Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 65
When we think of Shakespeare in the American West, Hollywood immediately comes to mind, but this podcast episode also takes us back to the California Gold Rush and the Americans who brought Shakespeare with them when they flooded westward.
Our guest is Stephen Dickey, a senior lecturer in the English Department at UCLA and co-curator (along with the Folger’s Georgianna Ziegler) of America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West, a Folger exhibition with the Library Foundation of Los Angeles that appeared at the Los Angeles Public Library from November 17, 2016, through February 26, 2017. Stephen was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
- Listen on SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, or NPR One.
- Read the Shakespeare & Beyond blog—America's Shakespeare: The Bard goes west to California's Gold Rush mining camps.
- Read the Shakespeare & Beyond blog—America's Shakespeare: The Bard goes west to Hollywood.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published January 24, 2017. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. “The West Yet Glimmers With Some Streaks Of Day” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had technical help from Brian Allison and Jeff Peters at the Marketplace studios in Los Angeles.
[SOUND EFFECT: The sound of a wagon, creaking and rumbling down a dirt road]
MICHAEL WITMORE: It's 1852, and a dusty covered wagon creaks along a dirt road, just past the town we now call Rancho Cordova, 39 miles east of Sacramento on the South Fork of the American River. The wagon isn't filled with settlers. It's not carrying beans, books, or whiskey. This is a remarkable wagon, though it won't stay remarkable for long. This is a wagon full of Shakespeare.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Mike Witmore, the Folger's director. We call this podcast: “The West Yet Glimmers with Some Streaks of Day.”
Gold was discovered in California in 1848. Within months, a flood of people poured into the state. Some came to find their fortunes mining. Others came to make a fortune off the miners themselves: people like saloonkeepers, prostitutes, and from a very early time, actors and performers. When we think of Shakespeare in the American West, the mind immediately focuses on Hollywood, but as you'll hear, we can trace the history of Shakespeare's life on the American West Coast to long before then.
At the time we recorded this podcast, the Library Foundation of Los Angeles had taken the Folger exhibition called America’s Shakespeare, enhanced it with a wealth of new material from the West Coast, and re-titled it America's Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West, following the quirks and turns of Shakespeare along the Pacific. Stephen Dickey, a senior lecturer in the English Department at UCLA, is the exhibition's curator. He came into the studio recently to talk about it with Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: You know, Stephen, when I first heard about the exhibit, I thought of a quintessential Los Angeles Shakespeare connection, which is Shakespeare Beach, and for people listening, that's Hermosa Beach, they might have heard of that. That's what it's called now, but it was originally one of these early 20th-century real estate promotion ideas, to call some place a fictional, fanciful, gimmicky name and get people to buy there.
STEPHEN DICKEY: Mm-hmm. That's right, and it was connected with the development of the early rail system, and people in charge of that decided to pitch an idea for a writers' colony, and they named all of the streets after actually, mostly American writers like Poe, and Hawthorne, and Longfellow. But they call the whole thing Shakespeare Beach, and we have in the exhibition, we have one of the early blueprints of all the perspective housing lots worked out in that area.
BOGAEV: It's wonderful because it's so much a part of Los Angeles and of California history, the Disneyfication of the state, and of the city, even before there was Disney. Because we have a bunch of things like this: you know, there's Hollywoodland, for instance, was a real estate promotion. Now, we have the Hollywood sign— the “land” part was taken down— but Hollywoodland was this big real estate development, and a lot of the houses were originally this fairy tale castle-type construction, storybook architecture.
DICKEY: Storybook architecture...
BOGAEV: Yeah, and Shakespeare fits right into that mode.
DICKEY: Well, Shakespeare fits in, and actually one of my interests that I indulged here and there in the exhibition is just the subject of allusion and what it means to allude specifically to Shakespeare, because we often are using his language without really knowing it— it's not a conscious allusion— but this was a very deliberate, yeah, salesman move to kind of give the inherited prestige, I guess, of the name Shakespeare to your real estate plan.
BOGAEV: Exactly. That was the same thing with Venice Beach and the Venice Canals. This idea of, "Ooh, culture."
