"They'll walk out to the bleachers, sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: It's a part of our past."
That's a famous James Earl Jones soliloquy from the movie "Field of Dreams," and it's true: Baseball is part of America. But so, peculiarly enough, is Shakespeare. Amateur actors on wagon trains moving west staged "Macbeth," and as towns grew, theater groups brought Birnam Wood to prairie fields. Touring troupes put on "Beauties," famous bits and pieces from the plays.
Americans also read and memorized Shakespeare. Mark Twain joked about con artists mangling the bard, but he also praised a riverboat pilot who "knew his Shakespeare as well as Euclid ever knew his multiplication table." Explorer W.T. Hamilton, in his autobiography "My Sixty Years on the Plains," recalled one of his prized possessions: a copy of Shakespeare given to him by a Kentucky trapper whom he met in Wyoming in 1842.
We lost those thrills as Shakespeare became something assigned in schools and reluctantly read. Volunteer presentations before small audiences gave way to solemn performances in vast auditoria. But one of the many reasons for optimism about America's future is a resurgence of opportunities to reclaim our past by sitting in shirtsleeves on a perfect evening and watching the play of those who love Shakespeare's plays.
New York City this summer has had at least half a dozen Shakespeare plays presented alfresco and free of charge (sometimes with a passing of the hat for contributions at the end) in Central Park and lesser-known venues, like Harlem's Marcus Garvey Park. There's even been "Shakespeare in the Park(ing Lot)," with "Romeo and Juliet" performed in a Lower East Side municipal parking lot.
A recent Wall Street Journal report on amateur Shakespearians in the San Francisco area zoomed in on the Curtain Theatre's presentation of "Twelfth Night" "in a park that is flanked by towering redwood trunks and encircled by a shallow creek. Each rehearsal there is like summer camp, with a purpose -- turning the world's most eloquent words into something that feels original."
That desire to renew eloquence was also evident in a unique Manhattan event, Shakespeare on the Run. Last month, in an Upper West Side park, the Gorilla Repertory Theater staged "Henry V" with scene-by-scene location changes and no advance notice: Suddenly, actors started speaking at different spots. As scenes shifted, the audience followed and surrounded the actors.
That rapid movement makes for aerobic fun but also represents a return, in a sense, to traditions of the Elizabethan stage, which did not use scenery. Shakespeare recognized the problem of showing location shifts and battles on a bare stage, so he used a narrator who encouraged audience members to use their imaginations: "Can this cockpit (theatre) hold the vasty fields of France? ... Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts."
The play's religious flavor, which some truncated versions omit, also came through. Shakespeare has King Henry V thank the director of events for victory at Agincourt: "Take it, God,/For it is none but thine! ... And be it death proclaimed through our host/To boast of this or take the praise from God/Which is his only."
Shakespeare productions across the country typically depend on the initiative of a drama entrepreneur, who functions like his predecessors on 19th century wagon trains: For example, Christopher Carter Sanderson founded the Gorilla Repertory during the 1990s and directed this summer's "Henry V." That may mean shifting management: Sanderson is in the U.S. Navy Reserve and is scheduled for deployment in the Persian Gulf this fall.
Still, the shows seem to go on. Perhaps, as our language grows coarser, Shakespeare's roses smell ever sweeter.