An unsung masterpiece finds its moment of truth in the District

This Op-Ed was published online in The Washington Post on March 27, 2020 and appeared in the print edition on March 29, 2020.

By Simon Godwin
March 27 at 7:00 AM

Broadway is dark. The West End is closed. Even the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace — that glorious piece of state theater — has been halted. As theaters darken across the globe, where can we find the light?

In William Shakespeare’s career as a playwright in Renaissance England, theaters were familiar with existential threats. Laws restricted playhouses to the outskirts of London; the occasional risque joke against a monarch led to a brief stint in jail; an errant cannonball even set one stage ablaze. Most serious of all, theaters were closed by proclamations preventing “mass gatherings” during outbreaks of the plague.

During the longest of these shutdowns (c. 1605-1607), Shakespeare composed some of his most celebrated tragedies: “King Lear,” “Macbeth” and “Antony and Cleopatra.” During another, he released his cherished sonnets, which he’d written more than a decade before and had been read only in closed aristocratic circles. With the stages closed, he needed a way to reach a popular audience in their homes. He turned to the new practice of publication. Adversity was a business opportunity even then.

In this tumultuous period, theaters were more often closed than open. How did theater make it through? How did writers, actors and audiences persevere? How did Shakespeare deal with the pandemic that threatened to destroy everything he cared for? What he witnessed fueled in him a determination to mirror his age. The references to plague in his dramas speak to the anxieties that plagued his theater patrons: lives needlessly lost, fears of abandonment, political chaos, the ever-present specter of death and disaster. “King Lear” is nothing less than apocalyptic in its denouement.

For me, there’s an even greater resonance between Shakespeare and our current moment. Last December, I began rehearsing “Timon of Athens,” another tragedy composed during the worst years of the pestilence, but one traditionally dismissed by critics and audiences alike. Set in a contemporary Greece, and with the traditionally male protagonist played by the skillful Kathryn Hunter, I reimagined this unloved tragedy for our moment, but never imagined how prescient this work would become.

The drama begins with Timon, a famous philanthropist, resplendent in gold, sharing her bounty. Gifts abound in a glorious extravaganza of excess. In a flash, things change. Timon becomes bankrupt, is abandoned by her friends and, in one of the first moments of literary self-isolation, retreats alone to the forest, a deranged misanthrope, raging at the moral collapse of mankind. “Breath infect Breath” she cries, wishing a plague on Athens and that “friendship” would become “merely poison.” Lonely and brokenhearted, Timon finally takes her own life, walking into the sea never to return.

In our early performances at Theatre for a New Audience in New York City, with a booming stock market, rising employment and bullish consumer confidence, audiences enjoyed the gleeful excess of the story’s first part but felt bemused by the dramatic reversals. How could one person’s life change so entirely and so fast? How could the world feel so extreme? Why tell this story now? Then it happened.

On March 13, as the actors were preparing to go onstage in the District in front of a full house, news arrived: All theaters were to close. In a few moments, our world collapsed. Our final week in the District was canceled. As the cast gathered onstage to say a shocked goodbye to each other, Shakespeare’s clairvoyance felt profound. Life was imitating art. Suddenly we were in the wilderness, we were in Timon’s dark wood, hurled from golden success to a world locked and shuttered. This unsung masterpiece had, unbearably, found its moment of truth. As we left the abandoned foyer, a line from one of Timon’s servants rang in my mind: “And we, poor mates, stand on the dying deck/Hearing the surges threat: we must all part/Into this sea of air.”

When the plague came, Shakespeare retreated, too. “Timon” comes from the writer’s own despair — his raging at the bitterness of vanished chances and his crippling grief at losing so many friends and family. He was bewildered and furious. What did he do? He wrote. Copiously. Creativity came as a panacea, a vaccine against despair. And through embracing his anguish, fear and inner violence, something changed. He found renewed vigor, collaborating with younger playwrights and developing a new style: the romance.

Shakespeare’s last works — “The Tempest,” “The Winter’s Tale,” “Cymbeline” and “Pericles” — revolve around motifs of loss, hinging on disaster only to be resolved by a last-minute miracle. The anxieties of Shakespeare’s tragedies remain, but separated parents and children are reunited, shaky marriages are repaired, and the accursed find redemption. The poignant roots of his late romances are now apparent. Shakespeare did not walk into the sea but found, on the other side of trauma, these final works — intoxicating, sacred romances that are neither comedies nor tragedies but a unique genre acknowledging but transcending anguish. Art, he showed us, can console.

Shakespeare is always ahead of us. He knows what we’re going through. And he’ll be waiting for us when we return. It won’t be long.

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