And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, and, like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind.
Prospero’s words from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” apply to the pageant he has just put on to honor his daughter’s wedding, but also by extension to the world itself. As he says a moment later, “we are such stuff as dreams are made on.”
The words can now apply to the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, which was destroyed by fire last Monday. The theater had been dormant for so long that for many its destruction was likely the first time they’d heard of it. But there was a time, as news reports noted upon its demise, when Katherine Hepburn, Christopher Plummer and James Earl Jones graced the stage, and the loss of a theater is a tragedy. It’s worth pointing out that the Stratford theater was modeled on Shakespeare’s own Globe Theatre, in London, which burned to the ground in 1613.
I can’t identify the date, other than that it was before I was a Connecticut resident (which makes it a very long time ago), but I remember taking the drive up from New York to see an American Shakespeare Theatre production of “The Tempest.” The performance was fine, and also notable were the surroundings, perhaps not as charming as Shakespeare’s own Stratford-upon-Avon, but charming enough, with picnic grounds that overlooked the water. It was a great place to see a show.
I’ve learned from an Associated Press story that the theater, built in 1955, had its final full season in the Stratford building in 1982, and that the final play was performed in 1989. That final play was “The Tempest.”
There have been plans to resurrect it since, but none worked out. Now, apparently, the fate of the property is to be decided by the local town council.
Though there are large numbers of enthusiasts, Shakespeare can be a hard sell, at least in an enduring way, as the Stratford experience shows. I’ve long considered that if you are a native English speaker you are among the most fortunate in the world simply because it was Shakespeare’s native language as well. But there are those who find that of little advantage, because it’s an English language of centuries ago, and for many it can seem as impenetrable as coming from another world.
It doesn’t help when productions like the recent “Henry V” at Hartford Stage receive generally positive reviews, despite performances that failed to convey the meaning of the lines. It can be hard enough, but when actors fail in this way what chance does an audience have? The worst part of this is akin to the “operator error” factor in computer use; instead of blaming the performers audience members begin to think it’s their fault for not being smart enough to “get” Shakespeare.
Ahem. Consider that a mini rant.
In any case, there’s reason to be encouraged. Earlier this week Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of “Hamilton,” taped an episode of Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” in Puerto Rico. It was in support of the island that is still recovering from the impact of Hurricane Maria in 2017. At about the same time, Miranda sent out a tweet saying the loss of the Stratford theater was “heartbreaking.” That was an accurate way to put it.
Miranda updated the long-ago story of a Founding Father with an astoundingly successful contemporary approach. It helps remind you that while theaters come and go Shakespeare is bound to remain. At least, as Prospero put it, until “our revels now are ended.”
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or firstname.lastname@example.org
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