Thirty-nine years ago last July (that’s thirty-nine steps on your Fitbit), I arrived in New York City from London to spend a postgraduate semester at Columbia. On the first morning, I went into Tom’s Restaurant (later the Seinfeld place) on 112th and Broadway and was immediately overwhelmed by the multiple-choice menu. London, in those days, was not a place of gastronomic variety for breakfast. A waitress of generous proportion came over to my table, “Whaddya want?” she asked. I was speechless, then mumbly, then speechless gain. The waitress waited patiently then said, “Talk to me baby, I’ll listen to you.” This is how I began my American education.
A month later I was in the audience at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park for Shakespeare in the Park, admission was free, and the audience an appropriate democratic mishmash, something like Melville’s crew of meanest mariners and renegades, if women had been allowed on board, too. The play was Measure for Measure. I had studied it in high school as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” and the problem, as far as I and most of my classmates were concerned, was that it seemed really obtuse and boring, especially when set against the stirring magnificence of Henry V or the loony ravings of Lear on the heath. I had also experienced Shakespeare many times as an audience member in school and in London’s West End. English audiences were very well behaved, and tolerated no inappropriate eruptions from its members. The more esoteric plays, like Measure for Measure, were regarded and held like fine china.
So nothing had prepared me for the vocal, boisterous, pumped-up, hot August-night crowd in Central Park. The lights came up and so, too, the moon and stars, and we began. Earlier in the year I had seen a movie that had enchanted me, Paul Mazursky’s Next Stop, Greenwich Village starring Lenny Baker as Larry Lipinsky, a Jewish boy from Brooklyn with an overprotective mother (who of course resembled my own). Larry moves to the Village, an actor’s life for him, and befriends a bunch of thrillingly eccentric Bohemian outsiders. They have fun, and then they don’t. I knew that Lenny Baker was to play Lucio in Measure for Measure and that was the main reason I wanted to see the (boring) play. I wasn’t too familiar with the other young cast members, which included such no-names as Meryl Streep, John Cazale, and Sam Waterston.
Okay, here’s the plot: Duke Vicentio (Sam Waterston) is fed up with the loose morals of the Viennese, so he scoots off and hands over power to uptight Angelo (Fredo) who promptly arrests Claudio for knocking up his fiancé, Julietta, and sentences him to death. Claudio’s sister Isabella (Meryl Streep) hell-bent on becoming a nun, goes to Angelo and pleads for leniency. Angelo thinks about it and comes up with a completely reasonable suggestion for Isabella: sleep with me and I’ll revoke your brother’s sentence. Isabella visits her brother in jail …
And this is where things began to get really interesting in the park. For Isabella would rather her brother die than give up her virginity to Angelo. For a while Claudio, choosing the path of honor, goes along with this but then, unsurprisingly, he changes his mind. Isabella is enraged, “O you beast! O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch! … Is’t not a kind of incest, to take life / From thine own sister’s shame.” Isabella’s outburst did not sit well with a large segment of the New York crowd, and one man, my near neighbor, was moved to rise from his seat to impart some advice: “Give it up to the Duke, baby,” he shouted across the lawn, “Ain’t no big thing. Save your brother’s life.”
I was in awe. Suddenly I knew with absolute certainly what it must have been like to stand in the pit of Shakespeare’s Globe theater almost 375 years earlier, that Angelo was the Lord Deputy and not the Duke didn’t matter at all. This was a performance, both on- and offstage, with which I could get on board. Of course, sometimes audience reaction of this type can be cruel and disturbing rather than witty and wise. In 1998, the second full season after the reconstruction of the Globe on the south bank of the Thames, a production of The Merchant of Venice saw Shylock mercilessly booed and hissed whenever he appeared on stage.
Shakespeare’s four-hundredth approaching—ain’t no big thing, give it up for The Bard.
Jonathan Wilson’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and Best American Short Stories, among other publications. He is the author of eight books, including Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball. He lives in Massachusetts.