For the love of screwball and Shakespeare, Philadelphia Inquirer
Ken Ludwig's new play, opening at the Wilma, mixes a few of his favorite things.
By Desmond Ryan
Inquirer Theater Critic
The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.
- Shakespeare, Henry VI
For four centuries, Shakespeare's scorn has been fervently echoed by just about everyone outside the legal profession, and many lawyers have bristled with resentment at the Bard's homicidal exhortation.
Ken Ludwig, a graduate of Harvard Law School who spent 15 years as a Washington corporate attorney - an especially reviled branch of lawyerdom - is not among them. Dazzled by the lights of Broadway years ago, Ludwig gave up pinstripe pleading for play-writing. And despite it all, the man he admires and cherishes above all others is William Shakespeare.
"From the time I was a kid I have loved Shakespeare and wanted to be in the theater," said Ludwig in an admission his colleagues at the bar might deem treasonous.
The first sign of his affection was a set of four LPs of Richard Burton's performance in Hamlet that Ludwig wore out as a teenager. The most recent manifestation is his new comedy, Shakespeare in Hollywood, which opens Wednesday at the Wilma Theater.
First commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Ludwig's play unfolds on the set of the Warner Bros. production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1934. It mixes fact and fantasy as the renowned Austrian director Max Reinhardt makes his American cinema debut.
A Midsummer Night's Dream turned out to be Reinhardt's first and last Hollywood film, and the brevity of his American career may be partially explained by the cast he had to control. The lineup of all-star egos included Olivia de Havilland, James Cagney, Mickey Rooney and Dick Powell. It didn't help that Reinhardt, a refugee from Nazism, spoke very little English.
Shakespeare in Hollywood has Oberon and Puck taking a wrong turn from the forest near Athens that is home to much of the action in Shakespeare's comedy. They stray on to the Warner backlot and create much comic and romantic havoc among the cast.
Of course, if Shakespeare had lived to see what Hollywood did to much of his work, he would surely have added movie producers to his vocational hit list.
Tinseltown is, after all, the place that got things rolling with the 1929 version of The Taming of the Shrew, which boasted the still unmatched chutzpah of a credit that read, "By William Shakespeare with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor."
Besides adoring Shakespeare, Ludwig, 50, also loves movies in general and the great screwball comedies of the '30s in particular. Shakespeare in Hollywood is, he says, a tribute to a golden age.
"The best of the screwball comedies are absolute masterpieces," he said during a recent rehearsal break at the Wilma, where his play is being directed by Jiri Zizka. "I think of them as one of the final successors to the great tradition of high comedy that goes from Shakespeare through Sheridan to the comic operas of the 19th century. You can certainly see A Midsummer Night's Dream as a screwball comedy."
As it turned out, the Royal Shakespeare Company didn't produce Shakespeare in Hollywood because Adrian Noble, the artistic director who commissioned it, left the company. The comedy has received several stagings in this country.
The Warner A Midsummer Night's Dream, released in 1935, offers one of those classic collisions of art and commerce that are a Hollywood specialty. Shakespeare was regarded as box-office poison, but studio moguls still filmed his plays - often because their stars wanted to show a little class. In Shakespeare in Hollywood, Ludwig has fun with the proposition that Jack Warner ordered up the film to placate his mistress.
"That's not historically true," admitted Ludwig. "But almost every other Shakespearean production of the time was made for reasons of nepotism or to please a wife or mistress. So you had this great collision of people with different agendas - some wanted to do art, some just wanted prestige, some just wanted money. It was a very flamboyant time in Hollywood."
Harvard Law and the lofty Washington firm of Steptoe & Johnson are hardly known as hotbeds of hilarity or breeding grounds for comic playwrights.
Reflecting on his strange path to theatrical success, Ludwig says, "I got detoured into law and then came back out of it." He majored in English at Haverford College. When he won a coveted place at Harvard, his parents, rightly surmising that making a living from the stage is a precarious business at best, insisted that he go to Cambridge and then get a real day job with a law firm.
Ludwig complied, but he would get up at 4 every morning to write before setting off to his law firm. "I used the law as a means to an end," he said. "Before I went in, I would write every morning. I did it for years."
All those lonely hours began to pay off, and Ludwig has made something of a trademark of the backstage - now backlot - comedy. His Moon Over Buffalo returned Carol Burnett to Broadway a decade ago and is a popular choice with regional theaters, including the Bristol Riverside Theatre, which offers a current production of the showbiz farce.
Lend Me a Tenor, another farce, set in a Cleveland opera company, won two 1989 Tony Awards and several nominations for its Broadway run. His affectionate adaptation of the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur comedy Twentieth Century was a modest Broadway hit for Alex Baldwin and Anne Heche last year.
Ludwig is clearly drawn to what goes on before the curtain goes up or the cameras start rolling. "I think I'm fascinated by it because I didn't grow up in show business and I longed to be part of that world," he mused. "And then when I went off to law school, I idealized it. For me, it's a world that's a great symbol of having freedom and expressing yourself and using your imagination. In something like Moon Over Buffalo, it's more fun to place the crisis in a marriage backstage."
Although the rest of the world might find it hard to believe, Ludwig says he learned a lot about people and comedy from the dynamics and office politics of his law firm. And, despite the extreme case of Bardolatry that he continues to suffer, Ludwig hasn't quite deserted the fraternity. "My best friends to this day are lawyers from my old firm," he said.