Sunday, March 15, 2020

A Blog of the Plague Month

It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland....

That's how Daniel Defoe begins A Journal of the Plague Year. Well, COVID-19 isn't the plague, which killed a third to half the population of Europe when it spread through the continent during the 14th century. Even worst-case scenarios don't suggest that.

Nor is it as bad as the plague was in 1665 when it ravaged London yet again. That outbreak wasn't as severe as the original onslaught in the middle ages, but by the 17th century people had built up some immunity to it, as no doubt we will to this latest virus. The disease that devastated London in Defoe's novel got worse as the weather grew warmer, whereas experts predict the current outbreak could abate during the warmer months. If it's any comfort (which it probably isn't) we have it good compared with Defoe's protagonist.

Still, it's hard to focus on anything other than the fear of disease that's gripped hold of New York, the country, and the world. At the college where I teach, classes are moving online not just for the month, but for the rest of the semester. (Given that the administration had been pushing us to go online long before the virus was a concern, I suspect this has as much to do with saving money as with public health concerns.) A production I had coming up has been postponed to October, and the Shaw conference I had hoped to attend in May has been postponed indefinitely.

London theatres remain open for now, but Broadway has shut down until Easter. The Metropolitan Opera has cancelled performances as well, but fortunately will be broadcasting operas on the internet all this week. That effort is much appreciated. Though there is no substitute for live performance, the Met recognizes that human beings have needs other than just bodily functions. With churches closed, our spiritual needs are not being met, and there is a complete lack of political leadership right now. The Met seems to be one of the few institutions that actual cares about people beyond telling them to stay at home and not touch their face.

We've all heard the story by now of how Shakespeare wrote King Lear during an outbreak of the plague. Honestly, that sounds a bit suspect to me, since we're not even entirely sure in what year Shakespeare wrote the play. Sometime around 1606 seems like a good guess, though, and I went out (before all the bookstores close) to buy a copy of James Shapiro's book The Year of Lear, which makes that speculation. I am unlikely to write Lear during this outbreak, though, since moving my classes online will probably take up much of my remaining spare time.

Today is the Ides of March, and the American Shakespeare Center chose this day to endorse on the New Play Exchange all of the finalists for their Shakespeare's New Contemporaries contest. Matt Bird and I collaborated on a play called Shakespeare or the Devil which was one of those finalists. Now all we need is for our present plague to recede so someone can produce it.