Interview with Ken Ludwig for the Wilma Theatre Production of Shakespeare in Hollywood
Q: How did the idea for Shakespeare in Hollywood come about?
A: It came about this way: the Royal Shakespeare Company came to me and wanted to commission a play - a comedy. I was flattered beyond words. I had an idea that I thought they'd love - a play about the Shakespeare Jubilee that the famous Shakespearean actor, David Garrick, put on in the little market town of Stratford in 1769. I plotted it craftily - then had a meeting in Stratford with Adrian Noble, the Artistic Director of the RSC at the time, and told him the idea. He loved it - but couldn't say yes, because another playwright was writing a very similar play already! So Adrian said "give us another idea." And I knew it was now or never. So I went back to my hotel that night and thought and thought - and by morning, I'd concocted the idea of a Hollywood "backstage comedy" during the making of a Shakespeare movie. Shakespeare movies have always wafted through Hollywood, usually in waves that ebb and flow; I loved the Hollywood setting; and it was very American, yet Shakespearean. So I suggested it the next day and Adrian loved the idea.
Q: How much of the "backstory" of the 1935 Midsummer Night's Dream did you know when you first pitched the idea to Adrian Noble? How much of the story is real and how much is invention?
A: When I pitched the story to Adrian, I knew only that the film was made in the mid-1930s and who directed, produced and starred in it. It wasn't until I started digging that I learned that Reinhardt had just fled the Nazis, that the Hays Office really did make all the objections that I have Hays make in the play; and that virtually all of the Shakespeare movies made up to that time were the product of sexual nepotism. These and other background facts enriched the piece as I thought it out. For example, if Mickey Rooney hadn't broken his leg a week into filming, I wonder if I'd have come up with a visit from Puck and Oberon at all.
Q: Something that I hadn’t realized before coming across Shakespeare in Hollywood was the depth of your interest in Shakespeare.
A: I have always adored Shakespeare and studied his plays deeply. As a kid, I listened to Richard Burton's Hamlet on LP so many times that I memorized it. Literally. Then I studied Shakespeare in college with Ralph Sargent, a great scholar - I was at Haverford College, just outside Philadelphia; and then studied Shakespeare some more at Cambridge. Since then, I've taught classes in Shakespeare at various universities - and most recently at the Globe Theatre in London.
Q: Most of your plays and adaptations are set in the 1930s. They draw upon classic farce conventions, but seem to owe even more to the homegrown American style known as "screwball comedy," which developed in the 30s.
A: This is very perceptive of you - unusually so, as most people use the label "farce" (which I don't like) and leave it at that. There is what I call the Great Tradition of stage comedy, which starts with Shakespeare's high comedies (Twelfth Night, As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing), and culminates in the Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s. It's a very specific kind of comedy and has specific characteristics: multiple plot levels, romance, mistaken identity, broad comedy, sentiment, sexiness - and Shakespeare invented it. Most comedy is not of this variety. The "city comedies" of Ben Jonson are the start of the other tradition, and that's what we've had most of in various guises over the past 400 years. Anyway, I just adore the high comedy tradition and try to continue it.
Q: What has drawn you repeatedly to the screwball style, and why do you feel so at home in this period?
A: I tend to set the plays in the late 1930s because it reminds me of the great Hollywood screwball comedies and seems very glamorous to me. Parenthetically, this was my mother's heyday and she was very glamorous, in fact a model for Chanel and then a show girl on Broadway. My daughter seems to be taking right after her.
Q: What excites you the most about having the Wilma produce Shakespeare in Hollywood?
A: I'm thrilled that the Wilma is doing Shakespeare in Hollywood, for a number of reasons. It will be the Philadelphia premiere of the play, and I adore Philly. I especially love Haverford, my alma mater, and Bryn Mawr, our sister school, and I'm enormously pleased by the idea of some of the current students coming to see the play. I've been back a couple of times since graduation and spoken, but not for a long while. So I'm hoping to see some of my old friends on the faculty and administration. Most of all, I'm very aware of the incredible reputation the Wilma has built up over the past several years for thoughtful, intellectual, yet highly accessible and entertaining theatre - and of the Wilma's enormously high caliber of production - and so I can't wait to see the play as interpreted by Jiri and his actors. It should be a treat.