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Shakespeare in the American theatre

Immortal lovers: Romeo and Juliet

THEATRE: Long before Shakespeare drama was seriously adapted by the American Theatre, the country’s leading actors and actresses were playing Shakespeare characters on the screen as well as in small measure across America on unknown stages.

One of the earliest Shakespeare films in black and white to be released was Romeo and Juliet in the 1940s with Jean Simmons and Leslie Howard playing the tragic young lovers. Though the film was a great success, there was a pause until Thespians like Orson Wells, Richard Burton, Michael Redgrave etc., gave the impetus.

A glorious Shakespeare epic was the stunning Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor in the title role. The film ran non-stop wherever and whenever it was screened in America as well as outside the USA.

It was August Bowmer who came up with the idea of having Shakespeare plays initiated in the USA after he established the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1933. Today all the regions maintain at least one summer Shakespeare Festival and they are highly patronised.

To mention a few, there is Berkeley Shakespeare Festival, the Theatre of Monmouth, Shakespeare and Company of Lenox, Rivers Shakespeare Festival of Pittsburgh, The Colarado Shakespeare Festival, The Utah Shakespeare Festival of Cedar City, etc. Outdoor theatres are very popular during the summer to mount Shakespeare plays that are highly professional.

New York

Joseph Papp of the New York Shakespeare Festival, conceived and nurtured the idea and derived from his small but intensive workshop of 1953 and commissioned Stuart Vaughan to direct Julius Caesar and Taming of the Shrew with the assistance of Colleen Dewhurst at The East River Amphitheatre in 1957. Papp presented a mobile Romeo and Juliet, Two Gentlemen of Verona and Macbeth in Central Park as well as Richard III and As You Like It under Vaughan’s direction at Hecksher.

In downtown New York at the Public Theatre there have been more indoor productions. However, the festival is most noted and popular in the summer outdoor in the recently constructed Dellacotte in Central Park. There are several Dellacotte productions each summer.

The major breakthrough came when Papp decided to present all 36 Shakespeare plays at a cost of 33 million dollars in a series to extend through six years without a stop and began with A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Public Theatre in downtown New York. It was a dream that Papp never lived to see the end because he died in 1989.

The festival which had among its players included that of Colleen Dewhurst, James Earl Jones, Sam Warreston, Barbar Baxley and Stacy Keach. The major directors included Stuart Vaughan, Gerald Freedman, Steven Berkhoff, and Papp himself. Presently, Kevin Kline is handling the Festival.

Stratford - Connecticut

It was on a vast indoor stage that the American Shakespeare Festival debutted in 1955 with Julius Caesar directed by an English director, Denise Carey followed by The Tempest in 1956-7. Later Michael Kehn took over and between the 1960s and 1976 staged such plays as Henry V Othello, All’s Well that Ends Well, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Richard II, Loves’s Labour Lost, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Winter’s Tale, As You Like It etc.

The Thespians livened up the plays were such greats like Raymond Massey, Morris Carnovsky, Donald Madden, Jesica Tendy, Eva Lee Gallenne, Fritz Waver, Roddy MacDowell, Alfred Drake, Katherine Hepburne, Tovah Feldshuh, Moses Gunn, Christopher Plummer etc.

They have worked with much success under the directions of Denise Carey, John Houseman, Jack Landau, William Ball, Michael Kahn, Allan Fletcher, Steven Potter, Edward Payson Call, Edwin Shein, Ward Baker and Douglas Seale. Some of the directors were also involved in directing Shakespeare films with great success.

Ashland - Oregon

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival was founded in 1933 by Professor Angus L. Bowmer. It ran as a two-month summer season festival but today, blossomed into a highly productive virtual year-round operation. In continuity, it is probably the oldest American Shakespeare Festival, presently housed in two spectacular theatres.

The indoor Angus Bowmer was built in 1970 and the Elizabethan outdoor in 1959 modelled in the lines of the Globe. This recommendation was from John Cranford and replaced the earlier theatre.

There is also a small studio theatre named The Black Swan. In constructing the Elizabethan Theatre, Angus Bowmer and designer, Richard Hay sustained a long association with Ashland and along with top directors, the methods of William Poel was brought to America.

San Diego - California

Here again the influence of B. Iden Payne played a major role in Shakespeare presence. The festival rose from its mere fifty-minute summerized Shakespeare productions in par with the California Pacific International Expositions of 1955. San Diego was busy with its programme until it had closed down in the Second World war but was fortunate to later, reconstruct itself as the Old Globe in Balboa Park.


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