DICKEY: Tap it in.
BOGAEV: Europe. As if the West was always longing for cultural legitimacy, and Shakespeare seems to have played a big part in that.
DICKEY: Yes, absolutely, and it does cover the chronological terrain between the 19th century, when Shakespeare is still what would be, I suppose, now called popular culture, and then the progression, or limitation, even, of Shakespeare to, sort of the category of highbrow, and the ticket prices go up, and it becomes sort of segregated off in that way into the fancier theaters, and so on.
BOGAEV: And I want to get to that highbrow/lowbrow aspect of that thread throughout history and the West with Shakespeare, but let's go back to the beginning, because I really didn't know a lot of this history with actors coming out West to California long before there were movies, and that Shakespeare was a big impetus for that.
DICKEY: Yes. Yes, that's right. Shakespeare made it West early, but he was certainly helped by gold. The Gold Rush enticed one of Junius Brutus Booth's sons, named Junius Brutus Booth, Jr., to come to San Francisco. And San Francisco and Sacramento had very posh theaters, and young Booth told his father and younger brother, Edwin Booth, that they could make a lot of money if they came out and did their acting performances to these audiences. And so they did, and one of the areas that we concentrate on is the maturing moment in the art of Edwin Booth, who comes out as a young man with his father in 1852, and they act in, not just Shakespeare, but a lot of Shakespeare, together, in the mining camps. Yeah.
BOGAEV: And this is immortalized, this Shakespeare in the mining towns, is immortalized in a movie, My Darling Clementine.
BOGAEV: And we have a clip from that. My Darling Clementine is a wonderful retelling of the, not very accurate retelling, of the shooting at the OK Corral.
DICKEY: No, not accurate.
BOGAEV: And it was directed by John Ford, with Henry Fonda and Victor Mature playing Doc Holliday, and here a Shakespearean actor is performing, standing on top of a table in a saloon:
[CLIP from My Darling Clementine:]
Quiet! Shut up! Look, Yorick, can’t you give us nothing but them poems?
ALAN MOWBRAY as ACTOR:
I have a very large repertoire, sir.
Great. All right, Yorick, go ahead. Shoot!
"To be or not to be—that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles"
DICKEY: It's a fascinating excerpt, and we chose it because it does so many things that are relevant to the exhibition. For one thing, the actor, who is supposed to be performing in the theater, is a bit of a drunk, and he wanders off, and this seems to be a kind of allusion to Junius Brutus Booth, Sr., who was notorious for going on benders when he should have been on stage. And one of Edwin's jobs as his young son and assistant was really as a kind of temperance officer. He had to try to keep him straight for performing. So, you have an actor who is not entirely sober at the moment.
BOGAEV: And that's why he goes up on his lines.
DICKEY: Yes, exactly, and he goes into a saloon, and he's facing an audience of the bad guys in the movie, the Clayton Gang, I think, and they call him Yorick, mockingly, and they want to hear something, and he does "To be or not to be," but he falters in the middle of it, and at that point Doc Holliday, played by Victor Mature, continues the speech.
[CLIP continues: My Darling Clementine:]
ALAN MOWBRAY as ACTOR:
"With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life. Life..."
Please help me, sir.
VICTOR MATURE as DOC HOLLIDAY:
[PROMPTING THE ACTOR]
"But that the dread of something after death..."
Would you carry on? I'm afraid it's been so long.
"The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all" [COUGHS]
DICKEY: And one of the things I think that scene is demonstrating is the notion that Doc Holliday is a kind of Hamlet in the film as a whole. He has terminal tuberculosis, he's always brooding on death, he's a very melancholic kind of figure. And so, you see that there is, there's not only an allusion to, kind of, western performance, 19th-century American West, but to Hamlet itself.
BOGAEV: That is really rich, and Victor Mature, he is very evocative.
BOGAEV: Very natural.
DICKEY: Yeah. As Doc Holliday finishes reciting, "To be or not to be,” Wyatt Earp, played by Henry Fonda, begins to look at him with a new kind of respect, and in almost amazement.
