In Love With Shakespeare

By Philip Pearce

IN LOVE WITH SHAKESPEARE, Howard Burnham’s tribute to Will of Stratford on his 457th birthday, is a total delight. The actor doesn’t take on the persona of his subject, he offers a more or less chronological parade of the sages, the pundits, the pedants, the kooks, the “improvers” and the appreciators who spoke and wrote about this famous April 23 birthday boy.  

The performance starts with an invitation to “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” via the gangster duet from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate and it’s all playful fun and informed insight from there to the closing credits.    

There’s a well-earned vote of thanks to Shakespearean colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell, without whose dogged determination to collect and collate a messy mountain of scripts and scraps and production notes into a First Folio we wouldn’t have had much if any Shakespeare to read, perform or delight in.

The new show’s action covers generous tributes from devoted contemporaries like Ben Jonson and brickbats from disgruntled rivals like Robert Greene, renowned only for labeling Shakespeare a fly-by-night “Upstart crow” and a pretentious “Shake-scene.”  

In the century after the first folio Will’s scripts were “improved” by busybody managements and players. They fussed at the raw passion and bleak endings of the major tragedies, which they doctored to meet the highfalutin sensibilities of 18th century audiences. In Nahun Tate’s bowdlerized King Lear the storm-battered monarch survives, regains his kingdom, turns it over to Edgar’s bride Cordelia, who claps her hands and gushes, “Cordelia then shall be queen!”

Nineteenth-century audiences favored big scenic effects and a lot of heavy-breathing stage emotion. Reacting to a high powered performance of Antony and Cleopatra, a matronly patron remarked on the differences in queenly behavior between Egypt’s serpent of the Nile (played by Sarah Bernhardt, if I got it right) and Britain’s own dear Queen Victoria.   

Along the way, there are notes and commentary on Shakespeare jubilee and centenary celebrations, notably 18th century superstar David Garrick’s big weekend of theater, speeches, parades and banquets at Stratford upon Avon. Burnham is at his comic best in an almost endless recitation of banquet toasts to everyone and everything from Shakespeare’s poetic muse to the Archbishop of Canterbury, which he offers in a rising tide of drunkenness.   

This first and most ill-fated of Shakespeare Festivals was famous for being deluged by a rainstorm that caused the Avon to burst its banks and a steady stream of ticket-holders to unfurl their brollies and make an early departure. 

The joy of Burnham’s wide canvas of personalities and viewpoints lies in the way it allows him to open a theatrical costume trunk of genders, ages, attitudes and dialects. Close your eyes as he sings “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” and you’ll swear you’re listening to William Bendix. He spotlights the truths and the pretense and he picks up the ironies and nonsense along the way. He even creates a believable insect voice for the cockroach Archy of Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitobel exchanging Shakespearean chitchat with a long-in-the-tooth parrot who claims to have been a contemporary of Will and Burbage, Ben and Christopher and the rest of the Elizabethan Southbank brotherhood. 

There’s a nice reprise of the 1960s Beyond the Fringe send-up of those endless and incomprehensible lists of supporting cast karistocrats (“What, Exeter!” “Speak worthy Sussex and Pontefract!”) that slow down any performance of the history plays.

The show closes with another well deserved tribute, this to American actor Sam Wanamaker (pictured), who, as a refugee of the McCarthy debacle, emigrated to London, where he worked tirelessly to build a new Globe Theatre on London’s South Bank but died just months before his dream was realized. The first words spoken from the stage of the new Globe came from Wanamaker’s daughter Zoe in the role of Chorus in Shakespeare’s Henry V, “O, for a muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention!”

In Love with Shakespeare is a treat. Catch it if you love Shakespeare—or if you want to learn to love him. 

Smith of the Titanic

By Philip Pearce

EDWARD JOHN SMITH, hapless captain of the Titanic, is the latest in Monterey Theater Alliance’s online portraits of famous people researched, written and acted by the wonderful Howard Burnham.

He sets the well known story, with all its clutter of half truths and outright lies, in the context of the growth of trans-Atlantic steam navigation in the late years of the 19th and early years of the 20th centuries.

Early on, the British White Star Line beat out its rival Collins Line to dominate ocean travel by steam—a mode Americans first exploited with inland river paddle boats. Sailing by White Star was successful and exciting, but had ultimately to be taken over and delivered from bankruptcy by New York multi-millionaire JP Morgan.  

Howard catches the sad irony of EJ Smith’s eminence as the pioneer captain of a trio of White Star luxury liners, the first two so successful for their speed, comfort and safety that in a New York Times interview he spoke of an Atlantic crossing in RMS Adriatic as “uneventful,“ unmarred by “accidents or any sort of disaster.” He spoke with a characteristic calm assurance that only deepens the tragedy that lay ahead.

In a piece of history that has become as familiar for its false legends as its facts, Burnham reminds us that the ship’s orchestra kept passengers entertained with Ragtime tunes, shifting to “Nearer My God to Thee” only when that became the one suitable selection.  

He also skips most of the familiar parade of celebrity socialites on board, preferring to focus on Smith’s fellow officers and crew members like stewardess and nurse Violet Jessop, who survived the Titanic disaster and then survived the sinking of her sister ship HMSH Britannic four years later.

This first person presentation differs from earlier ones in being offered from beyond the grave.  EJ Smith stuck firmly to British stiff upper lip tradition and went down with the ship.  Exonerated by both English and American boards of enquiry, he was honored with posthumous statues and plaques. But he’s presented as someone who would have regarded as his best memorials new laws that required ships to provide lifeboat space for everyone on board and enhanced equipment and tighter training for steaming in icy waters.

Relevant research and visual showmanship continue to be hallmarks of these one-man history lessons. The images of ships and churning storm waters are beautiful and instructive.

The show closes with a brisk, somewhat ironic review of the succession of movies that have retold the story and stretched the truth of April 14th, 1912. An early production, from Nazi Germany of all places, creates the heroic crew of a nearby German vessel, who struggle vainly to keep a Titanic load of crazed British idiots from ramming an iceberg. Hollywood’s 1950s Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck version of the disaster was somewhat less fanciful. Howard rates the British made “A Night to Remember” the most accurate of the films—but also the most boring. He finds Debbie Reynolds pleasingly photogenic as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” He has praise for the lavish production values of James Cameron’s 1997 Oscar-winning epic but rates DiCaprio and Winslet the “stupidest” romantic leads in any of the screen versions.

Next subject on a date to be announced is William Shakespeare.