- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2007

The United States is in many ways an invented country. Founded by Englishmen and other Europeans seeking greater opportunity in the New World, the raw Colonial frontier lacked its own identity at first. Eventually, the early settlements matured, and new cities and a fledgling professional class arose.

Seeking the comforts of civilization as well as the stimulation of the arts, settlers found they still needed to import culture and cultural icons from the Old World to lay a foundation for the New. In many ways, the impressive body of work penned by English playwright William Shakespeare was drafted to serve as America’s literary cornerstone.

The importance of Shakespeare in this country is now being celebrated by the Folger Shakespeare Library in a new exhibition entitled “Shakespeare in American Life.” Co-curated by the husband-and-wife scholarly team of historian Alden T. Vaughan and Shakespeare specialist Virginia Mason Vaughan, the exhibit opened this week and will run through most of the summer.

By happy coincidence, “Shakespeare in American Life” not only coincides with the area’s comprehensive and ongoing “Shakespeare in Washington” festivities, it is also part of the Folger’s own celebration of its 75th year of existence. Founded and initially funded by the American industrialist and avid Shakespeare fan Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily, the Folger today has become a center for international Shakespeare scholars.

The current exhibit, housed in the library’s modest but highly evocative museum space, displays over 150 items, some from other venues, which together tell the story of America’s long-standing love affair with the Bard.

One of the more interesting stops on this eclectic tour is a case that contains a battered pewter candlestick retrieved from an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Bermuda and borrowed from that country’s Maritime Museum for this show. That ship, the “Sea Venture,” was one of several that had been dispatched from England to replenish the stores and help repopulate the foundering Colony of Jamestown in Virginia.

Running aground in a violent storm, the “Sea Venture” was given up as lost. But months later, the crew miraculously showed up in Jamestown, having reconstructed a sailing vessel from their ship’s wreckage. The crew members’ tales of their ordeal ended up as the inspiration for “The Tempest,” demonstrating that the Bard himself had an eye for developments in the exotic New World.

By the 1800s, America’s new citizens had adopted Shakespeare as a sort of cultural standard, and performances of his works were enjoyed by early presidents, including Washington and the Adamses, and perhaps most poignantly by avid theatergoer Abraham Lincoln.

Reflecting presidential interest, the Folger exhibit contains a number of political documents and mementos, including a memorial poster for Lincoln honoring his knowledge of Shakespeare, as well as a number of satirical political cartoons. One of the most amusing is a depiction of Franklin D. Roosevelt pinning numbered bees against the wall as he ponders the wisdom of running for an unprecedented third term. The cartoon, of course, is entitled, “To bee or not to bee.” Other interesting bits of Americana abound. An 1849 engraving depicts a riot that took place outside New York’s Astor Place Opera House, where fans of American actor Edwin Forrest’s depiction of Macbeth engaged supporters of British actor William Charles Macready’s version in a pitched battle the evening of Macready’s appearance. Closer to our own time, internationally renowned black actor Paul Robeson’s record-breaking 1943 New York performances in the title role of “Othello” are also well represented in the exhibit.

Delightful posters and program covers also abound, including an oddly sensuous program cover depicting “Caliban by the Yellow Sands,” a memorial play written by Percy MacKaye for New York City’s Shakespeare Tercentenary Celebration staged in 1916.

Contemporary memorabilia include items from television and film, including the bilingual screenplay used by German director Max Reinhardt in his famous 1935 Hollywood production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which starred the young Mickey Rooney as Puck. Mr. Reinhardt had managed to escape Adolf Hitler’s clutches, as did fellow emigre and famed movie composer Erich Korngold, who rescored Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music to the play for the movie’s soundtrack.

The exhibit runs through Aug. 18.

WHAT: “Shakespeare in American Life” exhibit

WHEN: Through Aug. 18

WHERE: Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 E. Capitol St. SE

PHONE: 202/544-4200

WEB SITE: https://www.folger.edu

Gilded Age generosity

The late 19th and early 20th centuries are regarded by many as the golden age of America’s “robber barons”: wealthy, ruthless industrialists who would stop at nothing to increase the size of their companies and their fortunes. While there is a good deal of truth in this stereotype, such curt dismissals often avoid mentioning the outsized generosity of many of these individuals, who donated significant portions of their wealth to establish public libraries, museums and other institutions that have become national treasures.

Henry Clay Folger is a case in point. Born to modest circumstances, Mr. Folger, with financial help from his roommate’s father, graduated from Amherst College in 1875 and headed off to a clerkship at an oil company affiliated with growing giant Standard Oil.

He eventually rose to become the president of Standard Oil of New York (later Mobil Oil) in 1911 when what remained of John D. Rockefeller’s empire was split into competing parts as a result of state and federal trustbusting efforts.

While at Amherst, Mr. Folger had become an ardent Shakespeare fan after hearing an inspiring lecture on the subject delivered by Ralph Waldo Emerson. His interests were aided by his wife, Emily, who acquired her master’s degree from Vassar, where she wrote a thesis on Shakespeare.

Together, they amassed a significant collection of Shakespeare first folios and other rare materials, nearly all of which were stored away, as the Folgers lived modestly, with little space to exhibit their treasures.

Stranded temporarily in the District by an unscheduled transportation layover during the World War I, the couple strolled around Capitol Hill and settled on what they regarded as the perfect site for an eventual building to house their extensive collection.

When Mr. Folger retired from Standard Oil, he devoted himself to his Shakespeare library project and provided more than adequate funding for it. Unfortunately, he died before construction was completed. Worse, the great stock market crash of 1929 considerably diminished the endowment. Mrs. Folger, however, donated a substantial amount of her own Standard Oil stock to complete what today is the greatest collection of Shakespeareana in the world.

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