So what does she do next, this raised-in-retail lady whose family-owned department stores are familiar to Southern clientele as Graber's? (As in "Hi, neighbors, shop at Graber's.") She does something she describes as "far afield." With Nancy D. Becker, co-founder (with her husband) of The Beethoven Society, Mnuchin forms The Shakespeare Society. Well, she does regard the venture as yet another "new concept business"--although, this time, it's not-for-profit.
Why such an endeavor for Mnuchin and Becker? "Because we are Bardolators," Mnuchin explains in the society's small Upper East Side offices--where Robert Thew engravings of scenes from William Shakespeare's plays hang on the wall, a large Al Hirschfeld caricature of Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom sits on a chair, and various other collectibles are placed around. You know: "Getchur Shakespeare t-shirt, getchur Shakespeare coffee mug!"
Actually, there was a transitional step for Mnuchin between the Mayflower Inn and The Shakespeare Society, in the form of a Shakespeare garden on the Mayflower Inn's south lawn. That Shakespeare himself and the Mayflower crowd didn't mix, and that Puritans scorned plays and actors, bothered her not; she laid out all that rue and rosemary with accompanying plaques on which were featured apt flower-and/or-herb-oriented quotes from the plays and sonnets.
That seeding also seeded the renewed devotion to Shakespeare that she knew she shared with Becker. When the two first talked it over and decided to see how they could formalize a society, they checked around the not-for-profit clearing-houses and learned that there had once been a Shakespeare Society in Manhattan--but not for 40 years. They saw a niche that they felt needed filling. "Shakespeare is the most important artist of the literary world," Mnuchin firmly believes, and therefore it's necessary to have him honored by a New York group.
The Shakespeare Society opened its doors on March 1, 1998, and now has 500 members who pay dues ranging from $50 (student rate) to $150 (sponsors) to $2500 (The Bard's Circle, for couples). In return for this annual fee, members have access to five programs a year at which issues raised in the plays are discussed by Shakespearean scholars and/or actors. At the last meeting, Roger Rees interviewed Sir Derek Jacobi about his Shakespeare days. (Both are preparing to appear in a non-Shakespeare play on Broadway: Chekhov's Uncle Vanya.) The knighted thespian was also given the Society Medal of Excellence and Achievement in the Field of Shakespeare during an evening shared by approximately 600 fans at the Danny and Sylvia Kaye Playhouse, where the Society holds all these gatherings.
The next scheduled Society affair is the annual celebration of Shakespeare's birthday. Although Will was born on April 23, 1564, this year's fete will unfold at the Shakespeare statue in Central Park on Monday, April 24. Featured entertainers will be the Bomb-itty of Errors cast. (They're the recent New York University Tisch School of the Arts graduates getting raves for their hip-hop update of The Comedy of Errors.) In addition to these types of occasions, Society members are able to join a Shakespeare reading group that meets in the organization's office, and they receive newsletters informing them of Shakespeare-related productions. They are also sent Iona College's quarterly Shakespeare Newsletter.
Happy about the Society's growing membership, Mnuchin and Becker are, however, not entirely content. They are constantly looking for ways to bring in new members. Among their more far-reaching crusades has been the formation of Shakespeare clubs at schools in the five boroughs. Currently, 20 public high schools have received a $1500 first-year stipend, which is to be followed by annual checks of $500 to $700 (the money is earmarked for the purchase of texts, costumes and the like). There is an adopt-a-teacher program to which members may contribute; participating educators are sent to Washington, D. C., where courses in teaching Shakespeare are given at the Folger Library. The Shakespeare Society also has begun to award an annual $1000 check to a Juilliard student for excellence in Shakespeare performance.
Mnuchin just can't seem to get enough of W.S., and her Bardolatry has armed her with strong opinions. She's especially intent on establishing a national understanding that Shakespeare plays "don't have to be done with an English accent," supporting her argument by noting that, according to scholars she trusts, today's upper-class speech is not the way the language was spoken in the 16th-century British isles. And these scholars, she stresses, are English academicians--"not," she says, "Americans looking to validate the American voice."
As Mnuchin and Becker continue their St. Crispin's Day-like campaign to "make Shakespeare more visible," it could be said that to their own selves they're being true.