It's the first black comedy in English drama. The first domestic tragedy. It features the first major female protagonist in all of English theatre. And if you ask director Terri Bourus, IUPUI professor and founder of Hoosier Bard, a sort of laboratory for new Shakespeare scholarship, this will be the first time it's ever been performed in the U.S. And what's more, five of its scenes might very well have been written by Shakespeare (Bourus is pretty much certain they were, but she's not telling which until Oxford issues a new edition of Shakespeare's plays in 2016).
And so we say to you, adventurous reader, that Hoosier Bard's production of Arden of Fevershame, opening this weekend at Central Library's Clowes Auditorium, is of undeniable historic importance. That's not to say it'll be perfect. Hoosier Bard is comprised of both community and student actors and crew, in part to realize Bourus' "ongoing quest to get IUPUI to develop a theater program," in part to serve a laboratory for "theater experiments" by the folks behind New Oxford Shakespeare, including Bourus, who are going back to the original folios and manuscripts to clear away cobwebs and misunderstandings that have accrued over the centuries.
But here's the thing: If you want to see a professional production of Arden this year, your only option is the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. And it can be a lot more fun to engage with people discovering the play at about the same time as the audience, from a director who says she's learning more than she ever could about Arden if she were just reading the play, to a familiar cast including the artistic directors of Q Artistry and EclecticPond, Ben Asaykwee and Thomas Cardwell, respectively.
Arden is being presented as a '40s film noir, because, as Bourus puts it, all the noir elements are there: the femme fatale, the guy who's in too deep, an honest cop, a lawyer, hired killers. The plot, in a sentence: 50-something tycoon Arden's hot, young wife, Alice, has shacked up with a servant, Mosby, and is looking to knock off her beau, so she hires a bunch of hitmen who prove comically unsuccessful (the first murder attempt comes in the first scene and the near-misses keep on coming). It's based on a true story, says Bourus, who notes that there were plenty of land speculators who made a killing after Henry VII expropriated the church's land — and who made plenty of enemies along the way.
"It's a very early play, it can be clunky at times, and for a long time, it was attributed to just Anonymous," Bourus says of Arden. But by using computational stylistic databases, and doing some close reading, scholars are arriving at a theory that Shakespeare wrote some of the play's scenes, adding to a script originally penned by an obscure playwright. We might thus call it a collaborative play, though the playwrights didn't directly collaborate, and it's clear who did what: "I was very careful not to change Shakespeare's language, and it's noticeable: There's Shakespeare; there's the other playwright," Bourus says.
But Bourus is changing one thing: The play's title, usually rendered as Arden of Faversham. When she was examining the original 1592 text, she discovered that the running headers read Fevershame not Feversham. That could've been a compositor's error (i.e. a mistake made by the guy working the press), but Bourus is convinced that it was an intentional change, because as she puts it, "the play was not just about a particular town" — Faversham, a market town in Kent, England — "but about a universal place of feverish and shameful human greed, lust and violence." And the play puns consistently on "fever" and "shame" to that end.