Shakespeare in the Park

First published in the Broad Street Review, 14 August 2011, and slightly edited since.

“No tights,” I said. I would dress up as an Elizabethan king, but I was not going to wear tights at the re-opening of Shakespeare Park. It’s the bit of land across Vine Street from the Free Library of Philadelphia’s front door. I didn’t know until last year that it was called Shakespeare Park. I knew the sculpture there, devoted to The Bard; I often ate lunch at a bench facing it, with Bob Gallagher (the poet and actor who would’ve been perfect for this job), and later, Sid (whose love of literature has inspired me for years).

The Library is in the midst of major renovations at Central, on Vine between 19th and 20th, and included in the project was an overhaul of the Park, fallen on hard times. New landscaping, lighting, benches, plantings, and irrigation has transformed it into an archetype of an urban oasis. Today was the day the protective fences would come down, and the Library’s President and Director would mark the occasion with brief words. I was to introduce her.

“I’m sure you won’t have to wear tights,” an Administrator assured me. Then I was handed over to the Development people, whose agenda the Administrator was innocent of. They wanted me to be, you know, like a King Henry. “King James, surely?,” I said, “if you’re talking Shakespeare,” but privately I was glad they didn’t insist on Elizabeth herself. Game, I am, but no dress.

Well, the costume came in, tunic, belt, chain, bloomers, and… tights. But at this point, in for a dime, in for a dollar, and besides, the bloomers are downright modest. Shoes? “I have brown loafers and black dress shoes, you know, like wingtips.” “Oh, they’ll be perfect.” Oh. Kay. Then there was this crown. Wow, they really did mean a king. At this, I decided to throw down the not-included gauntlet. “C’mon, let’s lose the crown. No crown.” “OK, fine,” they readily agreed. What did they care. They had a guy from staff willing to dress up in a Shakespeare costume.

Of course, at this, nobody—least of all, me—knew whom I was supposed to be. Stripped of a crown, I was not recognizably Henry or James or anyone else. I was not Shakespeare, as I would refer to him in my remarks. I was, simply, an Elizabethan male, or, as the tag attached to my tights stated, “Elizabethian.” (Privately I cast myself as a Friend of Shakespeare.)

What saved me from the slough of jaundice, however, was the real reason I took this on. My speech. Here it is, written by a very smart young staffer:

Hear ye, hear ye, and welcome to the Free Library’s re-opening of Shakespeare Park. The Bard himself knew of the importance and sanctity of finding nature in the midst of our busy existence. He wrote, “And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in every thing.” Here to speak about this verdant space and its importance to the Free Library, is President and Director Siobhan A. Reardon. A hearty welcome to the good lady!”

That was it. That’s what sold me. Forty-five seconds, but good stuff. It is utterly remarkable that a city, that a functionary writing for a petty bureaucrat in a special collection in a department in a city, would present these words to the public. As if it were a normal and a good and an admirable thing that a city would do—in the course of its city-ness—that it would do for itself, for its citizens, for its visitors, for its indigent, and even for soi-disant poets and composers eating meatball sandwiches, looking up at a sculpture and not knowing that this place had a name.

I memorized it, parsed it, massaged and analyzed it, brooded, added breaks, lifts, laughs, moved and mixed them, practiced smiles, lifted eyebrows, waved hands, winked, gestured, barked, cooed, and tried to say Hear ye hear ye so it wouldn’t sound like Hear ye hear ye. And practiced it all again and again. How I ended up doing it at the time, I don’t know. But I felt those trees, I knew those brooks, and inside I pined and cried for public exemption. I didn’t care about tights or shoes, and even though I saw the looks of all the guys I work with who were thinking, “You’ve got. To. Be. Kidding,” I wasn’t embarrassed, not in the least.

When a reporter asked me afterward what I did, I said that I worked at the Fleisher Collection in the Library. “And you’re a Shakespearean actor, of course,” he replied.

I thought of Jacobi, and Branagh, and Olivier, and of my quasi-Irish-that-I-could-never-make-English accent, and of Robert Duvall asking Robert De Niro at the coffee counter in True Confessions if he wanted a piece of pie or something, and I thought of my Giant of Gath in Milton’s Samson Agonistes 35 years ago, the last time I did anything like this, and I almost fainted.

I did manage, “Well, today.” That was a lie—I’m no Shakespearean actor—but I’m telling you, it sure felt good to take the place of one, at least for 45 seconds.

A mother brought her little daughter up to me. The little girl wanted to meet Shakespeare.

Pictures at WHYY and the Free Library of Philadelphia.

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