Literature, Poetry, and Books
April 24, 2009
As I was telling the Customs lad the other day, who was more hungry for lunch than for literary history, America has in some ways shown Shakespeare more regard over the years than has the land of his birth and life and work and death, the land he immortalized, where I now sojourn:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world...
As old dying Gaunt says in Richard II. And says so gloriously as to make generations of readers forget Gaunt's pitiful lament and condemnation of Richard, that this dear, dear land
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!
Speaking of which, I arrived in this dear land at the very moment when the Labour government seemed to be announcing that England was leasing itself--to the next generation or to world creditors, I'm not sure which--like to a tenement or pelting farm, taking on more debt than at any time since World War II. But as you know, such matters are beyond me, and I digress.
When you and I were here, "a lifetime ago" as you say, there was no Globe Theatre in London. That there is one now is due mainly to the efforts of that American I mentioned yesterday, Sam Wanamaker. And the story of his interest in such matters is an American story that Sam Clemens would have loved. It originated near your neck of the Heartland woods, in Chicago:
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders.
It was in the Chicago World's Fair of 1933 that the fifteen-year-old Wanamaker encountered the "first reconstruction of a Shakespearean 'Globe style' theatre" in America. He said "he was struck by 'the avoidance of the sort of hushed quality you had to have when you went to the theater'" (NYT, July 9, 1987). This boyhood experience awakened a dream in Wanamaker that he didn't begin to fulfill until the last couple of decades of his life, the dream of rebuilding Shakespeare's original Globe Theatre. And here's the part Sam Clemens would have loved:
Following the close of the Chicago fair, the complete 'Globe' theatre building was moved to Dallas, Texas, and in June 1936, as part of that state's official centennial celebrations, a quasi-religious ceremony 'consecrated' the newly re-erected stage for the citizens of the Southwest. Earlier that year the American vice consul to the UK and a party of local dignitaries in Stratford-upon-Avon had gathered to collect soil from the garden at Shakespeare's Birthplace and river water from the Avon, in preparation for the Dallas ceremony. The soil was placed in a box made from charred wood saved from the recently destroyed Stratford-upon-Avon theatre and the water secured in a pristine aluminium bottle, ready for shipping across the Atlantic by Cunard liner. On its arrival in New York, a member of the British consulate met the package prior to its final onward journey to Dallas.
The Dallas Morning News of 3 June 1936 reported the previous day's 'rites' of sprinkling the earth and water on the replica Globe stage before an audience of six hundred, transmitted via a live radio broadcast to the many listeners of station WFAA. With the stage symbolically consecrated the citizens of Texas were invited to the Globe to watch a Shakespeare play performed 'every hour on the hour' for the next 177 days.
What an orgy! Shakespeare, Texas style! Apparently, since the Chicago example, at least nine other Globe theatres popped up in America, while England continued to have none until 1997--and that one only because of the reverence and determination of Sam Wanamaker.
I know some of these things because of the book you called to my attention, Shakespeare and the American Nation (Cambridge, 2004), by Kim Sturgess, which is where all the quotations come from unless otherwise noted. It is an informative book, as books of that sort can be, concerning itself not with anything intrinsic to Shakespeare's plays or poetry but with a certain aspect of the reception of Shakespeare over the centuries. And it is also a typical academic book in that it can't help sneering at its subject gratuitously with a little intellectual contempt. Somehow the American "appropriation" of Shakespeare can only be explained by some kind of "nationalism" that seems to leave one's hands dirty to touch--the "establishment," for the usual unsavory variety of alleged or implied reasons, fearful of losing its advantages, conscripts the Bard to defend itself against foreign influences, etc. In any case, how déclassé for a country or a people to consider itself heroic or to consider a poet as something possibly even greater than a hero. But these sentiments are really unnecessary for Mr. Sturgess's book, and one feels reading it as if they are there because they are expected, almost required, by the Guild for which he labors. So one overlooks them. But I further digress...
It is natural for people to puzzle, at least for a moment, over how America, who owes its existence and its essence to radical revolution against England, can with any consistency treasure England's greatest poet. But America, of course, never ceased cherishing or revering or respecting and being grateful for many things British. The essential thing we threw off was the tyrannical idea of feudal monarchy and aristocracy--that some men were born with saddles on their backs and others booted and spurred to ride them by the grace of God. Where did Shakespeare stand on this? Well, that's a long story about which Walt Whitman, among others, has some entertaining things to say, but John Adams, I believe as early as 1765, likened British tyranny to Lady Macbeth.
There are many examples of America's incorporation of--and dependence upon--good old things in its Novus Ordo Seclorum. For an example of America interweaving its newness with old English threads, consider the patriotic song, America, popularly known as My Country Tis of Thee.
My country, 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims' pride,
From every mountainside
Let freedom ring!
My native country, thee,
Land of the noble free,
Thy name I love;
I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills;
My heart with rapture thrills,
Like that above.
Let music swell the breeze,
And ring from all the trees
Sweet freedom's song;
Let mortal tongues awake;
Let all that breathe partake;
Let rocks their silence break,
The sound prolong.
Our father's God to Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright,
With freedom's holy light,
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God our King.
Not exactly Shakespeare. But I've always loved it, including the melody, taken without blushing from the English national anthem, God Save the Queen: American words sung to British music. What could be more American! Shakespeare in America seems to me like English words set to American music. Al Pacino's Looking for Richard is an amusing, if unnecessarily foul-mouthed, short film on Americans trying to "do" Shakespeare.
Financial support for the Globe Theatre effort--and for many other similar efforts to preserve British culture--came mainly from Americans. "That," said Mr. Wanamaker [twenty-some years ago], "is in the nature of the American character. The British are much more cynical and regard the idea of a Globe reconstruction as an Elizabethan Disneyland. But the Americans have a real hunger for what they see as their history, their culture and their Shakespeare." (NYT July 9, 1987)
So Sam Wanamaker gets a memorial plaque next to the Shakespeare monument and window on the south side of the nave in Southwark Cathedral. I visited it yesterday, while waiting for a counter-tenor to sing Dryden lyrics to music by Purcell in honor of Shakespeare's 445th birthday and St. George's Day. "In Thanksgiving for Sam Wanamaker whose vision rebuilt Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in this parish," it says, while a full-size statue of Shakespeare reclines on its elbow just to the left of it. But what about such memorials and such monuments, what about the Globe itself, what about the Lincoln statue I have hardly begun to talk about? Do they remind one of Crito's touching concern about how Socrates will be buried, forgetting what Socrates had been telling him for so many years--that Socrates' foot is not Socrates?
They could. But I am inclined to think of them more as an important kind of secular sacrament: outward and visible signs of an inward and elusive beauty and truth.
So, more to follow, on Shakespeare, young hearts, Juliet and Shakespeare's younger brother, Southwark Cathedral (if I have not exhausted it), Walt Whitman (and Shakespeare's esoterics and exoterics), the Special Relationship, Lincoln in London, etc.