Theatergoing is an addiction. After you get that buzz the first time around, you just can't wait for the next time you can shoot up.
One man's magnificent obsession with The Bard. By Cary M. Mazer
A few years ago I was in London, seeing a Royal Shakespeare Company production of an obscure Elizabethan play. At the theater I bumped into my friend Lena and a dozen other colleagues who, like me, were on their way to aShakespeare conference in Stratford-upon-Avon -- and who, like me, wereadding another obscure play to their lists of obscure plays they had seen. I asked Lena whether her husband was traveling with her this year, and when I discovered that he wasn't, I asked whether he envied her being in England for a week. Not at all, she told me, he was relieved: in her absence he was going to pursue his project -- to see a professional game in every major and minor league baseball park in the United States and Canada.
What is it about people collecting experiences -- a theater buff collecting obscure plays in performance, a baseball fan collecting ball parks, a birdwatcher collecting sightings of obscure species? Perhaps it's a male thing, though that doesn't explain Lena, nor my City Paper colleague Toby Zinman and her "life list" of obscure plays.
I thought about all this when I went up to New York City this summer to see Shakespeare's Henry VIII at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. For with that production -- the last in the six-year Shakespeare marathon announced by Joseph Papp, which took more than 10 years for them to complete -- I have now seen every one of Shakespeare's plays in performance.
I do keep an actual list of the Shakespeare plays I have seen. In my defense, it's what I do for a living: when I'm not moonlighting as a City Paper theater critic I'm a professor at Penn, where my scholarly specialty is the production history of Shakespeare's plays. I admit that it's a bit compulsive to keep a list. But at my age, with memory failing, I don't actually remember whether Feste was doubled with Fabian in that Edwardian-dress production of Twelfth Night I saw back in the early '70s. This way I can at least look up what year it was and check the right file in my closet for the program (yup, I'm that obsessive-compulsive, er, organized).
Though my wife would disagree, I'm not all that compulsive about seeing every Shakespeare production that I can. Unlike my friend Stephen at UC Berkeley who has seen over 80 Twelfth Nights (I've seen only 17; when I saw No. 12 I referred to it as "144th Night"), or my friend Alan at UNC Chapel Hill who actually remembers everything he's seen, I don't run off to every collegiate production, nor do I make regular pilgrimages to regional Shakespeare festivals in Utah or Wisconsin or Texas. (If I did I might have seen Henry VIII much sooner: with Timon of Athens this summer, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is completing its third time through the canon; by contrast, the New York Shakespeare Festival had never before done Henry VIII, reputedly because Joe Papp superstitiously feared that the theater might burn down, as the Globe Theater did, from cannon wadding smoldering in the thatch roof, during one of the play's original performances.) If I really wanted to see everything, then how come I saw only 11 productions in the Shakespeare marathon in New York?
Looking back over my list, I am surprised to see how long it's taken me to see all of the plays. By 1979, when I was only 26, I had already seen all but five of the 38 plays, including many of the less-often-performed ones. I had already seen Titus Andronicus in a quite decent RSC production in London in 1973 (but nothing compared to the amazing one I saw them do in '88); I had already seen Troilus and Cressida off-Broadway (though I don't feel I really saw it until I saw the RSC production, in '90-'91, three times); and I had already seen all three parts of Henry VI uncut. Serendipity had a lot to do with what I saw and when. At one point I had seen Pericles on stage more often than I had seen Othello.
Thinking about all this with my clearest hindsight, I think my Shakespeare-production collecting has more in common with the birdwatcher than with the baseball-park collector. I'm not interested in racking up statistics, or in ticking things off the list. Rather, like the patient birdwatcher, I'm content to sit passively on my butt for hours at a time just on the off chance of experiencing a fleeting moment of aesthetic pleasure. As my wife will tell you, I'm quite compulsive about not walking out in the middle of plays (well, I did walk out in the middle of an amateur production of Hamlet sponsored by an organization affiliated with Lyndon LaRouche, back in '81 in the basement of the Unitarian Church on Chestnut Street, but that's another story): I keep hoping something interesting or insightful or moving will happen.
And sometimes it does. I remember standing through an uninsightful outdoor promenade-style production of The Tempest in the pouring rain, with the actors sloshing around in wellies on a badly drained concrete slab (the construction site of what is now the reconstructed Globe in London), only to be blown away (figuratively and almost literally) by an ingenious line reading two minutes before the end of the play.
Sometimes I get pleasure even when the production itself isn't offering any, from the sheer anticipation of a moment I know to be beautiful or moving, as though my body remembers what my heart felt other times I saw the play. I start getting chills each time Romeo and Juliet first kiss; when Berowne in Love's Labor's Lost says that love is "as sweet and musical/ As bright Apollo's lute, strung with his hair"; when Marcus Andronicus discovers his raped and mutilated niece Lavinia in Titus Andronicus; when Rosalind in As You Like It announces that her "affection hath an unknown bottom, like the Bay of Portugal"; when Benedick tells Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing"I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes; and moreover, I will go with thee to thy uncle's"; when Cleopatra faints dead away over the corpse of Antony atop the monument; or when King Lear starts howling off stage as he brings on the corpse of his daughter Cordelia.
I admit it: theatergoing is an addiction. After you get that buzz the first time around, you just can't wait for the next time you can shoot up.
Who knows: the next time I see Henry VIII, when Cardinal Wolsey begins his long slide into disfavor, or when Katherine of Aragon, on her deathbed, is about to have her angelic vision, I may start feeling those same chills of emotional anticipation.
Ask me the next time.
(Get our your calendars: this season, within an hour of Philadelphia, you can see, by current count, professional productions of Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night's Dream, two Measure for Measures, and Cymbeline. What? You've never seen Cymbeline? Trust me, you're in for a thrill.)