The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of The Merry Wives of Windsor was cancelled on July 21 and 22 because a production member had tested positive for the coronavirus. The Friday performance was cancelled, according to The New York Times, “to support the artistic and logistical efforts required to restart performances.” What that meant to us at the Delacorte Theater on Saturday night was that audience would watch a performance which called upon the resources of six understudies. The associate artistic director warned us this from the stage. Some of the actors may call for a line. Some may be holding a script. But New York is back, amirite? Live theater! Woo! The show must go on! Woo-hoo.
Six understudies in a cast of fifteen, but the show must go on. Woo-hoo indeed. The boisterous production, set in a merry community in a Harlem, with prominent Black Lives Matter graffiti and the script vigorously updated, was nonstop energy and fun. I knew nothing of the play beyond the fact that it recycled characters like Falstaff, Mistress Quickly and other tavern denizens from The Henriad, due to popular demand among Elizabethan audiences to see those characters onstage again, and that it was a farce.
I don’t own a copy of the play, except in my tiny-fonted Complete Works, and it was one of the handful of plays outstanding on my bucket list to see every play performed live before I die.
I looked through my books. Tina Packer, in Women of Will, mentions it only in passing, as does Marjorie Garber in Shakespeare and Modern Culture. Auden in his Lectures on Shakespeare calls it “a very dull play indeed,” adding that its only use, as far as he was concerned, was that it inspired Verdi’s opera Falstaff. “I have nothing to say about Shakespeare’s play,” he told him class, “so let’s hear Verdi.” He then played a dropped a needle onto a record of Verdi’s Falstaff and listened to it along with his students.
I am enthralled by the mere existence of Auden’s Lectures on Shakespeare, so bear with me: they are a collection of the notes taken by the students, and by Auden himself, at his class on Shakespeare which took place at the New School in 1946. No formal manuscripts of the lectures exist, and the book Lectures on Shakespeare was reconstructed from all the notes editor Arthur Kirsch was able to get his hands on, from Auden and from Kirsch’s dedicated combing through archives as well as his general cry for help, to which so many former students responded.
At the New School, Auden covered the plays in chronological order, and the class was reported to be tremendously popular, with tickets sold at the door to those not matriculating. He sometimes spoke to classes as large as 500. I loved the idea of Auden lecturing to a Greenwich Village crowd, bobby-socked and footloose, fueled by caffeine and ideology, bristling with impatience to get on with a life interrupted and devastated by war. Auden spoke to a class partly comprised of former soldiers attending the New School on the GI Bill. I loved this idea so much that I began a chapter of an unfinished companion novel to my novel Censorettes in which two of my characters, newly wed, are living in on Commerce Street in the West Village, brimming with appetite for their education, their part-time jobs and their new marriage. One Friday night, the wife meets her husband, just returned from a lecture he has given at the Naval Academy on wartime maneuvers. She finds him at the former West Village speakeasy Chumley’s already sharing a drink with Auden. “Auden was famously fond of a sailor,” the wife observes.
This unfinished piece of writing bore similar theme to this particular production of Merry Wives – the famished embrace of culture, the sympathetic crowd, the theater – after a long denial of it. From the energetic call-and-response of the pre-show drummer to the exuberant climatic masked ball, which was five times more crackling than any masked ball I have ever seen in a Shakespeare production, this production was two hours of embracing joy.
“More crackling than any masked ball,” might seem like faint praise, but you must remember (pray you love, remember) that Shakespeare is replete with masked balls – they are in at least Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing, and the coy posturing of a hand raising an eye mask to the face never convinced me that characters who had known one another since childhood would suddenly be beguiled by this thin piece of fabric and fancy.
We all know what masks are now We all know what masks are for. But onstage at the Delacorte, they meant no danger at all.