One late September evening of last year, I got an email from Noreen Major, our Chief Development Officer at STC, with an unusual request. A donor and longtime friend of the theatre, Irene, wanted someone to come to her home in Bethesda once a week and discuss Shakespeare. Irene specified that she would like someone “fun, challenging, and insightful.” Noreen asked me if I knew of anyone. Not being an unduly humble sort, I suggested yours truly.
This will be easy, I thought. Spend my afternoons talking about Shakespeare with an engaged friend of the theatre. No sweat.
It wasn’t until I called and talked to Irene, however, that I realized she was the one and only Irene Pollin. Together with her late husband Abe, Irene was one of the shapers of modern Washington. Irene and Abe co-owned a sports empire including the Wizards, Capitals, and Mystics. They built the Verizon Center with of their own money, almost single-handedly changing downtown into a crowded, buzzy neighborhood dotted with restaurants, museums, and theatres (including STC’s Sidney Harman Hall). Perhaps most importantly, Irene and Abe have been active members of the cultural community, serving on manifold boards and foundations, co-founding the Sixth & I synagogue and cultural center in 2002, and much more. You can read more about Irene in this Washington Post feature here, and in her book here, which I could not recommend more highly as a deeply personal glimpse into an extraordinary life.
Long story short, I have been meeting with Irene and we have been discussing Shakespeare’s plays nearly weekly over the last four months. So far, we have covered Othello, Hamlet, and King Lear, with a little bit of The Merchant of Venice (“I don’t care much for the comedies,” Irene says). I can honestly say I’ve learned as much from Irene as I’ve illuminated for her. She has an autodidact’s enthusiasm for investigating the plays anew, and her style is an intensely personal. She likes to start by looking at Shakespeare’s big characters, anchoring her analysis of them in lessons she’s learned from her own life. Our discussions will start with the plays but they tend to range free-associatively, extending out to Irene’s world, a fascinating galaxy populated by other eminent Washingtonians (and family friends) such as George Solomon, Ted Koppel, even Bill and Hillary Clinton, the former of whom used to love coming to Wizards games. I often feel as if I am peering behind the curtain at the Shakespearean drama Irene has lived in her whole life. And I am convinced that her life has given her unique insight into the most under-appreciated aspect of Shakespeare’s drama: his understanding of power and pressure in figures of larger-than-life size. I never met Abe but I feel as if he is in the room with us sometimes when we discuss the plays. He is certainly never far from Irene’s thoughts.
Now, when I look at the plays, I can’t shake Irene’s acute analysis, sometimes taking the form of a question, other times in the form of a disarmingly simple sentence:
In other words, Othello should have every reason to be confident, he is a well-spoken, physically impressive general of the Venetian army—but attaining power has made him overly reliant on the opinions of others. Similarly, Hamlet may be the Prince of Denmark but he sure doesn’t act like it, and he spends most of the play running away from his responsibilities. And Lear seemingly starts the play from a position of power but it’s in fact one of desperate need. Had Cordelia told him what he wanted to hear instead of what he needed to hear, everything might have turned out different.
I’ve also tried to bring Irene into my world. On our first week together, I gave her a copy of one of my favorite recent Shakespeare books: Women of Will by Tina Packer (2015). For those who don’t know Tina, think her as the Michael Kahn of the Berkshires. Tina founded Shakespeare & Company in 1978 in Lenox, Massachusetts at the Mount, Edith Wharton’s mansion, which was in a state of virtual disrepair. The company has grown, just like STC, into one of the leading classical theatres in the country. Though Tina has written previous books on Shakespeare and the intricacies of managing theatrical institutions, Women of Will is the kind of book that someone writes after spending an entire life immersed in the canon. As Tina writes, “this is not an abstract thing.” Synthesizing insights gained from a career of directing all of Shakespeare’s plays (save Cymbeline, which she’s directing this year), Tina looks at all of the female figures in the canon. Like Irene, the conclusions she reaches are eye-opening, surprising and stimulating insights into Shakespeare’s worldview.
It would be reducing the book—and Shakespeare—to try to extrapolate all of it here. Go buy it. But a few moments have stayed with me. Tina is especially alive to the double, sometimes triple resonance of key words that keep appearing and reappearing in the plays and sonnets, words such as “will” and “soul,” which seem to balance the physical with the spiritual, the masculine with the feminine. In Shakespeare’s early plays, especially the histories, Tina argues Shakespeare shows us how war is largely a man’s game and how the female power to lament is often the only means of social resistance. It was only after growing up a little, perhaps falling in love himself, that Shakespeare could write the comedies, in which the women are far ahead of the men, fighting for a new kind of social equilibrium, and creating entirely new social roles. As Tina writes, Shakespeare’s plays, taken as a whole, offer us nothing less than a history of mankind:
We live in a world of right/wrong, good/bad, dominance/submission, mine/not mine, me/other, have/have not. We stumble upon a world where that is no longer true, and through active love we find we are the other. That knowledge recasts the story that has been told since 800 B.C., and the women endeavor to break through the power structures. For a short interlude, women want the same kind of power as the men, and this results in a decimated world. Finally, the artist and the young women join together with the witch and a few good men and point the way to a new order.
Tina singles out three plays as utterly unique in the canon, realistic love stories told against a backdrop of violence, in which the men and women are treated with absolute equality. These are Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida and Antony and Cleopatra. In the last of these Shakespeare casts his widest panoramic net as Egypt falls to Rome. Rome fall too, Tina reminds us, but it has continued in the form of the church, the crusades and in its wars of empire. One of the few ways we have of achieving some kind of equilibrium, of a new order, lies in the plays of Shakespeare. Reading them, discussing them, ultimately in performing them, where their full meaning becomes apparent.
A few weeks ago, Tina was in town and able to visit with me and Irene in Bethesda. It was a lively conversation between two women who have taught me a great deal this past year about Shakespeare’s plays. Above all, it reminded me why I wanted to do this job in the first place.