Widespread acclaim greeted the world premier of Equivocation, a new play by Bill Cain, S.J., that opened in April at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore., where it runs until Oct. 31.
The theater critic for a local newspaper waxed eloquent about it, describing it as “one of those major theatrical experiences that succeeds on so many levels it deserves to be widely produced for years to come.” Other critics and Ashland’s large audiences concur that it was far and away the best—even mesmerizing—among the eight plays produced this season; some said it was the best play presented here in decades. As a 30-year-long devotee of the festival (which I deem the most consistently excellent repertory theater in the United States), I agree.
When I saw the play recently with a Jesuit friend, we engaged afterward in a spirited conversation about whether there had been any plot. We had in mind not the play itself—a darkly comic and thrilling, if revisionist, history about one of the choicest conspiracy theories of all time—but its subject, the so-called Gunpowder Plot. We wondered to what extent Lord Robert Cecil, King James I’s chief aide-de-camp and one of history’s blood-soaked villains, orchestrated the Gunpowder Plot as a set-up, so that he could crack down on prominent English Catholics and confiscate their property.
Those who have read Antonia Fraser’s classic recounting of the incident, Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot, will recall that commentators are deeply divided on the question of whether there ever was any Catholic conspiracy to blow up the king and Parliament in 1605. The foiling of that “plot” is still marked every Nov. 5 in England as Guy Fawkes Day.
The conceit of Cain’s play is that William Shakespeare, who in the play is called Shagspeare, or Shag, is pressed by Cecil to write a propaganda piece to celebrate the government’s trumped-up version of the terrorist plot in order to vilify Catholics—and the Jesuits. Shag hesitates to accept Cecil’s proposition: writing contemporary history is dicey (and just possibly, a precipitant to imprisonment). At one point in the play, Shag drafts a script that portrays the superior of the Jesuits in England, Henry Garnet, as an equivocating villain. But the playwright thinks this does not really work as theater, since there never was an explosion, and the case against Garnet is not at all clear. When he complains to Cecil that there was no plot, Cecil threatens in rejoinder, “That is treason to say so!”
Shagspeare begins to uncover faulty claims by the government. How could Catholic gentlemen, unused to labor, have engineered and dug complicated tunnels under the Parliament building? Where did the dirt go? Why would Tom Wintour, one of the Gunpowder Plot principals, misspell his name as Winter on his written confession? Other documents abound where the literate Wintour properly signed his name. Also, his confession’s handwriting does not match those signatures. There are sordid tales of torture and widespread government denials: King James himself lies to Shagspeare, telling him that torture is not taking place.
Cain’s Shagspeare insists on interviewing the tortured Wintour in the Tower of London, and later he orchestrates an encounter with the redoubtable Garnet. Finally, Cain has Shag sum up his own reading of the plot: “The Gunpowder Plot was a terrible thing, and if it had succeeded a great many people would have been killed. Now an unworthy minister and a King who barely speaks the King’s English are using that plot to enrich themselves and their friends at the cost of young men’s lives. And it is only starting. By the time they are done, a great many more people will have died than the plot would have killed and fortunes will be made from their deaths. That’s the truth. I know it. Everybody knows it.”
Good theater entices an audience to hear things it might not otherwise want to face. “Equivocation” lures viewers into deeper considerations about politics and religion, truth-telling and family relations. The scenes of torture are quite graphic. Yet the play is rife with comic relief. Part of the brilliance of Cain’s play about Shagspeare is that it is so Shakespearean in its plot: an attempt to murder a king; villains who mislead and oafs who do not understand; revisionist history that resonates eerily with contemporary events; plays within a play (Shagespeare’s troupe, the King’s Men, performs scenes the modern audience recognizes from “King Lear” and “Macbeth”); tales of twins (Shakespeare had twin children, one of whom, the boy Hamnet, died young); and a neglected daughter who comes back to save her father. In the play’s plot line, Shagspeare’s daughter, Judith, from whom he is estranged, saves his version of “Macbeth,” which eventually appeases James, the Scottish king.
The title of Cain’s play refers to a famous pamphlet written by Garnet to help captured priests—and cooperating Catholics—to equivocate without actually lying when caught in the king’s snares. In the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot (where Garnet lost his life, as did the Jesuit brother, St. Nicholas Owen, who crafted many of the hidden “priest-holes” in Catholic mansions), duplicitous government propaganda made much of Jesuit equivocation as an epithet of scorn. In the play, Garnet, who opposed the Gunpowder Plot, which he knew about only under the seal of confession, defends his doctrine as not lying but learning the difficult task of actually telling the truth to dishonest political figures.
Cain spent seven seasons as the founding director of the Boston Shakespeare Company. But no place is more appropriate to premiere his play than Ashland. This season Ashland mounted spirited productions of “Macbeth” and “Henry VIII.” The latter set a tone by which audiences can understand English religious divisions. Shakespeare even alludes to the Gunpowder Plot in the famous comic porter’s scene in “Macbeth,” Act II, where the porter cries out: “Knock, Knock! Who’s there, i’ the other devil’s name. Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. O come in, equivocator.”
“Equivocation” moves on, this fall, to the Seattle Repertory Theatre and the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. In early spring it will be mounted by the Marin Theatre Company in the San Francisco area and then run Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club. I plan to see it again in San Francisco. The play raises many thoughtful questions about family, faith, politics and the need to learn how—to use Henry Garnet’s definition of equivocation—to speak truth in difficult times.