The play, The Birth of Merlin, may be getting its first U.S. production from the Stolen Shakespeare Guild in Fort Worth. The play draws on Arthurian legends, it was written in 1622 and attributed to William Shakespeare. So — KERA’s Jerome Weeks asks, what took so long?
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The Birth of Merlin premiered at London’s Curtain Theatre in 1622. That’s four years after William Shakespeare died. But when the play was first printed in 1662, Shakespeare’s name was on the cover, as was William Rowley’s. We know Rowley collaborated with other writers, just as Shakespeare did. And we know Rowley worked with Shakespeare’s own theater company, the King’s Men. What’s more, The Birth of Merlin is full of magical, mythical characters – much like Shakespeare’s later plays, such as The Tempest and Pericles.
So it’s just possible that Merlin was a late collaboration between Shakespeare and Rowley.
Jason Morgan isn’t convinced. “In the end, I think someone was just trying to sell a book,” he says, laughing. Jason Morgan is co-artistic director of Stolen Shakespeare. It’s a small, five-year-old Fort Worth theater dedicated to classic plays and literary adaptations. Morgan is expressing what most scholars have concluded about Merlin. To boost sales for that first published version, the printer, Francis Kirkman, just slapped on the name of the most popular playwright of the age: William Shakespeare.
But simply because Kirkman did that, Merlin has joined a group of works known as the Shakespeare Apocrypha. The Apocrypha are several dozen plays and poems Shakespeare may or may not have had a hand in, although scholars seriously consider only about six or seven of these as worth close examination. Last year, the Stolen Shakespeare Guild presented one of these disputed dramas, Double Falsehood. An 18th-century writer named Lewis Theobald wrote it, possibly adapting what is believed to be an honest-to-goodness ‘lost’ Shakespeare play named Cardenio. Falsehood got renewed (and heated) attention two years ago when a new edition of the Arden Shakespeare included it — hence, the Stolen Shakespeare production.
But Falsehood led Jason Morgan into the thickets of Apocryphaland. And that led to Merlin, the second production in a series that Stolen Shakespeare is calling ‘Lost Shakespeare.’
There’s another reason, though, for Morgan’s choice: “I’m a big fan of King Arthur movies and books and things and I love Excalibur, and just anything to do with King Arthur I love to watch.”
The irony is Shakespeare doesn’t seem to have shared his interest. The playwright often drew on English history and myth in such plays as Macbeth, King John and Henry V. But Merlin the wizard and King Arthur barely earn a few mentions in Shakespeare’s works — even though we know Arthur was a popular subject. There were other scriveners and companies writing plays inspired by Arthurian legends (Thomas Hughes’ The Misfortunes of Arthur, for instance, from 1588).
So Arthur Phillips asks of Shakespeare’s canon: “Where’s the Arthur story? He mentions Robin Hood.”
Phillips is the author of the novel, The Tragedy of Arthur, called the best novel of last year by the Wall Street Journal. In it, Phillips creates a con man who may have found a lost Shakespeare play about King Arthur. Or he may have forged it. It’s left to the con man’s unhappy son to figure out which is which. Phillips got the idea of writing a King Arthur drama – by reading Shakespeare’s plays.
“In the process,” he says, “I tried to poke away at things it seemed that he touched on but didn’t get to. And those few little mentions of Arthur tickled me. And I thought, you know what? Where’s the Arthur story?”
So with The Tragedy of Arthur, Phillips wrote such a story for Shakespeare; the novel includes the script he created in imitation of early Shakespeare plays like King John. The novel is even being adapted for the stage by New York’s Guerilla Shakespeare Project.
Shakespeare taking on the medieval Arthurian legends seems a tantalizing possibility for some people. The National Theater of Wales, for instance, has actually staged The Birth of Merlin. But that may be because in Wales, Merlin is practically a patron saint, so there’s that additional interest.
In contrast, in America, the Stolen Shakespeare people have not found a record of any production of The Birth of Merlin. This could be the play’s North American premiere.
There are good reasons for those many decades, even centuries, of neglect. Frankly, the poetry in Merlin is clearly not up even to mediocre Shakespeare. It often falls into simple rhyming couplets, a device Shakespeare had abandoned years earlier. Worse, Merlin has a jumble for a plot; it’s got three different storylines — including one involving a wisecracking Clown and his very pregnant sister, Joan Go-To-’T, who turns out to be the mother of Merlin. Scholars believe this is evidence of Rowley’s authorship: As an actor, Rowley was known for his ‘fat clown’ roles, and the fact that Clown gets some of the play’s better lines only supports this identification (When Uter Pendragon calls Joan a witch and a hag, Clown concludes he must know her, “he speaks so much like a husband.”)
Nathan Autrey is directing Merlin: “Anybody that reads it would tell you that it’s not Shakespeare.”
So why do it? Well, unlike Shakespeare’s plays, no one knows The Birth of Merlin. So no one’s going to object if you ‘improve’ things. As Autrey says, “It gives you free agency to make a lot of choices. And trust me, we made a lot of choices to make things more clear.”
Whatever its many faults — including its dark, unsettled tone — The Birth of Merlin also has a lot of dramatic stuff in it that would certainly appeal to the theatrically inclined : witches and nuns, mad passions, low-brow humor, court intrigues, Merlin being born as a full-grown adult.
And then there’s the appearance of someone Shakespeare never brought on stage: the devil himself.