Both John Mahon, Senior Editor of The Shakespeare Newsletter, and Charles F. Altieri, Professor of English at University of Southern California, Berkeley, distinguished critic, and lecturer on the plays of Shakespeare, were present at The Players to see and hear my trilogy performed as staged readings by actors of The Theatre Artists Workshop, directed by Mark S. Graham. The first play of THE LIVES OF SHAKESPEARE trilogy, “Shakespeare Rising,” was reviewed by Mahon, whlle Altieri reviewed the second play, “Judith Shakespeare Has Her Say,” and the third play, “Shakespeare and the Heart’s Desire.” The highly favorable review of the trilogy appears now in The Shakespeare Newsletter, fall/winter edition.
Following is the text of the review:
On three successive evenings in September, 2018 (September 25-27), John Andrews’ Shakespeare Guild and The Players Foundation sponsored staged readings of Mary Jane Schaefer’s trilogy of plays about Shakespeare. These readings took place at the Players Club on Gramercy Park in Manhattan. The Players, New York’s equivalent to the Garrick Club in London for members of the acting community, was the home of Edwin Booth in his later years, and his spirit still pervades the club. John Mahon attended the first play, Shakespeare Rising, and Charles F. Altieri, Professor of English at Cal Berkeley, saw the second and third plays, Judith Shakespeare Has Her Say and Shakespeare and the Heart’s Desire. These plays were work-shopped and developed by Mark S. Graham at The Theatre Artists Workshop. Further adjustments were made to the first play when it was work-shopped with notable success at the Utah Shakespeare Festival of 2014 under the direction of Henry Woronicz. The entire trilogy was performed together for the first time at the Players last September. The opening sentence of Professor Altieri’s review works perfectly to introduce both reviews below: “Here are three powerfully dramatic and extremely intelligent historical plays whose intense staging facilitates the plays' excellent acting—a reviewer’s job cannot get much better.”
According to the Playbill, Shakespeare Rising “presents a portrait of the artist as a young man.” In fact, we watch Shakespeare move through a series of scenes drawn from his entire life. From the start, Will himself serves as a commentator on his story, and we also see the same actor playing Will interacting with others and playing various roles. In Act I, we move from his sometimes-tense relationship with his father (who wants Will to become his partner in the business of glove making) and his wooing and wedding of Anne Hathaway (who urges Will to follow the players he's met at Houghton to London) to a scene in a London tavern where he presents his script for Richard III and performs the opening soliloquy for the Burbages and Will Kempe. Mary Jane Schaefer then takes us back to Stratford in 1596: Will’s father is trying to prepare Hamnet to apprentice in the glove-making business, but Anne wants Hamnet to go to university. Hamnet shares an ominous dream, and the final scene of Act I is set in a graveyard in Stratford, where Hamnet’s grandfather speaks Lear’s words over the dead Cordelia, including “Never, never, never, never, never.” The scene ends with Will’s arrival home after the burial of his son, to meet the greatest regret and harshest welcome of his life.
Eleven performers handle these scenes expertly—the acting is very good indeed, and the playwright’s “take” on Shakespeare’s life as he himself might have viewed it seems just right, demonstrating Mary Jane Schaefer’s complete understanding of Shakespeare, his work, and his times. Shakespeareans should find her work especially enjoyable because the characters frequently quote from him as part of their conversations with each other, making his words their own. Ms. Schaefer knows the canon very well indeed and works it in to her script, which already has an Elizabethan “feel.”
Act II is likewise filled with revealing incidents and creative treatment of the Shakespeare story. It opens in 1597 on a London stage, where Will Kempe, who has played Falstaff, is delivering the Epilogue to Henry IV, Part II, looking ahead to Falstaff in Henry V. As Kempe insists on adding his own words and gestures to what Shakespeare wrote, Will says he can’t abide Kempe’s antics any longer—it’s him or me! Kempe retorts that the company doesn’t need Shakespeare because the Earl of Oxford has offered his plays to the company.
The scene that follows takes place in 1601 in Stratford, where John Shakespeare is dying and asks for the last rites from a priest. Because priests are no longer readily available in England, Will agrees to impersonate a friar, while his wife and his mother pray “Pater Noster” for his blind father. After the anointing, John Shakespeare indicates his recognition of Will's effort for his sake, and they reconcile before John dies.
