hy was everyone so shocked last week to learn that Sesame Street's
Bert is an
Islamic extremist? The rumor that he is evil has been circulating
for years. And frankly, even a moderately attentive observer of
human (or puppet) nature knows that, as far as people are concerned,
what you see is rarely what you get.
Shakespeare himself hinted as much when he wrote: "All
the world's a stage / And all the men and women merely players."
And frankly, the big phony would have known. There's a mountain
of evidence to suggest that the greatest literary figure in Western
history was something of a player himself. That in fact, the man
that history claims wrote Hamlet and King Lear was
a setup, a decoy to deflect attention from the real author.
The "authorship question" has haunted Shakespeare for
hundreds of years. Such distinguished minds as Ralph
Waldo Emerson, Walt
James, and Mark
Twain felt that it was simply not plausible that the man from
Stratford could have written the most sublime poetry in Western
history. According to the actual historical evidence, Will Shakspere
(as he spelled his name) was about as literary as Mike Tyson.
However, until relatively recently the subject was merely an excuse
for armchair speculation.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, though, an English schoolmaster
named J. Thomas Looney decided to submit the puzzle to modern,
scientific methods of problem solving. He tackled the mystery
like a homicide detective hunting a killer. He dissected the plays
for clues about the social origins, education, personality, and
literary style of their author. He then methodically searched
the record for a historical figure who fit his hypothetical profile.
Looney's methods would be mirrored about eighty years later when
the media became obsessed with finding out who actually wrote
the sensational Primary
Colors. The novel's history is well known. Whoever wrote the
book chose to hide their identity, simply listing their name as
"Anonymous." It was a brilliant publicity stunt. The
novel, an insider's look at Bill Clinton's 1992 primary campaign
(thinly disguised as the campaign of one Jack Stanton), is actually
a fine piece of work. In fact, it's been called one of the best
political novels of the twentieth century. But if it weren't for
the fact that no one knew who had actually written it was
it one of Clinton's top advisors, slyly stabbing him in the back?
the novel might have done moderately well before settling
into a comfortable spot on the remainder tables. Instead, it became
an international bestseller.
Anonymous may have intended to give his novel an air of intrigue,
but he probably didn't expect the media to put so much energy
into finding out his identity. Soon after the novel was published,
the bloodhounds were unleashed the hunt for the identity
of Anonymous was on. To begin, whoever wrote Primary Colors
clearly had firsthand knowledge of the Clinton campaign, so the
lineup was narrowed down to those who had spent time with Clinton
during the period portrayed in the book. The author was also clearly
a seasoned writer, which narrowed the field down even further.
But when scholars began to analyze the text for linguistic patterns
a sort of literary fingerprint and computer specialists
began to send the text through textual matching programs, Anonymous
began to feel the bloodhounds' breath. And in fact, suspicions
did begin to focus on one writer, a Newsweek columnist
named Joe Klein, who had reported on the 1992 presidential primary.
Klein denied the allegations vociferously.
Looney's methods in hunting for the "real Shakespeare"
were very similar. After employing modern techniques of historical,
social, and literary research, our schoolmaster did find someone
who fit almost perfectly his profile for the author
of the works of Shakespeare: Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl
Edward de Vere not only had the education, the social position,
the firsthand knowledge of British nobility, the love of falconry,
the experience in Italy, and most of the the other attributes
Looney deduced Shakespeare should have, he was also well-known
as a supremely talented playwright though, no plays have
been discovered under his name. And the lyric poetry he left in
his name bears a striking similarity to the poetry of the Bard.
Since Looney published his findings in 1920, support has only
grown for his assertion that the Earl of Oxford was the real Shakespeare.
Of course, so has the controversy he started, and the cries of
apostasy he inspired. Unfortunately, there will likely never be
a smoking gun proving without doubt who wrote the works of Shakespeare.
For readers interested in the (nearly overwhelming) evidence,
though, I would suggest Richard Whalen's Shakespeare:
Who Was He?, which gives a concise, entertaining overview
of the subject. (For true enthusiasts, Charlton
Ogburn's exhaustive 900 page Mysterious William Shakespeare:
The Myth and the Reality is definitive, if difficult to find.)
