Shakespeare in Chalmette

Sure, those Elizabethans loved their drink, but by my troth, none ever acted so nobly as the bourbon-inspired actors of mid-century New Orleans.

I have many memories of get-togethers among my father and uncles that would be perfect for one of those “Mommy Dearest” or “Angela’s Ashes” type of memoirs. The mix of unrealized ambition and sour mash produced shouting, threats, regrets and unrecorded apologies that a detached young lad could later have turned into serious coin. Yet I’m happy enough just to have forgotten all but the broadest details of family dysfunction, so most memories remain merely as a kind of permanent stain on my psyche.

But there was one Jack Daniel’s-soaked Sunday afternoon that turned out all right: the afternoon the works of William Shakespeare lifted the level of discourse to heights never before achieved in that house—and never to have been achieved again.

The living room was filled with men and highball glasses. Because the television was off, the party had reached a point where, without some diversion, the ghosts and demons that populate my family were ready to start handing out insults and household objects to hurl at each other. Instead, one of my uncles reached for a volume of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.”

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How the hell did that get in the house? For all the years I can remember, “The Last Days of Pompeii” sat on my father’s night table with a bookmark at page five. Except for my mother’s later addiction to romance novels, most of the reading material in our home consisted of the Daily Racing Form and a pullout section of the weekly television guide.

All of a sudden, The Bard’s oeuvre is passed around like a tray of pigs in a blanket, and my uncles, neighbors and father are delivering soliloquies, sonnets and alarums, the magnificence of which no doubt escaped the troupe gathered that afternoon. The Queen’s Men they were not, but they were funny.

Funny in a way I hadn’t much experienced among the men of the neighborhood. Each member of the troupe would grab the tome enthusiastically, attempt a pose befitting the passage—eyes lifted, chin jutting—then belt blank verse in overblown tones. Each actor would get so tongue tied, the group would laugh uproariously at the incomprehensibility of it all until another took the book and tried to recover the gravity of the moment, with equally poor results.

The odd thing about that afternoon is I’m the only one who remembers it. My mother doesn’t because whenever the men folk gathered for drinking, she hid in the carport. My brothers think it was me doing the drinking and reading and imagining the rest. As for the members of Chalmette’s ad hoc Globe Theatre, their recollections of that afternoon are so vague as to make it improbable in their own minds as well.

So maybe that day really didn’t happen as I recall it. But that doesn’t matter. Shakespeare expressed it best (though not by anyone gathered in that living room that afternoon):

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here,
While these visions did appear;
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream…

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Reid Champagne uses the winter of his discontent to write bawdy sonnets and self-serving soliloquies from his home in Newark-Upon-White Clay.

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