Katherine Steele Brokaw received her PhD in English from the University of Michigan in 2011 and now works as the Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Merced, where she teaches medieval and early modern literature, world drama, performance theory, and children’s literature. She’s also the co-director of Shakespeare in Yosemite, an original play featuring scenes from Shakespeare and the writings of John Muir, which was sponsored by Misfit Press and performed in Yosemite National Park in April, 2017. Here, she shares with us some highlights from the day.
Yosemite National Park, California: April 22nd, 2017. Earth Day. It’s also a day sandwiched between the birthdays of naturalist John Muir, the adventurer whose writing and activism saved Yosemite from commercial exploitation, and the probable birthday of William Shakespeare. In Yosemite Valley, a group of actors gathered to open a show celebrating these three things: John Muir, William Shakespeare, the Earth.
The National Parks system has been described as “America’s Best Idea.” Free Shakespeare in the Park might just be America’s Second Best Idea, and it’s an idea close to the Misfits’ hearts. In 2014, AJ and Melissa set out with Paul Prescott and Paul Edmondson on a 65-day, 10,000-mile roadtrip across America, the Shakespeare on the Road project. Three years later, Prescott, a Shakespeare scholar at University of Warwick, teamed up with me (I’m based at University of California-Merced, 70 miles from Yosemite) to found Shakespeare in Yosemite, and the two of us brought Shakespearean theatre to the park for the first time in recent memory. The project was sponsored by UC-Merced and Warwick as well as Misfit Press. On April 22nd and 23rd, over 600 Park visitors enjoyed four free performances of a newly written one-hour play. Collaging excerpts from Shakespeare and Muir, it explored themes relating to climate change, the rights of animals, and the commodification of the environment.
When the first crowd entered the Lower River Amphitheatre of Yosemite Valley that sunny April afternoon, they found themselves surrounded by the pine trees that made the playing space a natural “wooden O” (as Shakespeare’s Globe as been described). Beyond those trees lay the sheer granite formations of El Capitan, Half Dome, and Three Sisters, those iconic structures of Ansel Adams photographs and default Mac desktops. But it is a sacred space to many, inhabited for centuries by the Ahwahnechee before its “discovery” in the nineteenth century by explorers and goldrushers.
A lute, played by UC-Merced engineering grad student Soheil Fatehi, began sounding the opening strains of a song. As the actors sang and assembled on the stage, their lyrics from Shakespeare’s As You Like It described the venue itself: “under the greenwood tree, who loves to lie with me? Under a sweet bird’s throat, who could want for a sweeter note?” Those actors included student actors, semi-professionals from California’s Central Valley, and the two of us. We were joined by Lee Stetson, easily Yosemite’s most famous actor, who has been portraying John Muir in the park and around the world for the past 34 years.
And then another figure familiar to many Yosemite lovers appeared. Ranger Shelton Johnson—author, interpretive park ranger, and, like Lee, a star of the Ken Burns documentary The National Parks—addressed the audience with the prose-poem he composed for the occasion:
For Shakespeare, Yosemite was an unknown land that could only be visited in his dreams…Yet he would’ve appreciated a landscape powerful enough to be its own theater, script its own drama without the agency of a dramatist; a play of granite, soil, plants, animals, and indigenous people with their own stories, legends, joy and heartache…
Let this cross-pollination bear an exotic, but sweet fruit for all to taste! For the next hour the words of William Shakespeare will sound in the incomparable Valley, and his spirit has been called, is being called, to this wondrous place.
Doing our best to live up to Shelton’s words, we shared our stories from Shakespeare, intercut always with Lee’s delivery of Muir’s powerful prose. So Jaques’ protestations about the slaughter of the deer of Arden—“We are mere usurpers, tyrants, /To fright the animals and to kill them up/In their assigned and native dwelling-place” was immediately echoed by Muir—“It is a mean, blinding, loveless doctrine that teaches that animals were made only for man, to be petted, spoiled, enslaved, or slaughtered.” And our version of the “Exit pursued by a bear” scene from The Winter’s Tale was followed by Muir’s story of encountering his first Yosemite bear (“we were frightened and embarrassed—the both of us—though the bear’s behavior was better than mine”). Our storm sequence began with humor, as three actors portrayed The Tempest’s Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo. We then utilized the audience’s hands and feet to create the sounds of a thunderstorm big enough for King Lear’s epic rants: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” Lee followed that with Muir’s account of dodging death when he spent the night on Mount Shasta during a real-life tempest.
The show’s final sequence began with Muir:
Everybody needs beauty…this natural beauty-hunger is displayed in everything from poor folks’ window gardens to ‘our magnificent National Parks’. Nevertheless, like everything else worth while, however sacred and precious and well-guarded, they have always been subject to attack, mostly by despoiling gain-seekers – mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to supervisors, lumbermen, cattlemen, farmers, eagerly trying to make everything dollarable.
We then had extracts from Romeo and Juliet and Timon of Athens (one of Karl Marx’s favourites) which echoed this disgust for making “everything dollarable.” And this rush to the economic bottom line, a narrating actor argued, can result in the loss of paradise. Suggesting that John of Gaunt’s dying speech in Richard II sounds like something Muir could have said when lamenting the loss of Hetch Hetchy (a part of Yosemite flooded in 1923 to become a water reservoir for San Francisco), the actor brought us back to Lee, who conflated Gaunt, Muir, and his own present self, to deliver the lines:
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself…
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England—or this America!—
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds,
America hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Spoken in the “demi-paradise” of Yosemite Valley on the first Earth Day weekend under an administration more committed to gas and oil companies than the protection of federal lands, Shakespeare’s words took on new meaning. Those commitments have consequences, and we next gave the stage to Titania—embodied by actor Raquel Ruelas—who pleaded with the audience instead of Oberon:
the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the amazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.
The “we” became all of us. Gaunt and Titania and Muir speak truth to power, and maybe “we” should, too. Without being preachy, there was thus a message embedded in the show, an exhortation to protect what’s left of the planet. Many audience members came straight from the “March for Science” – having marched for science, they sat down for some art – and, on World Earth Day, the gap between the two cultures of art and science seemed small indeed.