In Sunday's Show section, the name of the editor of the Shakespeare Quarterly was incorrect. John Andrews was its editor until September; Barbara A. Mowat is now editor.
People drop in and out of the news with dizzyng speed, but consistently present since the 16th century is a poet named William Shakespeare.
He's the force luring Walter Matthau into public television; who pushed Scribners into publishing three new volumes of essays at $180 the set; who caused a nonpartisan crise on Capitol Hill; and whose lure trapped the American National Theater into a disastrous bow at the Kennedy Center. Annually, he keeps thousands of scholars in groceries as they ferret out scraps he may, or may not, have written.
By any standards, such enduring newsworthiness is impressive.
Three events are on this month's agenda: the ongoing series of Shakespeare on Film and Television in the Mary Pickford Theater of the Library of Congress; the start of a new 15-week PBS series, "The Shakespeare Hour," on Jan. 26; and the Warner Theatre's single-week booking of Canada's Stratford Festival productions, "Twelfth Night" and "King Lear," opening Jan. 28.
Oscar of "The Odd Couple" as a host for Shakespeare? Those who know Matthau can't be surprised. Burly Matthau has done all sorts of tough-guy types on stage, screen and the tube, but he's been a smart and serious actor since he made his New York settlement house stage bow at the age of 4. Each week he'll be doing what Alistair Cooke does for PBS' Masterpiece Theatre -- though in this case recycling five of the BBC-Time-Life productions previously shown.
The Warner's Sam L'Hommedieu merits applause for booking what is virtually Canada's national theater for a single, expensive week. The Warner will have to sell well in advance for the two plays to come close to avoiding red ink. Both productions represent the last in the five-year term of John Hirsch as the Ontario festival's artistic director.
Staged by David Giles, "Twelfth Night" is notable for two players long associated with the company -- the most reliable Shakespeare group in the Americas: Edward Atienza as Feste and Nicholas Pennell as Malvolio. Hirsch himself staged "King Lear," with Douglas Campbell in the title role. Campbell, who was in Stratford's memorable first season of 1953 and followed Tyrone Guthrie as director of his Minneapolis theater, will startle some purists with his Lear. No shriveling, feeble old man he, but a robust, strong oak, befitting his native English north country.
The news about the Stratford Festival is really behind the scenes. What with Toronto's theater world crowded and thriving (as it certainly was not when Tom Patterson created the festival 60 miles away in a faded railway center), Stratford has been suffering financially. To stem this, Stratford's board of governors has tapped John Neville as Hirsch's successor.
Neville first hit the news as a leading actor of the Old Vic, so striking in his blond handsomeness 30 years ago that he seemed more a stained-glass saint than the lusty fellows he was acting. He has since become a Johnny Appleseed of British theater: first director of the new, experimental-minded Nottingham Playhouse, moving to Canada to head Edmonton's Citadel Theater and then artistic director of the Halifax Neptune Theater in 1982.
Washington's John Andrews, apart from his work with the National Endowment for the Humanities, is editor of the Shakespeare Quarterly and the man behind the new Matthau TV series. During his years as director of academic programs at the Folger Shakespeare Library, he was eager to have U.S. television set aside April 23, Shakespeare's birthday, for special programming. He's still trying, but from that came his notion of tapping Matthau for the PBS series: "You've got to make the general public realize that Shakespeare isn't stuffy."
But Andrews possibly will be remembered most for the extraordinary three-volume collection of essays, "William Shakespeare: His World, His Work, His Influence." As editor, Andrews began the project five years ago and corralled 60 top-flight authorities. The first volume depicts the complex world of the Tudors; the second focuses on the plays with unhackneyed, scholarly perspectives on their themes. In Volume III, "His Influence," Andrews has gotten chapters from John Gielgud, Anthony Burgess, Peter Ustinov, Jonathan Miller, Ellen Harris and Charles Shattuck, the authority on Shakespearean production in the New World.
Of these essays, my personal eye-opener comes from John Simon, whose erudite, bitter prose often outrages me but who here delights by beginning, "Shakespeare is the measure of many things, among them the critic." Somehow I'd missed the fact that critic Simon "could not accept Peter Brook's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' " and all the directorial fiddling that ensued from it.
Simon ends his director-scorning essay:
"The question today is, Who will declare mucked-up Shakespeare a scandal? Not the untutored audiences, who don't know any better; not the media, ravenous for a new work of genius every hour on the hour; not the foundations, itching to swamp the boondocks with classics; and not the critics, vying with one another to be the first to hail the latest reinterpretation and transmogrification of masterpiece. And that is how the aisle gets peopled with Calibans."
Which brings to mind the amateurish ANT production of "Henry IV," performed last year at the Kennedy Center.
Thus we come to the challenges faced by John Neville-Andrews, fighting to keep alive what has just been renamed "The Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger." With Mary Ann de Barbieri, Folger's managing director, and R. Robert Linowes, the new board president, Folger's people are justifying Rep. Mary Rose Oakar's congressional outburst when it was revealed that Amherst College wanted to drown its unwanted offspring.
Unquestionably influenced by Brook's aforementioned "Dream," Neville-Andrews must lie awake nights thinking of ways to make the old plays contemporary. His holiday effort to recast "The Merry Wives of Windsor" as a circus dream was vastly less successful than his placing, last season, "All's Well That Ends Well" on a cruise ship of the Coward-Porter era. Played straight some years back with himself as Falstaff, "Merry Wives" was far merrier.
With so strikingly intimate a theater of 250 seats, Neville-Andrews has been turning that drawback to advantage, re-forming the play's symphonic size to chamber music. I found his "Henry V," with Edward Gero, immensely touching and last year's "Lear" effective for its narrative fluidity (complete with waterfall). The Folger stage makes very particular demands and I've felt that instinctively Neville-Andrews is recognizing them, though the Brook mystique on occasion misleads him.
As for the latest scraps that might have been composed by the man from Stratford: Nov. 24 brought the news that an American scholar, Gary Taylor, had discovered in Oxford's Bodleian Library a poem "attributed to William Shakespeare with the first line 'Shall I die? Shall I fly?' " Addicted to the scholars' latest divining rod, Taylor claimed computer analysis supported his conclusion.
Ever since, the public prints have been in predictable flutter. The University of Maryland's celebrated S. Schoenbaum allowed, "It's authentic until proved otherwise," but cantankerous A.L. Rouse of Oxford declared the poem "too ordinary" for authenticity." The Economist was inspired to verse:
I wish these fresh-faced scholars would abjure;
Let sleeping doggerel lie and not endure.
Quick to disallow Oxford prime place, Eric Sans of Cambridge used his computer to claim that "Edmond Ironside" is a Shakespeare play.
And so on. And a footnote, too: Come Oscar night, the likeliest "best foreign film" is likely to be "Ran," the last work of Japan's Akira Kurosawa, his retelling of "King Lear."
Unlike that of others, Shakespeare's genius seems for real.