Finding Shakespeare

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Finding Shakespeare

A dramatic quest to stage the first-ever professional “original pronunciation” production of Shakespeare’s work in New York City.

By Daniel Fromson

The Atavist Magazine, No. 28


Daniel Fromson is a copy editor for the website of The New Yorker. His writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, New York, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Washington Monthly.

Editor: Charles Homans
Producers: Olivia Koski, Gray Beltran
Research and Production: Vonecia Carswell, Lila Selim, Chris Osborn
Cover Illustration: Andrew Bannecker
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Videos: Courtesy Hamilton Meadows, Courtesy Diana Swinburne
Photos: Courtesy Hamilton Meadows
Audio: Courtesy David Crystal, Ben Crystal and YouTube
Audiobook Music: “Rest Awhile You Cruel Cares” by John Dowland, Performed by Jon Sayles


Published in August 2013. Design updated in 2021.

“It is not to yesterday that we would take you now, but to a day before innumerable yesterdays, across the dead sea of Time to a haven mutable yet immortal. For the Elizabethan era is essentially of the quick, although its dead have lain entombed for centuries.”

—William Farquhar Payson, John Vytal: A Tale of the Lost Colony (1901)

One

On Easter Sunday 2011, a 39-foot sailboat motored into the Chesapeake Bay. “Tangier Island!” its captain cried. “Dead ahead, about five miles off of the starboard beam.” He said these words even though he was alone, bouncing through a choppy sea toward a place where he knew no one. He recorded himself with a handheld camera, as if starring in an adventure film of his own creation.

The sailor’s voyage had begun a day earlier, on April 23—the day, many believe, that William Shakespeare was born, in 1564. He called his ship the Tempest, a reference to both Shakespeare’s play and the storm that had wrecked the boat years before he bought and rebuilt it. Sailing without radar or other instruments, he had dropped anchor that evening and spent the night in the cabin, a warren of unfinished wood, dangling wires, and peeling metal foil suffused with a distinctly lived-in shabbiness. Now, however, he stood on deck in the afternoon sun, glided into a marina, and tied up at a berth amid stacks of crab traps and thickets of salt-marsh cordgrass, silencing an engine that had no reverse.

Shaped like an apple turnover, Tangier Island—officially Tangier, Virginia, as its inhabited portions are known—measures three miles by one mile, sits just a few feet above sea level, and is so grooved with waterways and pounded by waves that several acres, every year, simply vanish into the bay. The place lends itself to hyperbole: Writers have called it “an island out of time” and “the quaintest and most isolated community in the United States.” Its 500 or so residents, descended from Englishmen who arrived in the late 1700s, drive golf carts instead of cars, passing clapboard houses and stone coffins that protrude above the saturated ground. “Interesting to notice how many people here don’t put up curtains at night, living with no fear,” the sailor wrote in his journal. “Never experienced that before”—and he was nothing if not experienced in the world’s diverse living arrangements, from a former embassy in Dubai to the space under an evergreen in Central Park.

For a few days, the sailor prowled the island with his video camera. He looked younger than his 65 years, with blue eyes that flickered between glowing and dim, framed by delicate, childlike lashes. On either side of a strawberry-shaped nose, his ears jutted crookedly from a bald skull. He often moved, despite his gut, with vigor, his face blossoming into extravagant smiles and frowns, but on Tangier Island he seemed lost. That, at least, is what Debra Sorenson—an artist who ran the Tangier History Museum and was a rare nonnative citizen of the island—thought when she spotted him near the local grocery store. His name, he told her, was Hamilton Meadows.

Meadows said he was a Shakespearean actor and filmmaker from New York City, although his acting résumés had typically listed a number of additional “special skills”: “offshore sailor, scuba diver/underwater cameraman, commercial fisherman, lumberjack, US Army ranger Viet Nam, expert marksman, stonemason, carpenter, undertaker’s assistant, wedding photographer, home birth assistant.” For several years, he told Sorenson, he had longed to see Shakespeare’s plays as they were performed centuries ago in Elizabethan England—and after he’d started repairing the Tempest in a Virginia shipyard, in 2007, he had learned that Tangier Island’s fishermen still spoke with the Elizabethan accent of their ancestors. Meadows hoped to convince some of them to recite Romeo and Juliet and to let him film them doing so. He would then return to New York and replicate their readings in an Off-Broadway production of the play, in which actors would speak Shakespeare’s words as they originally sounded.

Sorenson wondered how this plan could possibly succeed. Since moving to the island the previous August, she had come to know Tangier as a place where people cheerfully sold day-trippers ice cream cones but, even as they smiled, eyed outsiders with clannish distrust. Nearly half of them belonged to just three families—the Crocketts, the Pruitts, and the Parkses—and they went by nicknames that revealed their insularity. These included Ooker (“Tried to mock a rooster when he was a little kid,” in the words of one local), Nickel (“He’d always go up to his uncle and ask him for a nickel”), and Number Nine (“He was some girl’s ninth—ninth sexual encounter”). Sorenson figured that Meadows would have to stick around for at least a few months to pull off what he intended to accomplish.

Still, if Elizabethan English was what he was after, the island was about as good a destination as any in the United States. Tangier, like Maryland’s Smith Island and North Carolina’s Ocracoke Island, is home to an accent that sounds like modern speech from southwestern England. (In 1995, a linguist reported having played samples of the “Ocracoke brogue” to a group of 15 Britons, who unanimously identified it as a British dialect.) On Tangier, the word “time,” for example, is pronounced closer to “toime” or “tuh-eem.” A rich indigenous vocabulary accompanies the accent, such that a crab—depending on its appearance, age, and sex—might be called a sook, softy, snowbelly, doorknob, lemon, punk, shiteater, jimmy, dick, or jimmy-dick. Another local linguistic phenomenon is called talking backwards: “She’s ugly” is often a compliment, and “Yeah, I’m going,” uttered in a slightly high pitch and with subtle facial expressions, can mean “I have no interest in going.”

It was less than surprising, then, that during Meadows’s first few days of introducing himself around town, several islanders had told him they would read Romeo and Juliet—but almost none of them showed up at the meetings they agreed to. When he and Sorenson parted ways after their conversation, he found himself alone yet again. On April 28, Meadows retreated to an empty beach, walking its length in the howling wind and letting his camera linger on a fish skeleton, a swarm of ladybugs, and himself. “Fears + self-doubts, old history flooded in,” he wrote in his journal. “So much old pain in my soul and regrets.”

Meadows wouldn’t seriously attempt to get anyone else to read Shakespeare for another several days. In the meantime, he made friends. He went “toading” with 14-year-old Thomas Eskridge, filling a basket with the puffer fish that the islanders call toads. He ate dinner with a housewife named Claudia Pruitt. Sorenson let Meadows use her laundry facilities and her Internet connection at the history museum; he, in return, offered to help her build a porch onto a shed that she was converting into a small lending library. Meadows made the museum his base for the next phase of his project: two days of auditions for his readings of Romeo and Juliet, which he advertised by blanketing the island with hot pink fliers. “ALL those chosen will be paid $20 at reading,” they promised. But the only people who showed up were a handful of kids, whose accents were much fainter than those of their parents. Meadows began spiraling into despair.

A storm battered the Tempest after the failed auditions, and damp air whistled through the cabin as Meadows tried to sleep. In the morning, he placed his camp stove on the floor and started burning the last of his propane, squatting over the flames to keep warm. He wanted to escape from what now struck him as an oppressive mound of sand. Later that day, at the grocery store, he saw one of his Romeo and Juliet fliers in the garbage. They couldn’t wait to tear it down, he thought. But when he returned to the Tempest, he vowed to try again. “I’m restored,” he wrote in his journal, “I can’t quit, it’s here, I must win these people over—and I will. I’ll build them this library porch behind the museam [sic], that will show them to believe in me.”

The next day, Meadows threw himself into the work, tearing down the shed’s old steps in a final effort to woo the locals. It was, he later wrote, a “magical day”: People started agreeing to read Romeo and Juliet. He filmed Claudia Pruitt performing the part of Juliet’s nurse. Several days later, he shot footage of Thomas Eskridge’s father, Tommy, and a schoolteacher, Duane Crockett, who read the parts of Friar Laurence and Prince Escalus. Erin Pruitt, a waitress, read Juliet. Then, on May 14, Meadows untied the Tempest and set sail, filming the island as it receded into the distance, leaving as suddenly as he’d arrived.

“The most interesting thing about Hamilton is the way he says goodbye,” one of Meadows’s few longtime friends, Topaz Adizes, says. “It’s like, ‘Alright, see you later,’ and he’ll just turn away and it’s over, a minute before people would say goodbye in a normal situation. I think he avoids the fear of saying goodbye.”

The people of Tangier still weren’t quite sure what to make of their unexpected visitor, who sent them two copies of William Shakespeare: The Complete Works as a thank-you gift and swore that someday, having put on his play, he would return to their island. But before he left, they had granted him an uncommon honor. In the land of Ooker, Nickel, and Number Nine, Meadows had acquired his own nickname. On Tangier Island, he would be known, henceforth, as Shakespeare.

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Meadows in costume as Vincentio in “The Taming of the Shrew”, 2010.

Two

I probably never would have crossed paths with Hamilton Meadows if I hadn’t shared, at least casually, his curiosity about a certain enigmatic community in the Chesapeake Bay. On Halloween 2011—when I was living in Washington, D.C., about 100 miles from Tangier Island, and had been reading about the place on and off for a year or so—I came across a story in the Salisbury, Maryland, Daily Times. A “New York City Shakespearean actor,” the article said, had spent three weeks on Tangier searching for its Elizabethan accent. “The actor’s dream,” it went on, “is to produce and stage Shakespeare’s plays ‘as faithfully as possible,’ using what theater insiders call ‘Original Pronunciation,’ abbreviated OP—referring to the way the Bard himself would have spoken the lines at the time he wrote them.”

Intrigued, I visited Meadows’s website and emailed him. I also began perusing the Internet for information about the Elizabethan speech he hoped to re-create. The English of the 1600s, I learned, was believed to have sounded entirely different from the wherefore-art-thou-Romeo “Shakespearean” accent adopted centuries later. There was also a small movement of scholars intent on reviving it—who indeed called the reconstructed language Original Pronunciation.

An hour into my research, Meadows replied to my email. We spoke on the phone that evening. “I used to be Ben Kingsley’s double,” he said by way of an introduction, breathlessly rattling off a few other biographical details before turning to the subject of Tangier Island. In the months since his visit, Meadows explained, he had reluctantly accepted that the islanders’ accent might not be truly Elizabethan. (He inserted an extra syllable into the word, pronouncing it “E-liz-uh-be-theean.”) But he had recently learned of the system known as OP, which really did replicate Shakespeare’s English as accurately as possible. “We’re going to do all 37 plays this way,” he said—Shakespeare’s entire canon. “Two a year. I’d like to do three, actually.” He intended to start with Twelfth Night; another director, he had discovered, had already done an OP Romeo and Juliet. “It’s going to definitely be Off-Broadway. Having said that, between now and when it goes up, we might move into a bigger theater.”

I asked Meadows how he planned to pay for the project. “The money so far has been funded by the government,” he said. When I asked if he had received a grant of some kind, he clarified: “I was in Vietnam, and I am 100 percent service-connected disabled, so I get checks every month from the VA. It’s almost $1,000 a week.”

Meadows spoke in an unbroken monologue, and soon I found myself listening as the arc of his life unfurled before me. After serving in Vietnam, he had studied film, he told me, moved to Iran, fled during its revolution, and partnered with a sheikh’s nephew to shoot commercials in Dubai. Then he filmed a TV program about Miami’s South Beach and became a film and TV actor in Hollywood. None of this really explained why Meadows wanted to do 37 Shakespeare plays in OP—although it indeed seemed possible that he was a veteran with some sort of disability. Whatever the case, I wanted to meet him.

