It’s 1971 and I’m on my first visit to Ashland, Oregon. I’ve been teaching Shakespeare at the University of Iowa for two years and on a west coast trip, I’ve driven up to Ashland for their well-known Shakespeare Festival. Around 6:30 on a summer evening, I’m sitting on a park bench, munching a sandwich, when I suddenly hear strange noises—clang, clang, clang—that feel distinctly out of place. What could be going on? I look around and finally glance up, towards the theatre and there, on what I later realize is the backstage area, are two men whacking away with broadswords—and then I remember that I’m about to see 1 Henry IV and that I must be hearing, if not exactly seeing, Hotspur and Prince Hal practicing for their Shrewsbury conflict.
That moment has stayed with me, perhaps because it epitomizes the close contact between the stage and the town, between performers and audience. I returned to Ashland twice more, in 1973 and 1975, to teach high school teachers through workshops run by the Festival. There is now an extensive education department, but even in the early 70s, these workshops, as well as public lectures, offered ways in which the theatre reached out to the general public. And sometimes, excitingly, the public reached back. I still remember the discussion in 1975 of the fight scene in Romeo and Juliet when Tybalt stabbed Mercutio in the side, in a move that left no visible wound, but must have punctured a lung, since Mercutio didn’t discover that he was injured until blood started pouring from his mouth.
In talking about the production, we focused on this moment which was both surprising and shocking—and also on a textual problem that it seemed to solve, namely, why does Tybalt, after leaving the stage, return almost immediately. And then we talked with Eric Booth Miller, playing Tybalt, and asked him what was happening. He wasn’t sure—he knew that the text required him to come back, but he hadn’t really thought of why. But we could see the wheels turning and after that discussion, several of us rushed to the box office to buy a ticket for that night’s performance. Sure enough, our questions and comments had struck a nerve; this evening, Tybalt didn’t come back as “the furious Tybalt” or “in triumph” but more gingerly, as if trying to see what he had done. And then he was visibly shocked to find out that Mercutio was dead—all conveyed through body language. Our workshop group was thrilled to see how our questions had clearly spurred some rethinking and restaging of this moment.
Stage to audience and back to the stage. And in that season’s most memorable production, Audrey Stanley’s The Winter’s Tale, the last moments of the play also involved that relationship. The moving strains of Pachelbel’s Canon in D underscored the coming to life of Hermione and then continued through the final speeches. All of the characters, now dressed in white, joined hands and moved downstage together—and, every time I saw that production, the audience rose, not only to applaud, but to share the happiness.
Miriam Gilbert is Professor Emerita of English, The University of Iowa.