Enough with the Shakespeare? 8 Playwrights You Ought to Know About


Friday, April 04, 2014

An old article from the Seattle Stranger keeps making the rounds on Facebook among theater people: “Ten Things Theaters Need to Do Right Now to Save Themselves.” Thing #1: “Enough with the goddamned Shakespeare already.” 

Writer Brendan Kiley’s rant isn’t anti-Shakespeare. He tells theaters, “The greatest playwright in history has become your enabler and your crutch,” and suggests they “find new, good, weird plays nobody has heard of. Teach your audiences to want surprises, not pacifiers.”

Easier said than done. But even if you find the sentiment heretical, it’s worth asking why one playwright — who’d be turning 450 this month — gets so much real estate in today’s theaters. It’s also curious to note how few plays are ever performed that date between Shakespeare’s death and 1879, when Ibsen’s A Doll’s House premiered. By way of comparison, imagine if classical music had no composers between John Dowland and Edward Elgar. Is there some alternative canon of classic plays American theaters ought to be presenting? 

Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson were well-known rivals to Shakespeare, but the Elizabethan theater was full of playwrights. Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, recommends Knight of the Burning Pestle, by the team of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. It’s about a grocer named Ralph who goes to see a play and, in a twist that strikes us as postmodern, ends up in it. “It’s a really loopy play,” Witmore says, “kind of bonkers, and I think we would love it if we could see it today.” He also notes Susanna Centlivre’s The Gaming Table (adapted from her earlier play The Basset-table), “which is about a series of players, in the way we would think of that term now: people who are on-the-make romantically, financially.” The Gaming Table represents a “female playwright doing terrific work, and it works!”

The theatrical executive Howard Sherman thinks Moliere is worth another look. “I think we’d like most of the plays of Moliere,” he says. “I have a particular fondness for School for Wives,” which finds the playwright waxing on the ubiquity of "base flattery, injustice, fraud, self-interest, treachery.” Sherman also thinks we’d find John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, from around 1630, wholly contemporary. “I recently saw a production which was striking and as up-to-the-minute and shocking as one could ask for.” Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s School for Scandal and Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, both from the 1780s, occasionally make the jump to the 21st century intact.

So why is Moliere little seen outside French class? Why don’t we have the Oregon Centlivre Festival, or Beaumont in the Park? One reason is the English Civil War, when Puritan rule devastated English theater — houses were closed and many plays burned. The Restoration era brought hedonism back into style. The ethos in Restoration comedies was, “'I’m going to drink it, smoke it, eat it, sleep with it, whatever! Because I could be dead anytime now,'” explains Heather Nathans, chair of the Department of Drama and Dance at Tufts University. She cites William Wycherley’s The Country Wife from 1675, the best-known Restoration comedy, about “a man who pretends to be impotent so that he can have fun with all his neighbor’s wives.” (This is surely ready for Hollywood.)

Playwrights in this era “are actually writing much more like sitcom writers,” Nathans explains. “They’re churning out material and they are catering to popular taste and in-jokes of the period,” which are “not necessarily going to be clear to a contemporary audience.” Much of it was pretty disposable, too, up until the era of Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov. 

The secret of Shakespeare’s endurance is more complicated than great talent, though. Michael Witmore explains that Shakespeare was writing in the era when the printing press was revolutionizing communications. “If Shakespeare had been born 50 years before he was, he would have been a great professional dramatist, but his words wouldn’t have gone so far.” After Shakespeare’s death, members of his company convinced a group of publishers to take an enormous financial risk on printing his collected works in a volume we know as the First Folio. It was a huge undertaking, at 900 pages. “Once you put those plays into this revolutionary media format — the printed book,” Witmore says, “its ability to fling words, ideas, and the passions associated with the plays is multiplied.”

So whether Jonson or Beaumont or Marlowe were as good as Shakespeare, the fact is that for hundreds of years after Shakespeare’s death, their works were hard to find — the scripts often in the hands of the actors or managers who last produced them. Putting on Shakespeare was easy: one had only to open the book.  

Now we have scholarly editions of Jonson and Marlowe and others, but it’s hard to break the Shakespeare habit. There are so many reasons to keep putting on Shakespeare. We’re in no hurry to throw away that crutch. 