We met a month later, at Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal. In his wool blazer, white shirt, and khakis, Meadows looked like a cross between a stockbroker and an elf. As we walked to a Starbucks, he radiated energy, and stories continued to pour out of him—including one about a motorcycle pilgrimage across Europe, which led to a stint in prison in rural Turkey, where, he later told me, the warden commanded him to dance, so he twirled like Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek. Meadows said that although he often crashed with a friend on the Upper West Side, his only permanent homes were the Tempest and a second boat, the Easy Wind. He had post-traumatic stress disorder. He’d grappled with alcoholism and depression. In recent years, before the government recognized his PTSD, he’d mainly worked not as an actor but as a handyman, operating a business named I Can Do That. He called his new Shakespeare venture I Can Do That Theatrical Productions. “In a way, my whole life, you might say, has been to get me to this point,” he told me.

Only then did I think to ask Meadows about his past directing experiences. “Well, I have only directed one play,” he said. A photographer he knew had written it, and Meadows had mounted it in a 35-seat black-box theater. Still, he insisted, “I’m a very good director. I’ve directed a lot of film. I have no hesitation whatsoever about my ability to direct a Shakespearean play.” He was so confident, he pointed out, that he planned on investing his entire savings and all of his disability and social-security money—more than $10,000, he said—in what he was calling Twelfth Night OP. “Ticket sales should be robust,” he said. “Over the years we’ll build mailing lists, the tours will definitely make money, and I think it’ll be a great way to sail off into the sunset.”

I would go on to spend weeks with Hamilton Meadows, then months. At first, what drew me toward him was the chance, however small, that he might really revive Shakespeare’s accent. But what pulled me closer was a deepening sense of the project’s meaning to Meadows—of its place in what he imagined as a theatrical, even Shakespearean life story. I sometimes wondered whether he was telling the truth—about the Turkish prison, about his exploits in Vietnam, Dubai, and Hollywood. But his accounts were detailed and consistent. He also gave me access to his email history and years’ worth of journals, and I eventually accompanied Meadows to Virginia, where he cut the lock on a cluttered self-storage unit and ushered me inside. I also drove with him from New York to Georgia, where a relative handed over an enormous trunk. The ad hoc archives yielded several large boxes’ worth of materials: photographs, letters from Iran, military and medical records, VHS tapes of South Beach celebrities and an old Emirati bottled-water commercial, even scraps of paper on which he’d scrawled his dreams and nightmares. Studying it all, and speaking at length with Meadows and people who knew him—even, at his recommendation, his psychotherapist—I concluded that he rarely, if ever, lied.

Over time, I also started to perceive the darkness that Meadows’s Shakespeare project hid—or, alternately, the void that it might fill. His hoarded relics and moldering papers, with their microbial patinas of grays, greens, and pinks, suggested the ragged contours of a life of trauma. There was an imagined dialogue he had written between a boy and the parents who betrayed him; a photograph of a beautiful woman who vanished; a painting of dozens of stick figures falling into what looked like flames; doctor’s notes containing such phrases as “Fears he might be killed” and “Relives it over & over.” Especially notable was a loosely autobiographical screenplay about “a heavy drinker and a troubled soul” who sails into a storm in a boat named Destiny. Meadows scrawled a working title on a page of notes: “Living on the edge of the sea of storms.” “This is his last shot,” he wrote in a synopsis, “and he knows it.”

It was difficult not to see the screenplay’s parallels with Meadows’s foray into Original Pronunciation. He referred to Twelfth Night OP as the start of his “last journey,” and he spoke of how he was guided by fate. “He feels he lives in a mythic world,” Meadows’s therapist, a Jungian analyst named Gary Brown, told me. For reasons it took me months to begin to understand, Meadows had come to view an obscure linguistic quest, overlooked or dismissed by most theater professionals, as the thing that would define his whole life—and as a chance to achieve a sort of immortality, even if it meant bankrupting himself. “After I’m gone,” he told me the first time we met, “other people can carry on these things. Then it becomes another way to do Shakespeare. It never dies.”

Three

The language of Queen Elizabeth I’s England, over which she presided from 1558 to 1603, is often described as the most beautiful English ever spoken. It is an idealized tongue, synonymous with a golden age that followed the barbarism of the Middle Ages, preceded the chaos of the English Civil Wars, and shaped our understanding of what came after. As the historian Jack Lynch details in The Age of Elizabeth in the Age of Johnson, this idealization caught on during the 1700s, when writers and other thinkers were stricken with unprecedented self-consciousness about their native tongue. The language, Jonathan Swift wrote in 1712, had fallen victim to such evils as “Enthusiastick Jargon” and “Licentiousness”; Samuel Johnson denounced its “Gallick structure and phraseology.” The British sought pure linguistic ancestors to emulate and found them in the Elizabethans—especially Shakespeare. “In our Halls is hung / Armoury of the invincible knights of old,” William Wordsworth wrote. “We must be free or die, who speak the tongue / That Shakespeare spake.”

A fixation on Shakespeare’s English also emerged, later but no less fervently, in the United States. As interest in his plays surged throughout the 1800s, “American writers emphasized the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ roots of American culture and celebrated ‘our Shakespeare’ as a figurehead behind which a nation made increasingly diverse by immigration could unite,” the scholar Helen Hackett has written. “In particular, American English was claimed to be purer and closer to the English of Shakespeare’s time than was the language spoken in Victorian Britain.”

The first major inquiry into how Shakespeare spoke his own words, according to the journal New Shakespeareana, was thus undertaken not by a Brit but by a lifelong New Yorker, a prominent cultural critic named Richard Grant White. White described himself as the leader of “a sort of linguistic detective police,” and in 1865 he published an “Examination of the Elizabethan Pronunciation with Especial Reference to Shakespeare,” an appendix to his own edition of the plays. Soon a whole fraternity of sleuths had joined him. Some scholars tried to go beyond analyzing the DNA of Elizabethan English—or Early Modern English, as they began calling it—and attempted to clone the dinosaur, Jurassic Park style. The phonetician Daniel Jones presented “Scenes from Shakespeare in the Original Pronunciation” at University College London in 1909. The director John Barton taught students Elizabethan pronunciation for a drama-club production of Julius Caesar at the University of Cambridge in 1952.

Still, professional directors and producers didn’t embrace what became known as Original Pronunciation, even as they sometimes resurrected other aspects of historical performances. Perhaps they considered it an archaic curiosity—but it is more likely that they didn’t know of it at all, or feared, as London’s reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre did, that it would sound so primitive that people wouldn’t understand it.

But that all changed in late 2003, when a linguist named David Crystal offered to help the Globe put on three OP performances of Romeo and Juliet. A white-bearded Irishman who retired from the University of Reading in 1985 to lead a life of independent scholarship, Crystal, the preeminent detective of the modern OP community, is the author of more than 100 books—enough, and in enough editions, that even he has lost track of exactly how many—including The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. His investigation for Shakespeare’s Globe, like those of the trailblazing researchers whose work he consulted, relied on three main forms of evidence.

The first was spelling. During the Elizabethan era, words had not yet ossified into their modern versions, so Crystal was able to deduce pronunciations by comparing early spellings to modern ones. In Shakespeare’s First Folio, for example, “poppering pear”—a pear from the Belgian town of Poperinge, and, figuratively, a penis—is written “Poprin Peare.” So poppering must have had only two syllables (“pop-rin”), and speakers wouldn’t have pronounced the g. Examining many words, Crystal concluded that both of these traits—the compression of multisyllable words and the dropping of the g from -ing endings—were common in OP.

The second source of evidence was detailed accounts of pronunciation written by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, such as his fellow playwright and poet Ben Jonson. The letter r, Crystal believed, was pronounced after vowels, in part because Jonson was one of several writers who had commented on how people had used the growl-like “dog’s letter.”

The final clues were sound patterns, particularly rhythms and rhymes. Crystal used lines from Shakespeare’s plays to determine which of a given word’s syllables would have been stressed in everyday speech. Other findings came from rhymes that don’t quite work in modern English, such as a couplet from Romeo and Juliet that rhymes the words “prove” and “love”—the assumption being that Shakespeare never would have let such a clunker infiltrate his verse. Had “prove” sounded like “love,” or had “love” sounded like “prove”? Or had their modern sounds both diverged from a common ancestor?

In such scenarios, Crystal would use spellings and other instances of the words to make educated guesses. He knew not only that it was impossible to re-create some sounds with precision, but also that the Elizabethans, like their descendants, didn’t all speak alike. A regional accent, he believed, would have always colored the era’s underlying pronunciation system. Nonetheless, by the time Crystal met the Globe’s associate director, Tim Carroll, in February 2004, he had arrived at what he considered a close approximation of true Original Pronunciation.

Carroll, who was overseeing the Romeo and Juliet production, seemed anxious; despite his enthusiasm for Elizabethan costumes, music, and choreography, he had spent years avoiding what he later called “the final frontier.” Crystal was nervous, too. He had no idea how Carroll would react to sounds that deviated from Received Pronunciation, the elegant accent that most people hear in their heads when they imagine Shakespeare’s voice. RP, as it is known—the accent of the Queen, Shakespeare in Love, and legions of documentary narrators—is in fact a product of the 18th and 19th centuries, when obsessions with class, manners, and proper English swept Britain, privileging the speech of polite Londoners above provincial dialects. Adopted at public schools such as Eton, and of course at Oxford and Cambridge, RP became the accent of the British Empire, the BBC, and Shakespearean theater. It cemented Shakespeare’s air of authority—but it is not how Shakespeare spoke.

Crystal proceeded to read Carroll the prologue of Romeo and Juliet in OP. It sounded decidedly rustic. As the actors soon discovered during rehearsals, the pronunciation of r after vowels reminded listeners of Ireland or the southwestern English provinces known as the West Country. Other features of OP reinforced the aesthetic, such as the dropped g’s, dropped h’s at the beginning of words, and a prominent modification of certain vowel sounds that made lie, now, and joy sound closer to “luh-ee,” “nuh-oo,” and “juh-ee.” There was also the general style of speech: casual and fast, with actors breezing through short words and skipping consonants and vowels. Friends would be “friens”; natural would be “nat’ral.” “A courtly bearing starts to feel strange,” one actor told Crystal in an email. “RP’s stiff upper lip dissolves away.”

After weeks of intensive preparations—which relied on Crystal’s detailed phonetic transcriptions of the play and a set of audio recordings—the actors seemed to agree that OP was transformative. The actress playing Juliet said it made her bolder; another said it “brought vitality and removed pomposity”; another thought it rendered the language “more accessible and less precious.” “In RP this always feels like poetry,” the actor playing Mercutio said. “In OP, suddenly it felt real.”

According to Crystal, the distinction wasn’t lost on members of the audience, who said OP made the actors easier to identify with. During an intermission, Crystal asked a group of teenagers what they thought. “Well,” a 15-year-old said, in a Cockney accent, “they’re talking like us.” This conclusion, Crystal says, isn’t limited to speakers of regional British English: Since merchants and colonists spread the accent around the world, it became the spring from which all Anglophone accents flowed, such that people from America to Australia, hearing it for the first time, perceive aspects of their own speech. Critics took notice, too. The New York Times’ John Rockwell, in 2004, called OP “revelatory.” John Lahr, of The New Yorker, who reviewed a follow-up OP test run the Globe put on in 2005, found that the sounds “give the audience a frisson of extra drama” (though he concluded that they did little to save an otherwise uninspired production).

The critics’ attention soon faded, however—as did the Globe’s after a new artistic director came on board in 2006. Although Crystal published a book about what he called “the Globe experiment,” its influence was mostly limited to a couple of peers who attempted their own OP productions. Then, in March 2011, Crystal received an email. The sender’s name was Hamilton Meadows.

