Mike A’Dair’s New Book “The Ashbourne Saga: A Cinematic Epic in Fourteen Episodes”

Ladies and Gentlemen, let us celebrate the publication of Mike A’Dair’s new book of “screenplays for a television miniseries,” dramatizing the heroic (and tragic) saga of Charles Wisner Barrell (1885-1974) — a major contributor to the fledgling effort to establish Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford as “Shakespeare” during the first half of the twentieth century. I could hardly put this book down and found myself reading through its 684 large-size pages in just a few days. The only thing better might be viewing a production of it on screen! In any case I hereby recommend The Ashbourne Saga ($49.99 on Amazon) for an absorbing, informative and emotional journey through the heart of the Oxfordian movement in its early stages.

The saga begins in London in 1847 with the discovery of the so-called Ashbourne Portrait of William Shakespeare, auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York in 1928 and purchased in 1931 by Henry Clay Folger’s widow for the new Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C..  The painting had already become controversial, with M.H. Spielmann having warned in 1910 that the aristocratic nature of the portrait precluded it from depicting the Stratford man; and in 1932 the Oxfordian author Percy Allen argued that it originally had depicted Edward de Vere but later had been retouched. Then in 1940 Barrell reported in the prestigious Scientific American that his investigations with X-ray and infra-red photography revealed the portrait had originally been that of a nobleman, Edward de Vere, but had been altered to better conform to the Stratfordian conception of Shakespeare. This was a bombshell in support of the Oxfordian case.

Barrell’s public triumph ultimately became his nightmare, however. In 1948 he brought suit against curator Giles Dawson of the Folger for suggesting in a letter that he had doctored his X-ray pictures.  Drawing upon the actual depositions for the dialogue, A’Dair provides a dramatic account of the arguments, leading to how and why the suit was dismissed in 1950. Devastated over having been unable to prove his case, and feeling he could never recover his reputation, Barrell stopped writing for publication. (My understanding is that he continued to research Oxford’s life for more than two decades, before his death at eighty-nine in 1974, but that all of that subsequent work was destroyed.)

Barrell had been a significant art critic in New York as well as a journalist and consultant for Bell Laboratories, also producing documentary films for Western Electric; but then he seized upon the authorship issue with enthusiasm and zeal. In a scene from this book in 1934, he confesses to his wife (Marie) and mother (Mary) that “the spiritual foundation of my life has dried up” and announces his new plan:

Barrell: “All I am interested in now is de Vere. So I intend, with your consent, and hopefully, with your blessing, to return to the life I led before journalism.”

Marie: “You would quit your job, during a depression? Now I know you’re loony!” (Playing scornfully on the name of J. Thomas Looney, founder of the Oxfordian movement with “Shakespeare” Identified in 1920.)

Barrell: “The life I’ve been living here, the daily grind, this isn’t why I was born. Mother, you know that I was born to write … There’s a transformation in our understanding coming and I want to be part of it.”

Marie: “And while you are out writing, how will we survive?”

(His mother pleads for calm while admitting that Marie “does have a point.”)

Barrell: “We have ten thousand dollars in the bank. If we live frugally, we’re good for ten years … I’d say that, within ten years, and hopefully sooner, I will have found something to cinch the case for Oxford.”

After adding that he will have to make several ocean voyages to and from England for research (his wife will make at least one trip with him), he gains their consent, but not before his mother issues a warning that will turn out to be prophetic:

Mary: “Well, Charles. You must do what you must do. But for myself, I’d rather you were researching anybody — Keats or Shelly or even Milton — anybody other than Shakespeare. To me Shakespeare is a sacred name, the greatest man who ever lived. For you to imagine you could chip away at that, knock Shakespeare down from his throne, well, they are going to laugh at you, Charles, and they are going to try to destroy you.”

Before that happens, however, Barrell will do some of the greatest research and express some of the most profound insights (in superbly written, eloquent essays) that the Oxfordian movement has generated. Along the way, as we follow his journey in this series of teleplays, at least two interrelated themes deserve attention: (1) Barrell’s discovery that Oxford’s mistress Anne Vavasour had given birth to his illegitimate son, Edward Vere, followed by his conviction that Anne is the “dark lady” of the Sonnets, making their son a second “fair youth” (the first being Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton); and (2) the growing division within the Oxfordian movement involving the so-called Prince Tudor theory of Southampton as Oxford’s unacknowledged royal son by Queen Elizabeth. In A’Dair’s screenplay, this division is dramatized in various ways up to the final dialogue in 1950 between Barrell and Charlton Ogburn Sr., an advocate of the PT theory (which, in 1952, he and his wife Dorothy Ogburn would set forth anew and expand in This Star of England).

In his introduction A’Dair explains that his “guiding interest” is not only to solidify the Oxfordian case but, as well, to “portray the human dimension of the people who made all these astounding and recondite discoveries.” The arguments against the Stratford man “did not drop down from heaven or bubble up from hell,” he writes; instead “they were won, slowly, by long, hard hours of tedious literary and historical investigation.” As a result, he adds, “I have found that effort heroic and I wanted to portray it in a dramatic work of cinematic art.”

Well, I’d say he has achieved that goal. True, there are no car chases, no bank holdups, no shootouts, no torrid love scenes; nonetheless, he has put together a work of emotional, intellectual and artistic integrity — not to mention that it stands as a record of this history that current and future students of the Shakespeare Authorship Question will find to be of interest and value.

I intend to write a full review of this book for a future issue of the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship Newsletter; meanwhile, I should add here that although the Folger Library has proclaimed that the Ashbourne Portrait does not depict “Shakespeare” but a former Lord Mayor of London (1627-28) named Hugh Hammersley, it is A’Dair’s conviction — based on the computer work of Mark Anderson for the cover of Shakespeare By Another Name (2005), his biography of Oxford — that Barrell “had been right all along” and that “the subject of the Ashbourne Portrait was Edward de Vere, better known to the world as William Shakespeare.”

In a real sense, then, as A’Dair points out, his current book of teleplays covering events up to 1950 comprise Part One of the entire saga, which, even today, has yet to be satisfactorily resolved. (See “The Ashbourne Portrait: Part II, by Barbara Burris.)

Mike A’Dair is a poet, playwright, screenwriter, independent scholar and author of Five Essays on the Shakespeare Authorship Question (2012). He attended California State University at Hayward and lived in San Francisco during the 1970s before moving to Willits, a small town on California’s north coast, where he still resides.

The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://hankwhittemore.com/2017/05/10/mike-adairs-new-book-the-ashbourne-saga-a-cinematic-epic-in-fourteen-episodes/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Conflict between common law & equity
    Edward Vere Case


    Edward Vere 17th Earl of Oxford’s case of 1615 occupies a rather unique position in the development of the English legal system and is frequently referred to as the corner stone of equity in the modern English legal system. It could be said that the case shares an Ipso Facto [1] relationship with the Court of Chancery, with each party relying; unconsciously on the others existence for their development. Ipso Facto is a phrase believed to have been made popular by Thomas Gray poet and historian in the 18th century with it’s origins to be found in Old English and Latin.

    Ultimately these issues ended up being causes in the Civil War

  2. Great review, Hank. Definitely on my reading list! Congratulations to Mike for his accomplishment bringing this story to print.
    Kathryn Sharpe

    • Thanks, Kathryn! (I enjoy your Facebook posts when I see them, by the way:-)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: