The Shakespearean Baseball Game (1958)
Wayne and Shuster with
Ed Sullivan (centre)
Wayne and Shuster
Johnny Wayne (born John Louis Weingarten) was born in Toronto in 1918. Frank Shuster was also born in Toronto in 1916, but grew up in Niagara Falls, Ontario, where Frank's father ran the Colonial Theatre. Shuster boasted that he learned to read off movie screens (www.rcc.ryerson.ca/ccf/personal/hof/shuste_f.html). The two met at Toronto's Harbord Collegiate when they were twelve and thirteen respectively, and began performing together in reviews. They then became English majors at the University of Toronto and performed in the College Follies. In 1941 they began Wife Preserves, a radio show on CFRB dispensing domestic advice for women. CBC's Trans-Canada Network then gave them a year's contract to write and perform their own comedy show. In 1942 they joined the infantry where they wrote and performed for Canadian troops at military bases across the country. After D-Day, Wayne and Shuster performed The Invasion Review for troops in Normandy. Later they performed for the Commonwealth Division in Korea.
In 1946 they began The Wayne and Shuster Show on CBC Radio, then moved to CBC Television in 1957. Their big break came in 1958 when they were invited to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. In their first appearance they performed "Rinse the Blood Off My Toga," an adaptation of Julius Caesar, and eventually appeared on Ed Sullivan a record 67 times. But despite numerous offers to work in the U.S., Wayne and Shuster stayed in Toronto performing regularly on the CBC. They continued to perform together until Wayne's death in 1990. Frank Shuster died in 2002.
As Paul Rutherford notes, "the most prominent form on North American television by the end of the 1950s was unquestionably drama of one kind or another. Recall that Wayne and Shuster's brand of comedy relied heavily on dramatic sketches to supply the structure for their farce and satire" (349). Their theatrical and highly literate comedy relied on puns and clever wordplay, which adapted easily to radio and television.
The Shakespearean Baseball Game was first performed in 1958. It plays up the "Shakespeare craze" created by the founding of the Stratford Festival in 1953. The beginning of the sketch announces its location as "Bosworth Field (A Baseball Stadium Near Stratford)," an allusion to the final scene in Richard III, which was the first play performed at the first Stratford Festival. The dialogue is written and performed in a pseudo-Shakespearean style that makes use of conventions, such as ending speeches with rhyming couplets:
Umpire 1: Hark! The players come. To our
appointed places shall we go, you at first
and I behind the plate. This game
depends on how you make your call.
Farewell! until you hear me cry "Play ball!" (1)
Speeches are pieced together with famous quotations from Shakespeare, comically adapted to the baseball theme. As Macduff walks to the plate for his turn at bat Rocky says, "Lay on Macduff! And watch out for that breaking stuff!" (3-4). Macduff then hits a ball down the line that the umpire calls foul, which sets up what I consider the best line of the sketch:
Rocky: You, sirrah, that ball was fair!
Umpire 1: That ball was foul!
Rocky: So fair a foul I have not seen!
[Macbeth: So foul and fair a day I have not seen. (Macbeth 1.3.36)]
Wayne and Shuster's word games even inspired a fan letter from Marshal McLuhan, media theorist and professor of English at the University of Toronto. After watching another Shakespeare-based sketch," Western Hamlet," McLuhan wrote: "Your "Western Hamlet" was great. The parallel between the two art forms was most effective in throwing light on the play Hamlet too" (Pevere and Dymond 227). Thus, McLuhan explicitly associates adaptation with critical rereadings of Shakespeare's source texts.
Satirical sketch comedy continues to be a popular form for Canadian comedians. Wayne and Shuster have inspired generations of Canadian comedians, including those appearing on SCTV, Saturday Night Live, and The Kids in the Hall. Rosie Shuster, Frank's daughter, won multiple Emmies writing for Saturday Night Live, and was married to Canadian Lorne Michaels, producer of SNL and Kids in the Hall. The influence of "The Shakespearean Baseball Game" can also be seen in Chris Coculuzzi and Matt Toner's Shakespeare's Rugby Wars, and Shakespeare's World Cup. Wayne and Shuster are institutions of Canadian pop culture. As Bob Blackburn famously wrote, "They are the Death and Taxes of the comedy world. They have been with us forever. What is news, perhaps, is that they firmly intend to go on being with us-forever" (quoted in Pevere and Dymond 227).
CASP is pleased to publish for the first time a transcription of The Shakespearean Baseball Game.
Pevere, Geoff, and Greig Dymond. Mondo Canuck: A Canadian Pop Culture Odyssey. Scarborough: Prentice Hall, 1996.
Rutherford, Paul. When Television Was Young: Primetime Canada 1952-1967.
Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990.