While it looks like a novel and reads like a novel, I can let prospective readers in on a secret: Fools and Mortals is not really a novel. It’s actually a paean, an encomium, a love lyric written by an old man who has fallen in love. Old men who fall in love are always fools, but sometimes that foolishness washes away the accreted knowledge of a lifetime to reveal a silver seam lying under all that conventional knowledge.
That is what has happened here. Bernard Cornwell, who is 75 now, ten years ago fell in love. He fell in love with the theatre, with that strange, uncertain magic that happens, sometimes, when people get up on a stage and tell a story to a group of strangers, uniting them all into a shared world. According to Cornwell’s afterword, he’s been acting with the Monomoy Theatre in Massachusetts for the last ten years and this book is the fruit of that extended love affair. While ostensibly about the travails of Richard Shakespeare, jobbing actor and younger brother of the slightly more famous William, it is really an encomium to the theatre and, in particular, to that group of actors, entrepeneurs, playwrights, theatre goers and nobility who, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries created modern theatre in London. While wrapped up in a story of theft and treachery, Fools and Mortals is really about the extraordinary set of circumstances and people that made this all possible, and it’s a celebration of a sort of miracle in plain sight: the creation of a play that works. Having a wife who works in theatre, as actress and voice teacher, I’ve got some second-hand insight into how remarkable the whole process is and how contingent. If not for a London audience large enough to support the theatre and thirsty for new plays, if not for Shakespeare, Burbage, Marlowe and Johnson and their ilk, there would not have been plays to sate that thirst, and if not for a nobility willing to sponsor and protect the theatres and theatre companies from the censors and puritans of the age, it would never have come together.
Fools and Mortals is a celebration of theatre, of this every day artistic and financial miracle, with a side order of story. The story is fun, but the play’s the thing.