Fri Jan 30, 2004 6:59 pm - Shakespeare’s Henry IV at the Vivian Beaumont
On October 28th I saw a performance in the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre of the Lincoln Center complex of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, sort of. Sort of, sorrily is the way it is in our current hapless directors’ theatre.
What I actually saw was a four hour version of Shakespeare two plays of roughly three hour space cut down to four hours by the nefarious Dakin Matthews with scenes not always in the order Shakespeare wrote them, a few lines added by estimable Matthews, no doubt himself a masterful poet, to smooth his new continuity. The scenes were cut to suit this remarkable Matthews, no doubt a near relative of William Shakespeare; I suppose the director Jack O’Brien, sated with presenting masterpieces by geniuses who know what they were gong, was hungry to stage a skein of episodes Shakespeare hadn’t structured. Anybody can direct a great play. It’s mounting a disaster and convincing an audience of gulls they haven’t been invited to a pretentious catastrophe that’s hard.
The coarse patchwork of this evening wasn’t as free as the famous Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford movie of the Taming of the Shrew with the legendary credit: script by William Shakespeare with additional dialogue by Sam Toylor, but it had that kind of aesthetic one remembers in that bizarre movie. Douglas Fairbanks had played it straight, had the Shakespearean gift and was wonderful in his way as Kevin Cline is in this production; everybody else in that hoary flick had been at least slightly miscast. Some couldn’t handle the lines at all, either Shakespeare’s or Sam Taylor’s somewhat less elevated blank verse. The director in this successor to that debacle must have noticed early something was rotten in the state of Denmark and several other provinces in this spectacle. There apparently had been quite a few changes in the play from its first preview. Sometimes one lards a different sauce on a fiasco. One can hope the audience notices the salsa.
One of the assistant directors commented to a friend of his in a conversation I overheard about how after two weeks the “play ran more smoothly”. Given dropping Shakespeare’s structure the original version of a play Shakespeare had decided not to write must have been quite choppy.
This production of Henry IV had a great lead, Kevin Cline as Falstaff, a good Henry the although many of his lines and scenes were cut by mandarin chopper Dakin Matthews; otherwise the cast including the hapless Ethan Hawke was really terrible; none were really good enough in craft to play their roles. Some were positively awful. Of course Hawke is a realistic movie actor, a synthetic fellow with an artificial career who was one of the draws.
So was Aurora MacDonald, a Black singer cast as Hawke’s wife, showing her talents at Elizabethan chirping in a song not in Shakespeare version of his own play. Luckily she has only a few lines. Hawke isn’t as fortunate. He is terrible at some long and extricating leisure.
Yet as long as Cline is on stage, which is most of the some in this shredded version, this production is more than worth savoring. He is as good as they come. When he isn’t around Richard Easton as Henry IV is excellent as the polyhedrous king though he isn’t around as much as Shakespeare wanted him to be. Michael Hayn is forgettable, not well crafted vocally but at least physically a presence as Prince Hal; he has no technique at all but he at least tries to get into the character with very limited intuitive skills of the Actors Studio variety.
I suppose dogged intelligent failure is more worthy of our attention than catastrophe such as Ethan Hawke’s from lack of talent and sloth. When both Cline and Easton aren’t on the boards one could be watching a community theatre fiasco staged by churls in deepest long Island.
Theatre is about persuasion and effect, not authenticity. Shakespeare doesn’t have to be done uncut or unmangled; it doesn’t even have to have an English accent to sound persuasive. Boito’s libretto for Verdi’s great opera Falstaff borrows from Henry IV as well as The Merry Wives of Windsor, is in Italian, and is utterly convincing. It’s arguable that structurally Boito’s version of Othello makes more sense than Shakespeare’s. You have to have Boito at the helm to do a job like that. You don’t get artistic rogues like Dakin Matthews.
The model for this lame atrocity was a great film, never credited either in the playbill or notes: Orson Welles’ Chimes At Midnight. The shift to making Falstaff the protagonist, the cutting around the other characters to give Welles a great role was Welles’ idea, hardly foaled from the lesser brain of poor Dakin Matthews.
