By Kevin Coughlin
It’s unlikely that you will find a more enthusiastic moderator than Bonnie J. Monte at Saturday’s Morristown Festival of Books.
Monte is scheduled to introduce Andrea Mays, author of The Millionaire and The Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio.
Mays’ true story about a Gilded Age oil tycoon’s quest for the earliest compilation of Shakespeare’s manuscripts resonates deeply with Monte, who is poised for the most exciting month in her 26-year tenure as artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.
From Oct. 6-30, 2016, her theater company and its partner, Drew University, will display a precious First Folio — on loan from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC — at the university’s Madison campus.
“Anybody who loves books is probably going to want to see this one. It’s considered by many to be the most valuable and influential book in the world, next to or equal to the Bible,” Monte said of the First Folio.
And this weekend’s festival “is the perfect place to talk about all of this, because if anybody loves books, and reveres books, and understands the worth of great books, and their influence, it’s people who are going to be attending the Morristown Festival of Books,” she said.
Mays, who teaches teaches economics at California State University at Long Beach, will talk at 2:30 pm on Oct. 1, 2016, in the Morristown & Township Library at One Miller Road, Morristown.
More than 30 authors from many genres are scheduled to speak on Saturday at four downtown venues, all within easy walking distance. Admission is free.
Sebastian Junger (Tribe, The Perfect Storm) delivers the keynote on Friday, Sept. 30, at the Mayo Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $35 and include a copy of Tribe; student tickets are $15, without the book. Call 973-538-8008 for more details.
‘PRINTED ON THE BACKS OF COMMONERS’
This year marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. A few years after his passing, two friends assembled manuscripts of 36 of his 37 plays (not included: Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen) as the First Folio.
It is believed that about 750 copies were printed, of which 234 survive. The library founded by Henry Folger owns 82 of them, and it’s sending copies around the country to mark the anniversary.
Monte knows an awful lot about the Bard. But she was delighted to glean insights from Mays’ book about production of the First Folio in 1623.
“It was an excruciatingly difficult process to get a book printed back then,” Monte said. “There was no quality paper being printed in England at the time. So they had to send to Normandy to get it. The paper was made from the discarded rags and clothing of the common people.
“That was a thrilling moment for me, because I suddenly went, ‘My God, the greatest words in the world are printed on the backs of the commoners,'” Monte said.
Established 54 years ago, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey presents 10 shows a year, including traveling productions, with a $4 million budget and a staff of about 30 people.
Shows are staged at Drew, but much of the magic is created in a 50,000-square-foot former industrial facility in Florham Park. Actors rehearse while designers and technicians meticulously hand-craft costumes and props, which are stockpiled alongside skulls, period furniture and more bric-a-brac than any rummage sale you’ve ever seen.
It’s all intended to make the world’s greatest writer come alive for an attention-challenged generation.
“I see kids who can’t even look at each other anymore because they don’t know how, because they spend so much time with their eyes glued to a cell phone,” said Monte, who refuses to own a mobile phone.
Yet she is convinced that if youths are introduced to the arts early enough, “they will put their cellphone down long enough to watch a play.”
And Shakespeare’s plays, Monte believes, are as relevant today as they were in the 17th century. Coriolanus, presented at Drew over the summer, is about an election, “the blindness of the masses, and their willingness to be swayed by ridiculous propaganda.”
Richard III is about a king with “no scruples.” He’s still making news: His body was discovered under a parking lot last year, and a society of fans maintains this deformed monarch was not the monster portrayed by Shakespeare.
But history is just a device for Shakespeare, who bends it for his dramatic purposes to reveal universal truths.
“Each of Shakespeare’s plays, I think, contains probably the wisest advice for any generation in any age,” said Monte.
“These are plays of such profound understanding of human nature, that if one really listens to these plays and looks at them, you can walk away with an understanding of what one can be, what one should be, the best way to live. They are extraordinary vehicles for wisdom.”
All of Shakespeare, Monte said, boils down to this: A world out of order.
“What he advocates for in every single play is balance. The minute you become radically something or other, one way or the other, everything about that society goes berserk…. It’s the most astute perception of how we continue to get ourselves in trouble as a species.”