Later in 1601, during performances of Hamlet, Will’s father appears to him one night. We watch Burbage as Hamlet, Will as Hamlet’s father, in scenes from the play that include Hamlet’s critique of players who improvise on a whim and ignore what the playwright has written. The company recognizes the shot clearly directed at Kempe.
In the final scene of Act II, more touching than all the earlier touching scenes, it is 1616 and Shakespeare has just died. The ghosts of Hamnet and John Shakespeare meet him in eternity and Will says, after being assured by them both that he has been forgiven by them, "Then have I come home at last." The three ghosts exit, but the play is not quite done. Shakespeare's old nemesis, Will Kempe, appears as the Devil, and attempts to take credit for inspiring Shakespeare's work:
O, the rest is silence, is it? La dee dah. You never thought
he coulda done what he did without me, now didja?
An angel whispered to him, did she? Huh! A bloody-minded
angel that would have to be. (a leering grin) Kinda like
me. Well, never you mind. Would you like me to sing you a song? A love song,or
a song of good life?
But John Shakespeare will have none of that, and, off-stage, he simply turns off the lights. Heaven has won the final round.
What a wonderful play—its treatment of Shakespeare's biography is fresh and original, highlighting details that will be unfamiliar to many in the audience but that provide us with a most appealing and believable sketch of the life of the Bard. Surely it deserves a fully-staged production, as soon as possible!
JUDITH SHAKESPEARE HAS HER SAY and
SHAKESPEARE AND THE HEART’S DESIRE
The second play, Judith Shakespeare Has Her Say, begins and ends with Shakespeare’s younger daughter Judith alone at 77 years old, possessing little but a sharp wit and a lovely ironic sense of the useless but delightful freedom that wit provides her. The third play, Shakespeare and the Heart’s Desire, ends with Queen Elizabeth alone, terrified that all of her power has only left her the more abject before death and the despair of having put to death Lord Essex, the one man she loved deeply.
These parallel endings tell a good deal about the scope and bite of the author’s intelligence. Judith Shakespeare Has Her Say is fundamentally an engagement in the plight of women, then and now. There is no preaching. But there is a vivid awareness of the modes of suffering and paralysis caused by lack of education and confinement to the domestic domain, where dying children and intransigent husbands seem the norm. Yet in Judith’s case there is something else that complicates the pain. She is her father’s daughter, continually eager for experience, comprehending all the emotions involved in particular situations, and possessed of a sharp self-protective capacity for witty self-enjoyment that almost compensates for a minimal education—except that she cannot but envy her father’s freedom to live out what his imagination produces. She chooses for her spouse a “mere” tapster because he has the roguish qualities she associates with her father, only to learn that he also shares Shakespeare’s discomfort with domesticity. The utter failure of all her dreams, however, cannot ultimately shake the capacious imagination she shares with her father. So her presence on the stage is a constant source of delight, despite the pains beleaguering that imagination.
On the other hand, in the third play, Queen Elizabeth has immense power, yet she too ends as effectively powerless—bereft of love and beleaguered by fear of death. Schaefer is superb in capturing the vanity of human wishes as a dramatic condition. There are three basic plots here, all mediated through Elizabeth. First there is Shakespeare’s unsatisfied love for Henry, Earl of Southampton. Shakespeare first encounters Henry in his mother's London townhouse, at Lady Southampton's invitation.
