By Mary Lillian Tessmann
Sewanee’s Guerry Auditorium recently hosted performances of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and The Taming of the Shrew by actors from the American Shakespeare Center. The performances were donated to the University by an alum of the School of Letters in honor of Professor Ann Jennalie Cook Calhoun, a founding member of the School’s faculty, who passed away in 2017.
The alum chose to remain anonymous, but after the incredible turnout for Macbeth on Thursday night, the alum chose to open a previously closed showing of The Taming of the Shrew to the public on Friday.
Professor of English John Grammer, the director of the Sewanee School of Letters from 2006 to 2017, was responsible for hiring Cook. He explained that Cook “left grateful students everywhere she taught.” Before the performance, Professor Pamela Macfie told the audience that Cook’s “inspiring career as a Shakespearean transformed several generations of students, actors, directors, costume designers, and scholars…Ann brought Shakespeare alive.”
Cook was a renowned Shakespearean and penned two books on the bard, The Privileged Players of Shakespeare’s London, 1576-1642 and Making a Match: Courtship in Shakespeare and His Society. She was the only American to be named as a life trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon and was also the first woman to achieve tenure in the Vanderbilt English Department. Her favorite play was The Taming of the Shrew and Grammer felt “there couldn’t be a more fitting tribute.”
The American Shakespeare Center (ASC) beautifully provides accessibility to Shakespeare’s works with an incredible focus on education. In addition to their performances, members of the cast led two workshops for the Sewanee community. Based in Staunton, Virginia ASC’s 2017/2018 Wicked Folly Tour rotates through three plays: Shakespeare’s Macbeth and The Taming of the Shrew as well as Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.
Their Thursday performance of Macbeth filled the auditorium. The heavy Sewanee fog added to the evening as the performers guided the audience through Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. Together, everyone explored the dark side of humanity, driven by deadly ambition, bloody action, and the tricky subject of fate.
On Friday, the tone shifted to one of Shakespeare’s comedies, but the message was no less clear. Their rendition of The Taming of the Shrew had audience members on the edge of their seats. They unrolled the plot gracefully without drawing away from its importance. A climatic battle of the sexes, The Taming of the Shrew blends romantic comedy with a young woman’s struggle to establish herself as an equal to her new husband.
The play’s underlying themes grapple with abuse and a woman’s place in the world. While the play is a product of Shakespeare’s time and riddled with misogyny, Katherine’s plight was particularly compelling as Sewanee struggles to shine a light on abusive behavior. From Sewanee, the American Shakespeare Center will head to Washington, Arkansas and Murray, Kentucky.
Macfie believed Cook “would have taken great delight to know that…members of the community she loved across the summers would give ear to this performance” and that she would have loved to know that Sewanee so adamantly embraces Shakespeare.