Robert Brustein’s THE LAST WILL, starring Austin Pendleton (who also directed)–now playing at the June Havoc theatre as part of the Abingdon’s twentieth season–is an apologia, a projection onto William Shakespeare of what guilty theatre artists might and can think about art and aging. The Shakespeare biography that is presented—it takes place just before his death in 1616–is the approved version: the plays are written by him (except when he was working in collaboration). Although the edges can be a bit rough (trying to get around the fact, for example, that the bard’s will left his wife a hard, second-best bed), the work doesn’t go where academics like Jayne Archer at Aberystwyth University in Wales want to. She, and others, claim that there has been "a willful ignorance on behalf of critics and scholars who . . .—perhaps through snobbery—cannot countenance the idea of a creative genius also being motivated by self-interest." Her contention is that Shakespeare was one tough business type, “hoarder, moneylender, and tax dodger”—more from Archer when her paper on the subject is published in May.
THE LAST WILL, however, assumes that Shakespeare was the artsy-fartsy, amoral, slack artist, we insist many contemporary theatre people are–all he really needed was a group hug, preferably on Oprah’s couch. Shakespeare, however, in celebrity culture, would probably have been baffled–he didn’t even care how you spelled his name. Because we feel that we can see ourselves in his characters and words, we think that he is ours for all time, forgetting that others have also created him for themselves, differently—Romantic Shakespeare, for example. In THE LAST WILL, a character, lolling and lounging on a bed, mentions seeing a victim of the plague, set up as if she needs some downtime after taking flowers to someone at a nursing home. Boccaccio, writing before Shakespeare, said the following in The Decameron, written about 1351, “This pestilence was so powerful that it was communicated to the healthy by contact with the sick, the way a fire close to dry or oily things will set them aflame. And the evil of the plague went even further: not only did talking to or being around the sick bring infection and a common death, but also touching the clothes of the sick or anything touched or used by them seemed to communicate this very disease to the person involved. . . . No one cared for his neighbor, and . . . relatives rarely or hardly ever visited each other—they stayed far apart. This disaster struck such fear into the hearts of men and women that brother abandoned brother, uncle abandoned nephew, sister left brother and very often wife abandoned husband, and—even worse, almost unbelievable—father and mother neglected to tend and care for their children, as if they were not their own.”
An ahistorical Shakespeare crashes on a slipperly slope, creating a treacherous emotional landscape. I’m going to say that both Brustein (in his eighties) and Pendleton (in his seventies) needed someone to guide them through it—further. Brustein gives us outline and plot points—he stays away from physical action, character and plot development, and subtlety, too. The compression is of interest, but, for all his information and imagination, there is a lack of intensity. Pendleton wants The Last Will to play fast—and it does, and the production feels truncated. He also wants to play character actor, not human being—as an actor himself, he has never seemed very old anyway (he’s mercurial, coherent, surprisingly in motion—he is not someone who works only from the shoulders up). Here, in bare feet and too much makeup—especially compared to the more natural playing of Stephanie Roth Haberle, as his wife Anne (she also doesn’t seem eight years his senior)–he seems like Ben Gunn, the stranded sailor in Treasure Island. Shakespeare knew what age meant in his time—“shrunk shank; and his big manly voice/Turning again toward childish treble, pipes/And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,/That ends this strange eventful history,/Is second childishness and mere oblivion,/Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” The Last Will can’t find the silences, the lapses, nor an Existential Shakespeare, either.
Ingmar Bergman mentioned the problem, while he was making After the Rehearsal in 1984: “One frustration I felt concerned a scene with Ingrid Thulin, truly one of the great movie actresses of our time. . . . In this film, she couldn’t distance herself from her part. When she would say the line, ‘Do you think that my instrument is destroyed forever?’ she would begin to cry. . . . I was upset with Ingrid because I was angry with myself. ‘Is my instrument destroyed forever?’ The question seemed to concern me more than it did her.” See the movie again and decide whether Thulin nailed it. See Brustein and Pendleton’s The Last Will and decide whether they are avoiding it, and detaching themselves from the expression of age, which Bergman, at least, later regretted.
We may never know the truth about Shakespeare (his assumptions about inheritances, marriage, sexuality, fatherhood, religion, to name five) but most will agree that he knew the truth about us. He was only 52 when he died (the average life span of an individual living in England at the time was 35). After approximately 39 plays, he probably didn’t even think of himself as a playwright first. Wouldn’t it be surprising to find out that after all society’s versions of Shakespeare, the definition most resonant for him was not as inventor of the human at all—but, rather, as an unscrupulous, unsympathetic business manager and accountant, with no interest in being forgiven for anything?
With Jeremiah Kissel, Christianna Nelson, David Wohl, and Merrit Janson.
Off-Broadway performances of THE LAST WILL run April 5-May 5 in the June Havoc Theatre (312 West 36th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues): Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 7pm; Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm; and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $60. For tickets call, 212-868-2055 or visit www.abingdontheatre.org
© 2013 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.