BOGAEV: Amazement, right.
DICKEY: Incredulity. “How does this guy know this speech?” And that's another interesting moment, where it seems as though what you're being told is that the knowledge, or familiarity, with Shakespeare marks you off as a kind of socially polished or admirable figure.
BOGAEV: Well, tell us more about how, what Shakespeare— how it functioned in the Gold Rush. Were the actors also, as you say, chasing the money?
DICKEY: The actors were chasing the money. In fact, the big formative trip that Edwin Booth made to California was from 1852 to 1856, and he was in California for almost three and a half of those years, but in the time he was not in California, he had decided to embark for Australia, to see what fortune could be made there, because it turns out— I did not know this before working on the exhibition— but Australia had its own Gold Rush, and Edwin Booth went down to Australia in the company of an actress from England named Laura Keene, who reenters American history, of course, by being onstage when John Wilkes Booth, the younger brother, assassinates Lincoln at Ford's Theater. And Laura Keene ends up with Lincoln's martyred blood on her dress that night.
BOGAEV: It's so entwined, you know? In my notes, I have a separate section about the Booths, and a separate section about the Gold Rush, and now I realize you cannot separate them.
DICKEY: You can't separate it, and the more I read about the Civil War era in general, the more I'm inclined to believe, there really were only about 25 or 30 people involved in the whole thing, because there's Robert E. Lee arresting John Brown at Harper's Ferry. There's General, or not-yet-General, Sherman, William Tecumseh Sherman, who is sitting in his hotel balcony in San Francisco, and remembering that he heard thunders of applause coming from the theater across the street for the young Edwin Booth. So, these paths just keep crossing in such fascinating ways.
BOGAEV: Constantly cross. Wow, well, so those were the actors, that was their motivation. What about the audience for these Gold Rush Shakespeareans?
DICKEY: Apparently, the audience was very up on their Shakespeare. And many of the members of the audience were not necessarily literate, but they had experienced Shakespeare.
BOGAEV: So, these travelling wagon Shakespeare troupes, right. . .
BOGAEV: And you have a beautiful photo of one of those.
DICKEY: Oh, that photograph is so wonderful. It's a little later than the Gold Rush era, but what it depicts is a wagon, a horse-drawn wagon, filled with what one assumes are actors because on the side of the wagon is a huge banner advertising Hamlet, as if that is to be the performance to do that night, and what we loved about the photograph was that if you think about the complexity of the play Hamlet, and how it uses traveling actors—
BOGAEV: Traveling troupe of actors.
DICKEY: Right, a traveling troupe of actors are coming to a small town to perform a play, in which a traveling group of actors come to a court.
BOGAEV: Right, it’s Russian dolls.
DICKEY: It's mise en abyme beyond belief. And at no point do we claim Edwin Booth as hiding in the back of that wagon, but it represent a kind of— the life of the actor, the tireless touring that they had to subject themselves to.
BOGAEV: And what were these performances like?
DICKEY: Well, if you looked at playbills, and we have a number of playbills and broadsides from the 1850s and 1870s, largely again from northern California, you can see that Shakespeare, though the main attraction quite often, was not the only attraction.
BOGAEV: So, kind of like vaudeville, more of a variety show.
DICKEY: More vaudevillian, yeah. As if you have a kind of 19th-century remote control in your hand. I mean, you can't quickly switch, you’ve got to wait for it, but you're given a menu of entertainment options, and there could be dances and other exhibitions of performing arts, one kind or another, but by no means was he the only playwright being performed. There were some very popular 19th-century melodramas that were either written in English or had been translated from French or other theaters, and they would be part of the itinerary as well.
BOGAEV: I can only imagine they must have been a huge hit, because you're a captive audience in a mining town, I mean, there's nothing to do there, and probably not a lot of books.
BOGAEV: Or maybe you might not be able to read.
DICKEY: Exactly so; it was the main offering for a kind of public entertainment there. I mean, and this overlapped with saloon life, as Ford's My Darling Clementine suggests as well, because often the stage was set within a saloon, or in the second floor of a hotel, or something like that. But audiences would call for particular bits, or as in old audience etiquette with opera, say, you would bring it to a stop to have the star do that bit over again.
