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.

Among the other writers floated as possible authors of the plays included Francis Bacon (who is credited with inventing literary ciphers), Christopher Marlowe and even Queen Elizabeth. Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud doubted Shakespeare's authenticity. So did Walt Whitman and Malcolm X. Hell, in 1989, Muammar Qadhafi even weighed in on the debate, claiming that Shakespeare was a 16th-century Arab sheik named Zubayr bin William.

In other words, fascinating stuff. But does it really matter?

Well, if you're a theater lover, or literary-minded, or a conspiracy buff, or a history expert, or a Libyan terrorist sponsor, its attraction is self-explanatory. If, like Freed, you're a writer intrigued by the creative process, it's also obvious.

"I've always had a very, very strong fascination with how people come to be incredibly creative writers, how they master the language and emotion and imagery," she said. "How do you become someone who uses 21,000 words with that kind of confidence and fluidity and ease if you're half-educated and more of a school-of-life person?"

Freed recognizes, however, that there are deeper layers in the authenticity debate than merely her private exploration of genius.

One of those layers has to do with class. Extreme defenders of Shakespeare's salt-of-the-earth origins have "turned him into the literary equivalent of Jesus, with the same trappings," Freed said. "Born almost in a manger in Stratford, kind to animals, ascending to be the father of Western poetry without any help." That notion obviously doesn't sit well with those who believe genius is a product of breeding.

"Over the years, every time an alternative Shakespeare has been proposed, he has represented the ruling aristocracy," Freed said. "There's probably truth to the accusation of the Stratfordian orthodox that many people—for various reasons of snobbery and ancestry—have historically refused to accept that a lower-class person was able to write these plays."

Another layer in the authenticity controversy concerns one of the basic tenets of classical liberalism: the assumption that the individual is paramount. Some have argued, quite convincingly, that Shakespeare was the first writer to fully articulate the concept of the self as a being unto itself. Shakespeare's characters are remarkable for their sense of self-comprehension, their ability to look inward. He created the inner monologue in literature. He invented Freud.

"That's the difference between Shakespeare and Marlowe: the ability of his characters to reflect upon themselves, to reveal the interior part of the psychology, their doubts and fears and cowardice," Freed said. "There was nobody else like him in the English language. It was like a huge curtain opening up."

Traditionally, Shakespeare's keenly self-aware characters have been used as a measure of his insight into the human condition. By extension, Shakespeare is often hailed for his great compassion and humanitarianism. So if the architect of this concept of the self were actually revealed to be a pampered, profligate aristocrat (such as the Earl of Oxford, who is the reigning alternative candidate), what would that say about this pillar of Western thought, which places such supreme importance on the individual?

Maybe it would say nothing at all. But that's what is so fascinating about the whole debate. Much like the Bible, or the Tarot, or the entrails of a disemboweled chicken, you can find whatever you're looking for in Shakespeare, whether you're reading his words, studying his life or exploring the many conspiracy theories that swirl about both.

So what does Freed believe? She isn't saying. She intimates that this isn't an anti-Stratfordian play, but she still confesses to an obsession with understanding how a relatively unschooled commoner could have created such a monumental body of work.

But while she won't say what side of the debate she's on, she does issue a warning: "If you start reading about this [authenticity controversy], you'll go mad," she says. "Trust me."

The Bard of Avon at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5500 and (714) 708-5555. Opens June 1 (sold out); Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m. Through July 1. $18-$49.

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