Shakespeare Project of Chicago, Newberry Library, Chicago, Ill.
Saturday, April 20, 2013, Second row, center
Directed by Peter Garino
This was a moment of firsts for me. It's the first time I've seen a performance of this play, which scholars now attribute to William Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd. My Shakespeare bucket list is again complete, at least concerning his plays. It's also the first time I've experienced a play as a reading. Professional actors—11 of the 14 in this presentation are Actors' Equity members—with scripts in hand read the play in character, enter and exit the presentation space on cue, use limited blocking, and mime gestures (they used no props, and costumes were merely red and blue sashes to distinguish the English from the French, respectively, while the Scots wore plaid shirts).
In attending this performance, I also determined to achieve another personal first in 35 years: To truly experience a Shakespeare-penned play for the first time. I made a point of not even reading The Reign of King Edward III before attending this performance by the Shakespeare Project of Chicago at the Newberry Library (which, by the way, has a First Folio in its collection). I saw this as a twofold test: One, how well would I understand a Shakespearean text upon initially hearing it; two, just how good were Shakespeare's abilities in producing comprehensible work for an uninitiated 21st century audience.
You could say I passed my test: I had no difficulty following the play and appreciating most of the lines. As it turned out, though, that test didn't really have much merit, not when I spent the time listening to Edward, the "Black" Prince of Wales, and thinking, "Hmmm, he sounds like Philip Falconbridge the Bastard from King John or Henry V" (I always contended that the Bastard was a kin to King Lear's Kent and Antony and Cleopatra's Enobarbus but, thanks to Edward III, I now see Richard Burbage originating the Bastard as he did Hal, Hamlet, Macbeth, et al.).
As for Shakespeare's test, the reality is that Edward III is not a qualifying gauge of his accessibility. It is a plodding, ponderous thing with 2D characters, an inferior piece of work compared to the rest of the canon. Its lack of a production history in the almost 400 years since its 1596 publication in an anonymous quarto edition attests to Edward III's problematic qualities as a stage play. However, hearing this cut by Shakespeare Project of Chicago Artistic Director Peter Garino (he said in a post-reading talkback that he kept about 91 percent of the play intact), I consider Edward III no more plodding than Pericles, no more ponderous than Henry VIII, and no more shallow than Two Gentlemen of Verona, and I've seen those successfully translated to the stage.
The real test, though, is whether this apocryphal Shakespeare play really does have Shakespeare's hand in it. Many scholars, using stylistic studies, believe it does and tend to place Edward III after Two Gents, Taming of the Shrew, Titus Andronicus, and the Henry VI tetralogy, including Richard III. Using their theatrical ears, Garino and Jeff Watkins, artistic director of the Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern where he has staged every play in the canon including Edward III, also believe Shakespeare's work is in it, but they both think it's apprentice work, Shakespeare's very first effort at playwriting. Portions of it certainly sound Shakespearean to me and to many of the 80 people who attended this reading, and despite the play's overall rawness and poor structure, the portions that sound Shakespearean lean toward a more mature Shakespeare than the one who wrote Shrew, Two Gents, and the Henry VI plays.
That would put me in alliance with the scholars' timing, but I also come at this from the perspective of a professional writer (one who has covered music and theater arts over the years). I've never held to the notion that an artist's first effort is automatically his worst effort. I don't have enough appendages to count the writers, musicians, and filmmakers who score big with their debut efforts but their sophomore offerings or a later overly ambitious attempt, borne on the cockiness of established success, is the one that falters. This pattern applied to Shakespeare, the guy who became the talk of the town with the Henry VI–Richard III tetralogy, might have simply blown it trying to write a grander-in-scope prequel (chastened. but still itching to explore the roots of England's War of the Roses, a much more mature Shakespeare would then later return to the topic with Richard II, a play about the Black Prince's son and brothers).
In structure, Edward III is simple as A-B-C. Beset in the north by the Scots and denied in France by the French, Edward III: A), drives the Scots out of Northern England and lusts after the Countess of Salisbury; B), gets over his lust and invades France; C), wins in France through the Black Prince's success in battle and his own expert handling of the seige of Calais.
