Monday, October 20, 2008

MSC Exclusive: A question for Mike Rubbo, writer & director of Much Ado About Something

We caught up with Mike Rubbo, the veteran Australian filmmaker who wrote and directed the 2002 PBS/Frontline documentary Much Ado About Something, which explores the theory that Christopher Marlowe actually wrote the plays and sonnets attributed to Shakespeare.

Regarding Mike and the film, Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times praises: "Much Ado About Something is a film of ideas--well, notions, anyway--that are bound to stimulate discussion, an aspect long missing from documentary [. . .] Mr. Rubbo is an old-fashioned rabble-rouser, and he knows a good story when he finds it. And he's got one in this case, with its adherents to a cause and their whipsaw articulation of thoughts."

Mike was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1938. After studying anthropology at Sydney University, he attended Stanford University on Fulbright and Ford scholarships to study filmmaking. At that time, he was the only Australian to win both prestigious scholarships.

He graduated from Stanford in the mid 1960's with an MA, and he has developed a busy and highly respected career as a filmmaker and teacher.

For 25 years he worked at the National Film Board of Canada where he directed over 40 documentaries, including the influential Waiting for Fidel (available on Netflix). Mike also wrote and directed Vincent and Me, which received a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Children's Special. He has been a visiting lecturer at NYU, UCLA, Stanford, Univ. of Florida, Harvard, and the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.

We're truly honored that Mike shared some thoughts with us.

Q: Mike, the DVD version of your beautiful and provocative 2002 documentary Much Ado About Something has just been released in the US. A few years have elapsed since its original release and certainly you've had time to reflect upon Marlovian theory. Care to share your thoughts on the Shakespeare authorship matter today in 2008?

Mike Rubbo: Of course, I'm very happy that PBS has finally got around to putting my film on DVD. But even more exciting is the recent release of two books which take the case for Marlowe considerably further than I was able to do on the screen.

These are Sam Blumenfeld's The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection and Daryl Pinksen's Marlowe's Ghost.

Both are excellent and together I'd say they pretty much clinch the case for Marlowe as the hidden hand behind the Bard. Naturally, I'm particularly pleased with the Pinksen book because he was inspired to write it after seeing my film.

In Much Ado About Something, I did not see myself as an advocate for the Marlowe theory so much as a filmmaker on a journey of discovery. I was just as interested in the wonderful characters attracted to the Marlowe cause, John Baker and Dolly Walker Wraight, for example, as I was in the case to be made for Marlowe.

The two authors take a different tack. They have cleared the decks as it were and get right down to the challenge of proving their case. Of course, it's still something that must be done with circumstantial evidence since no one has yet found proof positive that Marlowe lived after May 30, 1593.

Where are they strongest? Sam Blumenfeld combs the plays of the First Folio and finds clue after clue to Marlowe as their author. Some clues are intentionally placed, others are there because they reflect Marlowe's tastes and obsessions with Ovid, for example, and the Dido and Hero/Leander myths.

In my film I touch on just one such clue, the unschooled William character in As You Like It, taken by all as a send-up of Shakespeare. Blumenfeld's discoveries were a revelation for me as he turned up clue after clue, though strangely passing over what seems the most evident one, the country bumpkin William, mentioned above.

Blumenfeld is also very good at situating Marlowe, both boy and man, in the Elizabethan world of religious tensions, plots and powerful personalities. He brings in, as no else has done, the importance of the Countess of Pembroke and the intellectual circle she created around her including, Blumenfeld argues, Kit Marlowe.

You get the feeling from this book that the character and placement of Marlowe in his times that Blumenfeld achieves is like a gun fixing on a target, one which shoots this amazing man into the writer's seat, vacated by an improbable Shakespeare.

Daryl Pinksen covers some of the same ground but is more the lawyer arguing his case. He does, for instance, a great job of showing how orthodox scholars have again and again situated Marlowe as Shakespeare's precursor, even seeing Shakespeare as schooling himself in Marlowe and his mighty line, blank verse. Scholars have twinned the two to such a degree that they must have been close. Yet there is of course no evidence they ever met, ever spoke of each other, and so it becomes quite easy to take the next step to thinking we are dealing with just one author.

Both Pinksen and Blumenfeld score effectively with the way the name Shakespeare appears almost magically just days after Marlowe's supposed death, an appearance timed with a clear intent, it seems.

When my film came out, a common critique was that the plays of Marlowe were so crude compared to those of Shakespeare, that you'd have to have a tin ear to imagine Marlowe could have written Shakespeare.

It's hard for the average person to have an opinion on this because the opportunities for seeing Marlowe's plays are so rare. Blumenfeld does a great job in revealing the quality and subtlety of Marlowe's plays, very much the equal of those attributed to Shakespeare, especially the early ones.

Pinksen also does good work in showing what twisted pretzels scholars have made of themselves, trying to explain why the sonnets, which are clearly autobiographical, don't fit anything that we know of Shakespeare's life.

Indeed, as you read the sonnets for the life they reveal, you can't ever imagine them coming from the pen of the petty businessman who was Shakespeare as we know him. On the other hand, everything large and grand about Marlowe, coupled with the lonely life he would have had in exile, goes with the tone and content of the sonnets.

Daryl Pinksen is also useful for those who wonder how such a secret could stay hidden for so long. He compares Marlowe's situation with that of the Hollywood writers who were blacklisted during the McCarthy era. They also had to use fronts to get their work on the screen.

Pinksen points out that the many successful frontings for blacklisted authors in the McCarthy years were never exposed, even in an age of newspapers and investigative reporters. How much easier could such a secret have been kept in Elizabethan England with none of those tools of discovery.

At the end of the day, both books make their case equally on good research and commonsense grounds. This works just as well for a literary mystery as it does with a jury in a courtroom. I'm delighted my film still plays a part in this pursuit of a commonsense understanding of the authorship question and hope that people will pair its viewing with these two excellent books.

© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, October 2008

Click here for Mike Rubbo's 8-minute YouTube clip on the Marlowe-as-Shakespeare theory.

Click here for the blog's home page and recent content.

Jarmusch Swinton


Anonymous said...

Cheers to Mike! You did more to advance Marlovian theory than anyone in the last 20 years! And your endorsements go a long way in my book!

Marlowe was a pure genius, and of all the authorship candidates, he was by far, not even close, the most talented, artistically speaking.

Anonymous said...

Mike is a blast in the film. He asks tough questions in a very endearing and unthreatening manner.

A wonderful blog, Carlo!

Unknown said...

this is a great little website; reasonable doubt about will!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

makes sense and this is all fascinating but why many's obsession with devere, earl of oxford?

Anonymous said...

delightful conspiracy, Marlowe is the most feasible candidate

Anonymous said...

Firstly, I must say that this blog is fantastic.
Secondly, I had the joy of watching this film last week. I highly recommend it.

Christine said...

Where's Hollywood? What a story!

Anonymous said...

more in heaven and earth than in our philosophy...

Anonymous said...

Hooray, Mike!

Anonymous said...

cool interview

Albert Sorenson said...

Much Ado is a great documentary. I am very familiar with Mike's bold film work when he was with the Canadian Film Board.