BOGAEV: Oh, great. So, they take requests.
DICKEY: They take requests, and the miners also, there's some evidence of this, knew their Shakespeare well enough, that if the actor dried or forgot his lines or something, they would prompt the actor.
BOGAEV: And now we're back at this high/lowbrow, high/low business with Shakespeare, and it makes me think that perhaps this audience in this moment in Shakespeare, in the West, is very similar to what the audience must have been like originally at the Globe theater.
DICKEY: I think that's a very good idea, and indeed if you think of Elizabethan/Jacobean theater, there are the famous public theaters that we all know about, like the Globe, but lots of theater was available in yards and, well, in London today you can see pub theater. So, the association of actors with the milieu is still very strong.
BOGAEV: Which is so interesting because you have really, the great men like Lincoln quoting Shakespeare in speeches, but you also have miners in the Gold Rush camps reciting it or prompting actors.
DICKEY: Or knowing it, and one of my areas of research recently has been to... It's a little peculiar. I'm reading a lot of documents from the Civil War era, and these could be political speeches, they could be letters home from soldiers, etc., etc., and they are shot through with usages of Shakespearean phrasing.
BOGAEV: Is there a moment that you can date that transition in which the phrasing from Shakespeare becomes borrowed, or becomes the kind of book-learning, high language of letter writing?
DICKEY: There are a number of ways of pinning down a moment, I think. There is a book called Highbrow/Lowbrow that attempts to, in fact, very precisely date the moment, and I think it makes a very plausible argument, but it locates it, at really at the— not in the Gold Rush era, but a little bit after it— when the theater world becomes a little bit more stratified. Big theaters are being built, and they are, by ticket price, and by sort of social nuance, beginning to place themselves at a certain level of class.
BOGAEV: Well, we've been talking about the Booth family, and one of the highlights of the exhibit is an 1890 wax cylinder recording of Edwin Booth, and he is performing as Othello, Act 1, scene 3. Let's listen.
[CLIP: a scratchy, slightly difficult-to-understand recording of Edwin Booth as Othello:]
And therefore little shall I grace my cause
In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,
I will a round unvarnished tale deliver
Of my whole course of love—what drugs, what charms,
What conjuration, and what mighty magic
(For such proceeding I am charged withal)
I won his daughter.
BOGAEV: It's hard to hear, but you do get a sense of the emotion that he was able to pack into his performances, and also his delivery is so musical.
DICKEY: He was known for his melodious voice, and he was able clearly to introduce a new kind of— a new style of acting, really, that was subtler, I think we would find, and more naturalistic, and Othello, as I said, Hamlet was the thing he was known most for. He did the famous 100 night Hamlet. And three weeks later his younger brother shot Lincoln, so that sent Edwin Booth into what he assumed, I think, might have been a permanent retirement.
BOGAEV: And you said earlier, it's almost as if there are only 25 people in this whole period that keep on brushing up against each other, and it does make me wonder: You said that Junius goes out West following the Gold Rush, and he says, "There's a lot of money out here; everybody come follow me." If John Wilkes had gone out there, and stayed, would the whole course of American history have been changed?
DICKEY: Indeed it would. There are all those what-ifs, of course. I think, what if Junius Brutus Booth did not decide to have ten children? John Wilkes Booth was simply too young to make the trip.
BOGAEV: Well, we could probably talk about the Booths for hours.
DICKEY: It'd be easy to do.
BOGAEV: But I did want to ask you: Do we know why he made that recording?
DICKEY: I think that there are a couple of reasons. One of the things he wanted to do was leave his voice, with this newfangled technology of recording, to his family, but also because apparently someone else in the South was marketing a series of fraudulent recordings that he claimed were Edwin Booth's voice, and were not.
BOGAEV: Ah, so he had something to prove. He had to get it down on the record.
