Friday, January 12, 2018

Interview with Bernard Cornwell

One of the great pleasures of hosting New Books in Historical Fiction has been having the opportunity to make the acquaintance of Bernard Cornwell, the bestselling author of The Last Kingdom series—now an ongoing TV production as well—and many other novels, including series set during the Hundred Years War and the Napoleonic Wars.

When I learned that Bernard had produced a one-off novel about the life of William Shakespeare and the theater culture in which Shakespeare played such an important role, I offered a choice of a written or telephone interview, to run concurrently with the release of the novel, Fools and Mortals, in the United States on January 9, 2018.

In the end, we settled on a written Q&A, which I reproduce here. My questions are in bold, and Bernard’s answers follow. Thank you so much to Bernard for his fascinating and informative answers, and don’t forget to check out his official website for more information on this novel, his other books, the television programs, and events. And read the book, of course!

Fools and Mortals is something of a departure for you. No military heroes, no battles, no Agincourt or Napoleonic Wars or Saxons vs. Danes. What made you decide to write a novel about William Shakespeare?

I suppose the short answer is a fascination with Shakespeare. The longer answer is that a dozen years ago I got involved with a summer-stock theater on Cape Cod—the Monomoy Theatre—and ever since have (mis)spent my summers on stage. The theater exists to give drama students from all across America the chance to experience a season of musicals and plays, eight productions in ten weeks, in front of a paying audience . . . the “grown-up” parts and the directors are all Equity professionals, but spear-carriers etc can be drawn from local people, which is how I got involved, except they seemed to quite like me so that over the years I’ve played Toby Belch, Friar Laurence, Henry IV, Peter Quince (twice) and, most memorably, Prospero. I’ve also danced and sung solos (dear God), and been in plays by Chekhov, Neil Simon, Arthur Miller and the wonderful Ken Ludwig. I’d never been on stage before and the experience has intrigued and fascinated me, and really gave rise to a novel about putting on a play!

The protagonist narrating the story is Richard Shakespeare, William’s younger brother. I confess I have no idea whether William had a younger brother, but it’s a great way to showcase a celebrity while maintaining your freedom as an author. Who is Richard, as a character? What does he want most out of life?

Shakespeare had three brothers! Giles, Edmund and Richard. We know something, not much, about the first two (Edmund became an actor, probably in his brother’s company, and died young. He’s buried in Southwark Cathedral), but we know virtually nothing about Richard, other than a parish record of his christening and another of his death. So he’s a wonderful character for an historical novelist! He really existed and we know nothing about him. I decided to invent a theatrical career for him because it gave him access to his brother, but also to make the relationship somewhat hostile because that kept William at arm’s length (and saved me from the hubris of inventing too much dialog for William Shakespeare, really!). Richard is a young man who wants what many young men want, success and a girl, and he doesn’t quite know how to get either, and he’s also stage-struck. He happens to be good-looking and he has natural talent, but he’s still going to need what all actors need—a little bit of luck!

Richard has at best an adversarial relationship with his older brother, who comes across as demanding, difficult, even somewhat rejecting and mean. This portrayal reflects, of course, Richard’s point of view. What made you decide to present them in this way?

I don’t think William is mean! He’s not too fond of his brother because Richard reminds him of Stratford and William has a decidedly mixed view of Stratford. On the one hand it’s where he began, where he probably did not enjoy much success, where his ambitions far exceeded his apparent opportunities, and where, in all probability, he contracted a less than satisfactory marriage. All of this, of course, is supposition based on slender evidence, but novelists thrive on such hints. Yet Stratford is also home and we know he invested heavily in land about the town and eventually built the second largest house there (New Place). That suggests he would only return to Stratford on his own terms, not as the son of John Shakespeare, a failed merchant, but as a very wealthy, prominent and influential citizen. Richard is a reminder of what he fled, and Richard is also a nuisance, wanting favors. William doesn’t need Richard, but Richard needs William, and William really doesn’t want the distraction. He’s a busy man! Entrepreneur, writer, actor, probably director, and the presence of a younger brother is an annoying distraction.

In Elizabethan England women could not play on the stage (the movie Shakespeare in Love’s contrary portrayal notwithstanding). So part of the animosity between the brothers comes about because Richard wants to stop playing women’s parts and move into men’s roles, especially after he falls in love. Why is Will so reluctant to allow this change?

Because the company doesn’t need another man! Actors, as a couple of the characters say in the book, are ten a penny (they still are). The Sharers, the owners of the company, all must have a part in any play and then there are a half dozen regular “Hired Men” who are paid a wage when they are needed, and after that come the apprentices, the boys who play women’s roles, pages and children. Richard is cheap to employ as an apprentice, but once he’s outgrown the roles of young women he’s just another freelance actor . . . of whom there are plenty. Basically he’s just another Hired Man and the Lord Chamberlain’s company already had plenty of those available. I don’t think Will is reluctant so much as he doesn’t see the need to encourage another hungry mouth around a theater already supplied with too many.

Specifically, Fools and Mortals revolves around the first staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the writing of Romeo and Juliet. Why did you pick this period as the setting for your novel?

