The playwright steals — lines, plots, anything that works. The playwright uses historical events, fashioning his own take on the characters within those happenings. He finds whole scenes come to him in his dreams. He writes fluidly in iambic pentameter. He doesn’t mind getting bawdy. The playwright is?
William Shakespeare, sure. But there is another correct answer: Robert Brustein.
“Not that I’m claiming to be another Shakespeare,” he laughs while admitting those similarities between himself and the Bard over coffee at the Black Dog. Mr. Brustein, the longtime up-Island resident, award-winning drama critic, founder of Yale and American Repertory theatres, author, scholar, playwright and lately Huffington Post blogger, is here discussing his latest play, The English Channel, now on at the Vineyard Playhouse. “A lot of things in this play happened to me,” he says.
The play races through the year 1593, when the plague closed Elizabethan theatres, leaving a twentysomething Shakespeare to pen sonnets to a young man and have an affair with the so-called Dark Lady. It was also the year rival playwright Christopher Marlowe was killed.
Mr. Brustein shifts time to include a version of the infamous Essex rebellion. The English Channel imagines an earlier but aborted insurrection plan also involving Shakespeare’s patron, the 3rd Earl of Southampton. (Southampton was involved in the 1599 scheme, sentenced to death and saved only by James I when he came to power; Lord Essex was beheaded on charges of treason.)
With four characters — Shakespeare, Marlowe, Southampton and Emilia Lanier, whom Mr. Brustein and others take to be Shakespeare’s Dark Lady — The English Channel moves lightly across timeless bad-boy behavior; androgyny, misogyny, betrayal and jealousy; religious and political tangles, feminism, the authenticity of authorship, and plain old history — all from the confines of the Mermaid Tavern.
These themes Mr. Brustein meanwhile is exploring in a more scholarly book called Shakespeare’s Prejudices, overdue at the publishers (Yale University Press) thanks to the staging of the play. The English Channel premiered at Suffolk University’s C. Walsh Theatre earlier this month to praise from the Boston critics. The playhouse sees the same cast under Brustein protégé, director Wesley Savick.
On charges of stealing for The English Channel, Mr. Brustein pleads: “Actually the whole impulse of this play for me as a playwright is what the play is about — which is how playwrights steal from each other in order to write plays.”
When in the play Shakespeare laments, “All the great stories are already told,” the deliciously, charmingly sleazy Marlowe waves off the problem: “That’s why you steal, dear Will. That’s why you steal.”
“Shakespeare famously could not invent a plot,” Mr. Brustein says. “Not a single plot among the 37 plays of Shakespeare was invented by Shakespeare. He could invent characters, and of course he was a master of language and he completely transformed whatever he touched.”
For Mr. Brustein, whose original father-son play Spring Forward, Fall Back premiered last summer at the Vineyard Playhouse, taking a turn at writing an historical fiction for the stage likewise was not restricting. Instead, exploiting real circumstances was liberating. “Marvellous,” he says, “a great help.”
The genesis of The English Channel came to Mr. Brustein less than two years ago, partly inspired by Stephen Greenblatt’s imaginative Shakespeare biography, Will in the World. “I wrote [the play] fairly fast and I’ve been kind of refining it ever since,” says Mr. Brustein.
In the play, Mr. Brustein’s Will Shakespeare says of his characters, “They come to me when I’m asleep, sometimes when I lie sleepless, demanding entry. Their hungry voices clamoring in my ear, they plead for life. And once I give them life, they plead for greater life.”
And so it was for this 21st century playwright. “Whole scenes came to me in my dreams,” Mr. Brustein says. “I’d wake up and pour the scene out onto the computer and then revise it, It was as if I were being channelled, the way Shakespeare was channelled by Marlowe [in a scene from The English Channel that makes clear Brustein is not a believer in the conspiracy theory that Marlowe really wrote Shakespeare’s works].”
Typically Mr. Brustein writes much more deliberately. “When I’m writing a play, I write daily. I get up at 6:15, when everyone else is asleep . . . and I get the first two or three hours uninterrupted.”
The English Channel is considerably changed from the script that had a reading at the playhouse last year, he says. “It’s been cut, it’s been reshaped, it’s been rewritten — I mean the language is continually undergoing refinement. It’s a play about language and it depends a lot on language so I’m continually reworking it, getting the words right.”
It is written in blank verse, which came much more readily than Mr. Brustein expected or even hoped. All those years of staging Shakespeare perhaps, had allowed his own voice to write in the form naturally.
Certainly some of this Will’s character traits were born of Mr. Brustein’s prodigious stage career. This Shakespeare is always scribbling, testing new lines in asides to his conversations. Introduced to the Dark Lady, she notes the name of her late father was Baptista Bassano; Will immediately writes it down, musing, “Good names for characters in a play.” (Baptista is Bianca’s father in the Taming of the Shrew.) Later, Will responds to Emilia’s warning that jealousy “is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on” with “Hmm, that could be something.” The ear’s the thing.
“I got the idea for that from [director] André Serban, who did a production of Twelfth Night [and] set one of the scenes between Antonio and Sebastian in a gay bar,” recounts Mr. Brustein. “And in that bar, sitting at the next table, was William Shakespeare, writing down everything they said, to be used in some future play known as Twelfth Night.”
The English Channel is set in a bar, too, and in a bedroom. There’s plenty of sex, though this Shakespeare seems less a swaggerer than he has been made out in other popular portrayals. He’s downright insecure here.
Mr. Brustein believes Shakespeare was attracted to Southampton but never acted on it. He also believes that Emilia — the first published woman poet in England and a strong woman — had an impact on the real Shakespeare’s female characters. Here, the married Will explodes about Emilia’s infidelity. He was a man of his times. Think Desdemona, Ophelia; angst over the possibility of female inconstancy is a Shakespearean constant.
Androgyny and misogyny — both ideas Mr. Brustein is exploring in more depth in the book. “It is a different headspace, completely,” he laughs of writing both a play and a book about the Bard. “One is an emotional experience, meant to be an emotional experience, and a comic experience, and that’s the play, and the book is a scholarly experience.”
The comic experience is on in Vineyard Haven Saturday, Sept. 22 at 8 p.m.; Wednesday and Thursday, Sept. 26 and 27 at 7 p.m., and Friday and Saturday Sept. 28 and 29 at 8 p.m.
The Vineyard Playhouse box office is at 508-696-6300 or online at vineyardplayhouse.org.