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For someone who entered college assuming he would become an architect, John F. Andrews moves in the most rarefied of dramatic circles.
Andrews—a Washington-based Shakespeare scholar, impresario, and educator—has enlisted an impressive cast of actors to write forewords for the venerable Everyman’s Library Shakespeare series he edits, including F. Murray Abraham, John Gielgud, Hal Holbrook, James Earl Jones, Kevin Kline, Kelly McGillis, Tony Randall, and Tim Pigott Smith.
Andrews has also created, and presides over, the annual Sir John Gielgud Award for Excellence in the Dramatic Arts, whose first three winners were Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, and (arriving this month for the awards ceremony) Zoe Caldwell. Performers and attendees at past Gielgud Award galas have included Kenneth Branagh, Marvin Hamlisch, George Plimpton, Lynn Redgrave, Diana Rigg, and Patrick Stewart. What brought them all together was a passion for Shakespeare.
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Andrews first developed his love of Shakespeare as a sophomore in college, where a Renaissance literature course at Princeton steered Andrews away from architecture for good. After a year spent earning a teaching degree at Harvard, Andrews headed to Vanderbilt to earn a doctorate in English. It was at Vanderbilt that Andrews decided to specialize in Shakespeare—by accident, thanks to a chance assignment working for Shakespeare Studies, an academic journal.
After four years teaching at Florida State University, Andrews moved to Washington to take a job with the renowned Folger Shakespeare Library. While at the Folger, Andrews made his first concerted efforts toward popularizing Shakespeare’s works among the uninitiated.
“People tend to be in awe of Shakespeare, because he has a reputation of being difficult,” Andrews says. “The first thing to overcome Shakespeare anxiety is to show people that he is perfectly comprehensible. One of the best ways is to expose people to his plays being performed. They may not understand every word, but they will certainly get the gist and find themselves moved by it.”
Andrews’ outreach efforts reached their apogee in the early 1980s, as PBS broadcast new productions of Shakespeare’s plays and distributed free teaching materials to schools across the country. A follow-up project was devised, in which plays were broken up into easy-to-digest, one-hour televised segments hosted by Walter Matthau. But poor scheduling doomed the project after its first season. Eventually, Andrews discovered that he enjoyed spending grant money more than giving it out, so when offered the chance to edit books again, he jumped at it—first with Doubleday and then with Everyman’s Library.
Andrews also decided to create a one-man organization—with a large and impressive advisory board—called the Shakespeare Guild, whose mission is to spread the Bard’s gifts ever more widely.
These days, Andrews continues to edit the Everyman’s series, which he dubs “the first truly old version of Shakespeare in over 400 years” because it uses original spellings and syntax to preserve the author’s puns and double-entendres, many of which have been lost through endless editorial modernizations. (The editions are also a steal, at $3.95 a copy, if you can find them.)
Andrews is also writing what he admits is a long-delayed book on the role of Shakespeare in the Lincoln assassination. Andrews came up with the notion when he stumbled upon a copy of a program for Julius Caesar whose cast included three Booth brothers, one of whom was future assassin John Wilkes. “I find it very interesting to imagine what must have been going through his mind when he was waiting to go on,” Andrews says. “In the play, the conspirators bathe in Caesar’s blood, and five months later he acted it out as a political act, an act of war, committed 12-and-a-half feet above a real stage.”
The murder of Lincoln, of course, took place in Washington, which has been Andrews’ own home for a quarter-century. With all of its political romance, petty perfidies, and official guile, he believes it’s as appopriate a location as any for a Shakespeare scholar.
“There are always things in any Shakespeare play that echo contemporary events,” he says. “Washington seems to be the perfect place, partly because we’re accustomed to this city being a stage where great issues are debated, which is something characteristic of most Shakespearean plays. As Hamlet says, drama is an attempt to hold a mirror to nature. Here, we hold Shakespeare as a mirror to human nature as we see it displayed in Washington. It can often be a very good reflector.” —Louis Jacobson