Richard Bausch’s thirteenth novel, Playhouse, takes place in Tennessee as the Globe Shakespeare Theater of Memphis undergoes a major building renovation while the theater folk get ready for their fall season. Bausch’s characters face more professional and personal problems than you can shake a playbill at, but the theater staff and the cast deal with adversity with varying degrees of success. The novel includes so many people that they’re sometimes difficult to keep track of, but Bausch reminds you who’s who with a “Cast of Characters” that includes “three main characters,” more than twenty “people around them,” and ten company actors that I’ll call extras. The main characters are Thaddeus Deerforth, Claudette Bradley, and Malcolm Ruark. But those “people around them” get swept up in their own storms, too, and it’s one of those people who provides the novel’s biggest plot twist.
As you might guess, a novel about a theater called “The Globe” will likely include Shakespearean-like knaves, fools, villains, and flawed heroes. Playhouse includes them, but there’s no play within a play here. Divided into six parts, the traditional third-person story is told from the points of view of Thaddeus, Malcolm, and Claudette. There are few, if any, post-postmodern experimental shenanigans here. Instead, Bausch, that Old Lion of Literature, who’s won many awards for his long and short fiction, is a consummate realist as a storyteller, and, as I’ve said in the past: No one is better at realistic storytelling than Bausch. He’s written twelve novels, including Before, During, After (2014) and Peace (2008), which was made into the movie Recon (2019). Bausch’s other long and short fiction has been rendered into films: Endangered Species (2017), Wedlock (2013), Two Altercations (2002), The Man Who Knew Belle Starr (2001), and The Last Good Time (1994). His stories have been included in various anthologies like The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Pushcart Prize Stories; and collected in nine of his own books so far, the last two, Living in the Weather of the World (2017) and Something is Out There (2010), which will soon be joined by the collection, The Fate of Others. Bausch, a Southerner, born in Georgia, has taught all over the country including Beloit College, George Mason, and the University of Iowa. Around a decade ago, he lived and taught in Memphis, the locale of Playhouse. “The Memphis you find here is almost wholly of my imagination,” Bausch writes in the novel’s acknowledgments. “I moved some things around in service of the story.” But lately, Bausch has been living in California and has been teaching writing at Chapman University in Orange for quite a few years now.
Back in the fictional Memphis, the renovations to the Globe will be going on all summer. The theater’s billionaire benefactors Salina Berrens and Miranda Bland, known as the “Cosmetics Tycoons,” are paying for the renovations and they provide for most of the theater’s support. Salina and her life partner Miranda founded Berrens & Bland Cosmetics, Inc. But now, it’s the first of June. The staff and the actors scramble to get ready for the new fall lineup headlined by King Lear, which will be followed by Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, and a Christmas choral pageant. Personal problems and personnel changes to the theater company accompany the physical renovations.
And the theater manager, Thaddeus Deerforth, is worried. If the theater’s problems weren’t enough for Thaddeus to deal with, Bausch besets Thaddeus and Gina’s marriage with trouble. To make us feel as worried as Thaddeus is, Bausch counts down the days to opening night. On June 1, there are sixty-four days to go, and, as the story progresses so does the calendar countdown.
The company’s artistic director is on a one-year leave in Australia and the theater board has replaced him with Reuben Frye, chairman of the drama department at Holliwell Academy in Boston. The board chairman’s wife, Jocelyn Grausbeck, knew Frye ever since he was her student at Harvard. Jocelyn says Frye, who has directed on and off Broadway, is “preternaturally gifted.” Frye has brought his assistant and former student Kelly Gordon with him. She’s supposed to direct Three Tall Women. Frye has also made casting decisions without talking with the local Creative Committee: the Memphis-based actors and directors hadn’t even been consulted and they’re upset. He has some “unusual plans” for presenting his “Lear,” too. Frye’s Cordelia will be “someone with particular qualities” which, for quite a while, he keeps quiet about. But he does reveal he will look for his Cordelia outside the company. That doesn’t sit well with Maude Gainly, 38, (one of the aforementioned extras) the longest-standing company member. Frye told her she was too heavy and too old to play Cordelia. What’s more, Frye has already decided on and landed his Lear, another outsider. But since that outside actor is William Mundy, star of a Netflix hit show, the Creative Committee is pleased with the decision, though not Terence Gleason (another extra), who’s not only been overlooked for the role of Lear, but overlooked for any role.
It’s Claudette who is the company’s best actor. She played Lady Macbeth five years ago and she admits she’s a little too old to play Cordelia. Frye considers her for Goneril or Regan and he suggests she prepare for both parts. Claudette also does commercials and works at a gallery, which keeps her busy. But most of her problems are personal, not professional. She visits her father, Ellis, as often as she can. He’s had a stroke and for a while he is in the nursery ward of the hospital. He suffers from memory loss and is on an antianxiety drug. To add to her personal woes—Claudette’s rogue of an ex-husband, Geoffrey Chessman, has also shown up from Los Angeles. Claudette would prefer to avoid him, but that proves impossible. Geoffrey proves to be a plague on Claudette, the theater, and its company.
Then there’s Malcolm Ruark, an outsider of sorts. A former TV anchor and local celebrity, Ruark might help attract audiences. So, Frye wants him in the play, and since he has been with the company previously, the theater board has asked him to re-join. Whether the addition to the company is wise is another story, since Ruark is rebounding from a fairly recent scandal involving a DUI and his teenaged niece Mona Greer. Like Jocelyn and Gina, you’ll “wonder what the circumstances really were with the niece and drinking.” The scandal and its gossip intensify as the story progresses.
It’s not until we’re about a third of the way through the novel that Bausch reveals Frye’s selection of the actress to play Cordelia, who Frye calls “the real crux of the play.” That’s when Frye also explains his unusual plans for the play. I won’t tell you who Frye selected or what his specific plans are, but Frye says, “I plan for this production to symbolize the suffering of women, and their fate all over the world, as it’s been since time immemorial, in the inevitable and perpetual scheme of things.” (p.132) I’ve only alluded to a few of the subplots in this wonderfully engaging blend of tragedy and comedy. With all the drama of the personal plights of the characters and the suspense of the countdown to the play’s opening night, it’s tough to put this novel down.