John F Andrews of the Shakespeare Guild reflects on an anniversary production of The Tempest in Santa Fe, New Mexico…
As James Shapiro has recently reminded us in his fascinating anthology about Shakespeare in America, audiences and readers in the United States have long regarded the Sweet Swan of Avon as one of their fellow citizens.
During the 19th century the playwright’s works were so frequently performed, and so widely quoted, that when Mark Twain published Huckleberry Finn he could assume that anyone who experienced the Duke and the King’s mangled pastiche of “To be or not to be” would have been thoroughly familiar with every phrase those charlatans crammed into Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy.
During the secession debates that took place in the winter of 1861, politicians from both sides of the Mason-Dixon line could quote passages from Othello and The Merchant of Venice to support their positions on slavery, state’s rights, and other Constitutional issues. And as the Civil War drew to its conclusion, John Wilkes Booth sought to justify his dramatic act at Ford’s Theatre as one that Caesar’s assassins would have performed with just as much patriotic fervor if they’d been alive in 1865.
But who’d have guessed that there might be an equally compelling connection between Shakespeare’s writing of The Tempest and the Spaniards’ decision to establish a new capital city in New Mexico during the first decade of the 17th century?
This was a notion that occurred to me shortly after my wife and I moved from DC to Santa Fe in late 2007. We’d lived in Washington for quite some time, and a few months before our departure my wife and I attended a British Embassy reception at which Queen Elizabeth commemorated the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. That occasion encouraged me to reflect anew about a shipwreck that had occurred in 1609, when a vessel that was transporting a new governor to the Virginia colony went aground in Bermuda.
Two years later, in November 1611, a playwright whose company served the King and wore livery as “His Majesty’s Servants” performed a tragicomic romance in Whitehall that alluded to the “still-vext Bermoothes.” Interesting, I thought, because in all likelihood Shakespeare was thinking about, if not writing and fine-tuning, that script when a group of conquistadors arrived at what is now the Santa Fe Plaza, probably in late 1609 or early 1610, to construct a Governors’ Palace for the northernmost province of New Spain.
With this in mind, I spoke with Bob Martin, artistic director of the Lensic Performing Arts Center. He was preparing a gala to celebrate two milestones, the 80th anniversary of his theater’s initial incarnation as a cinema, and the 10th anniversary of its revival as a setting in which live presentations as well as feature films could be accommodated. I told Bob that a friend of mine, Richard Clifford, had produced a musical Tempest a couple of years earlier in collaboration with the Folger Consort, and that he and his partner, Sir Derek Jacobi, were willing to remount that production at the Lensic shortly after Derek finished reprising the title role in a National Theatre production of King Lear that would be taking place at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Bob loved this idea, so we put together a plan bring the show to La Tierra Encantada. We lined up Tom O’Connor and his early-instrument performers from Santa Fe Pro Musica, persuaded mezzo-soprano Deborah Domanski to sing arias by composers such as Matthew Locke and Georg Friedrich Handel, and hired actress Acushla Bastible to enact the roles of Ariel and Miranda. And over a festive weekend in mid-June 2011, with Derek as Prospero and Stephano, and with Richard as Caliban and Trinculo, we offered two memorable evenings to enthusiastic attendees in The City Different.
What made a special occasion even more remarkable was a conversation I had with one colleague during the opening dress rehearsal. He reminded me that Brave New World, the Aldous Huxley classic that drew its title from Miranda’s most resonant line, features a “savage reservation,” a Native American pueblo, in northern New Mexico. A quick look at the title page of Huxley’s dystopian novel revealed that it was published in 1932. What that meant was that its author was probably completing his final revisions while Santa Fe’s beautiful Lensic was being constructed, a few blocks west of a vibrant Plaza that has long featured its own “bare island,” its own flexible stage, in the heart of America’s oldest capital city.