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Richard Paul

Comments [5]

Megan Smith from Los Angeles

John Webster should be added to this list of wonderful Renaissance dramatists. He wasn't as prolific as some of these other fellows, but his best-known work, The Duchess of Malfi, is generally held up as one of the era's greatest tragedies. The play tells the story of the historical Giovanna d'Aragon, a young widow who secretly married her steward, earning her brothers'…displeasure. Extreme displeasure. Incredibly popular in its day, it quickly became an oft-revived staple of Shakespeare's own theatre company, the King's Men.

And if you happen to be in Los Angeles, you'll have a chance to see it very shortly!

Uranium Madhouse and director Andrew Utter present The Duchess of Malfi at the Theater Asylum Lab.
May 23 - June 1, 2014; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 2.
6320 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood

Information and tickets available online: http://uraniummadhouse.org

Apr. 17 2014 08:54 PM
Alan Stanford from Pittsburgh PA

It is easy in these days of intellectual freedom and with the liberating fervor of the MFA research opportunities so readily available to go wild with alternatives to Shakespeare. They are so very seductive. Jacobean Tragedy and Restoration Comedy offer an exceptionally high calorific banquet of theater to the serious play-goer and indeed, play-maker. Such works as The Gaming Table, seen in an excellent production at the Folger, demonstrate that the woman playwright was not a modern phenomena. And, as is suggested, Shakespeare's contemporaries were a very gifted bunch. The explosion of Elizabethan Theater was just as exciting and just as enriching as any period in modern times. But, rich and rewarding as the works of those writers may be, none of them produced such a complete and all embracing canon of works as the gentleman from Stratford. He was the one who broke through the wall between the common man and his master or his king. Like Beaumarchais with the Figaro characters, he demonstrated that no matter how high the man may reach, no matter how powerful he (or she) may become, no matter how golden the light may shine around them, they still have feet of clay. Shakespeare was, at his best, a true revolutionary. He changed our thinking, he changed our perception and he even changed our language. Yes indeed, he may have had the good fortune of the printing press to disseminate his works, but there have been many plays and books printed over the past 450 years that we have long forgot.

Alan Stanford
Artistic Director
PICT Classic Theatre

Apr. 14 2014 10:04 AM
Evan from New York, NY

This is precisely the type of work that Red Bull Theater is doing in New York City. They have a reading of The Country Wife coming up next month and a full production of Tis Pity She's a Whore planned for next season. If you're hungry for the work of Shakespeare's contemporaries, you should definitely check out their work.

Apr. 08 2014 10:05 AM
William Germano from New York

Ben Jonson took the extraordinary step to publish his own plays in folio in 1616, seven years before Shakespeare's colleagues produced that more famous posthumous collection. More than thirty plays identified as the work of Beaumont and Fletcher (almost all by John Fletcher) were published in a large folio in 1647. The Shakespeare folio is the most treasured of the three, but not the only one.

Apr. 08 2014 08:27 AM

I love this; it was pointed out to me by a friend who worked with me on our (now on hiatus) NYC theatre company's Anybody but Shakespeare Classics Festival a couple of years ago (jeez, NPR, we would have appreciated the press!). we at (re:)Directions Theatre Company managed several Indie companies producing works from the 16th - 18th Centuries NOT by our Immortal Bard. We're huge Shakespeare dorks but there are tons of wonderful playwrights from this period overshadowed by his freakish genius. Our own entry into the ABS Festival was Jonson's Epicene (the first NYC production in 29 years). We also had an all-male Dido starring Billy Porter and a Descartes piece paired with a period cookbook preparing food for the audience, among many other interesting entries.

Also, our first fully realized show as a company was Marlowe's Edward II. Many of the plays in this period are, with some judicious trimming, just as strong as many of Shakespeare's pieces (and stronger in some circumstances; Merry Wives, anyone?). They deserve professional stagings and more than just an academic approach.

If you're wondering, critics and the theatre community loved our ABS Festival; paying audiences, not as much! Most everyone who came loved what they saw and heard and encouraged us to do it again; our fiscal experience was unfortunately not as satisfying. Someone pick up that baton and get some of these pieces produced downtown!!!

~tom berger
Artistic Director
(re:)Directions Theatre Company, 2007 - 2011

Apr. 07 2014 06:26 PM

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