The first third of the play that sees King Edward trying to enter into an adulterous affair with the Countess of Salisbury is undoubtedly Shakespearean. It has the same kind of quibbling over language we get in other courtship scenes in Henry VI Part Three, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, and Twelfth Night. The Countess is drawn as heroic, wise and witty, while Edward seems remarkably human in these scenes before flattening himself across a spectrum of extremes in the later scenes of war with France (the bulk of which are generally attributed by most scholars to Kyd).
The prime evidence of Shakespearean authorship in the Salisbury sequence is a delightful scene in which Edward III enlists the help of his secretary, Lodowick, to write a love poem to the Countess. The play's author makes howling fun of sonneteers (remember that Shakespeare was such a sonneteer) in the same way Shakespeare would use self-deprecating humor in making fun of poets, playwrights, and actors in later plays. First, Edward's own poetical imagination far outraces that of the pro poet. "Devise for fair a fairer word than 'fair,' and every ornament that thou wouldst praise, fly it a pitch above the soar of praise," Edward says; Lodowick writes, "More fair and chaste than is the queen of shades." At that point, Edward becomes an editor as vicious as any editor (Dr. Ranly, Jake, Tiffany) I've encountered. "That line has two faults, gross and palpable," Edward tells Lodowick, and he goes on to describe why he doesn't like "queen of shade" and "fair and chaste." About the latter, he says, "I did not bid thee talk of chastity, to ransack so the treasure of her mind, for I had rather have her chased than chaste."
A fun scene in the French sequence, though it may be Kyd's work, sees Prince Edward surrounded by French forces but his father turning aside all requests to rescue him. "Tut, let him fight," the king says. "We gave him arms today, and he is laboring for a knighthood, man. ... We have more sons than one to comfort our declining age" (remember that his too many sons laid the groundwork for the War of the Roses). The depiction of French arrogance in the roles of King John II, the Dauphin, and Prince Philip foreshadow similar depictions in various Henry plays and King John, but the derogatory presentation of the Scots is something Shakespeare would never do again (Captain Jamy in Henry V may be drawn with stereotypes, but he's honorable and not a bumpkin as the Scottish royal family is depicted in this play).
Garino assembled a fine cast for this Edward III reading, starting with Kevin Rich in the title role, balancing the character's heroic bearings and his penchant for mercy while in the early scenes aching with frustration over his lust for the Countess of Salisbury. Melanie Keller shows vigor as that countess standing up to her Scottish captors and a natural sweetness when welcoming the king to her castle. But her realization that he wants to bed her turns her distraught and, finally, back to vigor again as she vows to kill herself before giving in to Edward. Michael Joseph Mitchell (King John), Kenton Gott (the Dauphin) and Patrick Riley (Prince Philip) present the French with smirking attitudes toward the English, but give way to expressions of disbelief upon their captures. Meanwhile, a true mentor-protégé relationship emerges on the stage as well as in the lines between Fredric Stone's Lord Audley and Matthew Fahey's Prince Edward.
Through the whole ensemble's fine performances, I realized that this presentation of Edward III passed a far more important test than that of authorship, my understanding, or Shakespeare's playability in the 21st century. The Shakespeare Project of Chicago may not produce theatrical stagings of the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but the mere fact that they do public readings reveals the importance of expressing Shakespeare's lines (and those of his contemporaries) out loud and not just silently reading them to yourself. If high school students studying Shakespeare were exposed to expert readings such as this, their appreciation of his verse and characters will naturally follow. As Fahey noted in the talkback, when he first read his part, he thought Prince Edward to be a one-note character, but once he read it out loud in rehearsal with the rest of the cast, he found the shadings that the playwrights used to mold a maturing young soldier.
So, even a still-maturing Shakespeare was capable of burying great treasures in his lesser work, including work he neither got credit for in his lifetime.
April 25, 2013