This article first appeared in Texas Lifestyle Magazine on June 20, 2019.
It’s hard to imagine a world without the renowned plays, the illustrious sayings or the eloquent quotes of William Shakespeare but, at one time, this unfathomable possibility was headed towards reality had it not been for the unwavering determination and loyalty of two men.
Written by Lauren Gunderson, and playing at the intimate Austin Playhouse through June 30, “The Book of Will” tells the true story of two aging actors, Henry Condell (played by J. Ben Wolfe) and John Heminges (played by Huck Huckaby), from the King’s Men acting company, and their attempt to preserve the literary works of the most famous and beloved playwright in history, William Shakespeare.
Known for writing his plays in pieces, never putting all the parts together until the actors were on stage, Shakespeare was always in fear of someone stealing his literary work—and apparently rightfully so.
Three years after Shakespeare’s death in 1616, his plays became the subject of pirated, ill-performed and inaccurate versions of their former selves, which began to whittle away at the Bard of Avon’s legacy.
When a sub-par Hamlet rip-off hits a stage near the Globe Theatre, Condell and Heminges decide to put an end to the plagiarism and save Shakespeare’s work. They set out to make a collection (known as “First Folio”) of his greatest plays. The pair start compiling bits and pieces from what remains after a fire destroyed almost all of the original paper collection. From memory, Condell and Heminges recite the missing parts of the plays and recapture the words that had helped shape their lives.
As J. Ben Wolfe and Huck Huckaby so ably demonstrate in this current Austin Playhouse production, the world owes a collective debt of gratitude to Henry Condell and John Heminges, as well as their family, friends, printers, collaborators, ex-lovers, and occasional rivals, for their fervent devotion to Shakespeare. They saved the works of the greatest playwright the world has ever seen and prevented literary masterpieces from falling through the cracks of history.
Without William Shakespeare, the world would be far less eloquent, less colorful and certainly less poetic. Remarkably, 235 of the approximately 750 First Folios originally printed survive today. And, three of the existing copies are located at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
How magnificent was Shakespeare, not only as a writer, but a person to inspire such kindness and devotion that is rarely seen? Austin Playhouse’s production of “The Book of Will” is a funny, charming play that celebrates friendship, sprinkled with excerpts of some of William Shakespeare’s most beloved writing, and the battle fought to save a legacy.
Cover: (Left to right) Toby Minor, J. Ben Wolfe, Boni Hester, Huck Huckaby, Cyndi Williams and Marie Fahlgren. Photo courtesy Austin Playhouse
Austinite Lisa Davis is the Editorial Assistant for Texas Lifestyle Magazine and honors graduate from Concordia University Texas with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication and Public Relations.