(Wills’s article appeared in The New York Review of Books, 9/25.)
Should we take our Shakespeare in a gulp or in separate driblets? There are advantages to either course. His first audience had to take him in single plays, as they were conceived and put on. But we have his large body of work, and some plays are cross-referential, especially the plays of dynastic ups and downs around the British crown. The history plays beg for some consideration as a whole, and so sequences of them are now mounted by troupes in a single season, or in weekly or daily sequence. The disadvantage of this common practice, for the two groups of four most often linked for joint consideration, is that there is no way to guarantee that the same audience will be able to attend all the separate days of performance.
In its year-long, two-part series, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater has tried to solve this problem by showing three plays in a single day (running six hours with a dinner break, the procedure followed for some lengthy Wagner operas). The normal groups of four cannot be crammed into such a program, and heavy cutting must be indulged even to get three in. The first part of the group’s history gulp, called “Foreign Fire,” was in the Spring season, giving us Edward III, Henry V, and Henry VI, Part One (reviewed in these pages last May). The second gulp, “Civil Strife,” comes now to open the Fall season, presenting Henry VI, Parts Two and Three, and the ever-popular Richard III.
Photo of Garry Wills: nndb.com