Shakespeare in court
Local writer claims he created play from which Shakespeare in Love was ‘borrowed’
Michael M. Peters has a dilemma on his hands. To look at the easygoing, bearded 53-year old with silver-streaked hair, you wouldn’t imagine that this problem could be anything terribly exceptional. At worst, perhaps a dental extraction, parking ticket or something equally mundane. But the part-time Red Bluff-area schoolteacher actually has a considerable problem on his hands: He claims he wrote the original version of an Academy Award-winning film and that his version was stolen from him. And he is willing to go to court to prove it.
Back in the late-'80s, the theater arts graduate was working at the California Institute of the Arts, a private performing arts and film school in Southern California. There, Peters taught classes and also designed and built sets for school productions. And occasionally he wrote scripts.
“I was always sort of bored with the way Shakespeare was presented,” Peters explains. “I sensed intuitively that it was wrong. With my degree in theater arts, I had the opportunity to study the Elizabethan theater in depth, and I’d acted in an Equity production of Romeo and Juliet in 1977, for the first year of the Santa Barbara Repertory Theater.” Peters quickly points out that he lived in Santa Barbara at that time. “I became fairly well-versed in theater. And the way Shakespeare was presented to me was always very stodgy, pedantic, boring and slow, and kind of uptight.”
So while Peters was employed at Cal-Arts, in Valencia, he had an idea for presenting Shakespeare in a different light. And writing a play about it. “I wanted a revisionistic interpretation of Shakespeare,” Peters explains, “that would at least probably be more realistic as to what he was really like.”
Peters recounts many of the “legends” about Shakespeare, some of which have their origins in authentic public records of the time.
“He got chased out of Stratford-Upon-Avon for poaching; there’s evidence that he was a pot smoker because they’ve found [traces of THC in] the clay pipes that he had. … There are stories of a drinking bout in a town nearby, so he was a boozer. And he had to marry Anne Hathaway because he got her pregnant.”
It was with these more or less authenticated anecdotes under his belt that Peters set about composing a modernist take on Shakespeare, a romantic comedy that eventually came to be called As You Might Like It. The basic plot is this: Young Will Shakespeare has more or less abandoned his family in Stratford for a playwright’s life in London. The Bard-to-be unfortunately has writer’s block and becomes increasingly frustrated over a piece he’s been commissioned to write that simply is not happening. That is, until he meets a would-be actor, the frisky Cecelia. Through the couple’s growing relationship, Will is eventually inspired to complete Romeo and Juliet.
Among other aspects and individuals of the theatrical and social milieu of Elizabethan England, Shakespeare must also bargain and contend with theater owners, managers, other actors, and especially his chief contemporary rival, Sir Francis Bacon.
“As I wrote the play,” Peters says, “I was careful not to put in too much historical stuff.” He wanted to maintain a very human aspect to the character of Shakespeare and consciously avoided dipping into costume drama territory. “So I injected into the play a lot of my own observations [about playwrights and productions].”
Here’s where the aforementioned legalities make their entrance. If you are familiar with Shakespeare in Love, the 1998 movie that won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, just change a few of the names and you will quickly see that the plot of the film and that of Peters’ stage play are undeniably similar. It is Peters’ contention that the film script and his stage play are basically one and the same and that his play was pirated to create the acclaimed movie.
“Whenever I see the movie,” Peters explains, “I’m amazed that they kept my stuff in.” He points out that if the screenwriter who took credit for the film had simply reverted to the “historical” personage, Peters probably wouldn’t even have noticed much similarity. “ I guess it was Marc Norman [winner, with acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard, for Best Original Screenplay for Shakespeare in Love] who just copied my play. He just looked for gags and bits and scenes and went, ‘Oo, that’s a good one,’ and he’d write that in.”
Peters says he taught at Cal-Arts from 1988 to 1990. “This is a private school founded by Walt Disney himself, who died before it opened in 1969,” he explains. “It’s an art school where artists create 24 hours a day. We’d constantly be doing new productions. Students would write, direct and act in their own plays.”
One day, Peters saw an officially posted notice asking for new plays. Since this was a common occurrence on the campus, he didn’t think twice about submitting his freshly completed, revisionist comedy about young Shakespeare, As You Might Like It.
It was the last time he ever saw that particular copy of his script.
Imagine Michael M. Peters’ surprise when, almost 10 years later, he goes to a movie called Shakespeare in Love and observes his own story unfolding onscreen without any mention of his name!
Through connections he still maintains with acquaintances in Hollywood and Southern California, Peters began to learn just how widespread script theft is in Hollywood. Gradually, he began to think about a legal recourse to his situation. Since he could not afford a lawyer, Peters began to study law on his own.
In his living room in Red Bluff, Peters brings out several articles of paper documenting his legal efforts at establishing his claim.
“I’ve been talking to lawyers about this,” Peters explains. “These cases are so time consuming and so expensive that the lawyers could not, on a contingency basis, pursue a copyright infringement case. These [types of cases last anywhere] from a year and a half to two and a half years and cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 to prosecute, on average. It’s tough, because I can’t afford $350 an hour for lawyers.”
That’s when Peters began studying law at the local library. When he was ready, in mid-November, 2001, he filed a copyright infringement complaint against Walt Disney Co., Miramax Films, Buena Vista, Marc Norman, et al., in U.S. District Court in Sacramento. A hearing was set for May 9, 2002, but when the defendants filed for a dismissal, Peters had to counter-file, and now the hearing is moved back to late June. Peters smiles and admits he expects a few more such moves before he has his day in court.
When asked what he hopes to accomplish, he answers quickly and articulately.
“There are two things that I want,” Peters states. “I want the paycheck and the Oscar.” He points out that at the very least he should receive a check for a “story treatment,” since it was from his original play that the film’s script was “developed.”
For now, Peters substitute-teaches at Red Bluff-area schools, a back injury forbidding him from further work in theatrical set design and construction, and awaits his court date in June, yet mindful of the potentially protracted battle looming ahead of him.
Shakespeare himself might have asked, “How will this all fadge?"*