June 20, 2009. To the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park to see the Public’s Me-In-The-Park production of Twelfth Night with that young actress who has my wife’s name. Because it is Father’s Day weekend, I take the Da as my plus one, which does not go as badly as I feared, or as well as I hoped. But it never does. At least this time he doesn’t give me a lecture about the plot, as he did last year during Hamlet. “I never got that pirates shite,” he said. “Why pirates? And why don’t we see them? If you’re going to have pirates, then show them to us.” “Yes, Da.” “Aren’t you the one who’s always saying, Don’t tell us -- show us?” “No, that’s Ben, Da.” “Ben?” “Ben Jonson, Da.” “Ah, Ben. How is Ben?” “He’s good.” “Is he here tonight?” “No, he’s probably at The Dead Poet. He thinks any play with pirates in it is a mouldy tale.” “I like pirates,” says the Da. “Pirates are fun. Not many plays out there which wouldn’t be better off with a crew of pirates in ‘em.” “Not many, Da,” I said, and mentally made a note to give him Captain Blood for his birthday.
When tonight’s play begins (with live music; well done, Daniel Sullivan) the Da, as usual sits there with his arms across his chest, now and then reacting with a harrumph or a grunt or a wry grin and a shake of his head, which is the closest he ever gets to admitting that he wants to laugh at one of my jokes. I know all this and yet I am still looking for him to do something different whenever he sees one of my plays. I keep hoping for a conversation, even though I know that this is a man who does not string more than five words together at a time unless he is under the influence of either anger or drink. Or talking about pirates. I do not know why, after several centuries, I still look for his approval. But I do. It’s the opposite with the Mum. When I took her to see Mary Stuart on Mother's Day, I was the one with my arms folded across my chest, and she was the one walking on eggshells because she could tell I was jealous of the translation.
So I try to ignore the Da and appreciate the actors, which is only made difficult by an intense little man in the third row who appears to be mouthing all the lines along with the actors, and shaking his head now and then at a missed word or anything remotely resembling an ad-lib. Whereas I am enjoying every little ad-lib and bit of business because I wish I’d thought of it first. The company is extremely talented. There is more music than in most productions, and more harmonized singing, with both Viola and Orsino joining in on the songs. It makes me wish I had written them a duet. And (yes) it is extremely odd to see a woman with my wife’s name playing a part I wrote with my daughter Judith in mind. But she is quite good for someone who has learned to act in front of a camera instead of an actual audience, and while her Viola is neither as funny nor as vulnerable as it could be (there is a reason she’s always making jokes about her cross-dressing, Anne dear) she is certainly better in the part of Viola than Julia Stiles was a few years ago. Or for that matter Sam Gilburne, for whom I wrote the part. You can guess at his strengths and limitations during his scene with Olivia, which was written for the other Sam, Sam Crosse (as was Rosalinde; as was Gertrude).
Thinking of those long-dead boys makes me think of how much the play has changed since the original version, the one just titled What You Will, in which there was no Malvolio subplot, but a cross-plot romance in which Sebastian married Olivia, Viola married Antonio, and Leonato wound up alone (because someone must always end up alone). There was much more confusion between the twins in that version, which meant much more for my brother Edmund to do as Sebastian. But then Elizabeth wanted a play to honor that pompous fool Don Virginio Orsino, so I cut the cross-plot to shreds, changed Leonato to Orsino, added Toby and Andrew and Malvolio, and gave Sam Gilburne a little more to do by creating Maria as a double-part with Viola. (So odd to see them on stage together in modern productions.) That took all of two weeks to write and rehearse, and by the time it was over, the play had turned into another Midsummer, where the chief company actors got the small beer parts and the groundlings in the company got the meat and potatoes, which fit the Twelfth Night occasion well.
This production is very much in that vein, with the weight coming down heavily on the Malvolio side of the scales. And because the actors are so good, I cannot help but rewrite the play in my head with them in mind. Raul Esparza is too strong to be wasted as Orsino; we need to see more of him, and in this script Orsino disappears for the theatrical equivalent of days. I would beef up his part, and cut the foolery between Toby and Andrew, most of which is clever references to topical events of 1600, such as that stinker about the lady of the Strachy marrying the yeoman of the wardrobe. (Memo to self: nothing dies faster than a topical reference. Better yet: memo to Stephen King.) I don't even remember who was the butt of that joke; all I do remember is that it got the biggest laugh of the day when we did it in front of Elizabeth. It reminds me of all the references to Lord Strange's Men in Love's Labor's Lost. Talk about the funniest play in history. Not a single in-joke was lost the first time we did it. It was like an industrial for the Elizabethan nobility But now? Nobody within twenty miles of me even knows who Lord Strange's Men were. Well, possibly that little man in the third row who's mouthing all the lines. He probably knows. He probably even knows who the lady of the Strachy was. Which means he’s one of those bardolaters who thinks I was a poet first, an actor tenth, and a crowd-pleaser last of all. I have the intense desire to go up to him during intermission, and give him a heart attack by telling him that, if I was writing this play now? I’d be making Britney Spears jokes. (And memo to self or not? You know I would. I would be making bad puns on her last name for days.)