Highfalutin theater hits the sticks

Festivals in rural America are leading a rebirth in interest in Shakespeare

In 1850, an anonymous correspondent for the magazine Literary World wrote an essay on "Shakspeare [sic] in America" that reminds us how culturally vibrant the American interior was in those days. It's easy but wrong to imagine that the hinterlands were populated entirely by grizzly bears, river pirates, and a few hardy pioneers, for, as the writer notes, "we have the plays of Shakspeare every night in scores of theatres in city and country, packet ships, halls, hotels, steamboats...."

Technology has put the packet ship out of business, since it's easier to send a message by e-mail than by boat. Progress hasn't always been a friend to culture.

After the Civil War, as historian David S. Reynolds observes in "Walt Whitman's America," consumers moved away from communal celebrations and began to enjoy culture in small groups or alone, a development heralding the eventual triumph in our day of the home entertainment center.

Yet 150 years later, Shakespeare is undergoing a rebirth in this country, thanks to dozens of well-entrenched festivals devoted to his work, as well as a new initiative by the National Endowment of the Arts. Paradoxically, the biggest name in literature once again finds himself most at home in smaller cities and towns.

The first of the modern Shakespeare festivals in the US was founded in Ashland, Ore., in 1935. Today there are dozens of permanent Shakespeare festivals in Arizona, Utah, Illinois, and elsewhere similar to the one I visited recently in Montgomery, Ala.

Founded in 1972, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival moved from Anniston to Montgomery in 1977 and is now located on a 266-acre cultural park that features a museum with paintings by Sargent, Hopper, and Rothko as well as the sculpture of local outsider artist Charlie "Tin Man" Lucas, who builds otherworldly creatures out of car shock absorbers.

The centerpiece of the park, though, is the theater where 12 to 14 plays are produced annually in the 750-seat auditorium or its more intimate 225-seat cousin. Here, on a given weekend, it's customary for three plays to be offered in repertory, typically a tragedy and a comedy by Shakespeare as well as a more modern work.

The weekend that I visited, for example, I saw "Two Gentlemen of Verona" and "Romeo and Juliet" as well as "Arcadia" by Tom Stoppard, the playwright who, for sheer inventiveness as well as his ability to engage an audience on multiple levels, is the Shakespeare of our time. The plays were as good as any number I saw last fall, when I was living in London.

The arts are often the first to suffer in these days, but soon the country will be enjoying more Shakespeare, not less, thanks to a program recently announced by Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts.

The NEA will make it possible for six professional companies to stage plays in 100 small and mid-size American cities in all 50 states.

Currently, the endowment is seeking additional funding to tour military bases with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's production of "Macbeth." The result, according to Mr. Gioia, will be "the largest tour of Shakespeare in American history."

And that will be a welcome step backward. To stage "Othello" in a town whose only other cultural venue is a racetrack is nostalgic in the best possible way. After all, in the early part of the 19th century, Shakespeare was everywhere, as the anonymous correspondent for Literary World suggests. Records show, for example, that 150 Shakespearean performances took place in Louisville, Ky., between 1800 and 1840.

Shakespeare was like native son Walt Whitman in his embrace of all cultures. So just as it seems right to have a Rothko painting and a Charlie Lucas sculpture in the same museum, or to find a gourmet restaurant and a barbecue joint next to each other in the same strip mall, so it made sense for me to watch "Romeo and Juliet" at the ASF on a Montgomery evening while James Brown played across town at Jubilee CityFest, the city's outdoor music fair.

With Shakespeare festivals in every corner of the country and now the new NEA initiative, we're not only reclaiming but improving upon a once-rich cultural complexity that has been threatened yet still thrives. Can plays on packet boats be far behind?

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