The email consisted of just one sentence: “Shooting doc on Shakespeare accents, using Taming of the Shrew for production in NYC this year, love your views.” Crystal wrote a brief reply: “I have plenty of views, but am not sure from your message how you want to hear them.” Meadows did not respond until the following month, when he emailed Crystal a photo of what appeared to be a sailboat. “Headed to Tangier Island this week to document accents of locals,” he wrote. “Will send you footage when I return.” This time Crystal didn’t reply. Crystal later told me that he viewed Meadows with suspicion, and that, compared with everyone else who wants to do OP Shakespeare, “Hamilton comes from a very different sort of background.

“There are lots of Shakespeare enthusiasts,” he said, “who are simply nuts.”

Four

Shakespeare has always attracted misfits: the phrenologists who once hoped to disinter his skull; the Oxfordian and Baconian conspiracists who have doubted his existence; P. T. Barnum, who tried to buy his birthplace; and a loose cohort of amateurs who, for roughly as long as scholars like Crystal have pursued Shakespeare’s English, have claimed to have found it, alive and well, in the contemporary world. These adventurers and clergymen, journalists and genealogists, have historically latched onto an Edenic notion, believing that in some corner of civilization untarnished by modernity, people still speak like the Elizabethans. Exemplary of this group was a zoologist, dilettante, and science-fiction author named Alpheus Hyatt Verrill.

A Yale man in the mold of the explorer Hiram Bingham, Verrill spent much of the early 20th century traversing Central America as a collector for New York’s Museum of the American Indian. In his memoir Thirty Years in the Jungle, he described a 1920 visit to a remote part of Panama, where he was searching for a village of Indians, members of a tribe he called the Boorabees. After ascending a steep ridge, he wrote, he spotted four huts on the other side of a gully, which was bridged by a single tree trunk. As Verrill started crossing, the Indians—adorned with beads, teeth, and feathers—gathered outside their huts and stared at him. Then Verrill lost his balance. He flailed his arms and made a mad dash for the opposite bank, tripping and plowing into two Indians like a bowling ball. A third, meanwhile, shouted “the weirdest, most incongruous exclamation that ever issued from an aborigine’s lips”: “Gadzooks!”

Verrill had literally stumbled into “the language of our Elizabethan ancestors,” he later claimed. Among the isolated Boorabees, “the quaint old-fashioned English words and phrases of buccaneering days had been preserved,” alongside quaint English manners. The village’s chief asked Verrill to “bide” in his house, and Verrill “both ‘drained’ and ‘quaffed’ chicha and palm-wine” with his new friends. As a newspaper article later put it, “Though they never heard of Shakespeare, the Bourabbees of Panama speak an English that sounds as if they were characters right out of his plays.”

Verrill’s story clashes with the wisdom of modern linguistics, which holds that Shakespeare’s English cannot be any living person’s native tongue, if only because all spoken languages are always evolving. Even a colony of 17th-century actors, stranded on a faraway island during the reign of Elizabeth I, would speak differently hundreds of years later. Still, since the 1800s, people have reported hearing Elizabethan English, or at least an “Elizabethan accent,” not only in Panama but in Appalachia, Bermuda, Cornwall, Devonshire, Northern Ireland, the Ozarks, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Nova Scotia, North Carolina’s Roanoke Island, Newfoundland’s Fogo Island, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, the Pitcairn Islands of the South Pacific, and, of course, Tangier Island.

But Verrill’s version, more than most others, encapsulates the idea’s allure. In his essay “In the Appalachians They Speak Like Shakespeare,” the linguist Michael Montgomery argues that the notion that Shakespeare’s language lives on functions as “a myth of the noble savage”: it “satisfies our nostalgia for a simpler, purer past, which may never have existed but which we nevertheless long for because of the complexities and ambiguities of modern life.” Verrill wrote of how his Panamanian friends treated Elizabethan English as “a sort of fetish, a charm, a part of their religion even”; he might as well have been talking about his own people. The words link us to an imagined age of bygone freedom—of pirates, pioneers, poets—whether the alleged speakers are Boorabees or hillbillies. “In the Kentucky mountains to this day there are people all of a sort who still speak Elizabethan English,” John Steinbeck wrote in 1966. Or as Emerson Hough put it in 1918, “When and what was the Great Frontier? We need go back only to the time of Drake and the sea-dogs, the Elizabethan Age.… That was the day of new stirrings in the human heart.”

Hamilton Meadows considered himself a throwback to exactly this sort of earlier era—an explorer, a sailor, and a man of honor who had tried to live a rambling life of extreme autonomy. His ideas about Shakespeare’s English, similarly, echoed those of earlier believers: He imagined the language of the Elizabethans as a rough-and-tumble contrast to Received Pronunciation’s crisply enunciated couplets. “They were almost like the hippies,” he told me. “It was wild. It was absolutely insane. It was free. So that’s what we’re trying to find.”


On May 16, 2011, Meadows sent David Crystal another email. “Mr. Crystal,” it read:

I’ve just returned from T.I. where after three weeks, documenting these remote islanders speaking Shakespeare, for me, on camera, which was not easy, I’ve concluded that, indeed, there is something in the tone, the rhythm of speech which is different than how we speak English in the United States today.… If you are interested in helping to give audiences a real experience in hearing and watching a Shakespeare play as it was done in the early 1600’s, I will send you a copy of all my research, for your help in tracking down these roots to Elizabethan times. I recognize that I am not a scholar in these issues, only a lover of these works, but I am very determined to continue with these efforts, and will carry on until I succeed.

This time Crystal responded. Over the course of several messages, he told Meadows that he’d been to Tangier in the 1980s and had heard only occasional echoes of Elizabethan speech—a statement he was perhaps uniquely qualified to make, since he had identified, with what he felt was at least 80 percent accuracy, the sounds of the English spoken during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Tangier Island talk “was indeed very different from other US accents,” but, as Crystal later told me, the notion that Shakespearean English survived “was a load of bollocks—this is a myth that’s been around for years and years and years.” Crystal didn’t hear from Meadows for several weeks. He figured he’d never hear from him again.

“Then,” Crystal told me, “suddenly he comes up with this concept of performing every play in OP, which really took me a little bit aback.” Crystal was about to advise an OP Hamlet at the University of Nevada. So that fall, Meadows flew west and interviewed his would-be mentor face-to-face, to demonstrate his commitment. It was then that he learned the details of how Crystal had re-created Elizabethan pronunciation and of Crystal’s pioneering Globe experiment. He also realized, about half a year after sailing to Tangier Island, that even though OP didn’t sound like the Tangier dialect, he hadn’t been entirely wrong. It really was wilder than the buttoned-up speech of typical Shakespearean actors. It really was a sort of liberation.

Crystal still wasn’t so sure about Meadows. Before they met in person, he had emailed Meadows to say that the fee for him to prepare the Twelfth Night script in OP and record an audio version of it would be $3,000. Meadows replied that he couldn’t afford such a sum until after the show began a few months later, around Christmas.

“Thanks for your message,” Crystal wrote back. “But I must say it worries me.” He continued:

I can’t see how it could be possible to mount a production with good quality OP in such a short time frame and without the apparatus that is needed to get the actors properly trained. All the other productions I’ve been involved in have had at least a six month preparatory period, and several specialists involved to ensure that the OP is high quality. Even then, it would have been good to have had more time, as some actors need more help than others. A certain amount of seed money is essential, and the fact that you do not have any does not inspire confidence.

Meadows replied, “I would like your help as you know, but I am moving forward with OP one way or the other.”

Five

To Crystal, Meadows had started to seem like Tigger in Winnie-the-Pooh: all energy and no sense. But he also realized that Meadows was the sort of person without whom OP might never have a chance of taking root in mainstream theater. Crystal sometimes spoke of how OP Shakespeare was growing into “a movement,” but the only U.S. productions had been academic exercises: one in Reno, another in New York, another in Lawrence, Kansas. He sent Meadows the OP transcription of Twelfth Night and, eventually, a recording of himself reading it.

And so, by early December 2011, Twelfth Night OP—which Meadows intended to debut in February for a one-week run—had begun to take shape. Meadows had temporarily moved into a derelict, long-deserted luxury apartment in Brooklyn Heights, which he had agreed to renovate for an acquaintance in exchange for being allowed to live there until the remodeling was finished. It was warmer than the Tempest, and, more important, it was a place where he could build a set.

More and more people, meanwhile, were being drawn into Meadows’s orbit. His coproducer was a friend, an actor whom Meadows knew through Off-Off-Broadway theater. But the others—a recent University of Kansas graduate who had studied OP and would serve as a dialect coach; a gaggle of young actors, many of them recruited through an ad in Backstage magazine; a composer whose work had been performed at Carnegie Hall—hadn’t known Meadows at all. Some were drawn to the notion that they would make history by appearing in the first professional OP Shakespeare production in New York. Also important was Meadows’s contagious enthusiasm—and the fact that hardly anyone knew anything about his lack of money and directing experience.

The facade couldn’t last forever. At the start of the second week of December, actors started asking about the “salary” that the Backstage listing had promised, and Meadows was forced to admit that he would pay each person an equal share of a third of ticket sales or a flat $250. Soon, all but three actors had quit. The coproducer left, too, his friendship with Meadows ruined. By December 14, when the dialect coach announced her departure—“This is a project worth believing in,” she wrote to Meadows, but “to continue like this is a terrifying prospect”—the production was in freefall. The following day, Meadows emailed David Crystal. “David,” he wrote, “I’m canceling this production of 12th Night in OP here in NYC.”

In Brooklyn Heights, as people went about their holiday errands, Meadows collapsed into bed and started drowning himself in the cheapest vodka available at the liquor store around the corner. “I looked at the consequences,” he told me. “If I give up now, I will never, in my lifetime, amount to anything. And that’s the truth.”

He didn’t give up. Instead he published a new casting notice, scheduled auditions, and attended a performance of Twelfth Night directed by Ron Destro, an acting instructor whom he’d interviewed before sailing to Tangier Island. After the show, he asked Destro whether he and some of his actors might want to do the play in OP.

“My first impulse was to say no,” Destro recalled. “But as he talked about it, I thought, Well, you know, we’re making history.”


About a week later, I met Meadows a block and a half from Broadway at the Network, a complex of rehearsal studios. He was sitting by himself in a practice room, preparing for his first reading of the play with his second cast.

The newcomers, many of whom had little experience and were just thankful to have roles, had agreed to do the show for no pay at all. Meadows was musing about how he’d lost his first cast. “I have a feeling that part of it was the fact that”—he formed his fingers into air quotes—“‘I’ve never directed Shakespeare before.’ You have to understand,” he added, “that in Shakespeare’s day, they didn’t have directors.” He turned his head toward the hall. “Ron,” he said, “in Shakespeare’s day, they didn’t really have formal directors, did they?”

“No,” Destro replied.

“I didn’t think so,” Meadows said.

The cast and crew of Twelfth Night OP gradually filtered into the room—mostly twenty-somethings, with several notable exceptions. Destro, the founder of the small Oxford Shakespeare Company and Twelfth Night OP’s “associate producer,” had the exaggerated features and mischievous grin of an aging Disney character. He also dabbled in Shakespeare conspiracy theories; he later slipped me a DVD of a homemade documentary, the cover of which asked, “Was the man from Stratford-on-Avon an impostor?” “This is my heresy,” he said with glee.

Liz DeVito, the production’s “office manager,” was Meadows’s close friend, a former employee of Booz Allen Hamilton whose comfortable Riverside Drive apartment was a regular crash pad for Meadows and home to his two cats, Karma and Dharma. She and Meadows shared an interest in astrology, but her existence was mostly the opposite of his, an Upper West Side life with a piano in the living room. She had met Meadows when he renovated her windows.

The true sphinx of the group, meanwhile, was 74-year-old Diana Swinburne, who said she was a former ballerina. She wore marble-sized pearls, loved classical Greek drama, and spoke in an accent tinged with Received Pronunciation. “I worked for 20 years as a dancer and I hurt my back and I got all sorts of degrees,” she told me. “I came back to the theater in 2006, 2007—when everybody I used to know was dead.” Because of her age, Meadows hadn’t given Swinburne a part, but he didn’t want to exclude her. “I thought maybe she could come in and help with the OP,” he said.

