Was there ever such a play in the first place? Some say that a 1603 London stationer listed in his inventory copies of The Merchant of Venice, The Taming Of the Shrew, Love's Labour's Lost, and the elusive Love's Labour's Won. Dissenters note that the stationer actually listed The Marchant of Venice, The Taming of a Shrew, Loves Labor Lost, and Loves Labor Won -- all of the above [sic] -- so he's not to be relied on. Some say that Love's Labour's Won was simply an early title for Much Ado About Nothing; others say it was a different play that the Bard wrote in 1598, one that was lost to succeeding generations.
Whatever the case, author William Martin wants to believe in the existence of Love's Labour's Won as much as a Peter Pan audience wants to believe in fairies. An esteemed novelist who's written such wonderful works of historical fiction as Citizen Washington, Back Bay, and Cape Cod, Martin makes Love's Labour's Won the centerpiece of his equally wonderful new novel Harvard Yard (Warner Books, $28.95).
Rare book dealer Peter Fallon hears a rumor about the existence of Love's Labour's Won. Of course, he'd love to find it and sell it for a fortune, but he doesn't know whether or not to believe the scuttlebutt. Author Martin has already told his readers to believe it for he's taken us to colonial Massachusetts in the early 1600s, where John Harvard has just arrived with a copy of Love's Labour's Won. Harvard starts a college for industrious young men like Isaac Wedge and is doing well until he falls deathly ill. On his deathbed at the tender age of 31, he entrusts Isaac with his collection of 400 books. "A man will be known by his books," he tells the lad, and Isaac takes the words of his mentor very seriously. But when Isaac opens Harvard's trunks and finds a copy of Love's Labour's Won, he almost throws it to the ground. That's because Isaac is living in Puritan times, and "What greater public sin was there than the theater?"
Still, he can't help peeking at the dramatis personae of Love's Labour's Won: "Ferdinand, King of Navarre; Berowne, and Costard" (all characters in Love's Labour's Lost, by the way). Soon, he's reading and enjoying -- until his teacher, Nathaniel Eaton, catches him and starts beating him. What's fascinating is that, after Eaton asks, "How many murders have you read of?" and "How many women have been ravished?" he adds, "How many bellowing oaths have you heard from besotted clowns like John Falstaff?" -- showing that he's no stranger to Shakespeare. (Martin says that Puritans hated the theater "because they knew how seductive it was." Hence, the Boston area "went 140 years without seeing a show produced." Good Lord, doesn't that statistic give you the willies? I rarely go 140 hours without seeing a show and, on many a Saturday, I haven't gone 140 minutes without seeing one!)
Eaton confiscates the work and, before he heads out to England, he says that he burned it. But Isaac hears that he had a play with him when he left. Could it be Love's Labour's Won? Isaac decides to go to London "to fulfill my promise to John Harvard" -- but his girlfriend Katherine, upset that he's more interested in the book than in marrying her, blows the whistle on him and tells the congregation that he's out to find a play. "A play!" they cry. "Blasphemy! The work of the devil!" So Isaac says he's really after a play by Aeschylus, which could help the colonists learn Greek. The congregation begrudgingly agrees to that lofty goal.
Once Isaac arrives in London, he finds that Eaton -- and perhaps the play -- have moved to Padua, so he goes there. He brings with him a book that has a similar binding, so that if he stumbles upon Love's Labour's Won, he can make a surreptitious switch. When he finds the house where Eaton is staying, he's able to distract him enough to get the coveted book. As he brings the script back home, he reasons: "If plays were evil, why had God given Shakespeare such talent?" (Good question, Isaac!)
Isaac marries the very religious Rebecca Watson of Natick (William Finn's hometown). He hides Love's Labour's Won in a wax-sealed lead box under the floorboard of his house, and while Rebecca wants him to get rid of the play, she is of that era of dutiful wives and wouldn't dare tell him what to do. During the Indian War, while Isaac is out fighting, Rebecca manages to protect the book from the Native Americans just before they scalp and kill her.
When Isaac's son John -- who's inherited his mother's religious fervor -- learns that his daddy owns a play, he's horrified that such an evil thing is in their house. But Isaac insists that the lad read it. John does so -- and, oh, how he likes it! The kid even writes about Love's Labour's Won in his "commonplace book" (a type of diary that Puritans kept) and this will turn out to be a major component in Peter Fallon's inference that there is an important book to be found.
Isaac and John hide Love's Labour's Won in a book jacket entitled The Bodies of Insects and put it in the science section of Harvard Library, figuring that no one will find it because there aren't too many people interested in insects to begin with. Even those who are will pick it up, figure it's misfiled, and won't do a thing about it. They get away with this ruse for five years -- until librarian Reverend George Burroughs discovers the book. He'll come to decide that "God would not have given Shakespeare such a gift had He not intended it to be used." But an open-minded attitude like that is what gets Burroughs put to death for becoming involved in activities not unlike the ones found in The Crucible.
Still, the tide eventually turns in favor of the theater. By 1709, Harvard University admits the complete works of William Shakespeare to its library, and in 1732, John Wedge's sons Abraham and Benjamin are reading plays as part of the Harvard curriculum. While John has instructed his boys that "Not to know Shakespeare in the modern world is plain ignorance," he is appalled when he hears that his son Benjamin is playing Puck -- "this fairy role" --in A Midsummer-Night's Dream. Abraham will agree some years later when he sees Ben, now a professional actor, in The Taming of the Shrew: "You bring the depravity of a man dressed as a woman!" he roars. "True joy is never brought by men in dresses!" Had Abraham been able to see Dame Edna, he just might have changed his mind; but she's more than a couple of centuries away, so Abraham becomes the "moving force behind the anti-theater statutes of 1767." By then, Love's Labour's Won was presumed lost in the famous Harvard Hall Fire in 1754. But there is that 1780 Copley painting of two Wedges in which Lydia Wedge is holding a book on which one and a half words -- Love's Labou -- can be seen. Is this the known Shakespeare play or the lost Won?
The history of the Wedge family as well, as its brushes with history and bookkeeping, are handled with great detail. But many a theater enthusiast will also relate to Peter Fallon's intense hunt to track down a rare tome. (How are you doing on finding those Drama Book Club editions of Bye Bye Birdie and Carnival!?) Theater-savvy readers will also enjoy some delicious theatrical nuggets. Ridley, one of Peter Fallon's pals, in recalling the Oedipus Rex he once directed, says that "Professor Alfred loved it." That's William Alfred, the Harvard professor who not only wrote the Off-Broadway hit Hogan's Goat but also the book and lyrics for its Broadway musical version, Cry for Us All, a nine-performance flop in 1970.
Martin also offers this exchange: Says Ridley, "This phone call is kismet." Asks Fallon, "What's kismet?" Answers Ridley, "A wonderful show starring Alfred Drake. Songs like 'Stranger in Paradise,' 'Baubles, Bangles, and Beads...'" On the other hand, Martin isn't above giving Broadway a cheap slam by mentioning that Ridley produced a musical version of King Lear wherein the monarch was 29 and the rest of the production was cast with actors from a Fox sitcom. Musical theater hasn't quite sunk that low, Mr. Martin, and I don't expect that it will.
No matter. More than once, Love's Labour's Won is referred to in the novel as "a small gift of majestic proportions." At 580 pages, Harvard Yard isn't a small gift but it is of majestic proportions. If indeed "A man will be known by his books," William Martin should be known and respected for writing this one.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at email@example.com]