March 03, 2010

Shakespeare's Vortigern and Rowena @ Radio 4

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00r0xt5

This Radio 4 afternoon play by Melissa Murray had tangential relevance to this blog. While Vortigern and Rowena was an acknowledged Shakespearean forgery in its own time, and thus has never occasioned any serious critical debate about its authenticity, the story of its first performance in 1796 is an important reflection on Shakespeare's growing cultural status at the time, and about questions of authenticity, value and status.

The play was essentially a backstage drama set during the production's first night. Samuel (Bruce Alexander) and Henry Ireland (Rufus Wright) were, prior to the curtain being raised, praised as heroes by an acting company excited not only by the opportunity to be the first to perform the "lost" play, but also by the prestigious audience attracted by Shakespeare's name. The language used ("A good ghost walks among us") placed the occasion, in its own context, as being of universal significance, a turning point in dramatic history.

Yet this weight of expectation began to crumble even before the performance began. The great J.P. Kemble (Alex Jennings), star actor at Drury Lane, found the play "underbred" and amateurish, while a comic actress given a tragic part complained that it was unspeakable. Yet the promise of Shakespeare forced the play forward. R.B. Sheridan (Lorcan Cranitch), manager of the theatre, had paid £300 in order to outbid Covent Garden for the honour, and had virtually bankrupted Drury Lane in the process.

As the play began, Henry Ireland's forgery became apparent. Early hints, such as suggestions that he might go on to try his hand at writing, gave way to accusation and recrimination. In a great scene, as an actress and his one-time lover challenged him with forgery and the ruining of both the theatre and her personally, Ireland finally snapped and began ranting that he had been possessed by the spirit of Shakespeare, that the words had written themselves, that he had shared souls with the Bard himself.

This led into some funny discussion of the nature of authorship. On the authenticity of the play, Ireland told Sheridan "I gave you my word, not as a gentleman, but as an author." Authors were imagined not to be absolute fountains of truth, but as plagiarisers and collaborators, inspirations and muses.

As the play fell apart and threatened to descend into riot, it was left to Kemble to save the day by turning the play into farce, making a mockery of the lines he was speaking and bringing the audience onside in collaborative jeering at the words. The comedy of this part contrasted nicely with Henry's dismay and the surprisingly touching characterisation of Samuel, who could not be brought to believe that his son was a liar. Denying this to the end, the doddering old man left the stage on a proud, but defeated, note.

A play about ambition and pride, then, but also pleasantly insightful into the business of forgery and Bardolatry. Ireland knew that he could only begin his literary career by attaching Shakespeare's name to the title-page of his own play, and his sense of his own genius just needed the veneer of Shakespeare to get it sold. At the same time, the story spoke of a public idea of what "real" Shakespeare is: despite Shakespeare's name and the authority of Sheridan and Kemble, the audience could tell a fake when they saw it. It leaves open the question: what is our sense of Shakespeare? Is the Shakespearean quality a tangible, recognisable thing? Or are we less attuned to the marketing than we think? It was a long time before people realised that Timon, 1 Henry VI and Henry VIII (to name just a few) weren't wholly Shakespeare's. Are we so sure that we know what "Shakespeare" "is"?

(Thanks to Duncan for flagging this up!)


- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Duncan

    I got the impression that the audience didn’t undertake much in the way of stylistic analysis but just responded to what was obviously a bad play. Those involved in the production were willing to overlook its obvious faults as this was being sold as an early unpolished work by a young Shakespeare. They deluded themselves until the massive reality check of the opening night burst their bubble.

    Bit like those monkey paintings that fooled credulous critics but look like unadorned rubbish to the non-expert!

    04 Mar 2010, 21:25


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I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.


Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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