“Whatever I can do,” Swinburne replied. “I actually wanted to tell you that as far as OP goes, I do know six languages, more or less.”

But Swinburne wasn’t a real vocal coach, and to Destro’s dismay, there wasn’t one at the first rehearsal. The actors noticed other oddities, too. “Everybody grab a chair and put your stuff down, and let’s get this thing on its feet,” Meadows said as the rehearsal began. He didn’t offer any words about schedules, his vision for the play, or any other sort of introductory speech. Instead, he gestured to a rectangle of brown construction paper he had unspooled at the end of the long, narrow room. It represented a platform that Meadows intended to erect in the middle of the stage, and he encouraged his cast to experiment with movement as they read their lines.

The actors glanced at each other. There would be no sitting around for the close reading of the script that is usually phase one of any production. Some of them started crunching across the paper, eliciting laughs as the noise mingled with their words until Meadows tore up his mock platform, hugged it into a ball, and cast it aside.

Several days later, Meadows invited me to the Brooklyn Heights apartment and showed off a coffee-table book of ethereal Alexander McQueen tunics that he hoped someone could replicate as costumes, after which we went out on the gusty, below-freezing street. It was a little more than a week after Christmas, and discarded trees littered the sidewalk. Meadows sized up a pile, grabbed a fat specimen, and, with a tiny saw, started cutting off branches, which we stashed in a couple of garbage bags so he could use them to decorate his set.

Rehearsals continued at the Network, and by the third—there were only two a week, three hours each—Meadows proclaimed the readings “absolutely, absolutely excellent.” “It was almost performance level,” he said. He still didn’t have a vocal coach. The actors listened to David Crystal’s OP recordings, but their accents sounded Irish, American, and even French.

It was also becoming clear that Meadows had an unusually dark vision of Twelfth Night’s central themes—in contrast to Destro, who like most readers considered the play an airy comedy. After all, it concerns a love triangle in which Viola, the protagonist (who cross-dresses as a man), falls in love with Count Orsino, who in turn is in love with Lady Olivia, who in turn is in love with Viola. There’s also Malvolio, the famously uptight servant at the center of several silly subplots.

But Meadows fixated on the storm that appears in Act One, when Viola is shipwrecked in the mysterious land of Illyria and disguises herself, a scene in which he wanted to feature a torn sail from one of his boats and clouds of smoke. “You really are in a situation where you could be easily raped if you can’t figure out, right now, in this very moment, how you’re going to survive these next five minutes,” he told his actress. As Meadows wrote in a brief synopsis of the play, Twelfth Night was about “people who are lost and have nowhere to go.”

Meadows himself would be playing Sir Toby Belch, Lady Olivia’s uncle, who is often described as jolly and Falstaff-like but whom Meadows considered a fool and a drunk. “I think I probably am Sir Toby Belch,” he said at one point, with a weary laugh. The question of Meadows’s identity also lingered among his cast. “I wasn’t sure, really,” an actress told me, “who I was even auditioning for.”

Six

Hamilton Meadows’s maternal great-grandfather, Charles Lacy, was a state senator in Mississippi. Lacy’s son Eugene, Meadows’s grandfather, ran for Congress there and lost before leaving to practice law in Washington, D.C. Eugene’s daughter Honora became a barmaid and gave birth to Hamilton in 1946, at the age of 19. His father was James Meadows—a traveling salesman, Hamilton believes—whom Hamilton never knew. The couple quickly divorced, and Honora married Weems Franklin, an attorney, with whom she started a new life in Cutler Ridge, Florida, near Miami. She never told Hamilton that Franklin wasn’t his father. He thought his name was Hamilton Franklin.

Established in 1954, Cutler Ridge—which billed itself as “South Florida’s Newest, Most Modern Community”—was a good place to try to escape the past. Meadows had three half-siblings and felt close to them, but his mother was verbally abusive, he says, and Franklin was distant. (If you want to understand Meadows’s childhood, Gary Brown, his therapist, told me, read Faulkner.) Even though he had only one friend, he says he was happy. Biking east, he explored strawberry fields and mangrove swamps and went fishing at the beach, baiting his hooks with white bread. To the west lay Route 1 and its shopping center, which included a bowling alley and a drugstore.

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One day when he was about 10, Meadows recalls, he was rummaging in his mother’s dresser for change to buy a milkshake at the shopping center, as he often did, when he came across a folded-up piece of paper titled “Certificate of Live Birth.” Several lines lower was written, in cursive, “Hamilton Lacy Meadows.” He brought the paper into the kitchen, where his mother was washing dishes, and asked her who Hamilton Meadows was. She burst into tears. Franklin, hearing her, came in. “Ham, let’s go for a drive,” he said.

At the bowling alley, Franklin ordered him his milkshake. “And he just looked at me in the face and said, ‘I’m not your father,’” Meadows told me. “And that’s when my world crumbled.”

Meadows became even more of a loner. He began biking to a stand of pines near the strawberry fields, and there, hidden among the trees, he’d light a campfire and cook bacon in a cast-iron skillet, feeling secure as he ate it alone. He started breaking into his neighbors’ houses during the day, marveling at the quiet interiors, hoping to catch a glimpse of how normal people lived. As his misbehaviors piled up and reform school loomed on the horizon, his grandfather intervened, whisking him away to Arlington, Virginia. But he was still troubled, and in October 1963, with only two years of high school under his belt, he enlisted in the U.S. Army.

After his basic training, Meadows was stationed at Fort Benning, in Georgia. “I was 18 years old, small and immature to the point that the other soldiers would pick on me,” he would later write to the Department of Veterans Affairs. During the summer of 1964, he wrote a letter to his grandfather:

Of course I am not in trouble but I have been in the army over nine months now and it seems like a life time. Of course I am all right and … have no trouble with the army it is just that I am so homesick, and it gets worse ever[y] day.

Two months later, in September, Meadows went AWOL.

He recalls driving west all night in a Chevrolet, taking turns at the wheel with two fellow runaways. In Texas, they got jobs with the Ice Capades, spraying water on the floors of convention halls. He was later spotted in Phoenix and imprisoned at California’s Fort Ord. Officers at the base wrote to Meadows’s grandfather: “Pvt Meadows … stated that he had no next of kin or relatives” and “was willing to say anything in order to be discharged from the United States Army.”

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After Meadows faced a court-martial and was freed in 1965, however, he returned to the military and volunteered for Vietnam, eager to put his past behind him. According to an official document stamped with the seal of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, Meadows was assigned to its 21st Ranger Battalion—even though his U.S. military records note that he’d been trained as a typist. Meadows says he simply approached a squad of Rangers and asked to tag along. “This act of volunteering for danger was the first of many acts to follow,” Gary Brown would later write in a letter on Meadows’s behalf. “In these acts Mr. Meadows at once symbolically tests his manhood, exhibits his sense of worthlessness, and throws himself into the arms of fate.”

Discharged in 1967, Meadows returned to the United States and drifted, taking premed courses in Alabama and Maryland and ending up at Miami Dade Community College. There, for the first time, he began acting. The phase wouldn’t last long, but it set the tone for the ensuing decades: Meadows would dedicate himself to an up-and-down life of odd jobs and creative pursuits and harbor a desire, years later, to return to the stage. He studied drama at Miami Dade but did not graduate, and he moved to New York, where he drove a cab at night and tried to launch an acting career. He lived with a woman named Salee Corso, whom he married in 1971, after the couple moved to California. He was 25; she was 19. Their daughter, Jessica, was born in Los Angeles, where Meadows briefly studied filmmaking. But the marriage dissolved, and Meadows fled again, eventually buying a one-way ticket to London. The boy who ran away had become the man who ran away.

Meadows spent the fall of 1976 crisscrossing Europe on a motorcycle and sleeping in barns. One day, near Berlin, he hitched a ride with a man in a Fiat. They parted ways, nearly 2,000 miles later, in Turkey, where Meadows kept following the route to Tehran and beyond known as the Hippie Trail. But by 1977, travelers to Iran were looking for more than a hash-addled stopover: Tens of thousands of fortune seekers hoped to taste the fruits of the development taking place under the Shah. Tehran, as Meadows wrote to his family about a month after he arrived, was a “good place for free thought, free enterprise, and storing your money in a Swiss Bank.” There, he said, “all will be well again.”

Meadows says he found work with an ad agency and the local offices of Bell Helicopter. He lived in an apartment building behind the Commodore Hotel, in what turned out to be an outpost of the religious cult known as the Children of God. “We were sort of like the Lost Generation,” recalls Ron Bagnulo, a Dubai-based voice-over artist who says he was involved in the cult and lived with Meadows. When I called him, Bagnulo told me he had not heard from Meadows in decades. “I think everybody,” he told me, “will be surprised that Hamilton’s still alive.”

On the eve of the Iranian Revolution, Meadows and Bagnulo say, a diplomat friend offered them passage to the United Arab Emirates. According to Meadows, the man also introduced him to Sheikh Hasher bin Maktoum al Maktoum, a nephew of the ruler of Dubai. (“As soon as I heard the name, I do remember this man,” Sheikh Hasher told me when I asked if he knew Meadows in Dubai.) By November 1978, when protestors swarmed Tehran and flames billowed from the Commodore, Meadows was on the other side of the Persian Gulf, laying the groundwork for Hamilton Meadows Films. Two years earlier he’d been sleeping in barns. Now, he says, he had a sheikh for a business partner. “It’s a big world,” he wrote to his family, “so much to see, don’t think I’ll stop for many years, and don’t think I’ll live in America ever again.”

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Seven

By 1979, Dubai, previously a village of pearl divers and gold smugglers, had become a boomtown, thanks to oil discovered just 13 years earlier. Not long after Meadows arrived, Queen Elizabeth II inaugurated its first skyscraper. But from his balcony overlooking the Dubai Creek, which divides the city, Meadows could still see triangular-sailed wooden dhows gliding across the water. “There was always something to look out over the balcony at,” says Phil Fraser-Brenchley, a British engineer who worked with Meadows. “And we weren’t too far from the gold souk and the spice souk—the smell was around all the time.”

Meadows’s film studio sprawled across the second floor of a building with French doors and broad staircases; Meadows and Bagnulo recall that it was the former Saudi embassy. His specialty was commercials—for cars, wristwatches, air conditioners—though he says he often fled his studio sets for more adventurous locales, living in the desert with Bedouins for a time while creating a documentary on camel racing. “We’d go through sandstorms and shit like that,” he says. “It was just like a movie.” On a giant map in his assistant’s office, he marked cities all over the world, future outposts of an imagined film-production empire. When his ex-wife sent their daughter, Jessica, then about eight years old, to live with him, Meadows even seemed poised to heal his relationship with his only child. For Meadows, Dubai was a place to dream. It was also a place to fall in love.

Sabrina Taylor was in her early twenties, an ad-agency receptionist who still lived with her parents, Christians from southwestern India, and had the fine features and incandescent smile of a midcentury starlet. Soon after Meadows first laid eyes on her, the two were inseparable. He makes his years with Sabrina sound like one big party, a montage of substance-fueled revelries and trips to the beach, where they scuba-dived with friends. A photo he showed me seems to sum it all up. She wears a red dress, and his right arm wraps around her. He wears a stylish watch, holds a plastic cup, and looks straight into the camera, confident.

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Sabrina was also at his side in 1980, at a hotel in Brussels where they attended the Clio Awards, the advertising world’s Oscars. It was the pinnacle of his success. His 30-second spot for Masafi mineral water, a Clio finalist, aired in a nearby cinema. The commercial showed a caravan, loaded with crates of Masafi, that rescues a Westerner who is stranded in the desert. The ad presented a cartoon-like vision of the Middle East, one that was too good to be true.

