Reviewed by Hillary Stirling
In Mahonri Stewart’s The Drown’ed Book; or the History of William Shakespeare, Part Last, I felt as though I was watching a play the English-speaking world has been waiting 400 years for. Though William Shakespeare became so famous, we have precious little knowledge about his life. We’re not even entirely sure about the order his plays were written in. We have a handful of facts: names of family members, when they were born, when they died, and a few documents beyond Shakespeare’s literary works. Much has been made of his will and the fact that he left his “second-best bed” to his wife. From these bare threads of William Shakespeare’s known history, Stewart weaves a rich tapestry that even The Bard would delight in.
Though I was watching a slice-of-life biography, in many ways I felt like I was encountering a long-lost and newly rediscovered Shakespearean play. The language, set, music, and costuming all certainly contributed to that. However, the true magic of Stewart’s play is that he successfully replicates Shakespeare’s uncanny ability to peer into and convincingly play with timeless human nature. Fortunately, that timelessness also makes the play accessible and even enjoyable for a modern audience.
Fans of Shakespeare will recognize in The Drown’ed Book many of the devices he used – from cross-dressing to star-crossed lovers – and they’ll delight in the homages paid throughout to various famous lines, characters, and scenes. In Shakespeare’s daughters, we see the inspirations for Cordelia and Viola. Anne Shakespeare casts the shadows of Portia and Beatrice. Love in its many incarnations and seasons buds, blossoms, bears fruit, and withers (though not always in that order). At the same time, we are frequently, but subtly, reminded that, while literary license was used out of necessity, these were real people. They experienced real problems, passions, gifts, and weaknesses. Rather than being distracting, these little nods to Shakespeare’s works reminded me of the truth that art does not occur in a vacuum but, more often than not, imitates life.
An excellent example (without spoiling much) is the frequent theme of jealousy in Shakespeare’s plays and the marital tension created between Will and Anne by the sonnets and their oft-praised Dark Lady. Will Shakespeare was in London three seasons of the year, only spending a few months at a time at home in Stratford-on-Avon. It would be only natural for Anne to suspect that, in his absense, he had found a mistress in this mysterious Dark Lady. Like the protagonists of his romances, Will faces the very real struggle of winning the heart of the woman he loves.
All of the actors excellently portrayed the pathos of their characters. I particularly enjoyed Sam Schofield’s Thomas Quiney and Zel Bromley’s Judith Shakespeare in a certain drunken scene in a vineyard. I felt a real connection to Shawnda Moss’ Anne Shakespeare throughout, and the “duel” between Bradley Moss’ William Shakespeare and one of his local critics was great. I never appreciated before just how remarkably tough (and lucky) Will had to have been to have made it in the world of theater during times of such political and religious upheaval. In the midst of the storm of personalities, the finesse of Belinda Purdum’s Susannah Shakespeare was quietly beautiful, as was the inner strength and steadiness of Peter Christiansen’s John Hall. And of course, Hyrum Stewart delivered the best one-liner of the entire night. The splendid acting only enhanced my appreciation of the play.
The Drown’ed Book is currently playing at the outdoor Castle Theater in Provo, UT. Tickets are $10-$12, and there are a few showings left on August 28th and September 1-2, all starting at 7:30 p.m. The fieldstone theater seats can be hard, so I recommend bringing blankets or cushions to sit on and a little spending money for a drink or treat from the small concessions stand.
Hillary Stirling has a BA in English from BYU. She lives in Pleasant Grove with her husband and two children where she writes as a paralegal by day and as an author of fiction by night. No matter the genre or the mode of presentation, if a story dives deep and is rich in archetypes, she’s a fan.