This in all actuarial probability is my last play and the climax of my eminence, such as it is. I thought my career as a playwright was finished when Waldo Lanchester of the Malvern Marionette Theatre, our chief living puppet master, sent me figures of two puppets, Shakespeare and myself, with a request that I should supply one of my famous dramas for them, not to last longer than ten minutes or thereabouts. I accomplished this feat, and was gratified by Mr. Lanchester's immediate approval. I have learnt part of my craft as conductor of rehearsals (producer, they call it) from puppets. Their unvarying intensity of facial expression, impossible for living actors, keeps the imagination of the spectators continuously stimulated. When one of them is speaking or tumbling and the rest left aside, these, though in full view, are invisible, as they should be. Living actors have to learn that they too must be invisible while the protagonists are conversing, and therefore must not move a muscle nor change their expression, instead of, as beginners mostly do, playing to them and robbing them of the audience's undivided attention.
Puppets have also a fascination of their own, because there is nothing wonderful in a living actor moving and speaking, but that wooden headed dolls should do so is a marvel that never palls.
And they can survive treatment that would kill live actors'. When I first saw them in my boyhood nothing delighted me more than when all the puppets went up in a balloon and presently dropped from the skies with an appalling crash on the floor.
Nowadays the development of stagecraft into film-craft may destroy the idiosyncratic puppet charm. Televised puppets could enjoy the scenic backgrounds of the cinema. Sound recording could enable the puppet master to give all his attention to the strings he is manipulating, the dialogue being spoken by a company of first-rate speakers as in the theatre. The old puppet master spoke all the parts himself in accents which he differentiated by Punch-and-Judy squeaks and the like. I can imagine the puppets simulating living performers so perfectly that the spectators will be completely illuded. The result would be the death of puppetry; for it would lose its charm with its magic. So let reformers beware.
Nothing can extinguish my interest in Shakespeare. It began when I was a small boy, and extends to Stratford-upon-Avon, where I have attended so many bardic festivals that I have come to regard it almost as a supplementary birthplace of my own.
No year passes without the arrival of a batch of books contending that Shakespeare was somebody else. The argument is always the same. Such early works as Venus and Adonis, Lucrece, and Love's Labour's Lost, could not possibly have been written by an illiterate clown and poacher who could hardly write his own name. This is unquestionably true. But the inference that Shakespeare did not write them does not follow. What does follow is that Shakespeare was not an illiterate clown but a well read grammar-schooled son in a family of good middle-class standing, cultured enough to be habitual playgoers and private entertainers of the players.
This, on investigation, proves to be exactly what Shakespeare was. His father, John Shakespeare, Gent, was an alderman who demanded a coat of arms which was finally granted. His mother was of equal rank and social 'pretension. John finally failed commercially, having no doubt let his artistic turn get the better of his mercantile occupation, and leave him unable to afford a university education for William, had he ever wanted to make a professional scholar of him.
These circumstances interest me because they are just like my own. They were SL considerable cut above those of Bunyan and Cobbett, both great masters of language, who nevertheless could not have written Venus and Adonis nor Love's Labour's Lost. One does not forget Bunyan's "The Latin I borrow." Shakespeare's standing was nearer to Ruskin's, whose splendid style owes much more to his mother's insistence on his learning the Bible by heart than to his Oxford degree.
So much for Bacon-Shakespeare and all the other fables founded on that entirely fictitious figure Shaxper or Shagsper the illiterate bumpkin. Enough too for my feeling that the real Shakespeare might have been myself, and for the shallow mistaking of it for mere professional jealousy.
AYOT SAINT LAWRENCE, 1949
[Shakes enters and salutes the audience with a flourish of his hat.]
SHAKES. Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by the Malvern sun.
I, William Shakes, was born in Stratford town,
Where every year a festival is held
To honour my renown not for an age
But for all time. Hither I raging come
An infamous impostor to chastize,
Who in an ecstasy of self-conceit
Shortens my name to Shav, and dares pretend
Here to reincarnate my very self,
And in your stately playhouse to set up
A festival, and plant a mulberry
In most presumptuous mockery of mine.
Tell me, ye citizens of Malvern,
Where I may find this caitiff. Face to face
Set but this fiend of Ireland and myself;
And leave the rest to me.
[Shav enters.] Who are thou? That rearst a forehead almost rivalling mine?
SHAV. Nay, who art thou, that knowest not these features Pictured throughout the globe? Who should I be But G.B.S.?
SHAKES. What! Stand, thou shameless fraud. For one or both of us the hour is come. Put up your hands.
SHAV. Come on.
