They'll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. . . . The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: It's a part of our past."
That's a famous soliloquy from the movie Field of Dreams, and it's true: Baseball is part of America. But so, peculiarly enough, is Shakespeare.
Amateur actors on wagon trains moving west staged Macbeth, and as towns grew theater groups brought Birnam Woods to prairie fields. Touring troupes put on "Beauties," famous bits and pieces from the plays.
Americans also read and memorized Shakespeare. Mark Twain joked about con artists mangling the bard, but he also praised a riverboat pilot who "knew his Shakespeare as well as Euclid ever knew his multiplication table." Explorer W.T. Hamilton in his autobiography, Sixty Years on the Plains, recalled one of his prized possessions: a copy of Shakespeare given him by a Kentucky trapper whom he met in Wyoming in 1842.
We've lost those thrills as Shakespeare has become something assigned in schools and reluctantly read. Volunteer presentations before small audiences have given way to solemn performances in vast auditoria. So it's a pleasure in New York, of all places, to reclaim the American past by sitting in shirtsleeves on a perfect evening and watching the play of those who love Shakespeare's plays.
New York City this summer has had at least half a dozen Shakespeare plays presented alfresco and free of charge (sometimes with a passing of the hat for contributions at the end) in Central Park and in lesser-known venues like Harlem's Marcus Garvey Park. There's even been "Shakespeare in the Park(ing Lot)," with Romeo and Juliet performed in a Lower East Side municipal parking lot.
But it would be hard to beat the sense of early America present at Shakespeare on the Run, the Gorilla Repertory Theater's production of Henry V. Gorilla Rep staged the scenes at various spots within part of Riverside Park near West 79th Street, so the audience of 40 on one Saturday night late last month followed and surrounded the actors as the scenes shifted.
The scene-by-scene movement, with no advance notice-suddenly actors start speaking at a different spot-made for aerobic fun but also was a return, in a sense, to traditions of the Elizabethan stage, which did not use scenery. Shakespeare recognized the problem of showing location shifts and battles on a bare stage, so he used a narrator who encouraged audience members to use their imaginations: "Can this cockpit [the theater] hold the vasty fields of France? . . . Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts."
The play's religious flavor, which some truncated versions omit, also came through. Shakespeare has King Henry V thank the director of events for victory at Agincourt: "Take it, God, For it is none but thine! . . . And be it death proclaimed through our host/ To boast of this or take the praise from God/ Which is his only."
Maybe Shakespeare in abundance can only make it in New York, where actors and directors looking for opportunities abound. And even in Manhattan productions often depend on the initiative of a drama entrepreneur, who functions like his predecessors on 19th-century wagon trains: Christopher Carter Sanderson founded the Gorilla Rep and directed this summer's Henry V, but he is a Bosun's Mate, Third Class in the United States Navy Reserve and is scheduled for deployment in the Persian Gulf this fall.
But maybe local Shakespeare productions can make it anywhere when even a few, a happy few, a band of brothers, take the initiative to be a blessing for their whole communities. A few Christians could do it.
Do you like it in the park?
Do you like the scratchy bark?
I do like Shakespeare, Sam-I-am-let
I do like Henry five and Hamlet.