DICKEY: So, he wanted to corner the market on his own voice and also put it out. So, he, in a Chicago hotel room in 1890, evidently he records two passages from Shakespeare. One is from Hamlet, and I have not heard that, and apparently it is virtually inaudible, but Booth's family transferred the sound of their wax cylinder to an older kind of LP, the kind that feels like it's made out of cast iron, and donated this to the Cal State, Northridge, special collections, and so there is a Booth Family collection there.
BOGAEV: Now, the Booth family had their homebase back in Maryland, but there's another Shakespearean actor who is really important to California history, and her name is Helena Modjeska.
BOGAEV: Did I— Modjeska?
DICKEY: Yes, right.
BOGAEV: Tell us who she was.
DICKEY: Well, she was a very well-established and highly regarded Polish actress who did Shakespeare, mainly in German, which was the language she learned Shakespeare in, but also in Polish. In the 19th century it was not unheard of to conceive of a Utopian community. Modjeska and her husband purchased, well, they resettled in Anaheim, and they were looking for a place to set up their vision. Her husband and the people who came with them, realized that not one of them could milk a cow or plant a crop successfully, and this was not going to—
BOGAEV: I love this. This happened over and over again in California. The people, you would establish these Utopian communes—
DICKEY: Over and over again. Yeah. Well, it happened in New England, as well—
BOGAEV: And New England, right, and then it turns out no one knows how to do anything. They're all artists.
DICKEY: Well, I think the secret is, on some level they must already intuitively know that. If you're setting up a Utopian community, you are literally "nowhere." So, it's not going to happen. So, the interesting aspect of it is, what happens when, as you know it must, it doesn't work? And happily, in this case, the result is that Modjeska just had to go back to work. She was basically bankrolling it. Her husband seemed to not be contributing much in the way of finance to this. So, she went back to work. She worked very hard on improving her accent, and she is very well known for Rosalind in As You Like It, basically all the Shakespeare heroines, Cleopatra, and Ophelia. So, it's all right here.
BOGAEV: I think she's fascinating, because she brings together these strands that run throughout the history of the West, which is people going out on a spiritual quest to the West, and LA was just the recipient of hordes of mystics, and hypnotists, and mediums, and every kind of scalawag and fraud you can imagine, often, who put on performances. And it's so interesting to me that she founded this Utopian community— again, another strand in Western history— but also these mediums, when they would lead their séances, they would often channel Shakespeare. That was a— I don't know if you ran into this.
DICKEY: I'm not aware of that, no.
BOGAEV: Because, what do you people know? They know Shakespeare. So, if you had to recite something, it appeared to be channeling something, they would come out with these Shakespearean soliloquies.
DICKEY: That's very suggestive. I mean, in some ways, you know, the theater itself is a kind of séance. You're conjuring up voices out of nowhere.
BOGAEV: Channeling a character.
DICKEY: Voices of the dead. Yes. Yes. Inhabiting, or letting the character inhabit you, and, yeah, that's fascinating. But what was a revelation to me— I certainly was aware of her name and career— but her fame was extraordinary among Americans. She toured all over America, just as Booth did, and when she died in 1909, the first of many memorial services for her was held in Los Angeles, downtown at Saint Vibiana's Cathedral, and the city apparently, more or less, came to a standstill, in 1909, downtown LA. And so, she was part of the, as you say, she was part of the migration of Shakespeare into the US. It comes in waves and waves through all kinds of cultures as America opens up to all kinds of cultures.
BOGAEV: And we get movies.
DICKEY: And we get movies.
BOGAEV: Movie adaptations of Shakespeare. Now it's time to bring us up to date to, or at least to the origins, the beginnings of Hollywood and Shakespeare in the movies, and I want to focus on one of the two films that you present in the exhibition. Warner Brothers’ 1935 Midsummer's Night Dream, which was just legendary for among other things, having a live performance that came before the movie, and was staged at the Hollywood Bowl. Tell us about that. It must have been amazing from what I see from the promotional film.
