I tend to be a creature of habit, so even when I am almost three thousand miles from home, in a city I’ve never been to, living in a car on one of the biggest adventures of my life, I still try to create routines. By the morning of my last full day in Ashland I had become a regular at ReMix coffee on the south side of Ashland. I spent the first half of my day overcaffeinated and trying desperately to catch up on writing up shows I’d seen so far on the trip.
The Book of Will
That evening I headed back to the Allen Elizabethan Theatre for the last time to see The Book of Will. I had been hearing about this show since the STA conference back in January where everyone had been raving about it.
The show follows John Heminges and Henry Condell as they work to assemble the First Folio in 1623. Shakespeare died in 1616 and at the time of his death only about half of his plays had been published in his lifetime, all in cheap, unauthorized paperbacks called quartos (because the large sheets of paper were folded twice, down into a quarter of their original size). The idea of publishing plays in folio format (the larger size with the paper only folded once) was somewhat ludicrous to the Elizabethans who wouldn’t have regarded plays as important enough to be published in the same format that historical and legal books were. Ben Jonson, the poet and playwright had published his own complete works in folio and it’s generally thought that it was a pretentious, very Ben Jonson thing to do.
When Heminges and Condell compiled the First Folio, they not only saved half of the plays from obscurity, but they gave us what are usually considered better versions of the plays that already had been published. Because the two actors had worked with Shakespeare and performed in the plays, most scholars trust them when differences arise in the texts between an earlier quarto and the First Folio.
Without Heminges and Condell, six plays on my personal top ten list would have disappeared from history, including Macbeth, As You Like It and my all-time favorite, Measure for Measure. Because of this, I’ve always revered Heminges and Condell as literary heroes second only to Shakespeare himself, and have thought it a shame that they aren’t well-known outside of Shakespearean circles. Everyone knows who Shakespeare is, but only the academics know Heminges and Condell. With any luck, the success of this show will change that. My hope is that The Book of Will will do for Heminges and Condell what Hamilton did for Alexander Hamilton.
The raving I’d been hearing about the show was justified from the first moments, when Heminges, Condell, and Burbage are drinking in a bar lamenting both the loss of their friend Shakespeare years prior and the mutilation of his theatrical legacy by companies who perform his plays badly based on unreliable, pirated scripts. During a confrontation with a rival company in the bar, Burbage shows off by performing a medley of monologues from Shakespeare’s plays. It’s a beautiful moment and maybe the highlight of the shows or me.
Burbage dies shortly there after, leading Heminges and Condell to realize that a lot of Shakespeare was stored in Burbage’s brain and that without him, the plays will soon be lost. They decide — after much deliberation and encouragement from their wives — to go on a mission to collect all the plays in one volume, to preserve them for the future. It requires a lot of work, good luck, and money to collect all the scripts they can find, either from previously published quartos, their own company records, Shakespeare’s manuscripts, prompt books, &c and get the rights to publish them, find investors and the time and people to do the work. Along the way they suffer loss and setback, but in the end — spoiler alert — they publish the First Folio, possibly the most important work of literature in the western world.
The show does much to humanize the people behind this enormous literary project, with strong performances across the board. Although the larger than life characters like Ben Jonson and Richard Burbage tend to steal their scenes, it is on the backs of Heminges and Condell that the show is carried. Those roles couldn’t have been cast better, with the two actors putting in resonant, sympathetic performances. I cried several times throughout the second half.
The show is a kind of love song to the idea of theatre, actors playing actors talking about acting. At each moment of the show, you can feel the connection to the material, the ways in which all of these different people, from Burbage to the scrivener Ralph Crane, to the publisher Isaac Jaggard all found something in Shakespeare’s words to resonate with. Sometimes my own devotion to Shakespeare makes me feel separated from other people, but this show reminded me that I’m not alone.
It was a beautiful way to end my trip to Ashland, with a tribute to Shakespeare and to theatre. I left the show with tears in my eyes.
The next morning I made one last visit to ReMix before hitting the road south to the Bay Area to visit friends and check out some shows there. More on that in the next entry.