Bard to the Bone

SCR probes Shakespeare controversy

Photo by Cristopher Gross/SCRSummer is Shakespeare season, but resist the urge to reach for your trusty hunting rifle—or, more fittingly, a crossbow—in hopes of picking off every actor who mangles and muffles the Bard's words. Please. We must simply learn to live with the procession of Shakespeare productions that dot the calendar during the hottest months.

This year, however, there is a genuine alternative to generic Shakespeare in the Park and Shakespeare Under the Stars. It's Amy Freed's new play, The Beard of Avon, which opens at South Coast Repertory (SCR) on June 1. The Beard of Avonis a comedic tale that tackles one of the most intense and controversial literary debates of the past 300 years: Who was William Shakespeare, and did he really write all those plays?

The world-premiere production, directed by SCR co-founder David Emmes and featuring a stellar cast, is the keynote play in the theater's fourth-annual Pacific Playwrights Project, a showcase of 10 new plays in late June.

Even without that, The Beard of Avonwould be an event. Consider the source: the last time a Freed play debuted at SCR, it wound up a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama. That was Freedomland,a blisteringly funny and poignant look at a family haunted by the disappearance of a wife and mother. It was one of the best plays ever commissioned by SCR, a theater with quite a pedigree for developing new work by American playwrights.

The Beard of Avonis a far different creature from the funny but emotionally exhausting Freedomland.It's rooted in one of the richest literary mysteries, the centuries-old controversy over the authorship of Shakespeare's plays. Defenders of William Shakespeare, called Stratfordians, zealously defend his reputation. But critics, so-called anti-Stratfordians, have been just as determined to prove that someone else—or a group of someone elses—wrote the famous texts. The anti-Stratfordians, some of whom resorted to robbing graves in the 19th century in desperate attempts to legitimize their obsession, admit that Shakespeare existed; they just don't think a country bumpkin from the sticks could write the plays that are, along with the King James Bible and Stan Lee's work for Marvel Comics in the '60s and early '70s, the greatest written achievement of the English language. The Beard of Avonis a period comedy set in Shakespeare's time (so you can expect SCR's typically lavish costumes and scenic design). We meet many of Shakespeare's contemporaries, and the play glances sidelong at the debate that has raged in the centuries since. But Freed has been careful not to offend either camp.

"It kind of re-imagines Shakespeare and pokes gentle fun at the more conventional bardolatry," Freed said. "But though it's a kind of comedy about the authorship question, I do have to tread carefully because I don't want to make people hate me. But it is a very lively and interesting issue, and it has been ever since it's been around."

Freed claims she was "maniacal" about the subject for a couple of years. She was hooked by a friend, whom she used to ridicule for his obsessive interest in Shakespeare's authenticity. "He was deeply into it and had about 500 books on the subject," said Freed, who lives in San Francisco. "I thought it was the most ludicrous thing I'd ever heard, and I spent all this wonderful time mocking him. But suddenly, I became as bad as he was. I almost drove my husband out of the house."

The first ripples of controversy surfaced in the mid-18th century, when a scholar set out to reconstruct Shakespeare's biography. Upon reaching Stratford, however, the biographer ran into a problem. "No one seemed to remember who Shakespeare was," Freed said. "Shakespeare's son-in-law didn't even mention in his diary that Shakespeare was a writer. There is a huge set of arcane facts, all made more complex by the fact that so much of the biographical information was written by people who turned out to be liars."

The one thing we know for sure is that a William Shakespeare was christened in Stratford in 1564. The rest of his life, supposed or otherwise, plays like an Elizabethan X-Files.A few examples:

There's no record of Shakespeare ever attending school. His family life is shrouded in conjecture. There are seven years—from 1585 to 1592—when there are no official records of his life. No one knows why he retired at the peak of his career, how he died, and why not one person in Stratford saved anything about him. There are only six extant copies of his signature, none of which look the same and all of which spell his last name differently. On the original monument of his grave, Shakespeare was represented as holding a sack of grain. In 1747, the sack was replaced by the quill pen that tourists see today.

A Paul-is-dead-like cult has subsequently sprung up about him. Readers have pored over Shakespeare's texts and even his epitaph, looking for codes, ciphers and cryptograms in an acrostic frenzy. But it can be fun. Try this one at home, which is used by Stratfordians to suggest that not only did Shakespeare write his plays, but he also had a hand in writing something else: look up Psalm 46 in the King James version of the Bible and count 46 words from the beginning of the psalm. You'll find the word "shake." Now count 46 words from the end of the psalm, discounting the last word, Selah. You find the word Spear. The significance? In 1610, when the King James Bible was sent to the printer, Shakespeare was 46. That doesn't prove anything, of course, but it's still a trip.

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