibrantly responsive to the moment, to a crisis in global leadership.”

We wonder whose birthdays future moderns will celebrate. Will Shakespeare still be No. 1 in 2419? Will people in that age know any of our 20th or 21st century politicians, authors, composers or video game developers?

Don’t scoff. A new video game called “Play the Knave” uses virtual reality to perform scenes from Shakespeare. Players control avatars through motion capture cameras and speak lines of the play karaoke style. The game has not been released to the public yet, but teachers are already using it.

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington invited the game’s co-developer, Gina Bloom, an English professor at the University of California, Davis, to give the Shakespeare Birthday lecture last Monday.

In the game, “The Tempest,” Shakespeare’s dramatization of the 1609 shipwreck on the magical island of Bermuda of the Sea Venture, an English ship bound for the Jamestown colony, presents the spirit Ariel as a digital avatar.

So, Shakespeare is constantly adapting and being adapted to new audiences.

The National Endowment for the Arts expanded its Shakespeare in American Communities program to provide grants to theater companies to bring Shakespeare to juvenile justice facilities.

“Evidence has shown that these programs provide positive rehabilitative outcomes and prevention for youth involved in the juvenile justice system,” Mary Anne Carter, acting chairman of the endowment, said. Shakespeare can even help reduce recidivism rates, she said.

Shakespeare truly was, as Ben Jonson wrote in his tribute: “not of an age but for all time.” And for all places.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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