The Folger Shakespeare Library’s radio documentary Shakespeare in American Life explores the English language’s most important playwright and his influence on American performance, politics, and popular culture.
Each hour-long episode, narrated by Sam Waterston and created by Richard Paul, deepens our understanding of Shakespeare and the American identity. Shakespeare in American Life is part of The Wonder of Will, the Folger’s celebration of 400 years of Shakespeare in 2016.
How do we know Shakespeare's plays? For many of them, the answer is one book: the 1623 First Folio. Without it, 18 plays, including Macbeth and The Tempest, could have been lost. In 2016, First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare brings the First Folio to 50 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico.
Shakespeare Becomes American: Shakespeare in Performance
Shakespeare is everywhere in America, including musicals, festivals, television, and the movies. The documentary explores how American Shakespeare has been shaped by the American experience. From the young nation’s earliest days, when an “American” acting style first took shape, to the influence of African-Americans on Shakespeare on stage, to method acting, to Hollywood, America and Americans—actors, directors, and audiences—have made Shakespeare our own.
Shakespeare in Education and Civic Life
After the American revolution, there were real questions about whether America should adopt British culture and literature—including Shakespeare’s plays—or create its own. The documentary follows Shakespeare’s path in the years that followed, including his surprisingly late arrival in the classroom and his role in major movements like the push west, the establishment of cities, the Civil War, and the immigrant experience. It also explores America’s fascination with Shakespeare outdoors.
Shakespeare in American Politics
John Adams was a Shakespeare enthusiast who filled his diaries with mentions of the plays. Janet Reno assembled her staff to read King Lear. In 1849, disputes over British and American acting styles touched off a deadly riot. The most famous black Shakespearean of the 19th century was an American who went to Europe after he saw black actors arrested for performing Shakespeare in the US. In the 1980s, Shakespeare was drawn into battles over race and gender on college campuses. This program explores how Shakespeare’s work has intertwined itself with American electoral politics, geopolitics, and racial, class, and academic politics. It also explores how Shakespeare has been used for political purposes throughout American history.
Shakespeare in American Life was made possible through the generous support of the National Endowment for the Humanities: “great ideas brought to life”; the National Endowment for the Arts, which believes a great nation deserves great art; The Lee and Juliet Folger Fund; and The Mosaic Foundation (of Rita & Peter Heydon).
Shakespeare in American Life was designated a “We the People” project by the NEH as part of its initiative to advance American history and culture.
We wish to thank all of those on and off the Folger staff whose hard work and assistance contributed to the success of the documentary during the many months of its development and production.
Special thanks are due to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Billy Rose Theatre Collection, the Washington Area Performing Arts Video Archive (WAPAVA), the African Continuum Theater Company, the Classical Theater of Harlem, Folger Consort, Folger Theatre, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Second City-Chicago, and the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, DC. We would also like to express our gratitude to Rob Bamberger, Karl Kippola, the Philadelphia Shakspere Society, the Wellesley College Shakespeare Society, the Janney Elementary School in Washington, DC, and Professor Caleen Sinnette Jennings and her class at American University.
Sarah Weiner of Folger Shakespeare Library assisted on the project in countless ways. We owe her a special debt of gratitude for transcribing more than 30 of the full-length interviews conducted for the documentary, an invaluable step in working with this material. We also wish to thank, among others on the Folger staff, Betsy Walsh, head of the reading room, and the entire reading room staff for their assistance, as well as Essence Newhoff, who spearheaded the grant request process.