The Shakespearean legacy of Crystal Reid Austin

The Shakespearean legacy of Crystal Reid Austin


You have seen a number of tributes to Crystal Reid Austin in these pages over the past couple of weeks. Here is mine. I did not know her well. We never had a real conversation. And yet, even from the periphery, it was impossible not to be woken up by her energy. She seemed like a cat on a hot tin roof to me. I went to her funeral. Her father's tribute was so cheerful, so celebratory, so bemused and tolerant and affirming, that I reckoned on the spot that a lot of what was great about her came from him.

Nothing makes my heart jump more than father-daughter love.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) said, "An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man." Shameless sexist! Surely the sage of Concord meant that an institution is the lengthened shadow of one remarkable person. It's not that there would never have been a Capitol Shakespeare company had not Nebraska-educated Crystal Reid given a portion of her brief life to Bismarck, but she made up her mind early on that there was going to be open-air Shakespeare in Bismarck and she, more than anyone else, made it happen. In this instance, Emerson's "lengthened shadow" takes on some additional meaning. Crystal's sudden death just days after her wedding has a dark Shakespearean irony about it. Ten years from now her business articles and columns will be mostly forgotten, but her high-wire spirit will live on every time Macbeth quavers before a phantom dagger in the shadow of the North Dakota State Capitol, every time the doomed Richard III calls for "a horse, a horse," every time Hamlet debilitates himself was "thinking too much of the event," and above all every time that Rosalind or Viola or Cleopatra wrings an improbable double entendre out of some perfectly straightforward utterance.

Crystal has given us an institution that makes Bismarck a better place to live. She came like a gust of fresh air from somewhere else and took us more seriously than we sometimes take ourselves. The best memorial we can create to her is to make sure Capitol Shakespeare thrives, as Macbeth puts it, "until the last syllable of recorded time."

I went to see Capitol Shakespeare last Sunday night mostly because I love Shakespeare (this side of idolatry), but partly to get a glimpse into Crystal Reid's world. If Sunday was any indication, her world signifies exuberance, artistry, hijinks, pratfalls, and considerable passion.

"The Merchant of Venice" (written ca. 1596) is not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays ("Hamlet," "Twelfth Night," "As You Like It," "King Lear," "Richard II," "Othello" - did I mention "Hamlet?"), but it is a great and amazingly powerful play, and it seemed fitting that the protagonist Portia is a headstrong, resourceful and playful woman who is not afraid to disguise herself as a man and who boldly takes charge while the men in her circle stand around wringing their hands. She easily triumphs over the most darkly powerful figure in Venice - Shylock - and she instantly shows her new husband Bassanio who is going to wear the codpiece and the doublet in that household.

You know the story. The Christian merchant of Venice Antonio is so determined to assist his promising, but irresponsible, young friend Bassanio that he enters into a perverse contract with his enemy Shylock, the money-lending Jew. If Antonio fails to pay back the money he has borrowed on the appointed day, Shylock is entitled to cut a pound of flesh from Antonio's body. This "merry wager," as Shylock calls it, masks the profound antagonism between the Jewish and the Christian communities in Venice. Meanwhile, Bassanio successfully woos the impossibly rich maiden Portia - by way of a "chose the right strongbox" riddle - and Shylock's daughter Jessica runs off with a Christian suitor Lorenzo - and steals her father's money bags, too.

Antonio forfeits the loan. By the laws of Venice, Shylock is entitled to his pound of flesh. You see him in court - the embodiment of greed and malevolence - sharpening his butcher knife. In the end, thanks to the casuistic intervention of Portia (disguised as a learned jurist), Shylock loses his court case on a technicality and is legally dispossessed of half of his fortune, too. Jessica marries Lorenzo. Portia marries Bassanio. Portia's maid Nerissa marries Bassanio's friend Gratiano. Everyone finds happiness except Antonio, who is left with his constitutional melancholy, and of course Shylock, who leaves the stage a broken man. "I pray you give me leave to go from hence. I am not well."

In Shakespeare's time, the usurious Jew was a stock villain figure. Elizabethan audiences cheerfully exulted in his train of losses: of his daughter and his ducats, of his perfectly sound legal position, of his serving man Launcelot, and of his pride and his dignity. It's not nearly so easy to jeer nowadays, given the appalling history of anti-Semitism. What was once a rollicking play in which the superannuated Old Testament villain (exemplar of Justice and Judgment) is bested by the New Testament youngsters (Mercy, Humanity), is now disturbing to anyone who possesses what Shakespeare calls "the milk of human kindness."

"Merchant of Venice" only works (for us) if Shylock is portrayed as a complex, often sympathetic figure. BSC theater professor Dan Rogers' portrayal at the Capitol was masterful. He managed to draw out Shylock's humanity from Shakespeare's complex text without jeopardizing the comic balance of the play. No easy task. The rest of the cast also was generally superb, and Seth Eberle and Carly Shaub brought an irresistible and over-the-top spirit of physical comedy to the performance.

It was as fine a night as you could ever ask on the lawn of our extraordinarily beautiful Capitol. Just as the play started a little tempest of wind rustled up the trees all around us, and everyone in the audience had one of those North Dakota moments when you think, "Oh no, is the wind going to wreck this event?" But the gust turned out to be an erratic, a single reminder that nature, not humankind, is in charge here. The evening calmed to shirtsleeve perfection.

As I sat luxuriating in a live performance of a play written more than 400 years ago, I reckoned that Crystal would have been exceedingly pleased. In Falstaff's words, she was not only witty in herself, but the cause that wit was in other women and men. We are all so deeply in her debt.

(Clay Jenkinson can be reached at


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