- [They spar. Shakes knocks Shav down with a straight left and begins counting him out, stooping over him and beating the seconds with his finger.]
SHAKES. Hackerty-backerty one, Hackerty-backerty two, Hackerty-backerty three . . . Hackerty-backerty nine@
- [At the count of nine Shav springs up and knocks Shakes down with a right to the chin.]
SHAV [counting] Hackerty-backerty one, . . . Hackerty- backerty ten. Out.
SHAKES. Out! And by thee! Never. [He rises.] Younger you are By full three hundred years, and therefore carry
- A heavier punch than mine; but what of that?
- Death will soon finish you; but as for me,
- Not marble nor the gilded monuments
- Of princes—
SHAV. —shall outlive your powerful rhymes. So you have told us: I have read your sonnets.
SHAKES. Couldst write Macbeth?
SHAV. No need. He has been bettered By Walter Scott's Rob Roy. Behold, and blush.
- [Rob Roy and Macbeth appear, Rob in Highland tartan and kilt with claymore, Macbeth in kingly costume.]
MACBETH. Thus far into the bowels of the land Have we marched on without impediment. Shall I still call you Campbell?
ROB. [in a strong Scotch accent] Caumill me no Caumills. Ma fet is on ma native heath: ma name's Macgregor.
MACBETH. I have no words. My voice is in my sword.
- Lay on, Rob Roy;
- And damned be he that proves the smaller boy.
- [He draws and stands on guard. Rob draws; spins round several times like a man throwing a hammer: and finallycuts off Macbeth's head at one stroke.]
ROB. Whaur's your Wullie Shaxper the noo? [Bagpipe and drum music, to which Rob dances off.]
MACBETH [headless] I will return to Stratford: the hotels Are cheaper there. [He picks up his head, and goes off with it under his arm to the tune of British Grenadiers.]
SHAKES. Call you this cateran Better than my Macbeth, one line from whom Is worth a thousand of your piffling plays.
SHAV. Quote one. Just one. I challenge thee. One line.
SHAKES. "The shardborne beetle with his drowsy hum."
SHAV. Hast never heard of Adam Lindsay Gordon?*
SHAKES. A name that sings. What of him?
SHAV. He eclipsed
Thy shardborne beetle. Hear his mighty lines.
- "The beetle booms adown the glooms
- And bumps among the clumps."
SHAKES. [roaring with laughter] Ha ha! Ho ho! My lungs like chanticleer Must crow their fill. This fellow hath an ear. How does it run? "The beetle booms—
SHAV. Adown the glooms—
SHAKES. And bumps—
SHAV. Among the clumps." Well done, Australia! [Shav laughs.]
SHAKES. Laughest thou at thyself? Pullst thou my leg?
SHAV. There is more fun in heaven and earth, sweet William, Than is dreamt of in your philosophy.
SHAKES. Where is thy Hamlet? Couldst thou write King Lear?
SHAV. Aye, with his daughters all complete. Couldst thou Have written Heartbreak House? Behold my Lear. [A transparency is suddenly lit up, shewing Captain Shotover seated, as in Millais'picture called North-West Passage, with a young woman of virginal beauty.
SHOTOVER. [raising his hand and intoning] I builded a house
for my daughters and opened the doors thereof
That men might come for their choosing, and their betters
spring from their love;
But one of them married a numskull: the other a liar wed;
And now she must lie beside him even as she made her bed.
THE VIRGIN. "Yes: this silly house, this strangely happy house, this agonizing house, this house without foundations. I shall call it Heartbreak House."
SHOTOVER. Enough. Enough. Let the heart break in silence.
- [The picture vanishes.]
SHAKES. You stole that word from me: did I not write
- "The heartache and the thousand natural woes
- That flesh is heir to"?
SHAV. You were not the first
To sing of broken hearts. I was the first
That taught your faithless Timons how to mend them.
SHAKES. Taught what you could not know. Sing if you can
My cloud capped towers, my gorgeous palaces,
My Solemn temples. The great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve—
SHAV. —and like this foolish little show of ours Leave not a wrack behind. So you have said. I say the world will long outlast our day. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow We puppets shall replay our scene. Meanwhile, Immortal William dead and turned to clay May stop a hole to keep the wind away. Oh that that earth which kept the world in awe Should patch a wall t' expel the winter's flaw!
SHAKES. These words are mine, not thine.
SHAV. Peace, jealous Bard:
We both are mortal. For a moment suffer
My glimmering light to shine.
- [A light appears between them.]
SHAKES. Out, out, brief candle! [He puffs it out.]
- [Darkness. The play ends.]