Shakespeare surprises during Public Theater forum

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Jessica Chastain in a scene from

Jessica Chastain in a scene from "Romeo and Juliet" at "The Public Forum: Shakespeare in America." Photo Credit: Simon Luethi

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Linda Winer Newsday theater critic and arts columnist Linda Winer.

Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday, which she joined in 1987.

Discoveries are not unknown during hot summer nights in the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, where the Public Theater has been offering free Shakespeare for 52 years.

Although the plays are centuries old, it is not unusual to bump into an interpretation, a portrayal, even just a line that unexpectedly turns the most familiar story or speech into something almost as startling as the lightning that zaps new patterns on the sweltering sky.

But actors take their break on Mondays, which usually means we don't expect anything -- much less the revelations and the delights I found at a recent free one-night event, "Public Forum: Shakespeare in America."

What first attracted me was the lineup. This included James Earl Jones reading a scene from "Othello," which he played 50 years ago on this stage. Also promised were Cynthia Nixon (a dewy Juliet at the Public in 1988), Annette Bening (soon to play Goneril to John Lithgow's "King Lear" at this theater) and Alec Baldwin (a lumbering "Macbeth" for the Public in 1997 but, to my mind, never boring these days). Also -- what's this? -- novelist E.L. Doctorow and Bryan Stevenson, founder of the prison reform nonprofit the Equal Justice Initiative also were on the list.

So I expected an evening of polemic -- even defensiveness and bravado -- about the American versus the British way with Shakespeare. Given the stupendous popularity of Shakespeare's Globe theater from London on Broadway last season with "Twelfth Night" and the acclaim for the all-American "Much Ado About Nothing" that was just finishing its run in the park, the well-worn subject seemed ripening for another spirited update.

Instead, I was drawn into a subject I'm surprised not to have known from a lifetime of theatergoing. I kept wanting to turn around to strangers in the packed 2,000-seat outdoor theater and ask, "Did you know that?" and "Why didn't we know that?"

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I am speaking about the little-known history of Shakespeare in America, especially the impact on ordinary and celebrated people during the Revolution and the Civil War. In just 100 lively minutes, we did more than merely hear about Shakespeare's surprising presence in early American life.

As written and directed by Jeremy McCarter, curator of the Public Forum series, we shared primary-source readings from Abraham Lincoln's pre-assassination thoughts and dreams (he was obsessed with the assassination in "Macbeth" and Hamlet's "to sleep, perchance to dream" speech). Far less well known than Lincoln's dedication to Shakespeare is the letter John Wilkes Booth wrote to a magazine on the morning of April 14, 1865, justifying the murder the actor would commit that day. In the letter, read with insolent dark passion by F. Murray Abraham, Booth supports slavery, supports the South in the Civil War and concludes with Brutus' defense of his slaying of Caesar. It was hard to stifle a shiver when Booth writes, "I answer with Brutus ... He who loves his country better than gold or life."

The inspiration for the evening was the publication of what strikes me as the invaluable "Shakespeare in America: An Anthology From the Revolution to Now" (The Library of America, 724 pages, $29.95), edited by James Shapiro, who happens to be the Public's Shakespeare Scholar in Residence. In the book (which includes a revealing foreword by Bill Clinton), Shapiro fills in the blanks about how Shakespeare became so widely known throughout early America. As he quotes Tocqueville in the 1830s, there was "hardly a pioneer's hut" without books of Shakespeare. (How he came to be marginalized as elite or ground into schoolwork is a question for another day.)

Onstage, Shapiro and McCarter provided amusing and enlightening connective tissue between the six segments.

"It was a lot of fun to use the book as a starting point," McCarter told me in a recent phone interview. McCarter, who was a fine young New York theater critic for the New York Observer and New York magazine, now curates the Public's dazzling -- if a bit pretentiously named -- Theater of Ideas, a series of events. "How do we turn this information into something live as a piece of theater onstage?," he asked.

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How well they chose. In "Othello and the Color Line," James Earl Jones first recited an early monologue from a drama that, dishearteningly, was not performed in recent history in this country with a black actor until Paul Robeson made history in 1943. When the monologue was repeated as part of the entire scene with Cynthia Nixon as Desdemona and Brian Dennehy as her horrified father, we understand, as if for the first time, how much she risked by marrying a black man.

This was followed by a shocking 1835 essay by John Quincy Adams that condemned the mixture of "black and white blood" as a "violation of nature ... an unnatural passion." As Shapiro and McCarter tried to explain onstage, Adams, our sixth president, was a great opponent of slavery, yet couldn't endure the idea of mixed marriage.

"Othello" has had a less fraught life in England, which never had to deal with racism as we know it. "This play has been radioactive in our culture," said McCarter.

We learned how other artists reacted to Shakespeare's influence. Poet Elizabeth Alexander recited Emily Dickinson's "Drama's Vitallest Expression is the Common Day," in which she declares that unrecorded daily life is more "vital" than onstage tragedy. E.L. Doctorow read a sly 1850 letter from Herman Melville, ostensibly defending Nathaniel Hawthorne, but really asking a more personal question. As Shapiro puts it, "How was an American writer to rival Shakespeare?"

The evening concluded with Jessica Chastain proving to be an astonishing Juliet in the balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet." Then, a historic conversation with the celebrated creators of "West Side Story" was drolly re-created, verbatim, by young artists.

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McCarter believes that musical theater is America's contribution to Shakespeare. Oskar Eustis, the Public's artistic director, began the evening with a persuasive explanation of why Shakespeare "speaks to the world."

"He wrote for the most democratic audience ever assembled ... the richest and most educated. And the illiterate groundlings. He had to get them to shut up and listen to the play." Thanks to this memorable evening, we now understand how writers who wrote about him can get us to listen, too.

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