Athens, Ga. – In celebration of its 75th anniversary in 2007, the Folger Shakespeare Library has produced “Shakespeare in American Life” – a series of three one-hour radio documentaries exploring the influence of William Shakespeare’s works on American cultural, civic and political life. The programs are narrated by Sam Waterston, and the first installment features commentary by Fran Teague, Meigs Professor of English at the University of Georgia.
WUGA 91.7/97.9 FM will air the series at 1 p.m. on three successive Fridays beginning April 13.
“Shakespeare in Performance” (airing April 13), the episode featuring Teague, explores how American’s version of Shakespeare was shaped by the American experience during the nation’s earliest days when an “American” acting style first took shape. The hour also examines the influence of method acting, Hollywood and African-American performance of Shakespeare.
In this installment, Teague discusses the little-known “Swingin’ the Dream,” a 1939 production featuring a racially integrated cast in a musical version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Louisiana. The production was a re-telling of Shakespeare’s original play combined with the most popular songs of the day, such as “Sugarfoot Stomp” and “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.”
“You had Benny Goodman and his sextet on one side of the stage; on the other side of the stage you had Bud Freeman, a great Chicago swing musician,” says Teague. “And the performers are Louis Armstrong as Bottom, Moms Mabely as Quince and the Dandridge sisters as attendant fairies. Maxine Sullivan played Titania. Puck was Butterfly McQueen.”
The show was choreographed by Agnes De Mille with scenery that looked like the cartoons of Walt Disney. According to Teague, all the reviews were wonderful but there was a problem.
“There’s way too much Shakespeare, and not enough pop music. It ran about two weeks and closed. They say it lost close to a hundred thousand dollars – and let me point out those are 1938 dollars. It’s an amazing story.”
“Shakespeare in Education and Civic Life” (April 20) follows the path of Shakespeare’s work in the years that followed the American Revolution, including its late arrival in the classroom and the work’s role in such major movements as the push West, the establishment of cities, the Civil War and the immigrant experience. It also explores America’s fascination with Shakespeare outdoors.
“Shakespeare in American Politics” (April 27) explores the ways in which Shakespeare’s work is intertwined with American electoral politics, geopolitics, and racial, class and academic politics. It also explores how Shakespeare has been used for political purposes throughout American history.