In the summer of 1613 Susanna Hall, eldest daughter of William Shakespeare and wife of John Hall, a well-known physician in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, was accused of having an affair with Rafe Smith, a neighbor. Susanna vehemently denied the charge and sued her accuser, Jack Lane, her husband's dismissed apprentice, for defamation of character, in the diocesan court of Worcester Cathedral. But what was Susanna doing with Rafe late one night in the Halls' medicinal herbal garden, amid the herbigrass and the St.-John's-Wort?
The case, the record of which still exists in the cathedral archive, is the basis of The Herbal Bed, a drama by the English playwright Peter Whelan that was a hit both at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford and in London's West End and has opened on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in a new production.
Whelan, who has written six plays for the R.S.C. and is making his Broadway debut, says he got the idea for the drama while rehearsing another play in Stratford. "You could say the play cost me five pounds, the entrance fee to Hall's Croft, the cottage in Stratford where Susanna lived with her husband," he says. "It's around the corner from the theatre where we were rehearsing, and to get away for a bit I went over for a visit. The cottage is more about Dr. Hall, because he left behind the most remarkable casebook about what a doctor did on his rounds in 1613. So I wasn't thinking so much about Susanna until I read a book about the couple I bought in the bookshop. It said their life was very tranquil, but that there was one darker moment -- when Susanna was defamed and accused of having an affair."
He was having a cup of tea and thinking of the Halls' dilemma when an image came into his mind. "I knew they had to fight the case, or else his practice would have suffered badly," Whelan says. "I saw him deciding that if all three of them cover things up, as long as it can hold up in court they can settle their consciences afterward, with each other and with God. I could see John and Rafe and Susanna standing in a room. Hall doesn't want to tell them to cover it up. He wants them to come to that conclusion without his having to ask them. And the strain and the stress and the agony of the situation is what propels the play. The moment you have people trying desperately to survive, and who can only survive by covering up their real feelings, then you have the explosive material of a play."
Whelan says he thinks all plays, comedies or tragedies, "are about survival -- how to survive in your relationships with people." And the power of sexual attraction, he says, can be detrimental to survival. "It's like gravity. I once had a teacher who said gravity is both benign and malignant -- without it we would fly off the face of the Earth, but if you fall out of a seventh-floor window, you will die. Sexual attraction is like that -- without it we wouldn't exist, but people kill themselves and others and are racked with conscience and pain because of it."
The character of Susanna, he says, is a combination of truth and his imagination. "I think it's very pleasing to have just enough facts but not too many, so you can let your imagination run. But with Susanna, we have more facts. We have an epitaph on her tomb, which -- unlike Shakespeare's, which tells you nothing -- tells you a lot about her. That she was clever, sympathetic to the sick, an inquiring woman. She took an interest in her husband's medicine, something that was frowned on for a woman in her time. Later in life, she inherited Shakespeare's house, the biggest in Stratford, and on one occasion she played host to King Charles's Queen, Henrietta Maria. So she was considered the sort of woman who would entertain a Queen."
For Laila Robins, who plays Susanna, her role conveys a feminist message. "Susanna is intelligent, spiritual and also sexual," says Robins, whose New York theatre credits include The Real Thing and Mrs. Klein. "She is part of a society in which she's not really allowed to have an occupation. That she's working in her husband's apothecary is really taboo. She has a great intellectual and physical life force, and she can't do anything with it. She can't become a doctor. And it's a huge need she has."
Michael Attenborough, the play's director and principal associate director of the R.S.C., said that for him, "the play is about truth -- what is truth, and if the truth is seen as a kind of moral absolute, to whom are we to be truthful? Somebody once said to me he didn't think it was possible for people to be 100 percent honest with each other, that the most you could hope for was that we would be honest to ourselves. Susanna maintains that honesty in terms of her own integrity, in terms of her accountability to herself. She is truthful, yet she stands in the middle of Worcester Cathedral, in front of God, and lies."
Attenborough says he was intrigued by the play's connection to the Bard himself. "Obviously, all of us who work at the R.S.C. are fascinated by Shakespeare. And our fascination is increased by the fact that biographically we know virtually nothing about the man. So just maybe, through Susanna, you can see a hint that here was a woman, and by extension a father, who were ahead of their time, who were seeing life in shades of gray rather than in black and white, who were not seeing morality or religious tolerance in the same terms as the people around them. It was fascinating in 1613, and it's fascinating now."