At the very peak of the Protestant Reformation campaign to trash the great classics of antiquity as works of heretical paganism deadly to the fragile Christian soul, comes this 12-year-old aristocrat, his mind stuffed by his tutor with the works of the ancient Greek and Roman poets and playwrights. Finding himself sidelined as a living relic of what had once been his nation’s ruling class, the human bearer of a priceless title with no more role to play than to behave himself; he sees how, in a sort of “may game,” the magic of Print could free a poet, “tongue-tied by authority,” to hide behind rows of unidentifiable little black marks on paper. Taking advantage of the money-lending opportunities available to one of his rank, opportunities denied to less privileged poets, sensing that the printing press may offer a different kind of power than the sort that was driving the nation’s monarch and her ministers, he ventures, under cover of the anonymity provided by Print, to try a handful of his own literary experiments in the public market.
By creating plays for the young choristers at Paul’s Cathedral––once central to the Catholic religion, now something of a local community center and employment bureau––he enjoys himself by helping the boys, most of them his own age or younger, to support themselves by providing them and their grateful Choir Master with revisions of old plays left over from the days when young King Henry VIII was in a playful mood. When these become popular with the Queen and her ladies, he moves on to entertaining her Court over the winter holidays with concerts and full length plays.
When what he writes for the Court escapes to a public starved for pleasure by the grim tenets of the sin-obsessed State religion, he experiences a thrill far greater than the cautious response he gets from his nervous Court audiences, the age-old “smell of the grease paint and roar of the crowd” that grips all theater folk. Irresistable to a lonely soul, denied from birth by his rank the give and take of ordinary folk, he finds community and fellowship with the actors and musicians to whom and for whom he will devote himself from then on.
In his thirties, with the rise of a military threat to his nation from its enemies on the Continent, he’s enrolled by the current Secretary of State to arouse the patriotism of the coastal populations that will be England’s first line of defense against the coming attack, by dramatizing how it dealt with such attacks in the past. For the new touring company created chiefly for that purpose he writes plays that dramatize the heroism of Henry the Fifth and the various valiant––and not so valiant––commoners that once followed the noble young king to France. This, plus other tales of defiant heroism, were enacted with humor and the kind of rabble-rousing speeches that he and the Secretary hoped would reach the hearts of the young men in these distant public audiences. Thus was launched what would eventually become the great series of lessons that dramatized for a still illiterate public the history of their nation.
Misunderstood and repressed by the power-hungry ruling family into which he had been rather forcibly married, he reacts by satirizing them onstage. Over time this leads to a showdown from which, protected by the laughter-loving Queen, he emerges relatively safe from further harassment, but condemned to remain forever lost to history as the creator of the London Stage. Thus was born in the silence created by these powerful enemies, maintained for centuries by their descendants, the Fourth Estate of government, the very instrument that has become what today we call The Media, the unofficial but only truly effective control on the autocratic impulses of Authority and the right of a free people to assemble in public.
His story––still almost as unknown as it has been for the past three hundred years––when taken together with that of his younger cousin (by marriage), the second-greatest genius of their time, how they, with the help of three other brilliant writer-thinkers, created the words written and spoken by half the world today, either as their first or second language. Theirs is a story that lies at the heart of today’s worlds of politics and literature, and it’s a pip! Hopefully, God willing and the creek don’t rise (any further than it has already) we’ll have it for you, the first half anyway, by the end of this year.
PS: After posting the above it struck me that, had the enemies of the London Stage––having stopped Christopher Marlowe from producing more plays like Tamburlaine or Massacre at Paris––been successful in their long ongoing efforts to prevent the author of Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Richard III and Richard II from performing and publishing these plays, would the American filmmakers and producers of the 1970s been moved to give America movies like Viva Zapata, On the Waterfront, All the President’s Men, or Three Days of the Condor?
Courage inspires courage. Fear inspires fear.