DICKEY: It went on the road. It went to a couple of venues in Northern California as part of a California festival. The director was a man named Max Reinhardt, who was Austrian, and he performed it as the Hollywood Bowl in 1934, and there are fascinating descriptions of his special effects in the staging, in the outdoor staging. And of course, I mean, when you see A Midsummer's Night Dream outdoors, that is already magical. And the other thing Reinhardt did was have this legendary torch-lit— as his son remarked, "With no regard for the fire hazard of the dry hills all around”— torch-lit parade of a cast of, well, not thousands, but maybe a hundred—
BOGAEV: It was the closest thing to a Cecil B. DeMille production you could imagine.
DICKEY: It looked like it. Coming out, down the hills behind, into— the Bowl itself had been removed, and everything had been replanted with trees. So you were in the forest outside of Athens itself, when you came out of the woods. All the actors came down, the torch-lit parade of the fairies and everybody, all the way up. And people who were there can't stop talking about it.
BOGAEV: Yes, you say that your boss in the library. . .
DICKEY: Yes, Ken Brecher, the wonderful Ken Brecher, once talked—he didn't see it either— but he talked to an elderly stagehand, or somebody who still worked at the Hollywood Bowl when Ken himself was about to direct something there, and he was regaled with anecdotes about this performance.
BOGAEV: Well, let's play a bit from the promotional reel for the film, which doesn't give you a sense of the magic, so much, but definitely of the public relations struggle, and this features just a bit of the Hollywood Bowl production:
[CLIP: A narrator speaks on promotional reel:]
What started all this? Why this excitement? Let's go back a year or so and find out. This is the famous Hollywood Bowl, where Max Reinhardt, the international theatrical genius, startled motion picture producers with his stage presentation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. So successful was this engagement that Warner Bros. immediately signed Professor Reinhardt to produce and direct A Midsummer Night's Dream for the screen. Then followed months of amazing activity, the likes of which Hollywood never before experienced. A giant force...
BOGAEV: So, how did the movie come out of the Hollywood Bowl extravaganza?
DICKEY: That's a good question, and the larger context involves the precarious position at that point of Shakespeare in the film industry.
BOGAEV: And this is the… is Shakespeare box-office gold, or box-office death?
DICKEY: Or lead: Are you going to shoot it at him, or are you going to reward him with gold? Clearly, in the silent film era, we know Shakespeare was a popular subject. The talkie era begins in the late ‘20s and The Taming of the Shrew, which was a rather well-known early attempt to film Shakespeare, was also released in the silent format. This is at that moment, ’27 – ’28, I think, when theaters, some are prepared to show you just the pictures, the picture show, and some are prepared to give you the sound as well, and so it's released in two formats.
BOGAEV: Right, it's this transitional area—
DICKEY: Exactly so. And I think the consensus now is that The Taming of the Shrew did not, in fact, do that well. Although now it's sort of beloved by film historians and Shakespeare scholars—
BOGAEV: Right, this is the Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford—
DICKEY: Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, exactly, and there's some great pose striking in it, here and there. So, it was a bit of a gamble from an economic standpoint for the studios to try Shakespeare again. On the other hand, and here's where the highbrow/lowbrow comes in to play, this is also the moment where the Production Code is asserting its power, and when Hollywood has a reputation mainly just for licentiousness and scurrility, and so the Production Code weighs in, and it suddenly seems that Shakespeare could be appealing to the studios as a way of proving their bona fide interests in elevating the medium of film itself by showing the work of this artist.
BOGAEV: Again, that cultural legitimacy.
DICKEY: Cultural legitimacy, and then you get Max Reinhardt, who is a very well-regarded director, and Max Reinhardt gets all of the music of Mendelssohn's incidental music from Midsummer Night's Dream, and you get ballet from Russia and Eastern Europe, and put all the arts in their, sort of, highest brow.
BOGAEV: But, they were still a little worried about whether this was going to fly or not.
DICKEY: Very worried. Very worried.
