What would Shakespeare do?
Shakespeare stole most of his plots from other writers, so why shouldn’t other writers steal from the Bard? Well, they did, of course, and that’s one reason why so many versions of the familiar stories have hit the stage over the centuries.
A case in point is George Lillo’s 1738 “Marina,” which is a radically cut take on “Pericles,” a romance from the early 1600s that Shakespeare took from John Gower’s 14th-century “Confession Amantis,” which was probably derived from still earlier sources. A reading of the play, which is centered on the title character, Pericles’ daughter, is set for 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 24, in the Meese Auditorium in the Art Building on the Southern Oregon University campus, 1250 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland.
The reading is being presented by the Classic Re-Readings Company — the brainchild of Shakespeare enthusiast Geoff Ridden, a long-time professor of medieval and Renaissance literature at the University of Manchester in England who moved to Ashland in 2008.
“It’s actually quite a recent work for me,” he says with a twinkle. “Outside my field.”
He says the goal is give audiences samples of the ways the plays have been treated over the years.
The reading will feature such well-known actors as Paul Jones, David Dials, Judith Rosen and Pam Ward. Admission is free, and no tickets are required.
Ridden says that when "Marina" hit the boards in 1738 London, Shakespeare's "Pericles" had fallen out of favor and was only rarely performed. The script omits the first three acts of the five-act play and opens with Marina in a brothel — from which she is soon rescued by pirates.
“Ironically, later productions of ‘Pericles’ tended to downplay this aspect of the story,” Ridden says.
He says the truncated play lacks the sweep of "Pericles," which unfolds around the ancient Mediterranean over many years. “You don’t get Pericles’ travels,” he says. “He comes in as an old man and tells us he’s been around, but we don’t see all of that.”
Lillo does, however, retain substantial portions of the original text of Shakespeare's final two acts.
“The aristocratic characters talk in blank verse, and the low-lives talk in prose, just like in Shakespeare,” Ridden says.
In Shakespeare’s tale, Marina escapes sexual slavery through her virtue. In Lillo’s, the brothel gets closed. Unlike Shakespeare, Lillo, who was a jeweler and goldsmith, wrote plays that were considered “moral” by the standards of the day by many who found Shakespeare’s plays scandalous.
“There was a good deal of anxiety about crime and prostitution in the London of the 1730s,” Ridden says.
The play’s epilogue even includes a pitch for the then-recently-formed Shakespeare Ladies' Club, which worked to bring Shakespeare's plays back into the theater.
This is the second work to be presented by the company. The first was an adaptation by poet John Dryden of "Antony and Cleopatra," which was presented in October. Coming up are readings of “The Winter’s Tale” in March and “Timon of Athens” in May. All will be free.
The company is committed to readings that showcase alternative versions of plays being staged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. One of the biggest differences audiences will notice is the presence of women actors. In Shakespeare’s day, female characters were portrayed by male actors.
Ridden says the germ of the idea for this series — which is presented under the auspices of the Oregon Center for the Arts at SOU — came out of a lecture he gave last July as part of the Carpenter Noon series at OSF. He soon found that local actors were keen on doing the plays.
And what would the Bard make of all this?
“If he were around, he’d be writing for indoor theater,” Ridden says. “With women, and within today’s conventions.”