Best left undiscovered?

From today’s Times. One William Topaz McGonagall is apparently known as the world’s worst poet. His most famous piece is The Tay Bridge Disaster, which includes the lines: “Alas! I am very sorry to say / That ninety lives have been taken away / On the last Sabbath day of 1879 / Which will be remember’d for a very long time.”

Now, a play has been discovered in a Dundee archive, written in 1886 and never performed or published. It is a three-act melodrama, probably written as a tribute to Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays called Jack o’the Cudgel. "Set in the court of Edward III, it tells the story of Jack, a “noble Saxon” who rises from pauper to royal knight and vanquishes his enemies by clubbing them over the head with an enormous cudgel. In one memorable scene, he stops a giant from attacking a minstrel, declaring: “Leave the minstrel, thou pig-headed giant, or I’ll make you repent/For thou must know my name is Jack, and I hail from Kent.”  "

McGonagall himself, an enthusiastic if dreadful actor, intended to play the main role but never got around to it. But even in advance of the play’s publication next month, there is much excitement among McGonagall’s cult following, who are looking forward to "the usual banalities, execrable rhymes and appalling scansion."

Link: Sorry to say, someone has found a McGonagall play – Newspaper Edition – Times Online.

Shakespeare red in tooth and claw

Link: Susan Hill’s blog :: REMEMBER THE 100 BOOKS YOU REALLY MUST READ ?.

I have sympathy with Susan Hill’s view that Shakespeare (she highlights Macbeth) can be better enjoyed read rather than seen at the theatre. I have read all of Shakespeare’s plays  when a teenager (in one of those "collected works" with tissue-thin paper and microscopic print). I’ve returned to them many times since.

Sometimes a performance of Shakespeare is enthralling. I remember seeing Alan Howard as Henry VI years ago, finally understanding the cliche "you could hear a pin drop" during his speeches. What an exponent of the spoken word. I even saw Olivier on stage, as Shylock, towards the end of his career.

But Shakespeare’s plays are uneven, and so are performances of them. One of the first Shakespeares I saw live was Twelfth Night at Stratford with Judi Dench as Viola (yes, dates me, I know). I remember being disappointed. But last year’s vibrant production of the same play in the very same theatre was a total delight — I was entranced and so were Malcolm, Jenny and Cathy — none of them particular Shakespeare fanatics. Returning a few months later to see As You Like It was not such a joyful experience.

Antony and Cleopatra is one of my very favourite Shakespeare plays — probably the favourite. Yet it is certainly uneven: it contains some of the author’s most beautiful poetry but also some dramatic casualness. I recently saw the Globe’s production of this play, and found it a real let-down. Frances Barber was the only member of the cast who was even half-way convincing, and Enobarbus somehow contrived not to thrill in that most wonderful of all Shakespeare’s speeches: "The barge she sat in…."

As has often been said, maybe the most reliable way to see Shakespeare is on film. But the medium can, er, swamp the message.  As I write, Cathy and Jenny are watching for the second time in as many days a rented DVD called "She’s the Man", allegedly an update of Twelfth Night, concerning a boy’s soccer team….you get the picture. I’ll draw a veil.