BOGAEV: Hence, the need for this big promotional film, and let's play another clip from that PR film, and this features Max Reinhardt, the director, and he's working on staging scenes on a miniature set:
[CLIP: The narrator speaks:]
Before Reinhardt directs a difficult scene, he outlines every move of the players on the miniature of the set in which the action takes place. With him is William Dieterle, who directed the picture with Mr. Reinhardt. The great director then instructs the actors in the reading of the lines and the mood of the scene. Satisfied that everything is letter-perfect, he returns to his seat beneath the camera and the scene is shot.
BOGAEV: You know, I was watching this, and the whole time I kept waiting for some Shakespeare.
BOGAEV: And there's nothing.
DICKEY: You're still waiting, aren't you?
BOGAEV: That's right, there's nothing. Was Warner Bros. afraid that people would just be put off by iambic pentameter?
DICKEY: I think they might have been, or I don't think they needed to be, but I think they were, in fact. In some of the promotional materials, not in the promo film, but in some of the materials we feature, there is an exhortation to local towns and municipalities, who are going to be showing the film, to try to tie it in with schools and museums. I think there was some worry about it. I think my favorite object in the exhibition from the film is a very fancy relief, a medallioned invitation to the premier, which that promo was showing footage of, in fact, and there are some heads posed in this metallic relief across the top of the case that is containing the invitation. On the left is William Shakespeare, the author, and on the right is Max Reinhardt— I think I've got that right— and in the middle, in pride of place, upstaging both the playwright and the director, are the three Warner brothers in profile. Bang, bang, bang.
BOGAEV: They get top billing.
DICKEY: Bang, bang, bang, they're right there. So, it's promotional. It certainly is. I think it rewards watching or re-watching.
BOGAEV: But the story of Shakespeare in the West just isn’t about Hollywood, and it's interesting to look at what the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is doing, commissioning some 36 playwrights to translate Shakespeare, and many parts of the Shakespeare world, not happy with this. Regardless of whether this is a good thing for Shakespeare— just take that out of the equation— does that speak to the themes of The Bard Goes West? That a West Coast festival would feel free to do this?
DICKEY: I guess it does, in a way. It's another sort of Declaration of Independence, I suppose. Culturally, you're saying you’re no longer umbilically tied to the First Folio or the quartos or something. It's definitely a movement out of an age of enormous respect that we have had for Shakespeare’s text and for original practices. I don't think Ashland needs to be the one to do this. They can do it onstage, with their resettings of the original text and various eras and periods and so forth, and they do that quite successfully.
BOGAEV: And certainly it's been done and done and done.
DICKEY: It's been done.
BOGAEV: So, maybe my theory doesn't hold up, that it's not really tied to geography.
DICKEY: Well, I don't think it's tied to geography. I think it's tied to time, more than space. And maybe this is just the next wave of innovation in thinking about a) how to stage or what to put on stage under the name of Shakespeare, and perhaps b) a kind of feeling of surrender to the sense that the plays themselves are dated and we need to update them somehow, or make them more accessible linguistically. That is something you run into in various forms, certainly in my profession.
BOGAEV: I think it's so telling that the exhibit ends with the newer iterations of or film adaptations of Shakespeare, but doesn't come up to the modern day, because we're in a global age of Shakespeare, where I can watch a simulcast of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance.
BOGAEV: I can go to my local theater and see a live Shakespeare performance from London, and there's no bringing America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West up to the present moment.
DICKEY: I think that's right, and anyway he's always somehow ahead of us. [LAUGHS] We're still exploring the riches.
BOGAEV: Well, we will talk to you in 75 years, say?
DICKEY: Why not?
BOGAEV: For your next exhibit? Stephen Dickey, it was just such a pleasure. Thank you.
DICKEY: Thank you very much.
BOGAEV: And thanks for the exhibit.
DICKEY: You're welcome.
WITMORE: Stephen Dickey, a senior lecturer in the English department at UCLA, is co-curator, along with the Folger's Georgianna Ziegler, of America's Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West, a Folger's exhibition with the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, that ran at the Los Angeles Public Library, from November 17, 2016 to February 26th, 2017. Stephen was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
“The West Yet Glimmers With Some Streaks Of Day” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had technical help from Brian Allison and Jeff Peters at The Marketplace Studios in Los Angeles.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.