The Beard of Avon

Goodman Theatre

How could a small-town businessman with a rudimentary education and an illiterate daughter become the greatest playwright in the English language? If a Stratford glove maker’s son could author 37 plays and 154 sonnets, how is it he could barely write his own name? Why was no eulogy delivered upon his death in 1616? Why did his fellow Stratfordites erect a statue of him holding a sack rather than a pen? And if William Shakespeare’s plays made him a darling of Queen Elizabeth’s court, why does Mr. Shakspere’s will, which contains a detailed disposition of his household furnishings, include no mention of his prized manuscripts, or indeed anything of literary interest? Everyone can agree that successful Stratford businessman Shakspere owned part of London’s Globe Theatre and was a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. But no one knows whether he was a bit or featured player, let alone the author of Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth.

Over the years some 80 names have been put forward as the “true” Shakespeare. Perhaps the best candidate to unseat Shakspere is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Although he died of plague in 1604, years before Shakespeare’s last plays are thought to have been written, even the staunchest Stratfordian will admit that dating Shakespeare’s scripts is largely conjecture. Oxford was a highly educated man renowned for his poetry and known as an avid enthusiast of drama. Oxfordians eagerly point out the similarities between events in many of Shakespeare’s plays and those in Oxford’s life; Hamlet, they contend, is close to Oxford’s life story, complete with a parody of his busybody guardian, Lord Burghley, in the character of Polonius. Oxford had access to all the ancient literature alluded to in Shakespeare’s canon. He studied law. He traveled. And if he needed a pseudonym, “Shakespeare” was a natural choice: Oxford’s coat of arms showed a lion shaking a spear, and at court he was referred to as “spear shaker.”

However you feel about the Shakespeare authorship controversy–I couldn’t care less who wrote the plays, I’m just grateful they exist–it does offer fodder for a historical mystery of epic proportions. Playwright Amy Freed opts for light comedy, however–so light it seems the actors might float away.

The play opens in the hayloft of one William Shakspere, where he, his churlish wife, Anne, and a mumbling old man who serves no discernible dramatic purpose appear to live. For the first ten minutes, as Shakspere and Anne bicker, it seems the only issue of any importance is Shakspere’s rampant hair loss (a problem the audience has to take on faith, since actor Rob Campbell has a full head of hair). But soon it becomes clear that the spark has gone out of their marriage. Their life is isolated and routine, so when a touring theatrical company comes to town, ten minutes of dick jokes are all Shakspere needs to abandon his wife for the life of a traveling player.

Meanwhile, in London, the preening, debauched, poison-tongued Earl of Oxford is drooping about with his lover, supereffeminate Henry Wriothesley. And at this point the improbabilities of Freed’s script multiply. Though sexual scandal has hounded Oxford for years and he can’t take any more public humiliation, he’s desperate to get his trunkful of scripts produced. Despite his extraordinary wit and intelligence, he’s never figured out a way to accomplish this feat–until Wriothesley makes an outlandish suggestion: use a pseudonym. Soon Oxford is offering Shakspere’s troupe a manuscript. The aristocrat fears he “lacks warmth” as a playwright. Shakspere, on the other hand, bursts into tears watching the most melodramatic of scenes. And if you can’t see where things are headed, you’re just the audience member Freed has in mind.

During the 90-minute first act the playwright delivers copious doses of lukewarm silliness. Shakspere agrees to pose as the writer of Oxford’s plays, but his imagination leads him to embellish and, yes, “warm up” the scripts. Queen Elizabeth (depicted with all the complexity Whoopi Goldberg gave the role as an Oscars emcee) becomes enamored of the work and decides to become a playwright herself. Anne trundles off to London, disguises herself as a prostitute, and becomes mistress to her own husband–until she discovers the joys of a romp with the suddenly bisexual Oxford. The comedy throughout remains big and easy, steering clear of any psychological intricacies that might enliven the characters and provide meaningful stakes.

Director David Petrarca has always known how to make a comedy snap to attention, and his Beard of Avon is characteristically tight. But he pushes his actors too far in the direction of broad farce, a style this largely spineless play can’t support: it doesn’t have the necessary elaborate plot and labyrinthine complications. As a result the cast expends an inordinate amount of energy on a small comedic return.

By the end of the first act it seems we’re not supposed to take anything seriously. Yet in the second act, in addition to providing more silliness, Freed tries to wring emotion from characters built largely out of quirks. And without the proper groundwork, Oxford’s deathbed confessions to Shakspere, admitting his friend’s genius, are more maudlin than touching.

One wonders why the Goodman opened its main-stage season with this work. Even by the standards of light comedy it offers no juicy roles: Oxford–the most entertaining creation–is still little more than a standard-issue self-absorbed aristocrat. It offers less in the way of spectacle. And though press materials state that “Freed’s play takes on the big questions” about the source of these classics, you’d be hard-pressed to find any but tiny answers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ken Howard-SCR.