FROM A DAUGHTER’S POINT OF VIEW
It’s eight P.M. The heat of the mid-August day has burnt itself out into a cool, electric evening. “Perfect,” everyone says. The sun has not quite set, but already the brightest moon of the year, the Buck moon, begins to rise over Central Park. I walk in door three and up the stairs into the Delacorte Theater. A semi-circle of dark green, plastic, folding chairs surrounds the stage. Belvedere Castle looms in the distance, cutting a majestic figure as the night falls and the lights dim. The show starts at eight, but the drama began long before that.
The sun is just peeking through the trees as I begin my day in the Park. The concrete is cold beneath me and dew still coats the grass. Far along in the final month of my summer vacation, the liveliness of the fauna and the vibrancy of the flora at this time in the morning take me by surprise. My melatonin-drenched brain catalogues but doesn’t process the images my eyes relay. I observe the hard-core Shakespeare devotees and the homeless—indistinguishable from one another. With sleeping bags and hoodies they camp out on the hard pavement under the towering branches of oak and pine trees. This elite group of theatregoers has been waiting for tickets since midnight last night—some sleeping inside the Park illegally and others waiting just outside, on the corner of 81st and Central Park West. As I round the first bend in the line, I see hipsters with yoga mats, sipping coffee and reading pretentious novels. “You’ve never read Kafka,” one asks me later, challenging the rigor of my Ivy League prep school education. I pass the Rock of No Return; I pass the people past the Rock of No return. “This is the longest line I’ve seen all summer,” one of the Public Theatre’s employees tells me. I hear from another that the surest way to get a ticket is to arrive by six. At the latest.
FROM A FATHER’S POINT OF VIEW
It’s after 10:00pm, and the bus stop, next to the B, C, and late-night A Trains, at 79th and Central Park West, is glowing like a light bulb went off. People are still crossing from the Delacorte Theater, after seeing The Winter’s Tale, from the Public Works division, waving for cabs and approaching the shelter. My teen daughter is telling me that the bear in the play, which devours Antigonus, the nobleman ordered to abandon the baby Perdita, represents the King of Sicilia, the uncontrollably jealous and violent Leontes. Her insight makes me think of the Ghost who stalks Hamlet and the reappearing witches in Macbeth, whose predictions set a path for destruction. In As You Like It, to offer an example from a comedy, Orlando learns the art of love from a youth who has, coincidentally, followed him (and who turns out to be the royal he will marry). The Bard haunts and pursues—perhaps none more so than the very audience he delights and scares, mystifies and enthralls.
We are sitting on a bench now, and my daughter is eating dinner: a tuna fish sandwich on rye toast with tomatoes and lettuce, from Andy’s Deli: down the block and to the left. It strikes me that Puck might be considered the free-floating id of the king of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As agent for Oberon, the sprite picks flowers whose juice can be applied to the Queen of the Night’s eyes (so that she will fall in love with whatever she sees on awakening): Titania first looks at a man turned to an ass when she wakes, and they become lovers; Puck’s magical essences are used for the two other couples in the play, as well.
Coming to Shakespeare in the Park with me since she was two, my daughter knew about the Bard well before that. When she was a toddler, actually, we watched an old video of the same play in a 1973 CBS broadcast version, starring Sam Waterston and Kathleen Widdoes (that production originated at the Delacorte, too). Soon after, we found ourselves viewing Laurence Olivier in As You Like It, Mickey Rooney in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and even Brando in Julius Caesar.
“Hi, Dad. I’ve got the tickets.” This is my daughter earlier in the day, calling me on my cell phone.
“I’m on the bus,” I tell her—she has stayed overnight, with a friend who is like a second mother to her, and she has gone early to Central Park to wait in line.
“It doesn’t start until 7:30.”
“I didn’t want to wait another hour.”
“I brought a little bit to eat, if you want . . .”
But I have forgotten to tell her that—and her voice is gone.
Early, I sit awkwardly on the rocks in between the bicycle lanes and the Delacorte ticket booth–I don’t want to accidentally crush the contents of my backpack: hard boiled eggs, apples, figs, and bran muffins. The bicyclists, runners, rollers skaters—and a man in a wheelchair—are racing by: “Head’s up!,” “Yo!,” “Jesus Christ.” Bells are ringing on bikes, and there’s cheering coming from the baseball field. A portly monitor in glasses is explaining “standby” to groups on the Shakespeare in the Park line, which extends down to the green garbage can before the bend—it’s exactly six o’clock: “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, the line is now frozen,” he says: “If anyone, who is not on line at this time tries to add on, they must go to the end. No more holding a space . . .” A saxophonist, whom my daughter and I see yearly, is playing a set that started with jazz and is now moving into show tunes: “Hey, Big Spender,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Happy Talk,” and “I Could Have Danced All Night”—for the last, several people applaud when he finishes.
Mark Lawson, a critic for the U.K. Guardian, is also a Bard watcher—he has written that he is hoping to check off the last Shakespeare plays he has yet to see: The Two Noble Kinsmen, thought to be a collaboration with John Fletcher. A couple, the Monachs, from Sheffield, England, have seen 38 of the Bard’s works (it has taken twenty years). In 2010, they made a transatlantic trip to New York to also see the rarely performed The Two Noble Kinsmen, and they were written about in The New York Times by Erik Piepenburg on the subject. At the time, catching all the works, being a “completist,” seemed impossible to me, although I was no stranger to the idea—I had seen all eleven of Ingmar Bergman’s productions brought to New York from Sweden (1986 to 2002). Then I realized I had been seeing Shakespeare’s canon since the mid-‘80s at Shakespeare in the Park, for example, but I first saw Hamlet in my hometown in New Jersey when I was under ten, and kept attending. I just didn’t know there was a name for what I was doing.