But poor Anonymous didn't have the benefits of a 400 year time
lapse to blur the record, and he was finally forced to reveal
his identity. When a manuscript of Primary Colors was discovered
with handwritten corrections, the bloodhounds realized they had
found their smoking gun. The document was given to a handwriting
expert who confirmed that Joe Klein was in fact Anonymous. With
his back against the wall, Klein finally admitted that he was,
in fact, the author of Primary Colors.
He clearly didn't want to. Klein had lied about it publicly
"I did not sleep with..." Excuse me, I mean, "I
did not write that book." which severely damaged his
credibility as a journalist. Poor thing. It must be stressful
to accept the fame, adulation, and money that dog a critically
acclaimed, bestselling novelist.
It was all a bit weird. Klein's reaction seemed backwards. If
we are all players on the world's stage, isn't it the general
practice to try to nab the best parts? In trying to deflect attention
from their talents, aren't Edward de Vere and Joe Klein moving
in the wrong direction?
Maybe they should re-watch All About Eve. There's that
scene where conniving Eve Harrington calls Karen Richards into
the bathroom. Eve leads Karen to believe that she wants to apologize
for her bad behavior, but instead threatens to destroy Karen's
closest friendship if she doesn't promise to help Eve get the
lead part in her husband's play. Karen expressed shock that Eve
would "do all that just for a part in a play?" But Eve,
fangs now comfortably bared, is nonplused: "I'd do much more
for a part that good." (Is there a clue here to Winona Rider's
Where Shakespeare and Klein went to great lengths to avoid
a leading role, the usual human impulse is to go to great lengths
to secure one. A perfect counterpoint to Joe Klein is Cal
Cunningham, the protagonist in John Colapinto's marvelous first
Cal wants desperately to become a successful writer. Fortunately,
right about the time he realizes that he, in fact, has no talent,
his dull roommate is killed in a freak accident. Oh, and there's
the problem of a manuscript left by the roommate, which just happens
to be a brilliant novel based on Cal's pathetic life. Since no
one knew the roommate was writing a novel, Cal steals the manuscript
and poses himself as the author.
Sure the setup sounds a bit cozy. But in Colapinto's hands, this
pat plot comes to life. Naturally, someone knows of Cal's theft,
someone who is willing to keep quiet as long as the checks keep
hitting the mailslot. If Alfred Hitchcock had collaborated with
Gene Wilder they might have come up with a story like About
the Author, which is both a gripping suspense thriller and
a wicked satire of the publishing industry. Clearly Cal's fate
is sealed the moment he decides to steal the manuscript
crime doesn't pay, right? but as Colapinto drives his reader
to distraction as Cal inches inexorably toward his downfall, he
also entertains with sly literary allusions and the most hilarious
supporting cast of the year. In particular, Cal's manic agent
Blackie Yaeger is priceless.
But if About the Author is a comedy where everyone gets
their comeuppance, Patricia Highsmith's Talented
Mr. Ripley is a nightmare where no one gets what they deserve.
In Highsmith's noir masterpiece, a young American named Tom Ripley
accepts a job from Herbert Greenleaf, whose son, Dickie, went
to Italy on vacation but bought a house and never returned. Tom's
task is to visit Dickie and convince him to come back to the States.
Soon enough, though, the two have become friends, and Ripley
no longer intends to send Dickie home. In fact, Ripley has soon
developed an obsession for his more sophisticated friend, which
begins to make Dickie uncomfortable. When it becomes clear to
Ripley that the friendship is in jeopardy, he becomes desperate
to preserve his connection to Dickie. So he kills him, steals
his passport and a few personal effects, and assumes his identity.
Now Ripley isn't just friends with Dickie; he is Dickie.
In recent years, Patricia Highsmith has begun to receive the
recognition she deserves as a master of macabre psychology. And
Tom Ripley is her creepiest creation. What makes him so disturbing
is the fact that Highsmith is able to make her psychotic hero
not only so believable, or so sympathetic, but that she made him
so recognizable. Who is comfortable realizing that our common
humanity binds us to even the most depraved criminal?
Which brings us back to Bert. Who knows what has motivated Ernie's
monobrow friend to relinquish his position of privilege and respect
for a life on the fringe. But there is nothing more human than
wanting to switch roles from time to time, or more common than
pretending to be someone you are not. Jack Kerouac may have become
an alcoholic conservative, Elizabeth Taylor may have traded in
her Edith Head's for spandex, Moses may have traded in the ten
commandments for a six shooter (and who knows what secrets Tom
Cruise might one day reveal to the world), but don't worry. It's