Chatham's Monomoy Theatre Inspires Cornwell's Latest Best-seller

By: Tim Wood

Author Bernard Cornwell as Prospero in “The Tempest” at the Monomoy Theatre in 2016. He said his latest novel, “Fools and Mortals,” was inspired by his work at the theater. COURTESY PHOTO

CHATHAM – About a dozen years ago, author Bernard Cornwell was asked by Monomoy Theatre Artistic Director Alan Rust to give a talk to the company on the background of Shakespeare's “Henry V.” Cornwell hadn't yet written his historical novel “Azincourt,” but knew enough about the 1415 campaign to give an authoritative presentation. Rust was impressed.

“It was really quite stunning,” he said of that talk. Not long after he asked Cornwell, who hadn't acted since his student days, to play the part of Duncan in “Macbeth.” Cornwell has been in every Shakespeare play the summer theater has performed since.

“I've got the right accent,” said the British-born Cornwell, who has called Chatham home for three decades now. “I began to enjoy it a lot,” he said of acting in the company. Not only did he enjoy going on stage and mixing with Monomoy's student troupe, he became fascinated by the history of theater and Shakespeare, “the whole damn thing.”

The result is “Fools and Mortals,” Cornwell's latest historical novel, which tells a fictionalized story of the first production of “A Midsummer Night's Dream” in 1595. Although grounded in the meticulous historical research that is the author's trademark, the book also owes a debt to the Monomoy Theatre for both inspiring Cornwell's real-life theatrical experience as well as lending the names of some of its regulars to characters in the Elizabethan tale.

Rust's name, for instance, is given to a veteran member of Shakespeare's group, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, who both performs in key roles and serves as what today we would recognize as the director, although, according to Cornwell, the term wasn't used until the 19th century. Rust said he was flattered by the portrayal.

“I think he's got things written in there that I said in rehearsals,” he said.

Other Monomoy company members whose names Cornwell borrowed for characters in “Fools and Mortals” include Ralph Perkins (Monomoy's choreographer), Phil, the Shakespeare company's chief musician (Phil Rittner, Monomoy's musical director), Walter Harrison, the Lord Chamberlain's steward (retired president of the University of Hartford, Monomoy's patron – not unlike the Lord Chamberlain himself), and others. Many of the other characters in the book are the actual actors in Shakespeare's company, Cornwell said.

“There's all sorts of clues in the old documents as to who played what,” he said.

In the book, Shakespeare's company is rehearsing “A Midsummer Night's Dream” which will be performed for the wedding of the granddaughter of the Lord Chamberlain. As we watch the play come together, a rival theater company schemes to steal the scripts of “Dream” and “Romeo And Juliet,” written about the same time. The theater business was brand new in the late 16th century and scripts were its most valuable commodity, Cornwell said.

“Plays were incredibly valuable,” he said. Before plays were performed in theaters, players went town to town and could perform the same play in different locations, because the audiences were different each time. The Theatre where Shakespeare's company was based, just outside the London city wall, drew from the same population for every performance, so plays had a limited lifespan and were only published after they'd exhausted their audience. Until then, each company guarded their plays as if they were gold.

As a prolific playwright, Shakespeare was of great value to the company. But he was also a businessman, and rather than the romanticized image of the poet sitting in his garret quill in hand, he was more of a journeyman cranking out plays – but a genius journeyman, for certain. And he worked in a rough and tumble milieu, Cornwell said, where theaters were cheek-to-jowel with brothels. Shakespeare had the equivalent of a restraining order taken out against him in 1596, Cornwell noted, by a man who said he feared for his life.

“Shakespeare obviously could be something of a thug, too,” he said.

The main character in the book is Shakespeare's brother Richard. The Bard had two brothers, Cornwell said, one of whom, Edmund, joined the acting company and died young. Of Richard, however, nothing is known other than the dates of his birth and death and a court fine for failing to attend church. Having a character who is essentially a blank slate is “a huge gift to me,” Cornwell said. “If there's a character about whom you know nothing, then you can do anything you want with him.” In the book, Richard is resented by his brother and cast in women's roles – women were not allowed on stage until nearly a century later – and finds himself caught up in a scheme to steal his brother's latest plays.

After observing the process of developing, rehearsing and performing plays at Monomoy, Cornwell said he recalled thinking how it hasn't changed much since Shakespeare's day.

“It's exactly the same as what happens today,” he said; while there was no named director, someone – probably Shakespeare or a veteran actor, as with the Rust character in the book – takes on that role, “but it's the same process. It's all there.” In the play-within-a-play put on by the “mechanicals” in “Midsummer Night's Dream,” there are clues to how the company went about putting on a production, although “Pyramus and Thisbe” is played for laughs. In the book, Cornwell also suggests “Pyramus and Thisbe” is a bit of a satire on “Romeo and Juliet,” since the star-crossed lover themes and plots are virtually identical.

Released in England in September, there was an “absolutely terrific” reaction to “Fools and Mortals,” Cornwell said, and it made the best-seller list in that country. He warned his regular readers that it was unlike his other historical novels, such as the popular “Last Kingdom” series, in that it has little violence and no battle scenes.

“I warned them on my website that nobody dies and it has faeries,” he said.

To celebrate the book's Jan. 9 release, on Saturday Cornwell and some of his Monomoy colleagues, including Rust, Terry Layman, Ellen Fisk, Sarah Killough, Arlene Bozich and Kyle Brand, will perform “Fools and Mortals At Play,” a benefit for the Charleston Library Society in Charleston, S.C., where the author has a winter home. He wrote the show especially for the occasion, and it will include scenes from “A Midsummer Night's Dream” and “Romeo and Juliet,” as well as film clips and songs performed by Darryl Hall (of Hall and Oates fame). This “Monomoy in Charleston” show is a one-time event.

In the dozen years since he began performing, Cornwell has twice played the character Peter Quince in “Midsummer” and acted in many other plays, by Shakespeare and others; his biggest role was Prospero in “The Tempest” in 2016.

“He did a marvelous job,” Rust said. As a writer, Cornwell is a “different kind of artist” for the students to be exposed to, and he's become “like a member of the faculty, really.” In the upcoming Monomoy season, Cornwell will play Jaques in “As You Like It,” who utters the immortal lines, “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

“He clearly enjoys it,” Rust said. “I think his book is a magnificent tribute to the Monomoy Theatre. To me the theater is part of Chatham, so it really is a tribute to the town.”

Meanwhile, he's working on the 11th “Last Kingdom” novel which will be out in a year, and he'll give a talk at the Eldredge Public Library in the spring on “Fools and Mortals.”

“It was fun to write,” he said of the book. “I just hope it's fun to read.”