Things started to come apart, Meadows says, sometime around the fall of 1980. He says his ex-wife, Salee, showed up in Dubai and started making trouble, taking back their daughter and hiding her from Meadows. (Salee was also involved in the widely reported sale of “the world’s largest flawless diamond”—a diamond, The Washington Post reported in 1981, that didn’t exist. “I never once ever stopped Hamilton from seeing his daughter,” she told me.) His business began to suffer, too, in part because he spent so much money that he asked his assistant to hide his checkbook.

But the greatest pain stemmed from what happened a year or so later, a series of events that Meadows memorialized in his autobiographical screenplay about the sailor in the boat named Destiny. Sabrina wanted to get married, but Meadows told her he wanted a more open relationship. Then Sabrina called him one day while he was out of the country. She told him that she had gotten pregnant. She had obtained an abortion, she said, and was supposed to see the doctor again for a follow-up.

“Wait until I get back, and we’ll go together,” Meadows remembers saying. But when he returned to Dubai, he was in bed with a Palestinian woman in his apartment one night when he heard the door open and abruptly shut. The only person with an extra key was Sabrina.

Two days later, Meadows recalls, Sabrina’s father called him and said his daughter hadn’t come home the night before. Around the same time, Sabrina’s car was discovered on the street, her belongings seemingly untouched—including a diary indicating that the day after she walked in on Meadows was the day she intended to visit the doctor for her follow-up. The police, according to Meadows and his then-assistant, Carolyn Aspinall, summoned him to their offices for questioning. While there, he observed the interrogation of the Egyptian doctor who had performed the abortion.

“We’ve all watched too many detective programs, so we were all trying to figure out what could have happened, who could have done it,” Bagnulo says. Meadows believes the doctor raped and murdered Sabrina and was ultimately deported. But whatever actually took place, one thing was certain. As Aspinall puts it, “When she disappeared, Hamilton kind of disappeared with her.” Guilt, depression, and alcoholism consumed him; Sabrina’s parents, he says, told him that if their daughter hadn’t known him, she’d still be alive, and he found himself agreeing with them.

Meanwhile, his ex-wife, he says, was still keeping him from seeing his daughter. His business, mismanaged, was crumbling. His creditors evicted him from the film studio, and in late 1982, he says, he fled to London, where he tried to finish his camel-racing documentary but ran out of money. By midwinter he was sleeping under a bridge in Germany.

Meadows turned himself in at the American consulate in Frankfurt, where the officials snapped a passport photo. The copy he has is now smudged, and what stand out are his eyes, which look somewhere beyond the camera.

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Meadows’s years in the Middle East established a pattern that would repeat in variations over the next two decades: an improbable ascent out of poverty and insignificance, a catastrophic collapse into depression and self-blame, and a hasty escape.

Repatriated in Miami, he got a job with a film studio, bought a sailboat to live on, and ran aground while drunk near Key Largo, where he met Nona Ramsey, whom he married in 1984. They moved to a farm in Virginia. Meadows sold life insurance, and his first son, Ramsey, was born. “It was a very, very tranquil period of time,” he says. But a little more than a year later, in 1986—when Nona gave birth to a second son, Hamilton, in the front seat of a car—the family was living on a boat docked in Staten Island, Meadows says, and his marriage was disintegrating.

After he and Nona separated, Meadows returned to Miami and opened a wedding-photography studio. But the work depressed him, and soon he had bankrupted himself by channeling his photography profits into a failed TV pilot about South Beach. Although he would eventually reconnect with his daughter, he would have almost no future contact with Ramsey and Hamilton—a fact that is among his most painful regrets. By October 1994, he was living with his mother in Mississippi, brokenhearted and perpetually drunk. “I now see the connection between Sabrina’s death and the loss of my sons,” he wrote in a journal. “My loss of my dream.” In another entry, he described his depression: “Suiside is an ever appealing alternitive to this life that I’m living, or not living. I’ve no direction, no purpose, a failure as a father and a man.”

Come January, however, Meadows was more optimistic. “My future is in my hands—my work,” he wrote. It was time once again to create—and to act. He set out for Los Angeles, where he supported himself as a stonemason while working as an extra and body double; he also tried to launch a self-help TV show for divorced fathers. He likes to brag about how he worked as Ben Kingsley’s double in the 2000 sci-fi comedy What Planet Are You From? He doesn’t like to tell people how he got so drunk at a party with the cast and crew that he thought his career was over. So he ran again, back to New York.

The move did little to improve his prospects. Meadows wrote a screenplay about the infamous 1999 shooting of the unarmed Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo by the NYPD, but the film never went anywhere, and soon he was living among drug addicts. He wrote himself a letter:

Hamilton – We’ve got to chat. Why don’t you dream? You now aged what, 55½, right? Totally broke, in debt with child support and a few odd bills, living in a flophouse room over a bar in The Bronx! Does this tell you anything? … You must continue your course, it’s your only one that is right for you! So work harder—you have a lot of catching up to do!

A month later, Meadows went downtown to work a gig handing out fliers for a political candidate near the World Trade Center. It was September 11, 2001.

Eight

On January 11, 2012, Meadows and his cast gathered in a practice room at the Network to meet their vocal coach. Handsome, with parted silver hair that he often tousled into feathery tufts, John Windsor-Cunningham was as tall as Meadows was compact, as British as Meadows was American, as unwavering in his career path as Meadows was meandering, and as calculatedly naughty as Meadows was guileless.

“I’ve worked with every major theater company in Britain, and I got fed up with it six years ago and moved to America,” Windsor-Cunningham told the actors. A former student at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he had recently been teaching Venezuelans to be English-language broadcasters and leading theater workshops for Alzheimer’s patients, and he had once appeared in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. But his calling was the stage. “I don’t have dogs and cats and children because I’m an actor—I don’t have no fucking time for that shit,” he told me later when I visited him at his apartment. “I’d rather slit my wrists with a fork than do anything else.”

Windsor-Cunningham had gotten involved at the suggestion of Diana Swinburne; it didn’t hurt that Meadows had offered him a fee of $1,500, making him the only member of the cast and crew whom Meadows intended to pay. Yet like Ron Destro and many of the others who had rescued Meadows after he lost his first cast, Windsor-Cunningham also believed that Twelfth Night OP might be a historic milestone. “An awful lot of the big things that have happened in the theater,” he said, “have started from peculiar situations.”

At the Network, with Twelfth Night OP scheduled to open in just five weeks, Windsor-Cunningham told Meadows and the actors what he hoped to accomplish. He wore a rakishly unbuttoned blue Oxford shirt and looked restless. “The main thing that I have to do with you lot,” he said, “is to help you do this play in OP, and that could be quite a difficult thing to do, mildly depressing.…” A few laughs broke out. “Could be hard going on the audience,” he continued, “and all sorts of other problems could occur. I just feel that in my bones. So I’m extremely keen that we should kick off with approaching this as simply as possible.”

He told the actors that he would be teaching them a streamlined version of OP that would focus on a couple dozen key sounds. He said that the moment he felt he could urge someone to go further, he would, and besides, it was more important to have fun and really understand one’s lines before tackling the accent. He made his point by working himself into a frenzy, writhing on the edge of his seat. “You just KNOW the lines,” he bellowed as he shook himself. “SO much. You just KNOW them.” The accent, he told the actors, “will take care of itself.”

Actors began gathering at Windsor-Cunningham’s Garment District apartment for OP sessions that ran as long as two hours, cozily sitting at the foot of his twin bed, near two shelves of alphabetized plays and under the watchful gaze of a plush rabbit. Many of the twentysomethings started to view him as a guru, a sassy Shakespearean Yoda. During a session at the end of January, he was correcting their “I” sounds into “oi” sounds one minute and laughing with them at the pronunciation of “count” the next. (In OP, the word sounds as if it doesn’t have an o.) The same rustic flourishes that had enthralled David Crystal’s actors during the Globe experiment began to emerge. “It’s really changed my perception of Shakespeare,” one actress told me. “It’s made me realize that maybe Shakespeare’s characters are actually a lot more grounded than we give them credit for. They’re not these highfalutin people floating in the air. They’re a lot like you and me.”

Meadows seemed to soar with energy during the early rehearsals with Windsor-Cunningham. But even as he put on a show of confidence, he was plummeting. Additional small-group meetings of actors, which were supposed to take place at his Brooklyn apartment, hardly ever happened. Destro was turning into a doomsday prophet, warning Meadows that “the casting scares me a lot,” that the actors were whispering among themselves, and that he might have to reconsider his decision to be involved. Meadows, fearing a second mass desertion, furtively recruited more actors to serve as backups.

The hand-sewn, Alexander McQueen–inspired tunics didn’t pan out, so Meadows settled for thrift-store tuxedos and evening dresses. He still had to deal with PR and the set, which thus far consisted only of the Christmas-tree branches he’d gathered on the street. He also hadn’t learned his lines. His actors didn’t know that half a dozen years earlier, he had suffered a transient ischemic attack, a blockage of blood flow to the brain that is often called a mini-stroke. He’d had trouble with memorization ever since.

On a Tuesday afternoon, Meadows met Windsor-Cunningham for his first personal OP session. Meadows arrived late, his face shabby with stubble, in his herringbone coat and a wool cap. He hadn’t been eating properly, he hadn’t slept, and his blood pressure was high. He was also sick—so sick, he said, that he thought he might choke to death. Meadows slumped into a chair and, as he often did, turned on his video camera.

Windsor-Cunningham told him there was a serious risk of failure. The actors didn’t have credible accents, he said, and were misinterpreting the meaning and context of nearly every line. “People will be queuing up to get out of the theater—if they’ve turned up in the first place,” he said. “I mean, it could be just ridiculous.”

Meadows cracked. “You don’t understand—we have 28 days,” he said. “Twenty-eight days for us to be able to work together as a company. And that’s it. On the 15th of February, we’re on stage.” His voice rose until he was yelling. “Twenty. Eight. Days. I’m under a tremendous amount of pressure. I’m depending upon you, alright, to help me, as my equal, fifty-fifty, to pull this thing off. I don’t want you talking to these actors anymore about what the subtext is.”

“But they won’t be able to do the accent,” Windsor-Cunningham protested, “unless they understand—“

“We don’t have the time.”

“They won’t be able to do the accent unless they basically understand what the scenes are about.”

“This is all going to be destroyed if we don’t pull this together,” Meadows said. “I want them to listen to David Crystal’s tapes. I’m spending $15,000 of my fucking money. I need you to be my partner. I need to know that as I’m doing all those other things like costumes and sets and shit like that, and learning my own fucking lines—excuse me for being so blunt with you, my friend—that I’ve got you in my corner.” As he went on, Meadows calmed down, like a fire turned to embers. “They all know that I’ve never directed a Shakespearean play. I’m a fucking filmmaker! But I can do it. And I need your help.” He added, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I know that I’m gonna do it.”

“You have more balls than I have,” Windsor-Cunningham said.

On the subway back to Brooklyn, Meadows hunched forward in his seat and pulled out his copy of Twelfth Night. There, in a crowded car, he began softly reading aloud from warped and underlined pages.

Nine

Two weeks later, I found Meadows at his apartment in Brooklyn Heights, where, unbeknownst to the acquaintance who was letting him live there, he was busy assembling a peculiar wooden structure whose components reeked of fresh paint. Energy drinks and cans of beer in various states of consumption littered the living room, as well as planks of lumber and narrower lengths as thick as a man’s wrist, which were propped against the walls and stretched nearly from floor to ceiling. “We still have 17 days until we open,” Meadows said, as if he had 17 weeks.

Meadows had distracted himself from his acting and directing problems by focusing on the countless production tasks that had nothing to do with Original Pronunciation. He had set up a page on the fundraising website Indiegogo: the only contribution so far, twenty dollars, had come from his friend Liz DeVito, but perhaps Diana Swinburne, who had transitioned into a role as marketing deputy, could turn things around. With the help of an actor’s graphic-design skills, Meadows had started drawing up posters and other PR materials, and he had found both a lighting designer and a sword-fighting coach.

