Arts Listings

Subterranean Shakespeare’s ‘The Bronte Cycle’

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday December 03, 2009 - 09:05:00 AM

Subterranean Shakespeare, working their way through the Shakespearean canon in Monday night staged readings (they’re at number 25 now), will finish out the year with something different: playwright John O’Keefe’s The Bronte Cycle, performed on two Monday evenings, Dec. 7 and 14, at the Berkeley Unitarian Fellowship on Cedar Street. 

O’Keefe, who has been playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco—and who co-founded the Blake Street Hawkeyes, the experimental Berkeley performance troupe of the 1970s—was performing his solo show Shimmer in New York in the early ’90s, when he was commissioned by Berkeley Rep to write a play. “I don’t know anything about regional repertory theaters,” he said. “I don’t belong to that world. So I thought: something with a lot of costumes and sets.” 

He settled on the Brontë sisters, considering that “Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, unlike Jane Austin’s books, don’t have the same restraints. They’re sexually charged, really passionate. Fun! Of course, I’d never really read them ... Were they Italian? Did they write together?” 

Starting what became years of research, O’Keefe “opened a book—and my jaw dropped. I got into their bios and became completely involved. Originally, I wanted the play to babble, like northern England, but then did something not very avant-garde, more bourgeois ... I realized it wouldn’t work with the ticket prices!” 

O’Keefe discovered that the Brontë parsonage and Haworth Village in Yorkshire “are the second most-visited literary shrines in Britain, after Shakespeare’s.” He recalls reading 40 books, joining the Brontë Society, and making six trips to Haworth. 

The first version of the play was rejected by the Rep. “Tony Taccone, a nice guy, actually, worked me an extra year, cast me as the lead in one of the plays. And others got interested.” 

O’Keefe was hired as a visiting artist at the Clarence Brown Theatre in Knoxville, which is attached to the University of Tennessee, where he was also a guest teacher. “It was really a long, arduous process. I used The Flowers of Fancy as the center of the Cycle, really pivotal in a longer play. We needed to take on four artists to play three sisters and the brother. We had to have all of them dying. There was a lot of dying in that era, young dying.” 

At Tennessee in the mid-’90s, “I pulled out all the stops; I would’ve written a 17-hour serial about the women’s lives in competition with their work, so parallel to their writing—the stuff of melodrama.” 

On return trips to the north of England, O’Keefe commented, “They got to know me—and I got to understand their speech.” 

O’Keefe spoke about the Brontë sisters and their work. “They were poets but primarily wrote novels, writing about their lives, thinly disguised, transmuted.” 

The Bronte Cycle, its development, and the search for its staging took O’Keefe to the Swan Theatre in London and to Lincoln Center in New York, where he directed a workshop reading of it. “There have been eight different play versions and two film adaptations. I took it—and Shimmer—to Sundance, then to the Equinoxe Foundation in France. At Lincoln Center it came very close—then the director, who was also a set designer, dropped out to work for Disney.” 

O’Keefe “kept on into the eleventh year, writing and rewriting, hoping one of the big corporate theaters would buy it.” Finally, he “put my stamp on it—the closest play to what I want to do, I told Geoffrey [Pond]. The closest line; just an inch away with things like that.” 

O’Keefe had gradually “mutated” the play into The Bronte Cycle “to make the whole thing more cinematic, sweeping ... if there’s The Kentucky Cycle why not one for one of the greatest triptych families on the planet? I was stunned by these three women, by what amazing strengths they had to do what they did. The story’s so intriguing, maybe more so than their books.” 

Integral to The Bronte Cycle—and to this staged reading—are what O’Keefe calls the “business” of playwrights, the stage directions he’s meticulously written. “Since the Method, playwrights write dialogue, the director works with actors and actors work with the business. The playwright’s directions usually gets scratched out. My friend Irene Fornes had to write a line into one of her plays, ‘Why did you pour water over my head?’ because the actors and directors were ignoring an important stage direction to do so. Since playreadings seem to be the new form, with actors not exchanging body fluids, that everybody can afford, why not? If there’s no wiggle room.” 

Geoffrey Pond remarked that the stage directions were “almost like a radio play, or a novel. Most directions are just stage left, stage right .” Pond first saw O’Keefe’s play Mimzabim in 1984, “and it changed my life. I never had seen theater like that.” O’Keefe commented, “One thing I like about what Geoffrey’s doing is putting on all the works by Shakespeare, one after the other, with no money, doing it alone—and for only $8 a ticket. To commit yourself for that long with no support—it’s like the Guinness Book of Records.” 



Subterranean Shakespeare presents a staged reading of John O’Keefe’s work at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 7 (part one, directed by Diane Jackson) and Dec. 14 (part two, directed by Stanley Spenger) at Berkeley Unitarian Fellowship, 1924 Cedar St. $8. 276-3871. 

Information on John O’Keefe and his plays can be found at