“It is amazing that live theater has not died,” says novelist Bernard Cornwell. “You think about its competition — movies, television. And yet, more theaters keep opening and theaters still fill themselves.”
Even in this technological age of computers and smart phones, with entertainment a click or a swipe away, still theater survives. Hell, we have no less than 10 professional theater companies in Charleston County alone.
We even have the first permanent theater ever built in the 13 colonies: the Dock Street Theater. That’s why it is the perfect venue to host Fools and Mortals at Play: A Charleston Library Society gala event.
The night is a celebration of Bernard Cornwell’s new novel Fools and Mortals, but as Cornwell puts it, “We’re not trying to make the show about my book. The book is just an excuse.”
Fools and Mortals is a work of historical fiction centered around the first ever production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which occurred in February 1595.
At this weekend’s event, Cornwell is not going to read from his novel, but he is going to serve as a sort of ringmaster, providing context and insights between scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, performed by Broadway actors.
So the night is also a celebration of Shakespeare as well as the beginnings of professional, purpose-built theaters (making Dock Street an even more appropriate venue).
There was a time when there were no purpose-built theaters. Sure, there were acting troupes that would travel from town to town and perform a very limited selection of plays, knowing with every new town came a new audience that had never seen their work. “Then someone had the bright idea of building a permanent theater,” says Cornwell. “That’s what totally fascinated me about writing Fools and Mortals, it all takes place at a time when a brand new industry is just starting.”
The first theater was built in London in 1574. “Everything changes,” says Cornwell, “because now, the audience is the same, day after day after day. This means you need new material all the time. So you not only have a brand new industry, but you also have a new profession called being a playwright. So the theater is professionalized. You have playwrights and producers, and theaters that have to be maintained. And it really is extraordinary that this happened almost over night and was immediately successful. And what’s even more extraordinary is it’s still going on.”
Cornwell is an avid theater lover, and an actor to boot. He’s even performed in several Shakespeare plays. “The glorious thing about Shakespeare is that he hasn’t gone out of date,” says Cornwell. “I’ve twice played in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I can remember one night, standing on stage left, waiting to go on, and all you could hear were these huge gusts of laughter coming from the audience, and you think, ‘Christ. These jokes were written 400 years ago and they’re still working.'”
The same could be said for live theater in general. What we produce today is not all that different than what was produced in the 16th century. “Now, we have all sorts of technical differences,” says Cornwell. “But nevertheless, the process of putting on a play is exactly the same. And we can tell that because Shakespeare actually describes putting on a play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If you took an actor from 1595 and dropped him in a theater in the 21st century, he’d know exactly what was going on.”
So how can we explain theater’s staying power? What keeps the audience coming back when there are so many other forms of entertainment at their disposal? “There’s an immediacy to it, and if you like, a danger to it,” says Cornwell. “If you go and see a movie, you know that all the mistakes have been edited out. In the theater, you’re watching people walk a tightrope. So there’s a tension there.”
And you can come witness that tension this Saturday at Dock Street. There’s even a secret musical guest that won’t be revealed until you’re planted in your seat.
As for Cornwell, Fools and Mortals was just released in the U.S. on Jan. 9, but it’s already been a success in the UK, having remained on the best-seller list since its release in September.
And as for Shakespeare, “He’s still relevant,” says Cornwell. “No one has ever quite got to the bottom of Hamlet. It still goes on fascinating us.”