Building the set remained the biggest project. As it neared completion, Meadows brushed sawdust off a couch while a young actor from the cast sat on the floor, stabbing a dull power drill into what looked like a rectangular, spindly-legged card table for giants. It was the platform Meadows had spoken about during his first rehearsal with the current cast. It was also slowly bleeding glue. “It’s still not strong enough to walk on,” Meadows admitted. I asked where his blueprint came from. “Oh,” he said, “just out of my imagination.”

The days of slow work, coupled with beers and delicate sips of energy drinks, had led Meadows to open up about his past, and now he said something I didn’t expect: “I told you that story about that one day when I was down there, and I walked in. Remember that?” He was referring to September 11th.

He hadn’t told me much, but I remembered some of the details. Meadows had been handing out political fliers near New York Downtown Hospital, several blocks east of the towers. He had watched victims jump. Then, when the South Tower collapsed, Meadows took a dust mask from a doctor, covered his nose and mouth, and “walked in,” as he put it—toward Ground Zero.

“Everybody ran past me to get away from the falling building,” Meadows recalled. “The North Tower was still standing, still burning. And I walked in. Why I walked in I have no idea.” He paused. “But I went in, all by myself, and there was no police to stop me. Ash on the ground by that point was up almost to my calf. Pieces of paper were falling all around me like snow. All their edges were burned. And it was quiet. It was really quiet.”

Meadows said he walked through the abandoned Financial District, occasionally looking up to see the sun obscured by smoke. He made his way to Maiden Lane, encountering only a handful of people, who faded in and out of the scene like characters in a Cormac McCarthy novel. There was the man who yelled at Meadows and called him crazy. There was the fat cop, his face covered with a red bandanna. And as Meadows approached the intersection of Maiden Lane and Broadway, about the length of a football field from the towers, he saw a line of six or seven firefighters perhaps 200 feet in front of him. Then the North Tower started to collapse. It sounded, Meadows recalls, like gravel being poured down a playground slide. He saw the debris engulf the firefighters.

That’s when he finally turned and ran, taking shelter in the lobby of a nearby building. He made his way north, toward the room in the Bronx where he was living at the time. On the way home, Meadows says, he began vomiting blood. In Harlem, he bought a can of malt liquor, took gulps as he walked, and started sobbing. The dust mask was still around his neck, and his skin was gray and ghostly. He remembers passing a woman who was sitting on a stoop. “Don’t worry, baby,” he recalls her saying. “It’s going to be OK.”

Not knowing where else to go, he visited a friend. “It was surreal when he came in,” the man later told me, “because I was just watching it on TV, and he showed up,” covered in what looked like asbestos. “He was crying, and then almost screaming. He grabbed me by the shoulder and shook me pretty hard.” In the weeks that followed, he says, Meadows visited his apartment more than once “with a garbage bag of all of his things, which was kind of disturbing—that he was almost as close to being homeless as you can be.”

Meadows sank into a deep depression and did, in fact, briefly become homeless, sleeping in Central Park near the Metropolitan Museum of Art, under an evergreen where he figured no one would notice. Eventually, he found work as a contractor and began living out of his boss’s van, then graduated to a mouse-infested room in Harlem. But walking toward the towers had been crazy, and he knew he needed help. So when he learned that the September 11th Fund would cover the cost of therapy, he began seeing Gary Brown twice a week. “The referral came through one of my colleagues,” Brown told me. “She said, ‘He scares me.’”

In March 2003, three months after Meadows began seeing him, Brown wrote a letter stating that Meadows “continues to suffer the aftereffects of the event: hyper-alertness, hypo-irritability, depression, and a sense of lowered self-worth.” He added, “In my assessment his condition meets the criteria for P.T.S.D. He is consistent and persistent in his work with me and is showing good progress.” Perhaps most important of all, Meadows’s creative activities began to evolve, encouraged by Brown and guided by his Jungian emphasis on the unconscious, dreams, and universal archetypes of the sort one finds in myths. Now, for the first time, Meadows’s efforts would be self-consciously therapeutic, a way to make sense of his past.

Meadows started to paint. His canvases were often three feet wide or larger, and he applied the vivid pigments with his bare hands, looking for images in his unconscious. He unearthed sharp-sailed dhows below a blood-red sky, three spectral figures representing the children to whom he had been a ghost, a hellish scene of a hundred or so falling 9/11 victims. The most haunting image of all was a massive purple face with lidless blue eyes.

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Meadows also began to act again, feeling his way back toward the world of New York City theater whose margins he had touched more than 30 years earlier. He was cast as Lord Capulet in a Long Island–based production of Romeo and Juliet, advancing toward Shakespeare tentatively. He studied at the American Globe Theatre, but he also started his I Can Do That handyman business, and his third wife, whom he married around the same time—a writer named Yvonne Durant—pressured him, he says, to focus on his day job. They screamed at each other constantly, so much so that Meadows says one of their fights induced his transient ischemic attack, and he still drank heavily and smoked large amounts of marijuana.

By the fall of 2005, Durant and Meadows were headed toward divorce, and she convinced him to see a psychiatrist at the Department of Veterans Affairs, who diagnosed him with depression and probable bipolar disorder. In 2006, another doctor jotted down his problems—guilt, paranoia, recurring nightmares—and sometimes quoted him directly. “Totally broke.” “I’ve been fucked over all my life.” “If I can’t create, I’m gonna kill myself.”

Meadows also began meeting regularly with a VA psychotherapist, with whom he started to share what was probably his biggest secret: the details of what happened in September 1964, when he was a private at Fort Benning and decided to go AWOL. The incident involved the man he later painted with the purple face and lidless eyes.


The following account of the events at Fort Benning comes primarily from a letter Meadows addressed to the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2006. “One night, late, I heard a muffled sound that woke me up,” Meadows wrote. He saw his sergeant, whom I’ll call Smith, “seated on a prone soldier’s bunk.” Meadows was so close to Smith that he could smell the alcohol on the older man’s breath. Smith, Meadows realized, was trying to kiss the other soldier, who was silently resisting, and Meadows, confused, propped himself up on one elbow. Smith heard Meadows and looked right at him. Then he walked away.

Early the next evening, Smith ordered Meadows to report to the sergeant’s sleeping quarters. “I was a young private of 18 years, a virgin,” Meadows wrote, “a boy scout, trusting, scared, defenselessness, a child, who never had a father, an immature boy who just wanted some protection, some guidance, some help for a kid that nobody else wanted to know, only beat up and humiliate, a boy who wanted to have friends. Then [Smith] said, we’ll be friends.” Smith told Meadows he’d look out for him, that Meadows “needed a friend to be safe.” “Hey, let’s you and me go out for some beer,” he said. Clutching a six-pack of Budweiser, he led Meadows outside, into the dark, where they sat against the concrete wall of the barracks.

Meadows continued, “We drank a couple of beers and then, he said, let’s go into the woods, private like, he wanted to show me something. I had never had sex with a girl, or anyone, so innocently I with him crossed a strip of grass before the woods and then went. We walked about fifty yards; I could still see the barracks through the trees. Then, he ordered me to take off my clothes, I didn’t want to make my powerful protector [angry], and so I did, having no idea, whatsoever, what was to happen next.” There, in the middle of the woods, Meadows was pinned down and raped.

“I don’t remember anything after that,” he wrote. Two nights later he went AWOL.

Meadows at age 17, during basic training, 1963.
Meadows at age 17, during basic training, 1963.

Ten

The retelling alone was so upsetting, Meadows says, that after speaking about the rape with the VA psychotherapist, he stood on a subway platform and considered jumping in front of a train. In hindsight, Meadows would associate what happened at Fort Benning with the first great trauma of his youth, the day in Cutler Ridge when he came across his birth certificate in his mother’s dresser. Here were two betrayals, two slashes at an identity not yet formed. The first, he felt, had led to the second, the second to his rise and fall in the Middle East, to his wanderings, to everything that followed.

“That’s why I gravitated toward Shakespeare,” Meadows told me. “Because it is so powerful, and there have been so many intense moments in my life. Those moments, I don’t forget them, and I try to use them. Hell, what better use of that negative energy? To try to transform it into something that other people can come and watch.”

His history would provide not only a motive but a means: In 2006, Gary Brown and other therapists Meadows had seen helped him apply for Department of Veterans Affairs disability status, and the rape formed the core of his case. On March 1, 2007, Meadows became eligible for monthly payments of $2,471. He was officially disabled—diagnosed with PTSD. Not long after, Meadows walked down West 54th Street and presented himself at an Off-Off-Broadway performing-arts complex known as the American Theatre of Actors, to audition for a production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. As James Jennings, the ATA’s president and artistic director, recalls, “When he came to me, he said he only wanted to do Shakespeare.”

Jennings cast Meadows as a few of the play’s minor characters, even though Meadows told him he’d had a stroke that had impaired his memorization abilities. Meadows tried to quit during the first rehearsal, but in the end he stayed on, and Jennings, when the show went up that June, was impressed. Meadows, however, still felt stuck: As he wrote in a journal that year, he was “still floating, but not able to sail away”— adrift, alcoholic, and spending his disability money on his latest divorce. He was also living in a squat in the East Village without running water, across from a man who seemed intent on hooking him on crack cocaine. A couple of times, Meadows says, he tried it. He needed a new home. So he searched online until he found a storm-wrecked, 39-foot sailboat whose owner was willing to part with it for only $5,000.

One day in September 2007, Meadows drove a rental car through the cornfields of Virginia’s Northern Neck, a peninsula of farmland and forests that juts toward the Chesapeake Bay like the butt of a rifle. Pulling into the Coan River Marina, he immediately recognized the boat’s gnarled metal railing and battered mahogany trim from the photographs. Wasps and spiders lurked in its dirt-caked cabin, which had long ago been relieved of its doors, ladders, instruments, and cabinets. Still, Meadows happily spent the night inside.

As he patched gashes in the hull and stripped grime from its interior, he tried to imagine where to go from here. Did he want to repair sailboats for a living? Act full-time? Or simply sail to who knows where? He lived off food stamps and often had nothing in his bank account. In New York, his divorce hearings struck him as Kafkaesque, the rest of his life a black comedy that he described in terse journal entries: “Got up, drank—went to therapy! Came home, drank, passed out, watched DVD’s,” he wrote. “Feel like I’m waiting for something to happen.”

Something did. In October, Meadows was cast in another play, and a new, determined voice started appearing in his journal:

“I have a growing NEED! to get back into acting as a full time endevor.”

“Now, this play. Everything that causes distractions must go now. EVERYTHING!”

“My part is both exciting and overwhelming. The number of lines is by far greater than anything else thus far in my emerging acting carrier. Yet, I feel confident & sure of a success. In fact, I believe this show is a life changing event and a new me has emerged.”

The play, Fever, never opened with Meadows as part of the cast: The playwright called off the early 2008 run at Manhattan’s Li’l Peach Theater because he wanted to revise the script, Meadows says. But it was the first in what would come to seem like an unbroken string of acting jobs in which Meadows, during rehearsals, returned to difficult memories from his past. Rehearsing Fever, an epic about two warriors based on a tragedy by Sophocles, Meadows—cast as the villain—thought about all the evil he’d experienced. Later, in Death Wears a Suit and Tie, Meadows played Roland, an oil tycoon who is dying of cancer. “This is an opportunity for a dress rehearsal of my demise, early,” he wrote in a journal. “How else can I play this, if not for, on several levels, for real.”

Nothing, however, would seem as real to Meadows as the plays of William Shakespeare. In hindsight, he would view the production of The Winter’s Tale at the ATA as the show that changed everything, the one he would often cite when explaining how he had found his calling. Now he sought out Shakespeare roles one after another. His own existence, after all, felt Shakespearean in ways that those of most other actors were not.

