“To non-theater lovers,” wrote actor Joel Grey in an opinion piece in The New York Times shortly after the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., “lamenting the closing of Broadway in the face of so much widespread suffering may seem, at best, frivolous. But for many of us, this tragedy has been made that much more devastating by having to face the nightmare without the laughter, tears and sense of community that a night in the theater delivers.”
That is pretty much why a blog from me now. For the “many of us,” it is essential that we keep live theater a part of the daily conversation in anticipation of the time when live theater is once again part of our lives for us to witness, perform and critique. Sadly, the local newspapers that have long championed local arts and artists, and helped lead this conversation, have suspended their coverage and let go or furloughed their arts journalists. Me included.
The closing of theaters also happened in London between 1603 and 1613, when the Globe Theatre and other playhouses were shut down for a total of 78 months – more than 60% of the time -- because of recurring bubonic plague outbreaks. And there are some lessons to be learned.
From 1603-4, when one in five Londoners succumbed to the disease, a quarantined William Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure. And when the plague returned in the summer of 1606 and killed more than 1/10th of the city’s population, Shakespeare was putting the finishing touches on King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. In short, some of Shakespeare’s best, most creative writing was done in the shadow of a pandemic. So it is the intention of this blog to offer posts that encourage playwrights and other theater artists to keep creating and keep producing.
While Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets were not a cure for the plague, they were most certainly a source of welcome respite from the suffering once the theaters reopened. And so this blog will keep you posted on the status of Cleveland’s theaters and their strategies for when this too has passed.
The plague is used as a plot point in Romeo and Juliet, when an outbreak quarantines the messenger sent by Friar Laurence to carry a letter to Romeo. The letter bears the news that Juliet has faked her death, but the letter never reaches Romeo. Still, we are told in the prologue that it is the “ancient grudge” of feuding families “where civil blood makes civil hands unclean” that is the real disease that seals the fate of these star-cross'd lovers. This blog will post inspirational acts of caring within the arts community to help counter news reports that people can and often do inflict more harm on each other during times of crisis than any insidious, infectious force of nature can manage. The lights are out, but soon they won’t be.
Bob Abelman is a syndicated theater critic and entertainment feature writer in Cleveland, Ohio. He is also a professional actor who, as a younger man, appeared on and off-Broadway. A professor emeritus at Cleveland State University, Bob is the author of 12 scholarly books and hundreds of articles in academic journals and popular magazines. Coming soon is ALL THE WORLD'S A STAGE FRIGHT, a fictional memoir of a clandestine theater critic who embeds himself in a professional production of the comedy As You Like It, to overcome a debilitating fear of Shakespeare and turn in a decent performance. A quick laugh-out-loud novel, ALL THE WORLD'S A STAGE FRIGHT is written for those who love theater and need Shakespeare's gorgeous words now more than ever.