Through April 18, the Long Beach Shakespeare Company is allowing one of the Bard’s fiercest critics to take his best shot in Mark Twain Versus William Shakespeare: Is Shakespeare Dead?
Director Helen Borgers adapted Twain’s diatribe against dear Will for a two-act play. She admitted that, though she does not share Twain’s opinion that Shakespeare was not the creator of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets attributed to him, “We’re giving equal time to the other side.”
Dressed in his classic three-piece ice-cream suit and red cravat and sporting a shock of wavy, gray hair and outrageously bushy eyebrows, America’s most famous writer, played by Carl Wawrina, took jabs at England’s favorite wordsmith. He questioned his lineage, noting that his parents were illiterate, and his lack of education– “no record of him ever having attended school.” He contended that it takes years of day-to-day immersion in a profession to know it as thoroughly as Shakespeare’s plays portray a knowledge of soldiering, sailing and aristocratic society. Twain’s money is on Francis Bacon. After all, he certainly had the smarts, the book learning and the accomplishments to be a contender. He was a philosopher, statesman, scientist, jurist, orator, essayist and author– in short, just the sort of Renaissance man who would have been able to do the ghostwriting for Will.
Throughout the play, Twain held his script in front of him, occasionally looking down at it for a cue. Though Wawrina’s performance would probably have been enhanced had he memorized every word, the script could also be seen as a prop rather than crib notes for the actor. If instead of seeing Twain as simply spouting off his doubts to himself or anyone else who may listen, you see the play as Twain giving a lecture on this contentious subject, the script-holding becomes more forgivable. No longer Wawrina’s script, the pages now become Twain’s lecture notes.
The sharpest arrows in Twain’s quiver were the dearth of an historical record and the lack of any interest in Shakespeare the man until decades after his death. Twain recites a long list of professions for which the noted individuals all were written about while they were still living. Twain claimed that Shakespeare was the only now-famous person who left not a trace in the annals of the ages. This may have been true in Twain’s time, when “the historical Jesus” was not a buzz term or no one—not even an atheist like Twain—dared proclaim that Jesus, too, was not written of until decades following his death. When the Bard died, Twain remarked, no one realized “that a major poet had passed from their midst.” Twain quipped sarcastically of Shakespeare’s return to his hometown: “He ran away [from London], in the custom of people who are about to become celebrated.”
Most damning of all was Twain’s reference to the poem that appears on Shakespeare’s grave, which, according to Twain, is the only piece of writing that can be definitively linked to Will. It’s amateurish, if not outright lousy. Here it is in modern English: “Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear/To dig the dust enclosed here/Blessed be the man who spares these stones/And curst be he who moves my bones.”
Mark Twain Versus William Shakespeare is a bit slow-going in parts, but there’s enough of Twain’s humor, turns of the phrase and dramatic flourishes to keep the audience involved. Examples abound, but here’s a few:
“Since these things could have happened, they must have.”
“theoretically ready to die for it”
“How did he acquire these rich assets? Who held the horses in the meantime?”
“I hope your little respite has left you vivified.”
Mark Twain Versus William Shakespeare: Is Shakespeare Dead? continues at the Goad Theatre through Saturday, April 18. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8pm. Tickets are $10. Tickets may be purchased online at LBShakespeare.org or by calling (562) 997-1494. The Goad Theatre is located at 4250 Atlantic Ave., Ste. 2.
April is Shakespeare’s birthday month, heartily celebrated at the Goad Theatre with free lectures, a spoof on “the Scottish play,” a birthday party for the Bard and an old-time radio presentation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Visit LBShakespeare.org for details, dates, times and ticket prices.