In Grade three, my daughter made Twelfth Night her favorite Shakespeare play, captured by the Trevor Nunn movie, starring Imogen Stubbs; in Grade five, she played Banquo in her class production of Macbeth; by Grade 9, she was compiling Shakespeare monologues for an anthology of monologues for teens. Then in 2008, I started the theatre Web site and blog, Stage Voices (www.stagevoices.com), which offered greater opportunities to see and write about the current arts scene, including productions by Shakespeare.
Joseph Papp, the great producer, director, and “agent” for the Bard, who started the Central Park Shakespeare Festival, responded to the New York Times drama critic Frank Rich, in a 1989 article written for that newspaper: “We are living in a country where philistinism and violence ride high,” he wrote, “where education, in the best sense of that word, is at a new low. Our critic speaks of my ‘mission,’ calls me a believer in ‘Shakespeare for a mass urban audience, particularly a student audience that might be spiritually transported from . . . grinding poverty. . . .’ But even the middle class needs a lift these days. The Marathon is an act of cultural affirmation [The Public’s Shakespeare Marathon ran from 1987 to 1993, in which the Delacorte plays, during those years, were included]. It proclaims Shakespeare alive. It opens up all kinds of possibilities for programs to reach out to young people as well as the loyal elderly. It is doing that now. It is causing lots of people to read and reread the plays of Shakespeare. There is a destination, a road to follow, and thousands of people are on it.”
When my daughter arrives at the park, she takes me to where, in August, she joined the line for King Lear (starring John Lithgow and Annette Benning). Staying with a family friend in Manhattan, she arrived just after 8:00am—and she rolled her foot, walking to the end of the line. Finally, just before the reservoir, she stops. When she went back several days later, her mother would not let her leave the Bronx before the first bus from Riverdale arrived (at 6:30 am). In Manhattan, she began walking to the end of the line again, hearing stories about people who slept at the park entrance the night before. This time she walked past the green garbage can before the bend, the Rock of No Hope, and even the children’s playground, whose rusty swings, as we pass them, are squeaking; parents pushing children high into the twilight. Like the Ghost leading Hamlet, my daughter continues to walk, on paths I’ve never been on before, in a part of the park I don’t seem to know, until she stops on an overpass. She tells me that the Lear line was the longest the monitors could remember—longer even than the one for Al Pacino’s Merchant of Venice. “The Public can give out 1,800 tickets per performance,” she explains—and “1000 are usually given out in the mornings.” That day, she thinks, they must have given out more. But she didn’t receive one at this unknown spot; she was too far back.
At this time of night on a Sunday, The Winter’s Tale over, express busses only come once an hour—we’ve already missed the one at 10:15. The night is cool in an uncharacteristically cool, early September, although it is a change from yesterday, when my neighbor described the humidity as Amazonian. It is also the night of the second Super moon of the summer—when my daughter saw Lear, the first was in the sky, too. Tonight it sat to the left of our seats in row X.
At Shakespeare in the Park, this writer has seen a small child grow into a middle school student and now a teen–and one realizes that there has not been enough time. When she was small, our apartment, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, was ten blocks away from Central Park. Walks sometimes took us past the Delacorte Theater, where we looked for the Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest statues and knew actors would arrive each summer. Today, we barely have a chance to renew our often diverging lives on summer evenings like this, when we meet on the rocks. Now the discussion turns to whether Shakespeare was, in fact, Sir Henry Neville, the English ambassador to France in 1599. This is a subject that my daughter is ahead of me in exploring; It’s a lively debate we continue briefly on the bus, realizing that people want to sleep.
Encouraging a knowledge of Shakespeare—and attending the park plays—may have been my best parental decision—others, whether they are successful or not, haven’t allowed the same level of engagement. My daughter is part of a generation that has seen planes fly into the world’s tallest buildings and has felt the austerity of recession and subsequent, lingering slow economic growth. Maybe it’s important to learn about the Bard’s humanity during times like these—all of ours, really—in the midst of the stresses and confines of such an incalculable world.
We are crossing a footbridge on our way home, our thoughts returning to everyday reality—thinking about school in the morning, composing the latest e-mails to be sent, waiting to see the dog. It is heartening that my daughter likes Shakespeare—and wants to see his plays performed. It is exciting that she has questions, too: How could any writer, whether from Stratford-upon-Avon–who left school at age 12–or even a French ambassador, have written 38 plays—and possibly more? What factors allowed such greatness of thought in the late 1500s, also the period of Cervantes and Galileo? Who encouraged Shakespeare to write—and who taught him so much about the human heart and condition? Shakespeare is mysterious, precisely because he encompasses too much—he knows about the geography of Italy and France, as well as the botany of Warwickshire; he comprehends the humanism of Erasmus and the witchcraft of Scotland. He knows about murderers and madmen, and he understands fathers and daughters, whether one only looks at King Lear, The Tempest, or Hamlet. Sometimes I mix it all up—I don’t know whether we’ve been following the Bard or whether he—this foundational source of knowledge—has been pursuing us.
(c) 2014 by Marit E. Shuman and Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.