Shakespeare in the Park is the most culturally affirming rite of summer. No other family outing is as likely to smother mom, dad, and junior in a soothing intellectual balm, a sense of having done something important. It’s ironic, then, that part of the appeal of Shakespeare in the Park is its negligible demand on the brain. One need not know anything about Shakespeare going in, and, if my experience in Central Park Sunday night is any indication, one will not know much more going out. As I left As You Like It, I had only a sketchy grasp of Rosalind’s big speech at the end, and a vague notion of the machinations of Duke Frederick’s court, but I was suffering an unusual amount of self-approbation.
How did a nation come to expect free Shakespeare? And why must we watch it in the park? This peculiar mandate can be traced to Joseph Papp, the mercurial producer who founded a Shakespeare workshop in New York’s Lower East Side in 1954. Papp had fallen in love with the Bard when, as a young Brooklyn wisenheimer, he had been asked by a teacher to memorize a few lines from Julius Caesar. (“Wherefore rejoice? What conquest brings he home?”) A free Shakespeare company, he thought, could provide similar uplift to the unlettered. “I wanted to reach audiences who might never have seen a play before and who were unable or unwilling to pay,” he wrote. Papp had one persistent problem: He had no money to stage his shows or pay his actors.
New York has endured merciless altruists before, but never one quite so clever. Indeed, as Papp’s Shakespeare troupe wandered about the city—it performed for a time on a stage built on the back of a truck—its nobility increased. The Times critic Brooks Atkinson got caught up in the beneficence and called Papp’s scheme a “good deed in a heedless city.” And some of Papp’s productions, like his 1957 Romeo and Juliet, proved wonderful.Papp used the good will to extract from New York’s stingy city fathers an unprecedented series of handouts: the use of Central Park green space for his performances; then money to fund them; then, in 1962, the construction in the heart of the park of the 1,900-seat Delacorte Theater, which would become his company’s summer home. As Helen Epstein notes in her excellent biography Joe Papp: An American Life, Papp always thought of his troupe as a ward of the city, like the public library. Free Shakespeare, he wrote, should not be a luxury but something like “civic responsibility.”
If Papp’s gospel seemed starry-eyed, then the producer worked like mad to make it real. His casts mixed veteran Shakespeareans with novices, Caucasians with African-Americans and Hispanics. (The latter is routine now but was groundbreaking in the 1960s.) His 1974 King Lear had James Earl Jones in the title role, Raul Julia as Edmund, and Paul Sorvino as Gloucester. The crowds, while never approaching Papp’s multihued nirvana, were at least more diverse than those at the pricey Broadway houses. A 1957 New Yorker article noted an audience made up of African-American teens, women speaking Yiddish, and an “old Chinese [who] fastidiously spread a newspaper over a seat and lowered himself into it.”
Papp never won over the Shakespeare buffs, who were happy to tick off the libels he committed against the Bard. They complained that Papp blithely truncated plays and made too much of the Bard’s broad humor. That Papp’s noble attempts at diversity obliterated the social context of the plays. That Papp courted the press by casting film stars (a 1989 Twelfth Night with Michelle Pfeiffer and Jeff Goldblum is cited with particular horror) or engaged in postmodern mind games (making Coriolanus about Selma, Ala.). In a ruthless essay called “Mugging the Bard in Central Park,” critic John Simon wrote, “Night after night [the festival] sells out—not its seats, which are gratis, but its artistic standards, which, if any, are gratuitous.”
Whether he realized it or not, Papp was codifying an American notion of “middlebrow Shakespeare”—solid, earnest renderings of the Bard’s plays, designed for those who know little about the Bard’s plays. The true legacy of Shakespeare in the Park is not the education of the unlettered masses; nor did Papp create (or desire to create) a stateside equivalent of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Shakespeare in the Park is a benediction for intellectual daytrippers—an attempt to convince us that a few hours spent sweating in Central Park is culture earned the hard way.
For academic validation of this theory, let us turn to a highly entertaining 1964 study by Columbia University researchers Richard Faust and Charles Kadushin, who surveyed the audience at one of Papp’s productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The mostenthusiastic reaction to Shakespeare in the Park came from the audience members the authors labeled as “middlebrows.” The middlebrows were well-educated professionals who enjoyed Life magazine, the Times, and the Saturday Evening Post. While some expressed an affection for theatergoing and had seen musicals like Oklahoma! and Carousel, they had no expertise with Shakespeare. “One or two respondents could quote an already familiar line, such as ‘What fools these mortals be,’ ” the authors wrote. “But even this was of limited extent.”
The study found that Shakespearean middlebrows had a few common features. One was a struggle to wrap their brains around the Bard’s English. “Few admitted, directly, to difficulty with the language,” the authors wrote. “Rather, they ascribed this problem to others.” Another feature was an inability to recall even the basic rudiments of the plot shortly after the performance. (One “inveterate theatergoer” burbled, “At the end, they all turn out all right.”) Finally, Shakespeare in the Park produced a gentle narcotizing effect, a contact high of “genuine pleasure,” that made the middlebrows’ intellectual powers fade into the moonlight. “We have the impression that despite, or because of, the fact that the play was tinged with Shakespeare’s charisma,” the authors concluded, “some ‘middlebrows’ did not or could not pay full attention: It was merely enough to be there.”