Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A new play by Shakespeare?

The Arden Shakespeare has just published Double Falsehood, or the Distrest Lovers, and with that single stroke a Shakespearean outlier has edged its way into the canon. Kind of. The script's claim to "canonicality" should become even stronger next summer, when the Royal Shakespeare Company produces it for the first time in eons.

Of course to be accurate, Double Falsehood would have to be termed a play by William Shakespeare, John Fletcher, and somebody named Lewis Theobald, the producer who first mounted the text in London in 1727, explaining he had adapted it from three separate manuscripts of a play called The History of Cardenio. We know from contemporary accounts that a lost play of that name by Shakespeare (and his seeming protégé, Fletcher), based on a famous episode from Don Quixote, was performed in London in 1613.

Theobald's script was a success back in 1727, but was soon ridiculed (by Alexander Pope, among others) as hackery, and probably a fake (Theobald refused to publish his supposed sources). Now the Arden has decided otherwise, largely based on the research of editor Brean Hammond, a professor at the University of Nottingham, who claims that Shakespeare's hand can be seen "in Acts One and Two, and part of Act Three." Hmmmm. The proof of this kind of thing, it seems to me, is in the playing. Could one of our university theatres consider The Double Falsehood for a production soon, as the RSC has? Or will we have to rely on one of our fringe theatres to take on the challenge? Only a year or two ago, the ART produced its own dreadful update of Cardenio, penned by Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt and avant-garde playwright Charles L. Mee. Somehow that misadventure seemed to sum up the problem with our academic theatres - we can't get them to do the real thing, instead they offer up their own house version of it. Perhaps with a little nudge from the Arden Shakespeare, that situation could change in the case of Double Falsehood.