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“The Johnny Appleseed of Shakespeare”

Chris Rohmann recalls the life of theatrical innovator Arthur Lithgow

Arthur Lithgow was a consummate man of the theater—actor, director, playwright, critic and scholar. He founded several regional theaters and pioneered the modern American style of acting Shakespeare. When he died last month at age 88, he was widely mourned in the theatrical community. I remember him as a charismatic presence, a formative influence, and a friend.

It was my father who first showed me the magic of theater. I was four years old and he was playing a clownish stagehand in a community theater production of “The Mikado”—a mute, comic role that wasn’t in the script but had been created especially for him. But it was Arthur who first mesmerized me with Shakespeare.

I was 12 years old and playing Falstaff’s page in “The Merry Wives of Windsor”&mdash a mute, comic role that wasn’t in the script but that Arthur had created especially for me. He was founder and director of the Antioch Shakespeare Festival, an outdoor summer theater known as Shakespeare Under The Stars, in my hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio. For me it was like being at the circus, only better—it was like being in the circus. I played most of the parts for children and hung out with the actors and technicians, utterly stagestruck.

In addition to directing at least half the shows, Arthur also performed in a lot of them, sometimes as a sudden replacement for an injured or sick actor. He knew the work so intimately that he could step into any part and solve the crisis. Just as Will Shakespeare was a working actor who also happened to be a dramatic genius, Arthur Lithgow was a Shakespearean scholar who was first and foremost a man of the theater, with a well-tuned sense of what actors and audiences need.

I was one of the first, but far from the last of the thousands of youngsters who picked up a lifelong love of Shakespeare from Arthur’s exciting, accessible productions. The actor John Lithgow has called his father “The Johnny Appleseed of Shakespeare.” In a long, peripatetic career, Arthur Lithgow sowed and nurtured a love of the Bard wherever he went. He was a classically trained actor who rejected the flowery style of delivering Shakespearean verse in favor of the direct, energetic approach that has become the hallmark of Shakespeare on American stages.

After six seasons at Antioch, during which he produced the entire Shakespearean canon, Arthur moved on, first to northern Ohio, where he founded the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, then to Princeton University’s McCarter Theater, where he established its educational program for schoolchildren, then guided the company in its formative years as its artistic director.

During much of his career he was a bit of a nomad, creating a theater program here, founding a community arts center there, liberally planting seeds but never really putting down roots himself. I lost touch with the Lithgows during the ’70s and ’80s. Then, as luck and the cycles of life would have it, I ran into Arthur and his wife Sarah—where else?—at a Shakespeare production. They had retired to Amherst, and for the last years of Arthur’s life we were neighbors again, as we had been for the first years of my life.

In “The Tempest,” Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage, Prospero says, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Arthur Lithgow’s life was hardly little. In his widely influential career he created the stuff that dreams are made on. He reinvented classic English drama for the brave New World and made Shakespeare a magical experience for generations of kids and adults. Finally, last month, this American Prospero put down his staff, closed his book, and slept.

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