“When I was on stage performing Shakespeare—whether I was Julius Caesar, or Banquo in Macbeth, or Master Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, or whatever play I was doing—I was really able to believe it, because I had experiences that were similar to that in my life,” Meadows told me. “Et tu, Brute? It was like I was there.” The act of becoming someone else while still being himself, and thus turning a painful past into something of artistic value, was addictive, and he found that it led to a single thought. How, Meadows wondered, would Shakespeare’s characters have been embodied centuries ago at the original Globe Theatre?

By the fall of 2008, Meadows had moved out of the squat in New York City and put his belongings into storage. He no longer went to therapy regularly, and he had even made contact with his daughter, Jessica—now grown and living in Florida—and had begun to build an approximation of a real relationship with her. A couple of friends in Virginia, meanwhile, had told Meadows about Tangier Island, which sat 30 miles from the marina where he was about to christen his boat, just down the coast and across the bay. The islanders, they said, spoke like Shakespeare. Suddenly, Meadows had a destination. He gave his sailboat a name that summed up his new trajectory: Tempest.

Eleven

The 140-seat Chernuchin Theater, the largest venue at the American Theatre of Actors, sits just south of Manhattan’s Columbus Circle, in the same building that houses the Midtown Community Court, which means that an actor languishing in the metal-detector line might find himself waiting behind a vendor of knockoff handbags. The theater itself occupies a 19th-century courtroom on the second floor and is best known for launching Urinetown, the improbable hit musical about proletarians who are required by law to use filthy public restrooms. The show seems to have set the tone for the Chernuchin’s present-day air of sticky neglect. When Meadows’s cast first arrived at the space, on January 30, a handwritten sign above one of the dressing-room toilets advised, “DO NOT KICK or STEP ON FLUSHER. PUSH 3 TIMES.”

Nevertheless, for Meadows, directing at the Chernuchin was a homecoming of sorts: it was here that he had played Banquo, Cymbeline, and his favorite role, Julius Caesar. Besides, the monumental central staircase that led up to the theater, coiled around an antique wrought-iron elevator shaft, retained a certain power to impress, as did the Chernuchin’s own two-tiered stage, with its wraparound catwalk. “I’m so ’appy,” exclaimed one of Meadows’s actors, trying out her Original Pronunciation as she explored the theater. “I’m so ’appy.”

The plan was to spend two weeks rehearsing in the Chernuchin—the final phase of preparations. Meadows remained haunted by the possibility that Twelfth Night OP, like nearly all of his past creative endeavors, would fail. He had just recovered from yet another threat to the production into which he was sinking all his money, and which, he reminded me, was “the most important thing I’ve done in my life.” An argument had erupted a week and a half earlier when Meadows introduced the cast to a composer who had agreed to write and perform a live score. “That seems to me ludicrous,” said Ron Destro, as the actors looked on. “This is at the breaking point.”

Destro, Meadows was all too aware, had brought many of the others on board, and he feared a second exodus if Ron defected—as he had already threatened once. “It seems the goal was to help audiences experience, with the OP, what the original Shakespeare experience would have been,” Destro wrote to Meadows in an email. “Each recent element that has been added (at a very late date, quite frankly, for a very weak cast who has still not been given their blocking to learn) seems to take us away from that goal.” The score (“definitely NOT an authentic element”) and Meadows’s choice of costumes (the tuxedos and evening dresses) would be distractions, Destro said, and the acting was so embarrassing that he was considering not inviting anyone to the show. Some actors were working on OP with John Windsor-Cunningham, but some were hardly practicing at all.

Grudgingly, Meadows abandoned the idea of music. “Imagine if Columbus’s crew had said, ‘Oh, we can’t man the sails and explore for a new world,’” he sputtered. “Small-mindedness is just such a disaster to anything. Anything!”

Still, instead of letting the actors focus on OP and blocking, Meadows spent much of the first rehearsal at the Chernuchin explaining an extra scene he had conceived to start the play. Everyone would mill around as if at a cocktail party, and they would spontaneously start to sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Suddenly, thunderclaps would blare from the loudspeakers while someone behind a curtain dropped dry ice into buckets of water and blew smoke across the stage. Everyone would slowly back away, and the first real scene would begin.

It was as if Meadows had to invent a storm so the play could align with his own tempestuous reality. Others didn’t see the point, particularly a young actress named Samantha Dena. “It’s just a lot of elements coming together,” she told him. “Like, party! Christmas song! And then there’s smoke! And then there’s a storm!” Perhaps sensing she’d crossed a line, she added that she didn’t want to step on any toes.

“I have no toes to step on,” replied Meadows, who said he wanted the play to be “directed by all of us.” Still, he didn’t alter the scene.

Meadows spent much of the second on-stage rehearsal, a brutal five-hour affair, working with just one actor, a lawyer named J. B. Alexander, while other cast members wasted time. For reasons no one really understood, Meadows had recently recruited Alexander to split the role of Orsino with another actor. “Do it one more time, but this time really feel it,” he said.

“I’m trying,” Alexander said, stumbling through half-memorized lines.

“I don’t want to see you even touching that script,” Meadows said as the rehearsal wore on, raising his voice. “If you want a line, you call for it.”

Destro emailed Meadows the next day. “Your treatment of JB was HORRIBLE last night, barking at him to go run his lines. I know you didn’t mean it that way, but everyone was taken aback.” He added that if Meadows kept mistreating actors, they would quit. Diana Swinburne told him the same thing. “Just visualize love shining all around,” she said. “Gentle, kind, sweet love.”

So at the next rehearsal, Meadows tried to be loving. “It’s got to be twice as loud as it is now,” he told Jonathan Rentler, a blond-maned former Peace Corps volunteer. “And I will, with all gentleness and love, remind you of that.”

But soon Swinburne was bowing her head in shame. “I’m sorry—I love you to death, but I don’t believe a word of what you’re saying,” Meadows yelled at Rentler. “And until you can own this text, no one’s going to believe what you have to say. So take it from the top, and don’t say a word unless you believe it.” Meadows went on like that for a full half-hour, popping open a white button-down to reveal a gray T-shirt he’d been wearing for three days straight. “You’re arguing with yourself,” he told Rentler.

“Alright, I will try it that way,” Rentler said.

“You will do it that way,” Meadows said. “I know I’m driving you crazy,” he added. “I don’t care.” Then he told Rentler to do another speech while constantly pacing back and forth. “You stopped!” he shouted. “You stopped!”

“I have a fucking long speech, Hamilton,” Rentler said.

“You’re stopping,” Meadows said. “You’re stopping. You’re stopping. You’re stopping. You’re stopping.” A minute later, after Rentler had finished his speech, Meadows clapped his hands and shouted “Beautiful!” Turning to Swinburne, he said, “Wasn’t that wonderful? Am I God or what?”

Thus the night unfolded, as Meadows, knowing little about directing yet enamored with his authority, yelled at one actor after another, urging each to “be a poet” and to “make love to these words.” Eventually, he started hissing “yes, yes, yes.” He closed his eyes and swayed across the stage while moving his hands as if conducting a symphony. He looked like a man dancing with a phantom, or perhaps merely with himself.

“I’m insane,” he muttered that night. “No doubt about it.” Having alienated more or less all of his actors, Meadows sarcastically scolded them for not replying to his emails, sipped an energy drink, and wound down the evening with a pep talk.

“I look at myself all the time,” he said, “and I look at all the warts and the blemishes and”—he hesitated—“the problems. And I say, ‘Who in the hell are you?’” He didn’t go into detail about the life he’d once described to the VA as “this lost wild existence.” “But down the road,” he continued, “those things go away, and what we’ve done sticks.” He added, “And people will remember us. Our names will be engraved in granite.”  

Destro would later tell Meadows that several actors were shaking and nearly in tears over the way he’d abused Rentler. Once again, Meadows was plummeting. 

Twelve

Evening after evening, Meadows pushed forward. He often summoned actors to the Chernuchin with a volley of cell-phone calls—he still hadn’t emailed them a schedule—then paced and muttered for hours, without breaks, until an occasional siren from a nearby police station pierced the late-night air and everyone sagged like travelers stuck in an airport. With only a dozen days to go and even fewer rehearsals, it was becoming clear that Twelfth Night OP would be amateurish at best and nonexistent at worst. Meadows finally had to admit that the production suffered from a potentially fatal flaw: Hardly anyone had come close to mastering Original Pronunciation.

John Windsor-Cunningham, in fact, had almost entirely stopped trying to teach the accent. “If three people in the show are doing very well, a few others are generally completely OK, and there are a few inexperienced people in the background, well that’s bloody alright with me,” he said. As it had become clear that the show would fall short of its ambitions, Windsor-Cunningham had settled for a kind of theatrical triage. His biggest concern wasn’t the OP, and it wasn’t the acting. It was that words, if spoken at a normal volume—and particularly in the rural tones pieced together by David Crystal—had a way of being sucked into the muffling maw of the Chernuchin and reduced to gibberish. What the audience heard had to sound clear and purposeful. “If it isn’t, you are fucked,” he told the actors. “You are fucked. They will queue up to get out.” Meadows, meanwhile, was more worried about whether the play would happen at all.

One day, Meadows disappeared from the Chernuchin. I found him sulking near an ancient vending machine downstairs—withdrawing yet again. “We lost Antonio,” he said. “The actor who’s playing that part just decided to quit.” Antonio was a minor character, but there was only a week until opening night, and Meadows was shaken, reminded of when his cast defected en masse. He was also reeling from opposition to yet another last-minute element he wanted to add to the production: a choreographed jig, which is how the actors coached by David Crystal had ended their Romeo and Juliet at the Globe. On top of everything else, Meadows still didn’t know perhaps a third of his own lines.

Back in the theater, an actress complained that he’d misspelled her name on the promotional postcards he’d ordered. Then the evening’s run-through of the play began, and Samantha Dena, the actress who had already questioned the logic of the introductory scene with the storm, asked Meadows about it again.

“Everybody’s milling about having a party,” he explained.

“Milling about,” she said, arms crossed. “Milling about. Why?”

Meadows started talking about tuxedos and dresses and thunder and lightning, but he sensed it was time to lay his vision down. “Let’s kill the party scene at the beginning and go straight to the play,” he said.

That was the final blow. An hour later, during the run-through, a grotesque gulping sound started emanating from where Meadows stood in the shadows at the edge of the former courthouse seats, as if he were about to throw up and could barely hold it in. He sniffled and wiped a corner of one eye. He appeared to be tearing up. Already wearing a hooded sweatshirt, he put on his herringbone coat, like a man with the chills, and dragged a hand across his face. Then he strode onto the stage as Sir Toby. As 10 p.m., then 11 rolled past, Meadows missed entrances, cut other people off, and forgot numerous lines. “Damn,” he said at one point, rubbing his chest. With heavy steps he thudded out of the theater. When he returned, he doubled over and gripped his sternum.

By now the other actors were visibly concerned. Meadows thought he was about to have a heart attack.


Meadows was suffering not from heart disease but from panic. He was almost out of time and almost out of money. He was subsisting on a daily ration that often consisted of a single prepackaged curry dinner or Filet-O-Fish, couldn’t afford to see Gary Brown, and hardly slept. But his handyman savings and disability checks had paid for all the essentials, including a promotional email blast that was sent to about 90,000 people, resulting in an immediate 39 tickets sold after many days of just two, one, or zero. There was always some small hurdle: his phone had died, or his actors were locked out of the Chernuchin. But he kept working, and he kept suggesting his odd ideas: that Swinburne, whom he had just taken out to dinner for her 75th birthday, should play an “officer”—Twelfth Night’s law enforcement—or that an actor’s nose should be augmented with putty.

