The Englishman William-Henry Ireland lived from around 1775 — he appears to have lied about his birth year — to 1835. Were he able, he would have lied about his death, too.
Richard Creese's new play about Ireland, Solemn Mockeries, having its world premiere in a production by Independent Shakespeare Company, studies a man who, when a boy, had schoolmasters who tried to persuade his father to withdraw him from school on account of him being so stupid.
In Creese's account, a one-man confession by Ireland as performed by David Melville and directed by Jeffrey Wienckowski at Atwater Crossing, Ireland was desperate to please his father — a collector of artifacts and a Shakespeare enthusiast. He was so desperate that, at the age of 18, he concocted the technical means to forge documents, testimonials, letters to Queen Elizabeth and Anne Hathaway including a lock of Shakespeare's hair, and even play scripts penned in the Bard's hand.
He was so good at it that his inventions passed muster with London experts — until one Edmond Malone published a number of concerns about the authenticity of Ireland's relics, such as an “original” manuscript of King Lear (“improved” by Ireland, an aspiring playwright) that was dated well before King Lear was known to have been written.
Melville's Ireland opens the play speaking amiably to the audience but as though testifying at his own trial, arguing that he never killed anybody, he never deceived a woman or a child. His crimes were literary, and his assault was on something we call authenticity.
He not only made history, he made it up — the crime that brought down the likes of Jayson Blair at The New York Times. But at a historical remove, there's a clownish, reckless delight in Ireland's capacity to reinvent the past and so infuriate historians.
Ireland was so fearless a fraud, he “discovered” a “lost” play by Shakespeare named Vortigern and Rowena, and aimed to get it produced — under Shakespeare's name, of course — just to see if his own play could pass for one of Shakespeare's.
Irish playwright Richard Sheridan paid a handsome £300 for the rights to produce it at London's Drury Lane Theatre and was an ardent enthusiast for the long-lost work — until he got around to reading it. Doubts also were expressed by the Drury Lane's lead actor-manager, John Philip Kemble, so that Ireland found himself in a race against time, trying to get his play produced before his detractors could sully his integrity and his reputation.
Melville has an almost preternatural gift for wry understatement and comic timing. His recitation of the debacle at Drury Lane contains many of the slightly nasal inflections of one British comedian who has inspired him, Gerard Hoffnung.
The story, thanks to the blend of play and actor, is brutally funny and brutally sad, summoning eternal questions about the distinction between what we know, and what we think we know.
If it were finally proven that Shakespeare didn't write any of his plays, think of the centuries of scholarship built on a false premise. Imagine.
SOLEMN MOCKERIES | By Richard Creese | Presented by Independent Shakespeare Company at Atwater Crossing and Innovation Complex, 3191 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village; Sat.-Sun., 5 p.m.; through March 10 | iscla.org