A MASTERPIECE, OR NOT?
On Sunday, 11 December 2016 and Sunday, 18 December 2016, *PBS*, as a
“Great Performance,” broadcast the First Part and the Second Part of King
Henry VI on Masterpiece Theatre. The publicity for this production,
overseen by Rebecca Eaton for PBS, described it as a work by William
Shakespeare. Indeed, “the scope, the daring and the savage headlong rush
of the poet’s imagination” were praised again and again.
Oxford University Press, with its “New Oxford Shakespeare,” a landmark
project that was published by the OUP in October 2016, has
that Christopher Marlowe was co-author with William Shakespeare of King
Henry VI in its multiple parts. Using old-fashioned scholarship and
21st-century computerized tools to analyze texts, the edition’s
international scholars have contended that Shakespeare’s collaboration with
other playwrights was far more extensive than has been realized until now.
Henry VI, Parts One, Two and Three are among as many as 17 plays that they
now believe contain writing by other people, sometimes several hands. It
more than doubles the figure in the previous “New Oxford Shakespeare,”
published 30 years ago. Marlowe’s hand in parts of the Henry VI plays has
been suspected since the 18th century but this marks the *first* prominent
billing in an edition of Shakespeare’s collected works.
The “New Oxford Shakespeare” is to Shakespeare what the “Oxford English
Dictionary” is to the English language itself: definitive.
The broadcast the last two Sundays over PBS included a number of “famous”
actors, including Hugh Bonneville, Judi Dench, Michael Gambon, Keeley
Hawes, Sophie Okonedo, and Tom Sturridge. However, they were ill-prepared
despite their fame. Their performances were stilted and clichéd. They
“walked through” their parts, without inspiration, without sparkle, without
thought. Their movements and rituals alone were nothing but mindless
mumbo-jumbo. How would it be possible for young people today to experience
this work as a masterpiece since the actors themselves had no understanding
of it as such?
Not long ago I attended a performance of “Ophelia” in the theater of Saint
Michael’s College at Colchester, Vermont. This play, derived from
Shakespeare, was a *collaborative* production by a number of theater
students at Saint Michael’s. (*Real* theater has always been
collaborative!) This production was alive, riveting, spontaneous,
thoughtful. When will PBS abandon clichés and conventionalities from
England and present living theater in America today? Or, when will PBS
present the living theater of Canada, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, New
Zealand, Australia and India? Not the fakery of “commercial” pastiche from
England but authentic and truly imaginative theater!
I do agree that the text of this “Three Part” work of King Henry VI is a
masterpiece, but it *is* a masterpiece by Marlowe as well as Shakespeare.
Was there not a moral and a cultural responsibility for Rebecca Eaton to
acknowledge that the OUP for the *first* time in centuries has
Marlowe as fully the co-author of King Henry VI in its several parts? Is
authenticity of creativity not an issue? Is artistic credit, then and now,
now and then, not an issue? Has Eaton drifted so far into the swamp of
romanticism of ordinary England TV fare passed off as “classics” that she
cannot tell the difference between them?