Saturday, 5 December 2015

After the lacklustre reception in Boston of The Succession of Lyndon Johnson (now Lyndon Johnson Part I), Shakespeare's nerve may have been shaken. The diarist and journalist Robert Woodward went to see the play in June 1973 and described it in distinctly lukewarm terms - "a fair piece of work, but nothing much here not seen already" remains a valid criticism. Many of the issues it deals with were handled better in The History of Lyndon Johnson, and the Succession lacks a foil of the quality of the History's Dr King.

Shakespeare's movements for the rest of the year are (perhaps deliberately) hard to trace. He was certainly still in Boston in early July, when he wrote to Alleyn bemoaning the play's lack of success. (Alleyn did not reply; he may have derived some satisfaction from knowing that his former partner, having refused to accompany him to Europe, was finding life more difficult on his own.) He was certainly in Boston again in early December, when he completed the legal agreements covering subsequent productions of his modern histories at the Great Rose Theater there, and there is good evidence that he was there in mid-November to make arrangements for his move back to England in January 1974. But that still leaves four months unaccounted for, in which he was apparently inactive in the theatre business and in Boston's social world.

The surviving documents - in particular the household accounts - of Philip Massinger, then a script doctor in Los Angeles, suggest one answer. The Massinger papers for this period never name Shakespeare, but in early August he took on another servant from a short-term domestic employment agency - presumably to cater for the needs of a guest. His surviving diaries make repeated reference to his provision of introductions to various magnates and other writers for an unnamed visitor to Los Angeles between August and October. He received no income from the rental of his guest house throughout the second half of the year - in previous years, as Harold Bird's 1992 biography notes, the thrifty Massinger had made several thousand dollars a year from renting out the unneeded building, which came to him along with his own house and its estate as a bequest from the Los Angeles theatre mogul David Selznick. Presumably the guest house was unavailable for rent because it was occupied by a non-paying friend. Could this have been Shakespeare, making a sub rosa visit to the home of the rival West Coast theatre?

If so, the summer and autumn of 1973 would have been a momentous period for Shakespeare. In the Hollywood Hills of the early 70s, he would have witnessed the birth of a new theatrical tradition - one which fused the spectacles of the Californian mega-theatres with the ingenuity of the traditional East Coast and European writers, and which continues to dominate the world of theatre to this day. Patton had shown the way, and put Eisenhower into the shade in doing so - Shakespeare wanted to create his own "Grand Slam" play (the wartime term for a large aerial bomb was first used as a theatrical term for a tremendously expensive and successful play in Los Angeles in 1962), and in Lyndon Johnson Part III he would finally do so.

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