Austin Playhouse’s “The Book of Will”: The Men Who Saved Shakespeare

by Lisa Davis on June 20, 2019 in Entertainment, Theatre, Austin,
Cover Book of Will Cast e1560979358482

It’s hard to imagine a world without the renowned plays, the illustrious sayings or the eloquent quotes of William Shakespeare but, at one time, this unfathomable possibility was headed towards reality had it not been for the unwavering determination and loyalty of two men.

Written by Lauren Gunderson, and playing at the intimate Austin Playhouse through June 30, “The Book of Will” tells the true story of two aging actors, Henry Condell (played by J. Ben Wolfe) and John Heminges (played by Huck Huckaby), from the King’s Men acting company, and their attempt to preserve the literary works of the most famous and beloved playwright in history, William Shakespeare.

The Book of Will
(Left to right Toby Minor, Huck Huckaby and J. Ben Wolfe) Guided by a sense of genuine loyalty, admiration, and what really matters in life, these determined men in “The Book of Will” will beg, borrow, and steal to make sure Shakespeare’s legacy survives. Photo courtesy Austin Playhouse

Known for writing his plays in pieces, never putting all the parts together until the actors were on stage, Shakespeare was always in fear of someone stealing his literary work—and apparently rightfully so.

Three years after Shakespeare’s death in 1616, his plays became the subject of pirated, ill-performed and inaccurate versions of their former selves, which began to whittle away at the Bard of Avon’s legacy.

When a sub-par Hamlet rip-off hits a stage near the Globe Theatre, Condell and Heminges decide to put an end to the plagiarism and save Shakespeare’s work. They set out to make a collection (known as “First Folio”) of his greatest plays. The pair start compiling bits and pieces from what remains after a fire destroyed almost all of the original paper collection. From memory, Condell and Heminges recite the missing parts of the plays and recapture the words that had helped shape their lives.

The Book of Will
(Left to right Boni Hester, Huck Huckaby and Stephen Mercantel) A small group of devoted friends of William Shakespeare would make what would turn out to be some of the most crucial cultural actions in the history of Western literature. Photo courtesy Austin Playhouse

As J. Ben Wolfe and Huck Huckaby so ably demonstrate in this current Austin Playhouse production, the world owes a collective debt of gratitude to Henry Condell and John Heminges, as well as their family, friends, printers, collaborators, ex-lovers, and occasional rivals, for their fervent devotion to Shakespeare. They saved the works of the greatest playwright the world has ever seen and prevented literary masterpieces from falling through the cracks of history.  

Without William Shakespeare, the world would be far less eloquent, less colorful and certainly less poetic. Remarkably, 235 of the approximately 750 First Folios originally printed survive today. And, three of the existing copies are located at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

(Left to right: Joey Banks, Huck Huckaby, playing John Heminges, and J. Ben Wolfe playing Henry Condell.) The “Book of Will” tells the story of two of the so-called King’s Men, who decided to publish, in a single, bound volume, all of the plays of their late friend, William Shakespeare. Photo courtesy Austin Playhouse

How magnificent was Shakespeare, not only as a writer, but a person to inspire such kindness and devotion that is rarely seen? Austin Playhouse’s production of “The Book of Will” is a funny, charming play that celebrates friendship, sprinkled with excerpts of some of William Shakespeare’s most beloved writing, and the battle fought to save a legacy.

“The Book of Will” runs now through June 30 and will conclude Austin Playhouse’s 19th season.

Cover: (Left to right) Toby Minor, J. Ben Wolfe, Boni Hester, Huck Huckaby, Cyndi Williams and Marie Fahlgren.
Photo courtesy Austin Playhouse

Austinite Lisa Davis is the Editorial Assistant for Texas Lifestyle Magazine and honors graduate from Concordia University Texas with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication and Public Relations.