The first Shakespeare groupie may well have been a character named Gullio in a college play called "The Return from Parnassus," which dates from around 1599.
"I'le worshipp sweet Mr. Shakspeare," Gullio declares, "and to honoure him will lay his Venus and Adonis under my pillowe."
Nearly four centuries later, actor Benjamin Stewart feels pretty much the same way about Shakespeare and his epic poem. Only Stewart plans to honor the Bard this summer with a solo performance of "Venus and Adonis" at the Gem Theatre during the 10th annual Grove Shakespeare Festival.
"Ben's presentation will be a rare bonus," says Grove Theatre Co. artistic director Thomas F. Bradac, who founded the festival. "This year we are touching all the bases. For the first time, we're doing a history (play), a comedy and a tragedy. With the poetry, we'll have each side of Shakespeare's works."
The 12-week festival, co-sponsored by Rancho Santiago College, commences Sunday with "Richard II" at the outdoor Festival Amphitheatre in Garden Grove. It moves indoors to the Gem with "Venus and Adonis" on July 7 and back outdoors again with "A Comedy of Errors" on July 23. "King Lear," the final play, opens in the amphitheater on Aug. 27.
Shakespeare has never lacked fans, of course. But the English language's greatest writer also has had his detractors. The university poets of his time looked upon Shakespeare with the same condescension they reserved for all playwrights. Theatrical writing in the Elizabethan Age was not considered literature, merely popular jotting.
Scholars have speculated that Shakespeare penned "Venus and Adonis" to prove his literary genius. It tells the story of how Venus, the immortal goddess of love, falls for Adonis, the most beautiful of mortal youths. She wants to bear his child so as to combine her immortality and his beauty. But he prefers to take a rain check on the affair, believing he is too young for her.
Nobody knows precisely when Shakespeare wrote the poem, which consists of 1,194 lines in rhymed stanzas of six lines each. He may have had time to work on it during one of the seasons that the plague forced London theaters to close and he moved to the country. The pre-eminent Elizabethan scholar George Lyman Kittredge has concluded that the poem was written "probably in 1592."
In any case, "Venus and Adonis" was printed in 1593 and dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's young but highly cultivated and widely admired patron.
Shakespeare, who was 29 at the time, refers in the dedication to "my unpolish'd lines" as "the first heir of my invention." Neither description was accurate.
Though the poem was in fact Shakespeare's first published work, some of his plays had already been written and staged. "A Comedy of Errors" is dated with some certainty to 1591, and a couple of the history plays probably came earlier as well.
Moreover, "Venus and Adonis" was so well received because of its lyric brilliance that nine more editions were printed by the time Shakespeare died in 1616.
"I first encountered the poem in my hometown of Houston," says Stewart, 45, who speaks without a trace of a Texas accent. "An amateur group wanted to stage it. They asked me to narrate it. I was an FM radio announcer then."
That was in 1969. Stewart moved to Los Angeles shortly afterward to pursue an acting career. For five seasons during the mid-1970s he worked at the Ahmanson Theatre. He also went to Broadway with the Ahmanson revival of Tennessee Williams' "The Night of the Iguana" starring Richard Chamberlain.
But Stewart kept coming back to Shakespeare, his first love, working at the Visalia Shakespeare Festival for two years before it folded in 1980 and at the Grove festival in 1982.
"I always wanted to stage 'Venus and Adonis' on a double bill with something like Oscar Wilde's 'Salome,' " he recalls. "Nobody took me up on it. So I decided to design it as a solo performance."
In 1984, the Mark Taper Forum presented Stewart's one-man version of "Venus and Adonis" at the Itchy Foot Ristorante in Los Angeles for which he won a Drama-Logue Award. Later that year he also did it at the Gem for three performances in a pre-festival trial.
Stewart says that because of its length, he is one of the few actors to venture a dramatization of the entire poem. "I don't leave out a line," he notes. His version runs 1 1/2 hours with an intermission. Several years ago, Irene Worth performed an edited version at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Ontario, Canada.
"She is one of the world's great actresses," Stewart says, "but I tend not to agree with her interpretation. She emphasized the role of Venus. I think the poem is a man's piece. It has a masculine sensibility about it that crosses over to the feminine and not the other way around."
Despite a fair amount of commercial success in Los Angeles over the years--including the role of Dr. Watson in "Sherlock's Last Case" at the New Mayfair--the veteran character actor moved in 1986 to Tucson, Ariz., where he had been playing leading roles at the Arizona Repertory Co. for almost a decade.
"I decided to turn my back on the whole TV and film thing to concentrate on the classical theater," he says. "I've taken a vow of poverty, as it were."
BACKSTAGE NOTES: Though the festival will be doing Shakespeare straight--no trendy Edwardian style productions--"A Comedy of Errors" will be set in outer space. The Grove expects to sell about 12,000 tickets through the summer. As of now, there are 1,600 festival subscribers. "That's a record," Bradac says.