MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Ralph Alan Cohen, a Shakespearean scholar, educator, author and theater director, has made it his mission to eliminate what he calls “Shakesfear.”
The term is a humorous one, but is immediately understood by anyone who was compelled in high school to study the works of the famous bard. Cohen, in fact, wrote a book for teachers called “Shakesfear and How to Cure It.”
Cohen, a native of Montgomery, is also the co-founder of a theater company, and a co-founder of a theater building; a professor of Shakespeare and performance at Mary Baldwin College; and the founder of the Blackfriar Conference, a biannual weeklong celebration of early modern drama.
For that lifetime of accomplishment, Cohen earlier this month was presented with the Sam Wanamaker Award, given to celebrate work that has increased the understanding and enjoyment of Shakespeare. The award was presented in the renowned Shakespeare’s Globe theater in London, a theater Cohen loves, by theater professionals who are both colleagues and friends.
But Cohen approached what should have been a day of personal triumph with some trepidation.
The Globe is an outdoor theater, and English weather is notoriously finicky. What if it poured? And the award was to be presented after a matinee performance of “Antony and Cleopatra,” Cohen’s favorite Shakespearean work - he’d directed it three times himself. What if it was a bad production, and he had to follow it on stage?
Fortunately for Cohen, the clouds stayed away, and the production was sensational.
Asked to describe his emotions that day, he answered with a scene-setting response, somewhat fitting for a man whose life’s work has been focused on the stage:
“Imagine, you’ve worked all your life in Shakespeare, both sides of the aisle - you’ve been a director, and you’ve been an English professor. This is the biggest honor you’ve ever gotten. It’s turned into a beautiful day. You walk up on stage, and not only do they hand you a prize, but Cleopatra herself gives you a hug. That’s a pretty good day.”
Cohen grew up in Montgomery and graduated in 1963 from Sidney Lanier High School, home of the Poets - a fitting literary connection for a man who’s devoted his life to the greatest writer of the English language.
“When I tell people that, they think I’m making it up,” Cohen said last week in a telephone interview from Virginia, where he now lives. Cohen still gets back to Alabama once a year or so to visit cousins; his family still owns a place on Lake Martin.
“I can’t imagine growing up in a more important place than Montgomery in the 1950s,” Cohen said.
His Southern upbringing helped shape his character. “I think every Southerner feels, if you like reading, that there’s something about the South that produces great verse, great literature.”
He recalled a sweet note his daughter gave him for Father’s Day, in which she thanked him for her love of the written word. “I thought, you know, that love of verse comes out of Alabama and the South. It really does.”
Cohen earned an undergraduate degree at Dartmouth, and a graduate degree at Duke. With a concentration in Shakespearean performance, he found a job and a home in Virginia in 1973. He went on to direct a number of Shakespeare productions while a professor at James Madison University.