Directed by Katie Meinholt

With Russ Whismore & Alison Whismore

A Georgian-era theatrical dressing room.

WILLIAM

[Entering] Hearest I, thou dost wish to parley? Thou bearest encumbrances of soul where regards the play?

SARAH

[Turning from her mirror. Sharply.] This is just the sort of thing getting you in trouble, Mr. Ireland. Speak to me like a modern man.

WILLIAM

But I – need the practice. At Elizabethan modes, iambic pentameter!

SARAH

This is 1796, William. The “dosts” and “wisheths” wouldn’t have flown in Shakespeare’s day to start with. [WILLIAM sputters a little] But one wonders what your ‘practice’ at language is needed for, if the play you’ve foisted on us is to be believed valid?

WILLIAM

Fair lady, hear me true. I have heard bespeak of thine misgivings, and come thereupon today to quell. The tale I tell, ‘tis genuine! [Earnestly] Mine father fore – William Henry Ireland, with selfsame name as mine own self, he did save from drowning unto a watery death one singular Bard of Avon – Stratford-Upon! – the very man William Shakespeare. Hard upon two hundred years ago did this transpire.

SARAH

We’ve heard it all. We’ve heard it whole. Bill, we’ve heard too much from you by half.

WILLIAM

[To himself] Oh, that’s good. I needs must write that down anon. [To SARAH] Lo, but hold! The letters and plays bequeathed as grateful gifts upon my ancestral namesake – including, yes, the singular and unknown Shakespeare play Vortigern and Rowena, which today we rehearse at Drury Lane itself! – were vouchsafed as true by a printer contemporaneous with the Bard. The endorsements of these documents in mine possession, they flood forth – from two centuries yore as well as this very week past! Mr. Pye, Mr. Burgess, are supplying prefatory odes to accompany my folio’s first printing.

SARAH

Your palaver is fierce. But not subtle enough to convince me it’s Shakespeare. And if I’m not convinced, after weeks’ study of your play, will the audience be? And if they aren’t, what becomes of my reputation? In a word, man, you tell me why I shouldn’t bolt.

WILLIAM

[Falling to his knees, clasping his hands] Oh, woman, because we’re putting on a god’s-honest real Shakespeare play, lost two hundred years in a trunk, that I happened to find in my dad’s attic and that I swear isn’t at all in my handwriting, none of the thing! Mrs. Siddons – grand dame of the London stage, your reputation lends so much to this production – pritheee dost thou nay abandon Shakespeare’s new play a bare week ere we open!

SARAH

[Pointing at a script WILLIAM is holding, supplicantly.] Did he really write this? [WILLIAM tries to find more words, but only shrugs at her sheepishly] Have you even read Shakespeare? The characters don’t run about calling each other ‘thy’ and ‘thine’. Let alone should you, today – offstage – be calling me that. [To herself] The credibility of this whole thing looks grim.

WILLIAM

[Breaking down] Oh, I only say it because I need the practice!

SARAH

Nobody needs practice coming up with authentic texts!

WILLIAM

And it is so authentic, missus. None other than Mr. James Boswell believes in the veracity of my play.

SARAH

Did you not hear? He retracted, this week. With embarrassment.

WILLIAM

But the greatest printer in all London-town believes my play is true!

SARAH

[SARAH glares at him] Do you dare tell me you mean your father? Well – I can give you this news – your leading actress does not believe the play. [Gesturing at herself while standing to leave] Your ‘Lady Macbeth’ does not believe it. Your Sarah Siddons holds no faith in this production, sir, nor in the merit of its provenance!

WILLIAM

[WILLIAM begins scribbling this in a notebook] Oh, that is good! The Merit of its Provenance! That line could open a sonnet.

SARAH

[Gathering her things] I’m off.

WILLIAM

I’ll make it better!

SARAH

What?

WILLIAM

I’ll make it better, the play.

SARAH

[She was about to leave, but the audacity of this makes her curious.] You claim Vortigern is genuine. How could you possibly improve on it? Raise Shakespeare from the grave?

WILLIAM

[Brightening] There’s an idea! Suppose we rewrite classic books and plays, adding, for no reason, characters who are supernatural – or undead? [Deflating again] Unfortunately, that isn’t what I meant. I just meant that I want to add in Henry II.

SARAH

[Stupefied, trying to follow this] Henry II – the subject of no Shakespeare play – he lived… I don’t know… in the late 1100s? When did Vortigern live?

WILLIAM

Well, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, it was sometime in the 400s. Same as Uther and Merlin!

SARAH

And that gap seems large, yes, for Vortigern and Henry II to go stalking about in one play?

WILLIAM

[Scribbling in his notebook again] Your phrasemaking is fine, so fine. Have you considered –

SARAH

There’s one forger here today, William Ireland, and it’s not me.

WILLIAM

All right. But you see, I’m halfway through my authentic new play Henry II, and suppose… well, suppose we said the unfinished papers of this valid Shakespeare play were mixed together with his Vortigen manuscript…. Because, I don’t know, the Bard was preparing both works simultaneously. He was of one mind whilst writing both, but he finished neither, and – huzzah! – they prove better together than separate. Let alone that the very unlikelihood of this chimerical play would confuse the skeptics!

SARAH

I say this as neither an expert nor a friend. But making your work more unlikely seems a poor way to convince the skeptics.

WILLIAM

[Desperate] What will it take for you to stay?

SARAH

[Bag in hand – as if first realizing something could still make her stay] I need people to believe this play is true. Or – I need them to believe I could have believed it, and not been a fool.

WILLIAM

[On his feet again] Fairest lady, this is not just a passable Shakespeare play, but his greatest! Hark. It has everything. Rowena, Scots goddess, she pines for her Macbeth Romeo – our Vortigern. He is the same wicked brute who slew the rightful King of England – but he’s played by your own brother John Kemble, handsome and talented in such measure that this will fly with the audience. We throw in a fool – but a wise fool!, with great and very memorable lines. Cross-dressing! We need some of that. The King’s son Flavia must escape the country seeking to raise a Saxon army, and he’ll dress as a lady on the way. Such hijinks. He’ll fall in love with a woman who thinks he’s a woman too. We’ll work on that. It practically writes itself, everything but the iambic pentameter.

And then! Who-upon comes hither, or… is it hence? – I always get hither and hence confused. Anyway – Henry II, renowned King of England some seven centuries in the future, he appears hither/hence to slay the wicked Vortigern and win the lady Rowena!

SARAH

You know, you almost had me, right up to the time travel. I’m leaving. [Begins to exit; pauses] But in this story of yours, how do you imagine Henry II is traveling backward in time?

WILLIAM

Oh, that’s easy… suppose he enters a magical carnival ride. An – an old crone curses him. Are you familiar with Isaac Newton’s new book, the Principia Mathematica? I’m sure Mr. Newton makes a high-technical provision for travel in time. Or – it could be an enchanted monkey’s paw! [SARAH exits. Calling after her:]

Mark my words! Stories of time travel and the undead – without worry of authenticity – are going to be very popular someday! [Deflating] Well. Maybe I could sell this play to the Americans. They speak our same language, more or less.

The End