Arts & Theater

Know your Shakespeare? Not these plays

William Shakespeare, born in 1564, is thought by many people to be the greatest writer in the English language. Five little known plays attributed to Shakespeare will be presented by California Stage Theater in Sacramento.
William Shakespeare, born in 1564, is thought by many people to be the greatest writer in the English language. Five little known plays attributed to Shakespeare will be presented by California Stage Theater in Sacramento. Library of Congress

Ray Tatar knows his Shakespeare. At least, he thought he did.

Producing artistic director at California Stage Theater, Tatar has read many works by William Shakespeare, or as he notes were "attributed" to The Bard.

"I directed 'Hamlet' once," he said. "That was at the Globe Playhouse in Hollywood and featured a young actor named Ed Harris."

But in the Sacramento Public Library's rare books room, Tatar found a puzzle. Sitting under glass was a copy of the fourth folio of Shakespeare's complete works, published in 1685 and open to the index.

"I was looking at these titles," he recalled. "'London Prodigal'? 'Edmund Ironside'? 'The Tragic Life and Death of Lord Thomas Cromwell'? I'd never heard of these plays, and certainly had never read them. It got me intrigued."

Tatar started investigating online and found a copy of "Edmund Ironside," a historic drama about an early English king.

"I'm reading this play and realized, this is good!" said Tatar.

He quickly decided other Sacramento theater lovers should learn about these forgotten plays, too. With the support of the library and his own theater company, Tatar set about organizing a most unusual Shakespeare festival – dedicated not to his hits, but to his least-known works.

This mission became "The ShaXpere Project: The Lost Plays of William Shakespeare." Over five weeks, the California Stage Theater will present readings of five Shakespeare rarities, all contained in the library's precious fourth folio.

Starting Friday and Saturday with "Edmund Ironside," a team of 50 actors will present these readings. Following that swashbuckling tale of a medieval king, the series includes the comedies "The London Prodigal" and "The Puritan" (or "The Widow of Watling Street") and two historical tragedies, "A Yorkshire Tragedy" and "Lord Thomas Cromwell."

"We're surrounded by a proliferation of Shakespeare festivals," Tatar said. "There are Shakespeare festivals in Davis, Sacramento, Livermore, Marin, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Cruz, all over."

And none of them had done these plays, he added.

"I don't know of any other theater company that's staged these plays or even read them out loud," he said. "I see this project as one cultural institution trying to illuminate a rare book in a dramatic way. The support of the city library has been quite wonderful."

Why did these plays become forgotten? It's that question of attribution, Tatar explained. Shakespeare, who lived from 1564 to 1616, is credited with 39 plays including some collaborations. The question of sole authorship of these five plays (as well as some other works) led to their deletion from standard Shakespeare collections.

Studying these lost plays, Tatar can see the similarities to other Shakespeare works as well as the differences.

Take "The Yorkshire Tragedy." Written in 1608, it recounted a true murder mystery that was very fresh for its audience.

"The subtitle was, 'Not so new as lamentable and true,'" Tatar said. "It was based on a story that every Elizabethan knew: A lord beat his two sons to death. It was sensational, so everybody would come out to see it. But it also spoke against divine rule; the idea that if you were rich and privileged, it was because God ruled it to be so.

"But it doesn't read like Shakespeare," Tatar added. "By the time this play was written, Shakespeare was a master playwright, working with other playwrights. Modern experts also think this was a condensed play."

So although it was a 17th century crowd pleaser, "The Yorkshire Tragedy" became a forgotten footnote.

Modern audiences may be more familiar with "Lord Thomas Cromwell." Best known as the henchman of Henry VIII, Cromwell also has been the subject of recent productions such as Masterpiece Theatre's "Wolf Hall." During Shakespeare's time, Cromwell's story was almost contemporary history. (Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled then, was the daughter of Henry VIII.)

"This play has been debated so much by scholars," Tatar said. "It could go as far back as 1582, but it was printed in 1613. Shakespeare kept working and revising. The audiences were certainly familiar with this subject. What I love, this play has a wonderful trick ending I really like."

'The Lost Plays of Shakespeare'

  • What: Readings of five little-known plays attributed to William Shakespeare, presented by the California Stage Theater.
  • Where: The Wilkerson Theater, R25 Arts Complex, 1725 25th St., Sacramento
  • When: April 27-May 26
  • Admission: $20 donation suggested
  • Details: 916-451-5822, www.calstage.org

Performance schedule:

  • "Edmund Ironside," 8 p.m. Friday, April 27, and 2 p.m. Saturday, April 28
  • "The London Prodigal," 8 p.m. May 4, 2 p.m. May 5
  • "The Puritan," 8 p.m. May 11, 2 p.m. May 12
  • "A Yorkshire Tragedy," 8 p.m. May 18, 2 p.m. May 19
  • "Lord Thomas Cromwell," 8 p.m. May 25, 2 p.m. May 26
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