After Antonio, nobody else quit. The actors, united by admiration of their vocal coach and puzzlement at the exasperating antics of their director, had developed an unusual solidarity. Some had grown so close, one of them told me, that they texted each other in OP and used the accent to belt out classic-rock lyrics. A few had even acquired an odd affection for what Jonathan Rentler called Meadows’s “Hamilton-ness.” “We all stayed—that is the crazy thing,” Rentler said. “That’s kind of the magic of Hamilton: There’s something in him you want to believe in, even if you’re trying to fight against it.”

Thus the rehearsals continued, and on February 13, two days before opening night, Meadows illegally parked a U-Haul pickup truck in Brooklyn Heights. He and two actors filled the bed with black plywood and the other disassembled pieces of Meadows’s set, plus the bags of Christmas tree branches he had gathered six weeks earlier and several discarded wreaths. With the tailgate down and the load unsecured, Meadows sped off. That afternoon, after erecting the platform, he swept sawdust off the stage. Then he silently started decorating the theater with the salvaged holiday greenery.

An unprecedented seriousness filled the Chernuchin that night, during what amounted to both a tech rehearsal and the most complete run-through of the show thus far. The lights were constantly going on and off as Meadows’s lighting designer tested his installation. Meadows stumbled about in a tuxedo. Everyone else wore their costumes, too, and during Act III, Samantha Dena found Meadows near the back of the theater. “We have a picture of what it will look like,” she said, touching him on the arm. “It’s no longer like, ‘This’ll be here, and this’ll be here.’ It’s great.”

The next night, after Twelfth Night OP’s final rehearsal, Meadows addressed his cast. “I’m happy,” he said. “I’m happy.”

Later, after everyone else had trickled out, Meadows invited me to share a celebratory drink with him—a dusty bottle of cheap sparkling wine that he’d been using as a prop, having pilfered it from the apartment in Brooklyn. A few vintages too old, it had gone flat. Meadows was sure that Twelfth Night OP would keep getting better, and he reminded me that he intended to produce Macbeth in the fall, and all of Shakespeare’s other plays after that. “It’s my belief that you have to take what’s coming at you and mold that into a cohesive unit that’s the best you can come up with,” he said. “I strongly believe in that: that it’s a work in progress, and you have to have the confidence, you have to have—what’s another word?—you have to have the faith that your ideas will work.”

His project, he seemed to be saying, was more about constant transformation than any final creation, more about belief in a future than the actual outcome. These were the spiritual, even existential terms in which Meadows discussed both Twelfth Night OP and his own life. “I still have this weird feeling that I’m dying,” he had said that afternoon. “I do. I feel like I’m dying. It may be a psychological thing where one way of life is ending and another one begins.”

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Thirteen

On February 15, the day of the first performance of Twelfth Night OP, Meadows arrived at the Chernuchin Theater just before noon, about six hours before his actors. He had slept little, having stayed up past four in the morning willing half-forgotten lines into his mind, but he fortified himself with a large coffee and a Filet-O-Fish, and met Liz DeVito for a pint of soup—more food than I had seen him consume in weeks.

“This really is historic, you know?” DeVito said. She marveled at the opportunity Meadows was giving his actors: “They’re in the first OP production in New York City.”

“They’ll go down in the history books,” Meadows said. “They’ll be there for perpetuosity.”

“Per-peh-too-ih-tee,” DeVito said, laughing as Meadows grinned. “You just worry about your lines.” It was nearly three in the afternoon. Twelfth Night OP would open at eight.

The closer Meadows got to eight o’clock, the harder he seemed to work and the more he seemed to veer off course. First he wasted time going to a market in search of corn syrup and food coloring for an impromptu concoction—fake blood—that he wanted to apply before his final scene, in which a wounded Sir Toby Belch appears with a “bloody cockscomb” sullying his head. Meadows settled on dark eye shadow and a tube of red icing. Back at the theater, he taped up Twelfth Night OP posters in the building’s spiral staircase, then paused. “I’m gonna have a drink,” he said. He opened a bottle of port from the Brooklyn Heights apartment, drained a plastic cup of it, began practicing his lines again, and went back for a refill.

As the actors started arriving, Meadows did something a director is never supposed to do on opening night: He kept directing. He wanted to change elements of scenes they’d been practicing for weeks. “I know you think I’m nuts,” he told one actor. “But I’m not!”

“I’m a little worried,” the actor said. “For it to all sink in, in an hour…”

Meadows, deflated, said, “You’re right. You’re right, you’re right, you’re right, you’re right. We need another month.” It was six o’clock.

While another actor finally wove Meadows’s Christmas tree branches around the railing of the stage’s upper level, Meadows began giving part of the set another coat of black paint, periodically disappearing into the dressing rooms to tell someone to try doing a scene differently. (“Do not yell at me!” scolded one actress, her words echoing into the theater.) He mopped the stage—“That’ll be dry by eight o’ clock, right?” DeVito asked—and proceeded to change into his ill-fitting tuxedo.

By 7:15, the first member of the audience was sitting in his seat: John Windsor-Cunningham. As actors stretched and did yoga poses, he quietly took in the scene filling the former courthouse and wondered whether any theatergoers would come at all. Then, slowly, while orchestral music played in the background, people filtered in—about 35 in total, he estimated. Shortly after eight, the music faded and the lights went out. Windsor-Cunningham, like everyone else, turned his attention to the stage.

The hard r’s and unfamiliar vowels of Original Pronunciation filled the room. First on stage, in an elegant gown, was Swinburne, whom Meadows had asked to begin the production with a melancholy song that appears later in the play: “For the rain it raineth every day,” she sang, her voice quavering. Ron Destro mischievously flitted around in a jester cap. Meadows, as Sir Toby Belch, came out wearing his herringbone coat over his tuxedo jacket and brandishing the bottle of port he’d opened several hours earlier. He occasionally took a swig.

There was a strangeness to the evening, Windsor-Cunningham realized, an uncanny sort of tension. He regretted not having taken the cast aside before the show to tell them to have fun. Even during moments of comedy, the audience barely laughed. Windsor-Cunningham also noticed a man in front of him who was scribbling notes. A critic, he thought. He knew it would be incredibly easy for someone to disparage almost anything about Twelfth Night OP and that a likely target was the OP itself. The actors hadn’t mastered David Crystal’s pronunciation system. One or two still sounded Irish, and at least one sounded more or less American.

After the intermission, however, the audience and the actors loosened up. Meadows, meanwhile, struck Windsor-Cunningham as an unexpectedly commanding presence. He paraphrased lines but rarely forgot them entirely. Undoing the cuffs of his tuxedo shirt and letting a button pop open to show his belly, he danced and stumbled across the stage, confidently inhabiting Sir Toby.

In the dressing room before his final scene, Meadows regarded himself in a full-length mirror. He held his tube of red icing in one hand, unscrewed the cap with the other, and dabbed a bloody Mohawk onto his head, sucking his fingers clean. He added a black eye, too, smearing purple-green eye shadow into his socket. Then he reentered the theater and stood in one of the aisles, near the back. He just stood there in the darkness and listened to the sounds of Original Pronunciation. “I can feel it,” he whispered to himself. “I can feel it.” For the rest of the performance, from his final scene to the moment he emerged with the other actors and took a bow, Meadows seemed filled with a sense of peace.


Meadows, once again, had bankrupted himself. He would later calculate that Twelfth Night OP’s five-performance run had cost him $12,095, and a couple of days after the last show his two bank accounts contained a combined -$314.67. Twelfth Night OP received two reviews, both of them on regional arts websites. One described it as a “catastrophe”—“a production that seems to be put up at the last minute with actors who have barely read the script.” (“There’s also the puzzling question,” the reviewer wrote, “of why everyone seems to be going for an Irish accent.”) The other critic called the play “very admirable.” The OP, he said, “made us listen harder than we might, engrossing us all the more.”

Other audience members wrote comments, mostly positive ones, on slips of paper asking for feedback that Meadows and his team had tucked into their programs. “I would subscribe to a season of Original Pronunciation, and would buy recordings,” one person said. “This OP production deserves a wider presentation,” another wrote. Many attendees had the same reactions that Crystal documented in 2004 during the Globe experiment. Original Pronunciation, they told me when I spoke with a dozen or so people during intermissions, sounded more everyday than the Shakespearean English they were used to, earthier, more musical—less like it was being handed to you on a silver platter, in one listener’s words, and more like it was uttered in Shakespeare’s London. “Once in a while,” someone said, “you feel you’re there.”

Ron Destro, too, praised the production: “There were ups & downs, but you should be very proud that you did it!” he wrote to Meadows. Meadows’s daughter, Jessica, wasn’t able to attend, but she was still impressed: Her father, she knew, was a dreamer, and this seemed like the first time he’d actually followed through with one of his dreams. When Meadows emailed David Crystal about what he’d done, Crystal sent his regards and featured Twelfth Night OP on a website he had created about Original Pronunciation. News of Meadows’s success even traveled as far as Tangier Island, where Debra Sorenson sat down at her computer and posted a message on Meadows’s Facebook page. “I’m delighted to hear this!” she wrote. “Job well done, Shakespeare.”

Fourteen

Three months after Twelfth Night OP’s final performance, Meadows decided it was time to keep his promise to return to Tangier Island, so he rented a car and invited me along. He had finished renovating the apartment in Brooklyn Heights and had recently visited his daughter, her husband, and their one-year-old son in Florida. “Just kind of did the grandfather thing,” he said. “I’d never done that before.”

I Can Do That Theatrical Productions no longer existed: Meadows had renamed his venture the Shakespeare OP Company, and he had already begun soliciting résumés for his next show, Macbeth. He still wanted to do all of Shakespeare’s plays, ideally three per year. John Windsor-Cunningham was still on board, as was Liz DeVito, and Meadows now also had a chief technology officer, a former financial-software consultant named Larry Breindel, who was accompanying us to Tangier Island. As we left Manhattan and began the drive to the town of Callao, on Virginia’s Northern Neck, Meadows told Breindel about motorcycling through Europe and being imprisoned in Turkey. “So I got up and I started doing my Zorba the Greek imitation,” he said. While Meadows sped south, they mused about what lay ahead.

There would be an American Institute of Shakespeare OP, or, at the very least, their own theater in Manhattan—and perhaps shows in Central Park or even in Harlem at the Apollo. Breindel wanted an intern; Meadows wasn’t so sure. They would send tours to Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, and Miami, and Meadows hoped for a Shakespeare festival on Tangier Island or maybe a box set of full-length Shakespeare OP films.

In truth, he had no idea what the coming years would bring. But he had a sense of how they might end. After we arrived at the Tempest and darkness settled over the marina, we sat on the deck as Meadows uncapped a bottle of whiskey and told us that, when he died, he wanted Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” to be played at his funeral, as loud as possible. Then his son-in-law, who monitors storms for the federal government, would drop his ashes from a weather-reconnaissance airplane into the heart of a hurricane.

The next morning, after sleeping on the boat, we untied it and drifted backward into the harbor, pushing off the dock’s pylons. There was hardly any wind. A swath of clouds yielded to sun, and as the Tempest motored across the glasslike water of the Wicomico River and into the Chesapeake Bay, Meadows leaned on the weathered wooden steering wheel. “It’s a great ship,” he said. “They said it was too broken to fix.” Suddenly, the wind picked up, and Meadows let Breindel steer as he paraded up and down the deck, cranking winches and unfurling a sail. “Very nice, a little bit more to port!” he cried, watching the canvas fill with air. “Oh, we’ve got a good sail going now! Oh yeah! This is what it’s all about.”

Meadows fell silent and stared into the distance, and as his T-shirt billowed around him, I thought of something he had told me before we left, when I asked what day we would come back to New York. “We’re never coming back,” he said. I wasn’t sure I’d heard him properly. “We’re never coming back,” repeated the man who was now feeling the wind on his face and gazing toward a spot on the blue horizon—toward a sliver of marsh and sand where he had earned a new name. “It’ll be just like in Peter Pan. We’ll stay there forever.”