Schoolchildren are introduced to Shakespeare as literature, which might not be the best idea. I slogged through King Lear in college, and then again this summer on behalf of my book group. In the interim, I was riveted by Robert Falls’s 2006 production at the Goodman. Lines I don’t follow on the page I reread until I parsed them; onstage they tumbled by, revealed in the acting. As theater, King Lear surrendered its secrets.
One way to approach written Shakespeare is to see the words for what they really are: a portal to the drama. In 2014 Michael Lenehan spent a season standing at that door. He watched the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin, prepare and then perform one of Shakespeare’s favorite comedies, Much Ado About Nothing. The book he’s just published about that experience, Much Ado, is full of lines and scenes from the play. But he approaches them less as texts to be interpreted than as problems—artistic but also practical—faced by the director and cast.
Lenehan’s a former Reader editor in chief, Atlantic contributor, and author of a book on the 1963 Loyola University national champion basketball team.
The APT is one of the nation’s foremost repertory companies, and 2014 was the final season for its longtime artistic director, David Frank. Lenehan, who owns a house in Spring Green, thought this made it a good time to sit in.
He was in the rehearsal hall when Frank and his actors wrestled with one of Ado’s best-known lines: “Kill Claudio,” says Beatrice to Benedick, the bickering adversaries at the center of the play. You might not guess it from reading the script, but this is a laugh line. Beatrice is serious: Claudio, who is Benedick’s friend, has just humiliated Hero, who is Beatrice’s pure and innocent cousin. Now—just as Beatrice and Benedick are allowing they might actually be in love with each other—Beatrice wants proof.
“Kill Claudio,” she says. She’d do it herself, but she’s a woman and this is Sicily. Lenehan tells us, “David Frank and the actors wanted to play it serious. And yet they knew the audience would probably find it hilarious.”
Over the course of the run, Lenehan watches the actress Colleen Madden, playing Beatrice, deliver the line half a dozen different ways in rehearsals. Madden slows it down and gulps to steel herself. She spits it out. But if the goal was to make the moment serious yet work, it wasn’t reached. As a laugh line, says Lenehan, “it was surefire.”
The scene goes on. And Benedick’s reply to Beatrice disgusts her. “Ha! Not for the wide world,” he says. Beatrice and Benedick now quarrel, and Lenehan is all over the quarrel. His exegesis isn’t simply an interpretation of the text; it’s an observation, for our benefit, of how good actors decide what to do with the words they’re given.
“An actress could deduce that her job . . . is to convey that Beatrice is angry,” Lenehan writes. But duh!—the audience will get that at once and the quarrel goes on for some 40 lines. “If anger is the only message,” Lenehan writes, putting us inside Frank’s head, “what are all those words for?” Unless it gets more, the audience will tune out.
Today’s readers will puzzle out those 40 lines for what they mean; Much Ado’s actors scoured the words for the feelings behind them. Beatrice, having just admitted love to a man who immediately disappointed her, would feel a swirl of emotions. Walking us through the text line by line, just as Frank walked his actors, Lenehan points out that after she’s “disappointed” she’s “incredulous,” then tries to reason with Benedick but “erupts into anger,” reasons some more and erupts again, turns first “sarcastic” and then “woeful,” once more sarcastic, and winds up “reflective of the sad state of manhood.” (Was there a woman in the audience who couldn’t relate?)
Such a high degree of attentiveness to language is special to Frank and to APT, says Lenehan. And knowing well how he approaches writing and editing, I’m sure it helps explain why he wanted to write this book.
Much Ado is a short book and easy to read, but it’s very smart. You probably don’t need to be introduced to Shakespeare. It does that, but it’s primarily a fascinating study of stagecraft.