Election Section

Central Works Bares Shakespeare Controversy

By BETSY M. HUNTON Special to the Planet
Friday July 30, 2004

All right, so it’s a specialized subject, but it’s presented in so delightful a way and the acting is so terrific, that you ought to be able to generate much more interest in Central Works’ production of The Mysterious Mr. Looney (at the Berkeley City Club) than you may at first anticipate.  

Anyway, it’s probably a shoo-in in a university town to snag theater buffs with a play about the controversy over whether or not Shakespeare really did write all those poems and plays. Don’t laugh. It takes less than a minute on the Internet to come up with a large quantity of quite respectable-sounding arguments against the idea that a small-town boy with nothing but a grammar school education could have created some of the greatest dramatic works in human history.  

Or, being a Berkeleyan, you could argue, “Why not? Power to the People!” and so forth and so on. Particularly since the leading contender for “the real Shakespeare,” the 16th Earl of Oxford, spent so much of his time in truly creative debauchery that it would have been hard to fit in much writing. (Besides, he died in 1604 and The Tempest was written in 1610 or 1611—an awkwardness which the Oxfordians resolve by refusing to admit the play into the Shakespearean canon). 

On the other hand, you could just go over to the City Club and see Mr. Looney. It’s probably one of the pleasantest ways to get the arguments presented—and they can become heated, no question about that. By far the most academic material is rattled off by the two opposing proponents as they’re rolling around on the floor trying to strangle each other. It’s a great scene. 

Besides, quite aside from the arguments about Shakespeare, you’ll get some absolutely terrific acting. Christopher Herold, who teaches acting at A.C.T., is every bit as good as you would expect. He plays Sir Sidney Chambers, who wrote the definitive work establishing the legitimacy of Shakespeare’s authorship. Herold’s role is a challenging one which he handles with great ease. 

For some reason, the program fails to clarify that this play is based on the real people involved in the heat of the real controversy. Since the director and playwright Gary Graves is a longtime “Shakespeare Controversy” buff, he may have simply failed to notice that not everybody is completely current with the subject.  

Or it might be because Graves took some liberties with the real story himself. When the good-looking younger man (a talented John Patrick Moore) who is threatening Chambers’ status as the absolute authority on his life’s subject, salts the wound by starting a serious flirtation with the guy’s wife (Jan Zvaifler, who handles her role very well, indeed ), we can guess that Graves has created some new material.  

Besides, the wife is in contact with a spirit who we have reason to suspect is Shakespeare himself. Surely that has to be Graves’ idea. 

The problem, of course, with this mixture of hard facts and creativity is that those of us who are not knowledgeable about the Shakespearian controversy can’t completely rely on the play’s description of the situation. There are some issues important to the play’s plot that could belong in either camp.  

Chambers, for instance, is presented as maintaining an excellent demeanor of poise over a rapidly deteriorating set of circumstances. In the play, he is suffering a gigantic case of writer’s block and has run through almost all the money he received from his publisher. His financial position is desperate; and he has concealed the whole thing from his wife.  

Into this situation comes an uninvited stranger, Mr. Looney, an articulate conveyor of the arguments in favor of the Earl of Oxford’s authorship. He is, as well, quite ruthless, willing to resort to any extreme to obtain public acceptance of his point of view.  

Amazingly enough, this character, too, is based in reality, on two men, according to UC English Professor Emeritus Alan H. Nelson. However, the professor makes no bones about his contempt for the arguments against Shakespeare’s authorship of the famous works. He says that the theory “has no standing whatsoever in the profession.” Nelson estimates that only one of 2,000 English professors believes it.  

Nelson himself became so irritated with the issue that he spent 10 years researching and writing Monstrous Adversary: The Life of Edward DeVere, 17th Earl of Oxford, which came out in 2003. Nelson calls the Earl “a reprehensible person” and describes his known poetry to have been “execrable to mediocre.” One would think that the quality of Oxford’s known poetry would put the issue to rest. But the Internet is still bubbling away. 

So far as the play goes, the professor sees it as based on “a good yarn,” but says he would have preferred the Looney character to be a ghost. 

Hmm. Interesting point of view.