Playwright Charles L. Mee remembers the phone call. A Harvard scholar, Stephen Greenblatt, had been awarded a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and wanted to use the funds to explore how a dramatist crafts a play. Professor Greenblatt had chosen to observe Mr. Mee at work, noting that Mee's cut-and-paste methods of "resituating and appropriating" materials reminded him of William Shakespeare's manner of writing.
"I'm the biggest thief," says Mee, who was honored this past year with the staging of an entire season of his plays at New York's Signature Theatre. He recalls telling Greenblatt that the project wouldn't be fun unless the pair wrote a play together – and then asking Greenblatt if he knew of any lost plays by Shakespeare.
"His answer?" says Mee, " 'Oh yes: 'Cardenio.' "
"Cardenio" was performed only twice during Shakespeare's lifetime but never printed. Little is known about the play beyond its title. An 18th-century version, produced at London's Drury Lane Theater, was said to be based on Shakespeare's text, but the theater and its records – including, perhaps, the original – burned in the early 19th century.
"Cardenio" almost certainly came from Cervantes's novel, "Don Quixote," says Greenblatt, author of the bestseller "Will in the World," a comprehensive study of Shakespeare's methods of transforming his life and milieu into the stuff of his plays. "What's fascinating and bizarre is when Shakespeare and Fletcher sat down to read the Cervantes novel, they weren't interested in the character, Don Quixote, but [in] the tragicomedy romance of Cardenio folded within the work," he says. "The story is one that Shakespeare had been trying to tell all his life: the relationship between two men and one love object. I'm very interested in these larger patterns in Shakespeare's career."
The framing plot of Greenblatt and Mee's "Cardenio," set in modern times, concerns two young men, Will and Anselmo, on Anselmo's wedding day. Doubting his bride's devotion, he asks Will to try to seduce her. Just then, Anselmo's parents, a pair of traveling actors, arrive with a lost Shakespearean play that they intend to produce as part of the wedding festivities. The cast will be drawn from among the guests.
For those who know their Shakespeare, the familiarity of the theatrical devices will be apparent – the setting of a wedding like the one in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," with a play as entertainment; the suspicious husband from "The Winter's Tale"; the play-within-a-play structure used in "The Taming of the Shrew."
At a recent rehearsal, actor Remo Airaldi played the part of a know-it-all carpenter sent to build a stage, another reminder of "Dream."
But resurrecting a lost Shakespearean play was only one of Greenblatt's intentions. He was also interested in the issue of cultural mobility, he says, in "what happens when things cross borders."
Using the Mellon funds, he has also commissioned theater companies from around the world to combine the Cervantes novel with the extant script from the 18th century, but then to adapt "Cardenio" in ways that reflect their own cultures.
Greenblatt doubts that a true lost Shakespearean play will ever surface. "We're not talking about the sands of Egypt. We're talking about the climate of northern Europe where even good vellum lasts maybe 500 years. But if you happen to hear of someone who's found something…."