Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project
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The Shakespeare Play: A Drama in Rhythmic Prose (c. 1911)

Hubert Benjamin Osborne and Laurence Eyre

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Hubert Benjamin Osborne's career trajectory is a departure from the standard pattern that CASP's research has noted in which nineteenth-century immigrants to Canada produce Shakespearean adaptations of one sort or another after their arrival in Canada (see, for example, the work of Nicholas Flood Davin or Charles Moyse). This aspect of immigration from England to Canada (the colony) and writing adaptive materials that hark back to the high literary culture of England via reference to Shakespeare requires further exploration and research.

By contrast, Osborne was Canadian-born (born in Kingston, Ontario in 1881; d. October 25, 1958) and attended Queen's University for two years before moving on to Harvard University, the start of long career spent in the United States. In addition to working as a Drama Professor at both the Carnegie Institute of Technology (1919-1925) and Yale University (1925-28), Osborne worked as a Director and Assistant Director at a number of American theatres (in Chicago, Ogunquit [Maine], and New York), wrote stories for films, Broadway and off-Broadway shows, and in 1928 had Eve's Complaint produced at the Théâtre Albert Premier in Paris, France, the first so called American play in the history of French stage to have a Paris première. Osborne wrote, performed, and directed on Broadway in the period from 1906 to 1926--––his Broadway writing credits include The Blue Bandanna (1924), Rita Coventry (1923), Shore Leave (1922), The Good Men Do (1917), and April (1918).

Osborne also developed the first synthetic stage lighting system used in America used by Sir Philip (Ben) Greet in his Shakespearean productions. The Shakespeare Play (a prequel to another Shakespearean adaptation written by Osborne, The Good Men Do: An Indecorous Epilogue) was never produced on Broadway. Additional adaptations of Shakespeare by Osborne include Macbeth, Altered a Little, and King Richard III, Altered a Little. The Shakespeare Play: A Drama in Rhythmic Prose was co-written with Laurence Eyre (c. 1881-1959), the American writer and director who also produced a Shakespearean adaptation, Merry Wives of Gotham; or, Two and Sixpence [1924], which was turned into a black and white silent film distributed by Metro-Goldwyn, Lights of Old Broadway in 1925.

The Shakespeare Play riffs at great length (five full acts) on the life and times of Shakespeare, spanning from its opening scenes in Stratford-on-Avon through to Shakespeare's move to London, his work at the Globe Theatre, at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, his lodgings at Southwark and his death in Stratford. Characters in the play include Caesario, various gypsies, Anne Hathaway, a Dark Lady, various writers and actors from the Elizabethan period (including Burbage, Marlowe, Hemminge, and Greene) and Francis Bacon.

As such, The Shakespeare Play fits into a specific genre of adaptation in which rather than adapting a specific Shakespeare play, the adaptor undertakes to reconstruct, imaginatively, some aspect of Shakespeare's life. Osborne and Eyre freely make use of historical information about Shakespeare while also creating an elaborately imagined love affair with the Dark Lady, a plot motif that sustains the play. They also make use periodically of well-known lines from Shakespeare's plays, including the Epilogue spoken by Puck at the close of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the start of Act 4, Scene 1 in which Queen Elizabeth's sense of the play as flawed is expanded upon at some length. Shakespeare is brought before the court to listen to attacks on his style and responds as follows: "To lift my voice up in these echoing halls, even to defend my play, would ill become me. My poor lines were not written for a polished court, nor can I sing of Hero's might deeds[.] I only have the humble, artless knack of sketching men and women as they pass, suffering the petty woes of everyday."

In its attention to the mysteries around Shakespeare's intimate life and in its depiction of the travails Shakespeare faced, Eyre's and Osborne's adaptation works to humanize the figure of Shakespeare, an act entirely congruent with the contexts of a (post)colonial culture seeking to affirm the democratic values of the common people over those of the élite. Ironically, the play ends with Shakespeare's death and the notion that somehow the "great play" remains "unwrit," imagining what Shakespeare might yet have produced had he lived. The gesture hints at the legacy of adaptation and revision of which The Shakespeare Play is an example.

Daniel Fischlin

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