Hi Everyone! #90 — Go See The Book of Will

The First Folio

The First Folio

I spent a moving evening in the theater this week attending the opening night of Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s crowd-pleasing production of The Book of Will. ( You should, without delay, make plans attend a performance yourself. (I’ll tell you why it’s worth the price of admission soon. I’ll tell you now that, given the challenges of filling the theatre for an unfamiliar play, especially at the beginning of the run, HVSF is offering a two-for-one ticket deal – just type the code OPENTHEBOOK when ordering your tickets.)

The play is directed by Davis McCallum, one of the most valuable recent additions to the Hudson Valley as artistic director of HVSF, who’s done so much to open the Festival up to Hudson Valley communities. He’s also a stage director of rare power and taste. (You may remember my unabashed enthusiasm for his production of The Winter’s Tale.

The play, by America’s most produced living playwright, the talented and modest Lauren Gunderson, tells the true story of the production of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, a project conceived and accomplished against impossibly long odds by two actors from the Globe’s theater company and their fiercely supportive wives (and one captivatingly vital daughter). If their project had not succeeded, nearly all the plays would exist today only in wildly distorted and diminished form, if they were not lost entirely. Interest in the plays would probably be confined to the occasional graduate student.

Nearly all the characters are based on real-life historic personalities. Their labour of love is set against a vividly Shakespearean portrait of their times – a story of passionate intention, doubt, love, loss, that even includes a somewhat ambiguously villainous old man, a short and stirring turn by Richard Burbage, “the first great actor of English theatre,” and a larger-than-life Ben Jonson.

You might think such a play best suited for Shakespeare buffs and English majors, but it’d be a great night in the theatre even without Shakespeare. The characters are vivid and appealing, the story, even if you know the outcome, is exciting and suspenseful. It’s a story that reminds us that it’s possible for heroic perseverance to be anchored in a world permeated with loss and the passage of time.

The Book of Will

The Book of Will

It’s not a widely appreciated story, even among those who know about the First Folio. It’s one of those pivotal moments in history, where different choices by a small number of people would have made an enormous difference.

There’s something vertiginous in considering how close the collected works of Shakespeare came to being lost or severely compromised. How many lives would be different, how impoverished our language and understanding of the human condition? One can imagine the Potterville of a world in which Shakespeare had been lost.

I have a strong attraction to stories of heroic efforts to save irreplaceable cultural treasures. For Father’s Day this year I received a copy of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer, in which a band of librarians pulls off a brazen heist to save precious centuries-old Arabic texts from Al Qaeda. And I’ve always deeply felt the heroic efforts of young linguists traveling to remote corners of the world to preserve at least the outline of languages before the last native speakers succumb to old age.

And, as long as we’re talking, there’s the heroism of wildlife biologists doing everything they can to preserve the last surviving mating pair of a nearly extinct species.

Anyway, go up to Boscobel and see the play. And we took a picnic before and that was a really good experience.

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