Shakespeare, or not ?


The word “playwright” was not corrupted from the strange notion of
“play-write,” or any other such oddity. The word “playwright” is a
parallel of “shipwright,” “millwright,” “cartwright,” “metalwright,”
“wheelwright,” etc. The word “wright” connects with “wrought” and not with
“write”! A playwright *makes* a play; a playwright does not necessarily
*write* a play.

The sculptor works with stone or metal. The painter works with paint(s)
and canvas or walls. The playwright works with *events*. Artistic events
cannot exist in the abstract; they must be *made*, wrought, in the real
world. Theater is time-based, process-based.

For several centuries Shakespeare, Marlowe and many others have been kept
as prisoners in the post-Baroque Tower of LITERATURE. Theater, and
theater-practice through time, is and has always been a separate art-form.
It ought to be considered in terms of its own norms and modes, and not the
clichés and obsessions of the litterateurs.

Shakespeare went to great pains to prepare his poems for publication. He
utilized decorative borders and other unusual printers’ marks. His book of
poems was printed very well, much better than with most slapdash Tudor or
Elizabethan poetry books.

Nevertheless, Shakespeare did *not* prepare his plays for publication. In
his day, the very idea would have seemed silly, absurd. There was no
tradition of reading plays. Plays, and masques, were intended to be
witnessed, *experienced*, as live events, as living events, not merely read
by some hermetic scholar or lone wolf dilettante.

Later, in the Nineteenth Century, the Romantics invented the notion of “the
genius.” Then it was that Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Lord Byron, Victor
Hugo, Goethe, and other “geniuses” prepared plays for publication, plays to
be read by the solitary reader. When some of these plays were mounted on
one stage or another, they flopped. They flopped because you cannot create
artistic *events* in the abstract. You cannot create *events* apart from
the process of collaborative effort involved in theater. You cannot create
artistic events in a *vacuum*.

Shakespeare’s parents and his daughter were illiterate; they signed
documents with “X.” Shakespeare himself may have been functionally
illiterate, but that in and of itself does *not* constitute a proof that he
was not a playwright.

The oral tradition of transmission was alive and well right into the middle
of the Twentieth Century. Jeremiah Curtin, the father of modern
anthropology, published a great many books of transcripts of stories told
by storytellers from countries all over the world. It was amazing (for me)
to examine the scope and complexity of this entirely memorized, and
conveyed, material. Material conveyed by completely illiterate people. A
person may be illiterate, but that does not necessarily mean that they do
not have a large vocabulary and a very good memory.

I once directed a production of the “Second Quarto” version of ROMEO AND
JULIET, which contains scenes and even characters that do not exist in the
“First Folio” version of the play. I found that the “Second Quarto” of R &
J makes excellent theater. Also, the tomb scene in “Second Quarto” was/is
remarkably austere, zen-like, and devoid of romantic slush.

The Victorian *standardized* versions of R & J, Macbeth, Othello, King
Lear, etc. have little connection to the earliest versions of the
Shakespeare plays. The Victorians were too busy correcting Shakespeare’s
grammar or correcting Shakespeare’s spelling to pay any attention to the
actual theatricality of the plays. Nevertheless, to this day,
secondary-school students and university students buy the Victorian
standardized versions from all the bookshops.

Who was the author of the CHESTER MYSTERY plays, the WAKEFIELD MYSTERY
plays, the DUBLIN MYSTERY plays? I am sure that someone wrote down the
script for each play, a scrivener, perhaps. But who actually devised and
composed the script(s)? Yes, these scripts *are* SCRIPTS. Otherwise they
would have been published as pious meditations in a prayerbook. Why did no
one claim the “authorship” for these scripts? Was it not because everyone
involved in the productions of these plays understood that they were a
*collaborative* effort? (The best theater in human history has always
involved collaborative effort.)

Mr. David Bircumshaw insists that Shakespeare’s immediate contemporaries
did not deny that he was the author of the Shakespeare plays. This is
true. However, it is also true that Shakespeare himself never claimed
authorship of any of the plays. He did claim the poems; he did not claim
the plays. Why? Well, it was because he and everyone else concerned knew
that the plays were the result of collective *collaborative* efforts.

So, Oxford University Press has provided a “by-line” to Christopher Marlowe
as co-author of the three King Henry VI plays. Mr. Bircumshaw responds by
projecting back into the distant past (Shakespeare’s own past) the
Byronesque doctrine of “authorship,” the Byronesque doctrine of “genius,”
the Byronesque doctrine of “inspiration” of *perfect* writing, even though
the Elizabethans/Jacobeans had no knowledge, understanding, or interest in
such notions.

Mr. Bircumshaw ignores performance-practices. His theories are
ahistorical. During the Renaissance and Baroque eras, soloists, in *all* of
the performing arts, were expected to provide their own “cadenzas,” whether
by improvisation or composition, it did not matter. (It was also a way for
the soloist to *distinguish* performing skills and abilities.) With
musicians, such improvized cadenzas were still being presented as late as
Mozart and even early Beethoven.

Similarly with actors in the theater, even into the Nineteenth Century,
Garrick, Edmund Kean and the first Tyrone Power were well-known for making
*riffs* off the soliloquies in the “Shakespeare” plays. Kean, a distant
relative of mine, was known for replacing entirely the soliloquies with
monologues of his own design and composition.

Sarah Bernhardt was well-known for her *riffs* off the soliloquies by
Racine, Corneille, Molière, Victor Hugo, etc. In old-age, having lost her
good-looks, with only one leg and speaking nothing but French, she toured
the United States and reportedly mesmerized audiences everywhere.

Someone indicated that no one had ever identified Richard Burbage as the
“author” of the “Shakespeare” plays. Wrong! I insist that Richard Burbage
was as much the playwright as was William Shakespeare.

To the Victorian litterateurs, and more recent litterateurs, the riffs and
cadenzas and improvisations with the “Shakespeare” plays throughout history
are nothing but blasphemy. However, for theater *artists*, what the
litterateurs have done to Shakespeare is the real blasphemy!

Yes, indeed …


Séamas Cain



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