While others frolicked in St. Patrick's Day celebrations last week, the Atlanta Shakespeare Company mined the moral — and bloody — musings of "Edward III," an obscure play about a 14th-century English monarch.
The production helped the company achieve its claim of becoming the first in the U.S. to perform all 39 of the plays written at least in part by William Shakespeare. However, whether 39 is the right number or not is open to question.
"Starting out building a career in Shakespeare, it's kind of a given that a natural goal would be to do them all," said Jeff Watkins, the Atlanta company's founder and artistic director. His company is also performing "The Two Noble Kinsmen" this season, a play widely acknowledged to have been partly written by Shakespeare.
Last Thursday, the company completed its version of the canon with "Edward III," a play some experts attribute at least partly to Shakespeare — and some don't. And while some scholars say Watkins' 39 plays are too many to attribute to Shakespeare, others say the number should be even higher.
"The definition of the canon is, of course, in dispute; some will allow only the traditional 37 plays, some will include at least one other play," said Philip C. Sneed, producing artistic director of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival.
Watkins stands by his claim.
"In the last 10 years scholars have added 'The Two Noble Kinsmen' and 'Edward III' to make a 39 play canon," he insists.
Watkins said he realized two years ago that his company had done all but three of the 37 traditional plays, plus the two he's now producing.
"When I started asking around, it became clear that no American company had performed all 39. At that point, I could either sneak one in every year over the next five years or do them all over the course of a year. I chose the latter."
Drew Reeves, a longtime member of Watkins' company, who plays the title character in "Edward III," said he believes Shakespeare wrote much of the section about the relationship between Edward and the countess.
"'Hers more to praise than to tell the sea by drops,'" Reeves quotes, saying the line is very Shakespearean and adding that he thinks much of the play's sun imagery is reminiscent of "Romeo and Juliet," written during the same period.
Watkins began producing Shakespeare plays in Atlanta in 1984 and opened his New American Shakespeare Tavern in 1990 with a production of "The Tempest." The tavern operates throughout the year, staging "Romeo and Juliet" each February, with matinees for student audiences, and such favorites as "Hamlet," ''Macbeth" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on a regular basis.
Watkins said those plays not only sell a lot of tickets to school groups, but help build an audience that makes it possible to perform lesser-known plays now and then. "Pericles," ''Titus Andronicus," ''Coriolanus," ''The Winter's Tale," ''Timon of Athens," ''Troilus and Cressida," the three parts of "Henry VI" and "Henry IV, Part 2," have been produced at the tavern only once.
Sneed, whose company has produced the 37 long-accepted plays, said he admires the Atlanta company's achievement.
"There's no question that Jeff Watkins has accomplished something extraordinary in producing 39 of these plays," he said. "I'm delighted for Jeff and his company, and at the same time we will continue to boast about being one of the first American companies to complete the canon, because at the time 37 was the accepted number." The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has produced each of the 37 at least three times.
Still, Sneed rejects "Edward III" as a legitimate part of the canon. "I can't quote you the number of lines I think Shakespeare might have written in 'Edward' — it just feels like it's not enough to call it a Shakespeare," he said.
Patrick Spottiswoode, director of Globe education for the Globe Theatre in London, said the Royal Shakespeare Company has done what he considers the entire canon, which includes "The Two Noble Kinsmen" but not "Edward III."
"I feel loath to get involved with canon fodder," Spottiswoode said in an e-mail to The Associated Press, but, in his opinion, "collaboration cannot exclude plays from the canon. You would have to exclude the lot. All the plays were collaborations in my view — actors clearly played more than just a part, in all of them."
Watkins sidesteps the issue, and says, "As for whether the plays that Shakespeare collaborated with other playwrights are part of the canon, I'd say that we're doing these plays first and foremost because they are worth seeing."
He said "Double Falsehood," a play based on Shakespeare's lost work "Cardenio," will be performed at the tavern in early June. Portions of "Sir Thomas More," attributed in part to Shakespeare, will be performed there at another time, not yet scheduled. The two plays could allow Watkins to claim 41 productions.
"Even having the conversation about whether they belong in the canon raises an awareness of what they have to offer. My intention is simple: Make the question moot by doing all of them," Watkins said.