Robert Brustein says he “dreamt” much of THE ENGLISH CHANNEL, dashing from couch to computer to write it down. Would that someone had waked the eminent critic and founding artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre, because The English Channel is a Saturday Night Live sketch set in 1593 and written by a waggish, learned person. In its world premiere at Suffolk University’s C. Walsh Theatre (through September 15), the play is set in a prop-stuffed room above London’s Mermaid Tavern, with the 29-year-old Will Shakespeare cranking out sonnets for money, now that the city’s theaters have been shuttered by the plague. Visiting him in his lair: his (then more celebrated) rival, playwright Christopher Marlowe; his young poppycock of a patron, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton; and poet and court musician Emilia Lanier, whom Brustein not unreasonably conjectures is the sonnets’ dark lady. But what takes place among these historical figures is mostly one long literary joke, with everyone saying things that either are lifted from or prefigure Shakespeare’s plays as the cribbing young Bard hustles to commit their remarks to paper. Hence the title of the play, which casts the playwright not as the moony young romantic of Shakespeare in Love or the gifted versifier touching up the Earl of Oxford of The Beard of Avon but as a blank slate looking to channel what he can, including inspiration.
Brustein’s own inspiration was Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, a 2004 speculative biography that builds on the few documented facts about Shakespeare’s life to place him in his own time, which was a-swirl in political intrigue including Catholic plots against the queen. Veering from known facts, Brustein incorporates a “dry run” of the 1600 overthrow attempt by the Earl of Essex to which Southampton was a party and invents a document switch that leads to double spy Marlowe’s May 1593 murder.
His primary spur, though, is Greenblatt’s rumination on the sonnets. You might say that Greenblatt determined the dramatis personae, asserting that “the 154 sonnets are ordered in such a way as to suggest at least the vague outlines of a story, in which the players include, besides the amorous poet and the beautiful young man, one or more rival poets and a dark lady.” The sonnets do dart between idealistic veneration of “the master-mistress of my passion” — believed by many to be Southampton — and carnal jealousies triggered by the unfaithful dark lady, here Lanier bedding Shakespeare but making him crazy by sleeping with others including his patron. There might be a play in this tangled relation, but it would not involve a lot of petulance, sonnetized pillow talk, and the hankie plot of Othello.
To give you an idea of the literary winking here: the play opens with Marlowe’s ghost, a hand raised to the eye gouged out by his murder at Deptford, bellowing greetings from Hell. Later he will waft in as a cross between Hamlet’s father’s ghost and Holinshed’s, but here he most suggests Marley’s Ghost in A Christmas Carol. As the play reminds us, the inquest into Marlowe’s death that exonerated his killer misstated the victim’s name as “Morley.” More strained is the shoehorning into the blank-verse script of snippets of the plays, from As You Like It to Antony and Cleopatra (not to mention several sonnets whole).