The Upstaged Coroner, the fourth book in the Fenway Stevenson series, was set in a university theater department on the California coast, and focused on a professor and director named “Virgil Cygnus.” He was loosely based on Professor Homer “Murph” Swander, who taught Shakespeare and directed plays at UC Santa Barbara for more than three decades, and was the founder and director of the American Shakespeare Company.
He passed away a few years ago, but his 100th birthday would have been on Friday, October 15. When he turned 70, he wrote a letter that he wanted his former students to celebrate at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s main stage in Stratford-upon-Avon, but COVID prevented that from happening. A group of us, students in the early 1990s, planned to meet at Girvetz Theater at UCSB where we staged the plays, but the Alisal Fire shut down the freeway near UCSB, so we had to improvise—we ended up at a last-minute conference room in Anaheim, only a few blocks away from Disneyland. There were only a handful of us there (yes, all vaccinated), but we also hosted a Zoom call and his former students from all around the world participated. We had callers from Oregon, New York, Florida, and one former student from Wales.
Murph was passionate about Shakespeare, and often railed that the plays were meant to be performed, not read like literature. He also taught me that each of Shakespeare’s characters, no matter how small the part, was a real person with real motivations and real emotions. The creative choices we made as actors all needed to be justified outside of the reasons that the plot needed to go a certain way.
It’s amazing how many of us became English teachers, actors, or writers. One woman taught high school English for years and took students on a yearly trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Another is an award-winning playwright in New York. I hadn’t seen many of the other student-actors since graduation—and yet it was like we were still at rehearsal, arguing about the meaning of certain lines or character motivations. I think he would be pleased and amused at his doppelgänger in The Upstaged Coroner.
It was a fantastic weekend. Happy 100th Birthday, Murph!