Friday, September 23, 2016

Shakespeare in Chicago—the amazing, truish story

When Mercutio tells Tybalt in "Romeo & Juliet," "you fight by the book of arithmetic,"
 this is the book he's referring to. (Courtesy Newberry Library)

     This column was fun to write. Fun to grab a Divvy up to the Newberry.  Fun to spend an hour being walked through the show by the deeply-knowledgable Jill Gage, the Newberry researcher in charge of it. Fun to craft the tale this way. True, I bumped into my 650 word limit; I had to leave spectacular stuff from the show on the cutting room floor. Which made me feel a tad guilty taking space for my trick opening. But that is also what makes it pack a punch, and not just be "The Sun-Times Goes to an Exhibit."
    I did worry about what I call "The Curator Effect"—where an exhibit is compelling provided you have the person who spent four years putting it together walk you through. And to top it off Gage is an expert in Samuel Johnson, my hero. Not often I get the chance to talk to one of THOSE. So we had a good chat. While I do think the average person interested in Shakespeare can pull enough out of the displays to reward an hour spent there on their own, the good news is, you don't have to brave it alone. Tours with Jill Gage are being offered to the public Sept 24, Oct. 26. Nov. 22, and Dec. 8. I would go for one of those, if possible.

     William Shakespeare lived briefly in Chicago, in the summer of 1603. As you might remember from grade school, his ship was blown off course sailing from his home in Stratford-on-Avon to London, drifting instead through the unbuilt St. Lawrence Seaway and ending up at colonial Chicago. Though records were lost in the Great Chicago Fire of 1666, the Bard is thought to have stayed at Fort Dearborn, where legend is he performed in a barracks production of “Love’s Labor’s Lost.” Though Shakespeare soon returned to England via the Graf Zeppelin, experts suspect his masterpiece, “Richard III,” written in 1592, was influenced by his sojourn here.   
Jill Gage with costume worn in Chicago by Edwin Booth

     I’m going to enjoy the Trump era. Why should he be the only one free to lie with impunity? Safe in the assumption that his audience either doesn’t know or doesn’t care what the actual facts are. No one can prove that Shakespeare never lived in Chicago. Besides, if he didn’t live here, why is there a “Shakespeare Street”? Answer that! You can’t. I rest my case.
     Until Jan. 20, however, 43 percent of the nation must limit ourselves to what Othello calls “the ocular proof,” that is, depending on verified reality to provide amazement — a practice that already feels antique, like dipping candles. So it is good that the Newberry Library has taken the most picked-over historical subject imaginable, the aforementioned William Shakespeare, and turned his legacy into a true font of fascination.

     “Creating Shakespeare” opens Friday and runs through Dec. 31 in the museum’s ground floor exhibit space. It doesn’t dwell on the meager known facts about Shakespeare’s life, such as his death in 1616 which prompted these celebrations. Instead it looks at how his legacy has been, in each new generation, re-worked into the important creative force we enjoy today. 
     "The reason for Shakespeare's survival in some ways has very little to do with Shakespeare himself," said Jill Gage, who spent four years assembling the show, and enjoys this august title: Custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing and Bibliographer for British Literature and History. "He was the raw material, but over the past four centuries other people have re-created him and really been responsible for his survival."
     At times Shakespeare fell from favor.
     "Within 50 years of Shakespeare's death, he was old-fashioned," Gage said. "They revised him."
     If Shakespeare had come alive 100 years after his death, "he wouldn't recognize his plays," she said. "Nahun Tate, poet laureate in England revises 'Lear' in which Lear and Cordelia live. Lear regains the throne and Cordelia marries Edgar ... Tate is a royalist. He didn't want to show a king being usurped and murdered on the stage."
      The Newberry has prized a number of treasures from the British Library, such as one of two existing copies of the famous "Bad Quarto" of 1603, the first known printing of Hamlet.
     "This is something that has never been in Chicago before and will never be in Chicago again," said Gage. There is much Chicago material, such as a costume Edwin Booth wore in Chicago in the 1870s, and a playbill ballyhooing his brother, John Wilkes Booth, when he performed here in 1862 and told the Tribune, quoting Richard III, "I am determined to play the villain." We forget how famous Booth was. His shooting Lincoln was as if some well-known actor of questionable stability—think Shia LaBeouf—shot the president.
     Any worthwhile exhibit should have one fact that floors you, and as tempted as I am to make you go to the show to discover it, I'd be neglecting my newsman's duty if I didn't tell you here. In 1774 the Continental Congress banned theater. "We will discountance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially ... shows, plays and other expensive diversions."
     Wow. Nothing I've learned about the American Revolution reminded me so starkly as this ban did that we were founded—duh—by revolutionaries. We're lucky they didn't set up a guillotine in front of Independence Hall. Maybe that's coming.


  1. One would think that there were a plethora of "ocular proof" these days with hardly a single event of any possible importance lacking video evidence of what occurred. Unfortunately, we all seem to make up our minds about what happened BEFORE we view the videos.


  2. "In 1774 the Continental Congress banned theater."
    Well, I wouldn't call it a ban. Maybe, from the Middle English, a bann, in the sense of a proclamation. From Derek Davis' "Religion and the Continental Congress:"

    "In 1775, when the Marquis de Lafayette invited the president of Congress to a play, Henry Laurens of South Carolina politely declined. Pressed by the Marquis for an explanation, Laurens replied that "since Congress... passed a resolution recommending to the several states to enact laws for the suppression of theatrical amusements, he could not possibly do himself the honor of waiting upon him to the play.""

    Not really akin to setting up guillotines, especially since that might have fallen under the rubric of "shows, plays and other expensive diversions...."

  3. The existence of Shakespeare Street is indeed compelling evidence, reminiscent of when Goethe and Shiller flew to our town on the Hindenburg to help celebrate the 1802 Oktoberfest. And then there was the time all the nation's founding fathers gathered in the Loop.

    That Ms. Gage is a Johnson expert reminded me of my freshman English professor, a Johnson scholar who, I realize in retrospect, sometimes fell into an 18th Century manner of speech. He inducted me into his Naval Reserve unit, and in those days one's bell bottoms had, instead of a fly, a flap that was secured by 13 buttons, symbolizing the original colonies. When I commented on how inconvenient this was nature called he agreed, saying "Yes. It calls for a person of large parts and great penetration."

    Tom Evans

    1. Reminds me of a dirtier joke relying on the flap configuration that in retrospect must have been funny only to those in a state of inebriation just short of catatonia. The punch line goes something like, "Oh, it's pissed off because I let the other one go first."


  4. I seem to have left out a "when."



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