CONJUNCTIONS:39, Fall 2002
The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines
IN THE LATE 1950s the state of Indiana had its own Shakespeare festival, though not much of the world knew about it. Far too little of the world, as it happened, to keep it in existence. But for a few summers it was there, a little Brigadoonish, or like the great Globe itself, that leaves not a trace behind.
That was a time for Shakespeare festivals. One had recently begun in Stratford, Ontario, directed at first by the great impresario Tyrone Guthrie. I used to pore over the pictures in my Theater Arts magazine (I was surely one of the few boys my age who had a subscription; who asked for a subscription for Christmas). It had begun as simply a big striped tent, then became a tentlike building; it had a clever all-purpose stage set on which Roman and Venetian and English plays could all be accommodated. The man who got the idea for a Shakespeare festival in this little town was a disabled war veteran, who liked the fact that his hometown was named for Shakespeare's. There was a picture of him, shy and good-looking, leaning on his cane.
Stratford, Connecticut, had a Shakespeare festival too, about as far from Indiana, where Harriet Ingram and I both lived, as Stratford, Ontario, was. On a summer trip to the sea--from which long ago her mother had been taken away by her father to sealess Indiana-Harriet wangled a visit to the Connecticut Stratford. While her family picnicked on the great lawn waiting for the matinee to begin, Harriet walked up and entered the cool dark of the theater, whose smell is one of the few she can recall today from that time; she passed around a velvet rope and down into the empty auditorium. On stage an actor read lines to himself under a single rehearsal light hanging over the stage. Harriet walked down closer and closer, seeing up into the flies and inhaling the charged air, when the floor beneath her vanished and she fell into darkness.
The trap was only six or eight feet deep, and Harriet claimed to be all right, but the actor, who had heard her tumble down, made her lie still till help could be called; they got her out and took her backstage and bound up a nice long gash on her arm with yards of gauze, and she was made to call the theater's doctor on the phone, who put her through a series of movements to find out if any bones were broken. Then the young actor who had rescued her took her all over the theater, into the dressing rooms and the scene shop and the rehearsal rooms. When her mother finally found her, she was talking Shakespeare with her new friend and some others, like Jesus among the doctors, with probably something of a religious glow about her too.
Indiana had no town named Stratford, but there was one named Avon, an almost quaint little Brown County town through which a small river ran, where swans could be induced to reside. Not far from the town, a utopian sect had once owned several hundred acres of farmland, where they began building an ideal community before dying out or moving West; what remained of their community was a cheerless brick dormitory, a wooden meeting house, and a huge limestone and oak-frame circular barn: circular because of the founder's scientific dairying theories, and circular because of his belief in the circle's perfection. The barn was over a hundred feet in diameter, and lit like a church by a clerestory and a central windowed turret; when an ad hoc preservation committee first went in, in 1955, it still smelled faintly of hay and dung. It was as sound as a Greek temple, though the roof was just beginning to leak.
So History wanted the place preserved; and Commerce wanted it to turn a profit and bring custom into the town; and Culture wanted whatever it was used for to be not vulgar or debased. A young man who had grown up in a big house nearby, who had made money in New York and then come home, conceived the festival plan. His money and enthusiasm brought in more, some of it, as we would learn, from unlikely places; and the process began to turn the great round barn into an Elizabethan theater. Among the methods the organizers used to publicize, and partly to underwrite, the Avon festival was to offer a number of apprentice positions to Indiana high-school students: these were a little more costly to the chosen students than a good summer camp would have been--I think there were scholarships for some--and provided the festival with some enthusiastic labor. When Harriet, that year a junior, heard about the program she felt a tremendous grateful relief, to learn that the world was not after all empty of such a possibility; and at the same time an awful anxiety, that this one would escape from her before she could secure it for herself.
Harriet's mother used to explain Harriet by saying that she was stagestruck, but that wasn't so, and Harriet resented the silliness of the epithet; she connected it with a girlish longing for Broadway and stardom, glamour, her name in lights--Harriet's ambitions were at once more private and more extravagant. When one of her parent's friends asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up--she was about thirteen--Harriet answered that she wanted to be a tragedeean.
Harriet and I grew up on different sides of the state. Her parents taught (history and economics) at a little Quaker college in Richmond, in the east; my father was a lawyer in Williamsport. The Williamsport house was a big square Italianate place, almost a mansion, built by my mother's grandfather, who had been lieutenant governor of the state and ambassador to Peru under Grant. A ten-foot ormolu mirror in the front hall came from Peru.
Harriet went to a smelly old public school--Garfield High--and after classes she tools dance lessons and on weekends she rode horses; and she read, in that deep and obsessive way, with that high tolerance for boredom, that is (it seems to me) gone from the world: read books about Isadora Duncan and Mae West, read Shaw and Milton's Comus and the plays of Byron and Feydeau and Wilde's Salome. And Shakespeare: carrying the family's Complete Works around with her, its spine cracking and its fore-edge grimy from her fingers. She read the major plays, of course, though to this day she hasn't read Lear, but mostly she turned to the odd numbers, Cymbeline and Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida. She keeps surprising me with the odd things she read then and still remembers. I went to a little private school my family had an interest in, and spent a year home-schooled (as they call it now) because of my asthma, mostly better now. So we were both smart, sheltered, isolated kids, she isolated by being an only child, I surrounded by four sisters and a brother but miles from anything and dreaming about Theater, or Theatre, as I much preferred to spell it.
Mine was a kind of megalomania not so unusual in a kid with my statistics, so to speak: dreams of dominance and glory. Most of my ambitions, and most of my knowledge, came out of books; just like Harriet, I'd never seen many plays, though I tried to see as many as I could reach. They all seemed comically inadequate to me, shaming even; I bit my nails to the quick and squirmed in my seat till my mother took my shoulder to hush me.
I didn't quite understand then that the theater work I dreamed about mostly dated to a time thirty or forty years before, when the town library acquired the albums and monographs in the Theater section that I pored over. I was studying Max Rheinhardt's vast productions in Weimer Germany, the stage designs of Gordon Craig (he was Isadora Duncan's lover). Once, I found in that library a book about how to build your own Greek theater and put on pageants. I tried to convince my mother that a Greek theater like this would be perfect in our broad backyard, over in front of the tall poplars (the drawings in my books were full of poplars) and look, you could buy these Ionic columns from any building supply house for ten dollars. The book, however (my mother showed me, laughing) had been published in 1912.
Harriet thought that was a sweet story. I told it to her in Avon, that summer we were both apprentices there, the summer that changed everything. We were sitting by the campfire the apprentices made most nights, far enough away not to be grilled, near enough so the smoke discouraged the mosquitoes. She listened and laughed and then told me about falling into the open trap in Stratford, Connecticut. By the end of her story everybody was listening.
It seemed then that Harriet had a better chance than I did of going on the way we were both headed. My visions all needed pots of money to realize, and the cooperation of many others, and the kind of tyrannical will and willingness to be boss that it would turn out I had none of. But everything Harriet needed came right out of Harriet; all she had to do was bring forth more, and there was more--that was clear. I knew it even then.
The complete text of "The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines" can be found in the print issue of Conjunctions:39, The New Wave Fabulists.