Book review: The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea Mays

The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First FolioThe Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio by Andrea Mays
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Folger Shakespeare Library (located in Washington, DC) has the world’s largest collection of First Folios (the original compilation of Shakespeare’s plays). To explain how the largest collection of the world’s greatest English language author ended up in the United States, Andrea Mays sets out to explain how Henry and Emily Folger became interested in Shakespeare and his works. It’s a fascinating story of how Henry went from a student who went to college on scholarship to a wealthy and obsessive collector of all things Shakespeare.
The Folgers lived a frugal lifestyle, devoting every penny they could to their growing collection of Shakespeare First Folios and other Shakespeare-related items. Their wealth came from Henry Folger’s extremely successful career at Standard Oil. I thought the treatment of Standard Oil was very even-handed. The author is clearly well versed in economics and understands that Standard Oil’s ability to scale and take advantage of efficiencies resulting in low fuel prices for consumers. The fact that Rockefeller and Standard Oil were victims of a hatchet job skillfully performed by a journalist on a vendetta does not blind the author to the very real benefits gained by consumers thanks to Standard Oil (to the dismay of Standard Oil’s competitors).
Whatever your personal feelings about Standard Oil, there is no denying that Henry Folger’s professional success there enabled Henry and Emily Folger to assemble a stunning collection of First Folios and ultimately creating the Folger Shakespeare Library so that the collection could be shared and made accessible to the public. It was an extraordinary gesture of philanthropy and generosity. And the book gives an excellent portrayal of the two extraordinary people who made it possible.

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William, Victor (sort of), Charles and Peter

This past holiday break has allowed us to do some things that we don’t normally have time to do (like seeing 3-hour movies, but I digress).  There were several productions that we saw that we very much liked.

The first is the Shakespeare Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The Harman Hall stage resulted in a very clever staging of this light-hearted comedy.  There were times, however, when I thought the staging was cleverer than the acting, but, overall, it was a pleasant and well-done version of the play.  The brawl between the two lead female characters was particularly well done.  Our two children both enjoyed the production as did we.

We also saw the National Theatre’s production of Les Miz (the movie is on our list of things to see).  Jean Valjean is the linchpin of any production of Les Miz, of course, and we thought this particular production had a strong actor in that role.  Javert was also excellent.  (Our daughter wasn’t a fan of Javert because the actor reminded her of a substitute teacher that she particularly disliked.  It lent an air of authenticity to the production for her.)  Fantine’s voice was beautiful as well.  It is one of our favorite musicals, and this particular production did not disappoint.

One of our annual holiday traditions is taking the entire family to see Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theatre.  It gives us goosebumps every year to look up and actually see the box that Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when he was assassinated.  As with Les Miz, the casting of the main character, Ebeneezer Scrooge, is the key to a successful production.  This year’s actor was the same as last year’s actor, but he played the character a little differently than last year.  Less curmudgeonly but more Grinch-like, if that makes any sense.  We do require a satisfying redemption scene at the end of the play in order to feel complete, and this production fulfilled our expectations in that regard.  Christmas doesn’t feel like Christmas if we don’t see A Christmas Carol.

Finally, the behemoth Peter Jackson film otherwise known as The Hobbit.  We had originally seen it in the Udvar-Hazy theatre (the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum near Dulles Airport) with its six story IMAX theatre.  Fifteen minutes before the end of the movie (when all the dwarves, Gandalf, and Bilbo are treed, for those who have seen it), the entire museum lost power.  Oops.  I then went and saw it again (at a lesser theatre) so that I could see what happened in the last fifteen minutes.  I understand the criticism leveled at the movie—it very much is not in the tone of the book but, rather, is more epic and in the same vein as the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The movie also moves slowly in parts.  On the other hand, it is beautifully filmed and much of the background plot (derived from The Silmarillion and some of Tolkien’s other works) is meant as a richer prequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy than most prequels are.  It clearly works for Tolkien geeks.  I’m not sure how well it works for the normal human population.  All I know is it works for me.  The movie is rated PG-13, and I think it’s a fair rating.  There is a lot of violence in the movie, mostly directed at orcs and goblins.  The themes are also fairly mature.  That being said, our eleven year old son loved it and happily sat through the almost 3 hour movie with no complaints.  Our fourteen year old daughter was thoroughly bored, but she is not a Tolkien fan.  I am seriously thinking of disowning her for her heresy.

Two Gentlemen of Verona

We saw Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC on Friday.  We have been season ticket holders for over 10 years.  Our philosophy on the Shakespeare Theatre season is that we go to the Shakespeare plays, but we are hit-and-miss on the non-Shakespeare plays.  Plays by playwrights such as George Bernard Shaw and Christopher Marlowe are good, but plays by Henrik Ibsen and Harold Pinter are not.

We very much enjoyed this particular production of Two Gentlemen of Verona.  The play itself is generally believed to be one of the first (if not the first) plays written by Shakespeare, and you can see early versions of plot devices in this play that he uses in subsequent plays.  The staging was also excellent and creative.  The characters were dressed semi-historically (with doublets and long gowns), but the set was somewhat post-apocalyptic, and there was music from Rihanna and U2 (both of which, I’m fairly sure, post-date William Shakespeare).  The acting was well done, and we very much enjoyed seeing Euan Morton, whom we had seen before as the lead character, Leo Frank, in Parade at Ford’s Theatre and as Anatoly Sergievsky in Chess at Signature Theatre.  We think he’s a very gifted actor and singer, so it was a pleasant surprise to see him at the Shakespeare Theatre.  The rest of the cast was very good as well, but it’s always nice to see a familiar face in a production.