Visits to antique shops are like prowling around your grandparent’s attic. Some true treasures can be found by the diligent searcher among of the dusty tools, toys, furniture and books. I have a time-tested criteria for deciding if an old book is to be brought home:
- Intact The book must be physically readable. If it cannot be read what is the point?
- Interesting This one is not always easy to determine. Old books do not provide much information on their contents.
- Obscure and uncommon. Why buy an old version of a book I already have on my shelf?
- Affordable. My investment is intellectual, not monetary.
In a nice little shop in the Berkshires a book with the intriguing title of “Human Life in Shakespeare” by Henry Giles found its way into my hands. Originally Published by Lee and Sheppard in 1868 (Boston), this small book of essays on the works of Shakespeare met the criteria and I opened it to the author’s preface:
I was holding a true treasure, the last writings of a dying man as he gifted his thoughts and insights to future generations. It was a unique testament and Henry Giles’s frailty at the end of his life accented and illuminated the art contained within.
Henry Giles did not life long after he wrote those words. Flipping through a few pages I came to the editors introduction to this 1882 edition:
Next to seeing a beautiful human life fade, flicker, and go out, unrecognized and unappreciated, is the sadness of seeing a beautiful book sink into the almost hopeless death of “out of print.” …This series of lectures or essays on the humanities in Shakespeare ought never to have disappeared from site in a cultivated community. … This is the rare quality that has brought Henry Giles’s book from the darkness to the dawn of another publication. It is a book of inestimable value to any one desiring a clear view, as it were, of Shakespeare’s mind and method.
John Boyle O’Reilly
Boston Massachusetts, March 15th 1882.
So there it was… Henry Giles filled auditoriums with his lectures only to be on the verge of being forgotten less than twenty years later. Now in 2021, his greatest legacy was entrusted into my hands.
Henry Giles book was not my only encounter with Shakespeare in the Berkshires. Last week I attended an evening performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear with my daughter, my nephew and his girlfriend. The stage at the Shakespeare and Company in Lenox was austere and brand new. In fact, this performance was the first ever on the New Spruce Theatre outdoor stage. There are no lights, no special effects, props are minimal, none of the actors use microphones.
Artistic Director Mr. Allyn Burrows set our expectations before the performance. “This is a preview performance”, he explained. “The rain the last few days prevented us from rehearsing on this stage and in fact, it has never been performed in its entirety by this cast. We don’t know how long the play will take to finish, and do not be surprised if cast members ask for lines during the performance.” Mr. Burrows was not apologetic, he was excited and we in the audience were also caught up in the high adventure of a performance without a safety net. If that wasn’t enough, the air was damp and cool and thunderstorms still prowled in the mountains around us.
It has been a trend the last few decades to turn Shakespeare’s plays into mega performances with A list actors, sweeping vistas and special effects. This performance was Shakespeare at its fundamental form. Our eyes, starved of overwhelming visual spectacle, no longer overwhelmed our ears allowing us to accentuate our sense of hearing. Shakespeare’s true genius as a wordsmith now becomes apparent as his prose invades our imaginations. Castles, battles, ghosts and witches emerge in our mind’s eye as Shakespeare’s careful and poetic lines create each scene for us.
From the opening lines of the play, Mr. Christopher Lloyd as King Lear did not disappoint. An accomplished actor of 82 years of age, Mr. Lloyd’s performance was not about fame or money but for the love of the art of the theater. We could feel the tension build as King Lear, who in his arrogance believed that his office and duties as king were his alone to dispense with as he saw fit. We could feel the pain of the serpent’s tooth of ungrateful daughters Goneril and Regan and the shock and horror of a tragically misunderstood Cordelia.
All objects of art are really composed of two sperate but intricately linked arts. The most obvious one is the object of art itself. For a sculptor it is the sculpture itself, for a painter it is the actual image on the canvas, for a writer like Henry Giles it is the words on a page, for a playwright like Shakespeare it is the play itself on stage. Then there is the meta-art, the art of making the art itself. Most of the time the audience is not consciously aware of this meta-art. We do not usually witness a sculptor sculpting or watch a painter painting or a writer writing.
But within this performance of King Lear we could witness both. Christopher Lloyd the actor had to contend with the damp and the cold, he occasionally had to ask for his lines, and the early evening overcast sky grew darker and visibility rapidly reduced. I admired Mr. Lloyd’s courage and determination to perform even knowing that the conditions were not optimal. As the play continued, the art of Christopher Lloyd as he created King Lear and the character of King Lear began to merge on stage. We saw the meta-art of acting merge with the art of the play. It was a very human and heroic moment. Likewise, we can visualize Henry Giles heroically compiling his essays knowing he was dying. In both cases the art of creating and the art of the object created merged into equal importance.
Nevertheless, as the darkness continued to envelop us and as the thunderstorms converged, Mr. Allyn Burrows called the performance around the second scene of the fourth act. No one seemed to mind, and the unexpected ending seem to properly cap a night of adventure. It seemed to be a fitting monument to human endurance in the face of uncertain conditions. The performance illuminated the beauty of always striving to create and expand our horizons thru art.
Postscript: As I mentioned, Henry Giles book was published by Lee and Shepard, Boston Massachusetts. Mr. Giles book looked vaguely familiar to me and when I looked for my volume of Shakespeare in my home library I found this book, also published by Lee and Shepard around the same time:
Postscript II: If you are lucky, you may still find tickets available for Christopher Lloyd in King Lear. Do not wait!https://www.shakespeare.org/