Any author can win a National Book Award. But where’s your bobblehead, Jonathan Franzen? And just try to find Joyce Carol Oates-inspired salt and pepper shakers.
You can see a bobbling William Shakespeare, Elizabeth and Darcy shakers and tons of other ephemera — some of which are the height of elegance, some the height of kitsch — at “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity,” a new exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Shakespeare was popular in his own lifetime, but “bardolotry” — the worshipping of all things Shakespeare and the coveting of relics of his time as well as contemporary knickknacks — really hit its stride 200 years after his death in 1616. “Now we’re seeing what’s happening with Austen [nearly] 200 years along in her [post-death] timeline,” exhibit co-curator Janine Barchas says. Austen, who died in 1817, is experiencing a similar resurgence (see: the existence of Austen-profile cookie cutters).
“This exhibit combines both reverence and fun,” co-curator Kristina Straub says. To her, the exhibit is less about Shakespeare and Austen and more how we celebrate and represent two authors whose works are far better known than their lives. “The fact that we know very little about either author gives us the freedom to make them in our own image.” We have seen the bobblehead, and he is us.
Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 E. Capitol St. SE; through Nov. 6, free.
‘Richard III’ figurines
Repetition, in this case, is a sincere form of flattery. “The Folger vault was laden with tchotchkes from the 18th century, and so many of them were the exact same pose from ‘Richard III,’ ” co-curator Janine Barchas says; these are of actors David Garrick, John Philip Kemble and Edmund Kean, who all played the villainous king in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. While the statues are hand-colored, lending a “folk-artsy look to them,” Barchas says, the newly industrialized world meant they could be cast from a mold for mass production. “Those figurines made us think that celebrity’s currency in a culture is about keeping them circulating over and over again.”
Mr. Darcy’s shirt from BBC’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’
Austen’s work is frequently reimagined for contemporary audiences — think “Lost in Austen” and “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” — but Barchas says the author’s re-rise to prominence can arguably be dated to the BBC’s very traditional 1995 “Pride and Prejudice” miniseries. “When we saw those ‘Richard III’ pieces, we started asking ourselves what in the Jane Austen camp gets repeated over and over again? What pose, what moment?” Barchas says. “Of course, the answer is Colin Firth coming out of the water” as Mr. Darcy, an image that made English majors of high school girls the world over.
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