Sunday, January 4, 2009

History Play: a question for author Rodney Bolt

We caught up with writer Rodney Bolt, whose immensely enjoyable 2004 speculative biography, History Play: The Lives and Afterlife of Christopher Marlowe, imagines Christopher Marlowe faking his own death, escaping England, and going on to write the works we attribute to Shakespeare. Of the novel, Judith Flanders of The Spectator (UK) praises: "A triumph . . . It has both a serious remit and enough puns and anagrams to make Shakespeare (or possibly Marlowe) blush. It made me laugh out loud. And, most of all, it made me want to go back to the plays. This was a book that needed to be done perfectly or not at all. It is perfect."

Rodney’s latest biography, The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte – Mozart's Poet, Casanova's Friend, and Italian Opera's Impresario (2006), has been lauded as “irresistible reading” by Megan Marshall in The New York Times.

Rodney was born in South Africa and was educated at Rhodes University in South Africa and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He is an award-winning travel writer and has also written and directed for the theatre. He presently resides in Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

Q: Rodney, thanks for taking time to chat with us. I’m curious. Did Marlowe channel you while you were at Cambridge, or is the explanation for your writing History Play a bit more conventional and rooted in perhaps your skepticism with Shakespeare biographies? And certainly you had to know you were delving into the kind of territory that unsettles a lot of Shakespeare lovers and that you were perhaps placing yourself in the middle of some academic crossfire.

Rodney: At Cambridge, I studied English at Marlowe’s old college – so I guess he was always a presence looking over my shoulder. Perhaps, unconsciously, that was where it all began. Certainly, while I was writing History Play I was aware of wanting his ghost’s approval. More than that of living academics. I realized that what I was doing was going to create quite some huffing and puffing – though in the end, I was surprised at how few howls of anger there were. But this awareness did mean that History Play had to be absolutely watertight in its play with historical fact – if Marlowe and Montaigne have a conversation, it has to be completely possible that they were both in that place at the time; the plot that Marlowe becomes embroiled in (which leads to his staged death) is a real one, and his involvement perfectly feasible: that sort of thing. (For that reason, The Spectator review you quote is quite my favourite.)

But as you suggest, the main impetus for writing the book was indeed a scepticism about Shakespearean biography as a whole. We have just so many facts about Shakespeare. Those and no more. Every single Shakespearean biography there is has only this handful of hard fact to work with – the rest is speculation and (though authors generally deny they are doing it) extrapolation from the works themselves. One of my favourite quotes unearthed during research was Mark Twain’s, likening writing a biography of Shakespeare to reconstructing the skeleton of a brontosaurus, using "nine bones and six hundred barrels of plaster of Paris." I wanted to throw those old bones in the air, and let them land in a different pattern. To show that, using the same method, you could create an entirely different story. So I am not a true Marlovian, in the sense that History Play is a work of fiction (although it looks and reads like a straight biography). I’m probably closer to the people who in the UK recently signed a Declaration of Reasonable Doubt about William Shakespeare. The deeper I got into the research, the more sceptical I became – and certainly, for me, Marlowe is the most feasible candidate for an alternative authorship.

Q: Of all the things you uncovered in your impressively detailed research (many of the characters and events mentioned in History Play, by the way, have been discussed here at our blog), is there any one thing that really floored you about Marlowe, Shakespeare, a shadowy figure, or perhaps some historical incident? Any eureka moments, perhaps?

Rodney: The discovery that absolutely fascinated me was that there were troupes of English players travelling through continental Europe, hugely popular for performing in English. This struck me as an ideal cover for a spy, given the mobility of players. A poet-player (especially a university man like Marlowe) would have access both to servant’s gossip, and to the lords themselves (more often as not when they were drunk and relaxed after a meal), as well as a jester’s immunity in crossing borders (both social and political). And indeed, the same troupes performed for both sides in the war between the Spanish and the Dutch (a war in which England had a crucial role, and from which Queen Elizabeth’s court would be most desirous of inside information). This discovery was made even more exciting by my realization that Marlowe’s mysterious absences from Cambridge, doing "her majesty good service" in "matters touching the benefit of his Country" coincided with the players’ prime touring season. It also makes sense that high-action dramas such as Tamburlaine were written with one eye on a non-English-speaking audience . . . and there was a troupe present at the festivities surrounding the inauguration of Kronborg Castle at Elsinore (Kronborg’s topography bears a startling resemblance to that of the castle in Hamlet), a troupe that included the Shakespearean clown Will Kempe.

Q: I need to ask you about Roland Barthes’s “death of the author” argument. Should an author’s identity matter when we’re interpreting a text?

Rodney: For me, the plays written by (or attributed to) Shakespeare are unassailable. Having worked with them practically (as a theatre director) as well as academically, I stand in awe . . . and it does not matter one jot who wrote them. So, in that sense perhaps, I’m with Barthes. But with works so great, one cannot help but be intrigued to find out more about the hand behind them. I can be very cynical about academics who claim that you cannot move from the works to information about the author – and then go right ahead and do so, to fill out the pages of a biography that would be naked without such speculation. And I find the whole industry that surrounds the man Shakespeare – up there with Queen Victoria and Churchill as great national symbols, an icon subject to extraordinarily lucrative commercial, tourist and academic exploitation – most offensive.

Q: Care to clue us in on what you’re working on now?

Rodney: I’ve moved to the late-Victorian/early-Edwardian period for a (true) book about the Benson family – the spouse and offspring of an Archbishop of Canterbury. When the domineering, stuffy archbishop died, his wife changed her name from Mary to Ben, and took one Lucy Tait into her bed. Her brood were all famous in their own right (E.F. Benson for his Mapp and Lucia books, Arthur as the author of England’s unofficial national anthem "Land of Hope and Glory," Maggie for her archaeological excavations in Egypt, and more). They knew everyone, from Queen Victoria to Oscar Wilde, and not one of them (to use the idiom of the time) was "the marrying sort."

Q: Rodney, many thanks for sharing some thoughts with our audience. Please join us again, we hope? We’ll do lunch in downtown Sarasota when you’re on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Rodney: Great!

(Bolt photo by Armando Guerra)

© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, January 2009

Click here to visit Rodney Bolt's website.

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Unknown said...

History Play is a riot!

Anonymous said...

didn't read History Play, sounds really cool. great reviews I notice

Anonymous said...

glad you posted this; History Play is one of the cleverest books I've ever read-and it is very, very clever! It should get us all thinking about Shakespeare biographies that are-at the core-mostly speculation!

Anonymous said...

when I read history play it took me a while to get the joke, but when I got it I thought, "How brilliant!"

Anonymous said...

first time on blog, i'll be back!

Anonymous said...

good question on barthes here here on the exploitation of shakespeare et al

Anonymous said...

everything I know about marlowe I learned in history play...well almost everything

Anonymous said...

I wanna have a drink with rodney!

Anonymous said...

Rock on, Carlo, I expected fascinating stuff on the blog and you didn't disappoint!

Anonymous said...

first time on blog, very cool

Anonymous said...

great interview

LaClarina said...

I remember getting History Play from Amazon while at work. Ok, I'll give it the tiniest of peeks, I said, and then read through it in one sitting (if you count at work, on my way home, and the whole night as one sitting), because it was just too brilliant to put down.

And: lovely blog. I'll visit again.

HankReynolds said...

Rodney Bolt is a very talented writer. History Play was fantastic fun.