She is under the hopeful delusion that Shakespeare can write poems in honor of Henry that are so beautiful, they will dissuade him from going to war. That plan doesn't work, of course, but Shakespeare is electrified by his first sight of Henry. Schaefer chooses not to let the audience see what Shakespeare sees. What they do witness is his visceral reaction to the sight, and his attempt to find words to describe the intensity of the moment. Then Shakespeare has to take a back seat as Henry develops an intimate relationship with Lord Essex, late of Elizabeth’s bed. The second plot turn develops as Henry and Essex put pressure on Shakespeare and his company to perform Richard II, whose deposition scene they think will martial support for their planned rebellion (That line from Henry IV, Part II, “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” resonates through the ways that people seek power, then have to defend it from other seekers). But the mutual support by the members of Shakespeare’s company, in the face of sudden and grave danger, provides a touching alternative to the quest for political power. The third, both terrifying and amusing, strand of the plot occurs as both the rebels and Shakespeare with one other actor have to face charges with a well-informed and self-delighted Elizabeth. Schaefer gets a marvelous variety of states of mind as both conspirators and players have to confront Elizabeth’s wrath. Both Essex and Southampton confuse the power of their love with the possibility of power in the state—only to have to pay, the one with his life, the other with an extended stay in the Tower of London where Schaefer makes us care deeply that rats have devoured the cat that has become his only object of desire.
I think Schaefer has two great gifts that make for utterly engaging theater. First, she is a thoroughly adult dramatist, taking pains to sympathize with each of her characters while maintaining the reflective distance to judge for each how the vanity of human wishes ultimately reveals itself in delightfully varied modes. The other gift combines what seems an instinctive grasp of the tensions basic to human relationships with an amazing capacity to write lines making the conflicts not only completely alive but also profoundly appropriate to the character’s stakes in the conflicts. In the Judith play, after an opening comic scene where Judith toys with a parson eager for information about her father, there is a marvelous situation where Shakespeare is castigated once again (and castigates himself) for coming too late to see his young son Hamnet before he died. He wanted to see his son but rationalized that the situation was not so dire that he has to stop work: the domestic order for him comes second, for someone with his imagination an easy act of rationalization. But the women here refute every claim, even uttering suspicion about his protestations of love. Yet they ultimately accept his return, now to confront new conflicts. Judith must deal with a marriage proposal from Tom, the man she has loved for years, only to hear in the next moment that he has made a serving woman pregnant who is soon to give birth; when Shakespeare and his family explode in anger at this situation, Shakespeare has a stroke but revives sufficiently to create a will that leaves nothing to his wife but their second-best bed and to Judith a small sum of money and a silver bowl she's always liked, as the only way he can see to both punish and protect his vulnerable daughter. After Shakespeare dies, the family must deal with the unexpected arrival in Stratford of Shakespeare's London mistress. She has come to grieve over Will's grave, but the townspeople, realizing who she is, explode with anger at her daring to come to their town. It is simply wonderful how Judith bonds with this free woman despite her grief and embarrassment at her presence. The woman gives Judith her own book of poems inspired by Shakespeare, only to have the tapster husband burn in disgust what is to Judith perhaps the only thing she feels she could actually own and treasure.
What happens with focused intensity in the family drama of Judith gets gradually developed in the third play to accommodate a sympathetic vision of how men too are not free from loss and terror, despite their power. Schaefer is up to the very difficult task of shifting dramatic intensity from the immediate conflict of interests to the general human experience of wanting more of life than one usually gets. She has to create a drama that also frames the other plays and that contextualizes her fascination with the plights of women. Richard II’s speech of forced abdication provides that frame, because the characters each have what they most want taken away, although in that loss they perhaps become more fully human. Shakespeare has to see that for him Henry has to be an ideal that he can never join in fleshly relations without contaminating his wonder at his existence. And so this becomes Shakespeare's nod at his participation in the vanity of human wishes. Both Essex and Henry do achieve romance and loyalty but they overreach politically and are effectively ruined yet achieve nobility in facing that loss with dignity. And Elizabeth in this play has to realize that her brilliance is not sufficient to ward off agony. She sees through all the plots against her, including the use of Shakespeare's theater in those plots. So she can toy with the male perpetrators' versions of self-justification. But, in the end, she is left empty and in darkness.
These plays offer rich characters, tremendous dialogue from characters at cross purposes, and a comprehensive sense of sympathy with these characters that is vital testimony to how much Schaefer has gathered from her devotion to Shakespeare. It is the miracle of theater that we can get so much satisfaction from the author's pains-taking depiction of so many unfulfilled desires.
[To date, none of these plays has received a full production.
Mary Jane Schaefer may be reached at email@example.com.
Her plays are also available on The New Play Exchange. –Eds.]