Probably the most fascinating thing about the period is that it sees the establishment of a professional theater industry—as we know it today. Before the 1570s there were no permanent playhouses. There were plays and players, but they were all peripatetic . . . traveling around the country giving performances in inn yards or wherever else they could. Now the key thing there is that your audience on Monday afternoon in Stratford will not be the same as the audience in Warwick on Wednesday, so you can do the same play, over and over, in different towns, fairly sure that the play will be new to the audience. That means you need very few plays in your repertoire. But then some genius hits on the idea of building a permanent playhouse, a theater. The only city in Britain capable of supporting a playhouse was London and, in short order, there were two such theaters. Now there’s a new problem. The audience is drawn from the same population day after day, week after week, month after month, so you need a lot of new material. Whereas the old traveling companies could probably survive on a half dozen plays, the new permanent companies found themselves producing thirty plus plays a year. You need new plays all the time, and that means you need playwrights! A new profession sprang up overnight, as did the idea of a permanent theater. It’s an amazing development, and one that was immediately successful and, like any emerging industry finding its way, there’s an excitement to the process.

One of the plot lines involves the theft of plays by a rival playhouse. I found this fascinating, especially since it’s implied that it was not uncommon in Shakespeare’s day. Do tell us more about that element of the story.

The playwrights of the 16th century did not enjoy the protection of copyright! It’s that simple. If the script of a play fell into the hands of a rival company, then there was no law to prevent them staging the play and, of course, paying no fee to the playwright. And plays were valuable! The audience was always eager for new material, so the companies guarded their scripts jealously. They did publish some, but only after they had exhausted the chances to perform the play. That’s how we have Shakespeare’s quartos . . . they were published once the company had decided there was nothing more to be squeezed out of them on stage, and of course, the sales of the books provided extra income, especially welcome when the playhouses were closed because of plague. It was probably very uncommon for a really valuable play to be stolen, but the fear of that happening was very real.

Richard also falls foul of the Pursuivants, known to the players as the Percies. Who are the Percies, and what do their activities reveal about the position of the theater in Shakespeare’s day?

Probably nothing! The Pursuivants existed to hunt down Catholics, and that has a great deal more to do with the Pope’s foolish bull that offered heavenly bliss to anyone who succeeded in assassinating Queen Elizabeth. That civil strife grumbles on throughout Elizabeth’s reign, a constant battle between Catholic plotters who wanted to replace Elizabeth with a Roman Catholic monarch and the secret service that combated them, and punished them horribly. The real enemy of the theater was the Puritans, who utterly disapproved of plays and players and who campaigned tirelessly to close down the theaters. In the end, 1642, they were successful, though happily their rule in England was mercifully brief and the theaters reopened in 1660 and have thrived ever since. Richard’s brush with Pursuivants is incidental: they believed, erroneously, that the Theatre (Shakespeare’s playhouse) was a den of secret Catholic sympathizers. They were certainly dangerous and merciless enemies, but they were also loyal to Elizabeth who, we know, was a lover of the theater.

There are some wonderful passages in the novel about writing and the stage. One of my favorites comes on p. 247, where Richard says, “We are players, and we love an audience. Sometimes, if a play is going badly, it is easy to think of the audience as an enemy, but truly they are a part of the play, because an audience changes the way we perform.” I know you act in repertory theater during the summers, and I think anyone who has taken part in a live performance recognizes how the presence of the audience imparts an energy that rehearsal simply doesn’t. We writers don’t interact with our readers that way. As someone who does both, how does that difference change things? Do you prefer one type of interaction over the other, and if so, why?

Bernard Cornwell as Prospero
© Michael & Suz Karchmer
Oh good Lord! I’m not frightened of writing (maybe I should be!), but going on stage is terrifying. Every year I wonder why I do it. I could spend my summers lollygagging on my sailboat, walking the dog, or extending my encyclopedic knowledge of Irish whiskies, but instead I have to learn lines, spend hours in rehearsal, act on a stage which isn’t touched by the theater’s air-conditioning in costumes designed for a Siberian winter, and risk making a complete fool of myself.

But then comes the performance and . . .

Yes, there’s a rush of adrenaline, the challenge of doing something which I never imagined I would ever do and the knowledge that I will probably never master it. I’m totally confident sailing a boat, I’ve crossed the Atlantic under sail, I seem to be doing all right as an author, but as an actor? Dear God, it challenges and frightens me. I must be reasonably good or they wouldn’t give me parts like Prospero, but I don’t know that. And yes, the reward is not just the applause . . . though of course that’s delicious, but the best is utter silence. This year I got the most applause (cheaply) dressed full-fig as a bishop, mitre and all, crossing the stage and singing, “I wanna be loved by you, by nobody else but you,” but that, wonderful as it was (exit applause! Yay!) was nothing to sensing the audience’s utter stillness during “Our revels now are ended.”

Which do I prefer? I love both. Must I choose?

Bernard Cornwell is the author of more than forty-five novels and one nonfiction book, Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (2014). His Last Kingdom and Sharpe series have also been turned into hit television programs. He lives in South Carolina with his wife, Judy, whom he married in 1980, and spends his summers acting in repertory theater on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, among other pursuits. Learn more about the topics he discusses here in his 2014 and 2016 interviews at New Books in Historical Fiction.

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