Actually, This Isn’t Unprecedented

I confess that I, too, have been using the word “unprecedented” to describe our current condition during this COVID-19 pandemic. And in so many ways, the word seems to fit. But then I came across these lines in Bill Bryson’s book, Shakespeare: The World as Stage, “London’s theaters were officially ordered shut, and would remain so for just under two years, with only the briefest remissions.” He’s talking about the years 1592-1593, which were plague years. “For theatrical companies it meant banishment from the capital and a dispiritingly itinerant existence on tour.”

In another passage he says that during plague years, “Public performances of all types—in fact public gatherings except for churchgoing—were also banned within seven miles of London each time the death toll in the city reached forty, and that happened a great deal.”

Sounds a lot like today, doesn’t it? But this was all taking place more than 400 years ago!

Being a historian, I’ve always taken comfort in history, in the knowledge that deep within our DNA and collective memory is the ability to overcome almost any challenge. We really have been through this before.

So, what did the actors in Shakespeare’s time do? Well, it sounds like they went grudgingly on the road. And what did the playwrights like Shakespeare and Ben Jonson do? They kept writing. And when the plague let up, they returned to their theaters. And because they kept writing, we have some of the greatest plays ever written.

I confess, I’ve succumbed a bit lately to a victim mentality when it comes to my own art. Is this really a good time to release a Spanish translation of my book V for Victory? With less income coming in, should I save that money? And what’s the point of finishing the play version of Wave Me Good-bye when it’s uncertain when the theaters will reopen and when they might be interested in new scripts. And why even consider other writing projects when the publishing industry is pulling back too?

It helped, at first, to hear stories of all the great works of art that had come out of difficult times in our history, but to do so again would require a certain amount of faith that I, or anyone else, could quiet the voices of worry in our heads long enough to hear our muses. But this passage from Bill Bryson made me realize this is not the first setback I’ve endured in my lifetime, nor will it be the last. And it’s not the first setback our arts industries have endured, nor will it be the last.

But in the darkest moments of history, art is always present. We’re seeing it now in the creative masks that artists are designing, in the songs that are telling us how to live in this new normal, in the funny videos that are making us laugh, in the heartfelt poems that are making us cry, in the amazing photographs that are capturing our stories.

Come on, artists and art lovers, it’s time to “go on the road,” even if it’s not what we’d prefer to do. It’s time to get creative and find new ways to reach our audiences, because technologies come and go, fortunes wax and wane, countries rise and fall, but art is here to stay.

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