I first visited Cedar City in 2009. My daughter’s mother was working in the Utah Shakespeare Festival costume shop that summer, and I flew out from Nashville to see for the first time what the West was like (“Wow, that’s a lot of rocks … is everyone here pregnant?”) and to help her drive back to the cultural and geographic lushness of the Bible Belt.
I was treated to several Utah Shakespeare Festival productions, from “The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged)” to “The Woman in Black.” In retrospect, I am relieved to know that these plays were the works of potentially reasonably sober men rather than some doily-clad pothead.
Compare the Utah Shakespeare Festival to the Lebowski Fest in Louisville. There, the tradition is not only to immerse oneself in the Coen Brothers’ cult film but to emulate The Dude in all his Dionysian splendor, with participants sporting bathrobes and beards and partaking in White Russians and Mary Jane. Those dudes abide.
Clearly, southern Utahns differ from Louisvillians in almost every way, appreciating the Bard of Avon at arm’s length rather than exchanging tokes during Art Walk on the way to the Adams Shakespearean Theatre, with nary a galligaskin to be seen on Center Street.
A recent paper published by the South African Journal of Science explains how gas chromatography—mass spectrometry was employed to determine that pipe stems and bowls loaned for analysis by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust contained the remnants of substances that would cause the most southerly sphincter of any good teetotaler to clench in holy terror. Four of them were found on our precious poet’s property. Oh, Billy! Say it ain’t so! Think of the children!
Among other substances, they found residue from coca leaves. When I say “coca leaves,” envision George W. Bush’s favorite pastime (besides painting puppies, of course), and I’m not talking about drinking hot chocolate. Of course, there was also tobacco residue. Nicotine is a narcotic, after all. That’s “bad,” right? But forsooth! Eight of these pipes contained cannabis residue! That’s right, reefer madness is an epidemic that spans both centuries and continents.
Of course, the irony here is that the Utah Shakespeare Festival—a local cash cow dedicated to preserving the works of Queen Elizabeth’s favorite joker, smoker, and midnight toker—thrives in the strongly prohibitionist social environment in Utah. For example, did you know that the state bird is the archaeopteryx? The state flower is the Sarlacc, and the state motto is “No, you can’t.” Before I realized that the old Mormon settlers were famous makers and lovers of wine, I thought that early Utah must have been kinda like a scary, bloody version of the Quaker utopia of early Pennsylvania. (T’wasn’t.)
Anyway, Shakespeare’s apparent habit isn’t much of a shock, really. Consider Thomas De Quincey’s “Confessions of an Opium-Eater,” or Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Yeeeah duuude, flashing eyes and floating hair! Far out, man! Sure, we’ve fast-forwarded to Romantic Era, wherein drug use was a little more out in the open. But do you know what those dudes were up to? Laudanum, have mercy!
A tincture of opium is called laudanum. Containing both morphine and codeine, this full-spectrum narcotic nectar is basically a party in a bottle. Once, as a teenager, I watched a codeine-intoxicated acquaintance carry on a full conversation with his shadow at a coffee house. So that pretty well explains “Kubla Khan.” A similar concoction, absinthe, also in favor by the Romantics but more fashionable in France, is still available commercially today. In fact, laudanum can still technically be prescribed by a doctor today—although there are less dangerous ways to treat pain or tapeworms. (I don’t know if they’re as exciting, though.)
So what’s smoking a J compared to drinking that electric kool-aid? Not that smoking marijuana, drinking liquid nightmares, or using other things to adjust one’s outlook makes one a bad person. Then again, nor is the contrary true. I mean, consider historic teetotalers like Hitler, Marie Antoinette, John Rockefeller, and Ted Nugent—all completely terrifying. Especially Ted Nugent! I’d share the room with the blazed bard over a sober Ted Nugent any day.
I suppose I should stop to clarify that I myself am a stodgy straight-edger myself. But if I were to eschew every great work of art on the grounds of some mistaken moralism, everything from Mozart to Miles Davis to Mr. Rogers would be off limits. No Huxley, no Hemingway, and definitely no Hendrix!
With marijuana legalization peeking over the rocky horizon, perhaps the point will soon be moot, although Puritanical values often die hard regardless of legislation. But surely we can all still read “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner” to our kids without expecting to find them strung out in the gutter the next day. Ultimately, does it discredit William Shakespeare’s oeuvre if he happened to smoke a lot of weed while writing his celebrated works? Nah. But is it pretty funny to know that the man who is all but worshiped here in the kingdom of Zion was himself a space cowboy? Heck yeah.
Irony is a dish best served rolled.
At any rate, Shakespeare’s private antics mean little to me. Personally, I prefer Christopher Marlowe. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!