Welles of course got no credits here. When you have Orson Welles making an adaptation and playing Falstaff you have a genius hacking away at Shakespeare’s two plays; somebody on the level of Welles is liable to come up with something intriguing if it isn’t Shakespeare’s intent. If one puts the same odd hunger to make a new play from Shakespeare’s materials in the hands of hacks one gets what I saw on this evening.
Shakespeare only demands greatness in actors; the rest is up to them. Douglas Fairbanks and John Barrymore were suburb stage actors who cold play Shakespeare with a mid-Atlantic accent that served them very well. They both had vocal range, could do accents of all kinds; they worked in an American Shakespearean tradition that went back Elmo Lincoln, flourished most famously in the heyday of Edwin Booth. We in America think of somebody vaguely from Massachusetts as speaking something like English.
In the United States we accept that kind of formal and vaguely patrician accent from nowhere as genuinely almost English. As one of the technicians in the production who got me my comps told me, half the cast simply didn’t even have the vocal talent to alter their voice and accent. One heard Ethan Hawke do Harry Percy as if he were from a small pig farm in Ohio. My friend told me Ethan Hawke was told by the director Jack O’Brien to do a generic English accent; stead Hawke sounded as if he should be prodding porkers on an acre of land somewhere near Cleveland.
Nothing Hawke did on stage was persuasive or secure; even his walk and how he held himself varied as much his vocalization wavered. C.J. Wilson as Douglas didn’t even try a Scottish accent; the ubiquitous Dakin Matthews as Glendower didn’t sound like a Welshman either. At least he gave it a try; he was better doubling in a small part as Warwick. The erratic skills of the performers gave the production sonic incoherence that was comical when it wasn’t merely annoying.
When couldn’t help thinking that all the money spent on this disaster might have been better spent looking for people of talent, assuming one was certain the world needed a mangled adaption of Shakespeare. One doesn't even have to look like the part in a Shakespeare play. Burbage was middle aged when he played Hamlet. One simply has to be extraordinary. I saw Orson Welles do a great King Lear in a wheelchair.
We all know that Shakespeare didn’t have wheelchairs in his time. Welles made his little vehicle aa central prop in his stage business. I saw James Earl Jones do a stunning MacBeth; there certainly weren’t any Afro-African kings in Scotland even in the almost forgotten past. If one has talent and even acting genius one rides over authenticity.
As Shakespeare said himself, probably thinking of this play and Henry V, having twelve actors joust with swords on an empty stage wasn’t exactly an emulation of a war. Theatre isn’t
really the imitation of peace either; it is too interesting.
Sometimes the memory of being rich makes poverty a double woe; the recall of bedroom capers with an extraordinary lover does injury to all other intimates. The virtue of the one great actor in the production, Kevin Cline, advertises the incompetence and to ineptitude of everybody else. If this production, at the level of a college production, didn’t have a virtuoso like Cline in it one would notice how comparatively limited and dilettantish everybody else on the stage was.
Back in the 50s certain actors like Charlton Heston of Lee. J. Cobb would tour colleges with a traveling cast of five or six actors, allowing the college departments to cast the minor roles with their own local talent. This two tiered level of competence or lack of it was pretty much what it felt like to be watching this show. It’s great of course for the minor actors if they have the stretching ability to get up to the level of a great actor because otherwise they would be embarrassed to be on the stage.
Actors love to work with performers better than they are; they discover something about their talent they never knew before. The other thing is that one realizes one can’t stretch; one gives a vigorous but not wide ranging performance because it is all one can do. Sadly, I felt that way about most of the actors in this hapless production.
Moreover there was no coherence, no central vision in Jack O’Brien’s direction. One saw five or six styles of acting mixed together in a fantastical potpourri when the actors had nay style at all. Jeff Weiss, an excellent physical actor whom I had seen in the Village decades ago doing work of an Artaud persuasion, was very strong and funny a Justice Shallow but worked in a style at an oblique angle from anyone else on stage.
Weiss at least was intriguing to see as an actor at work. Others like David Manis as Pistol had no style at all; he bawled out lines like a dunce is a sitcom. Shakespeare almost always has very complex and introspective characters on stage because only such types can be comfortable with his wild rhetoric and run of feral similes and metaphors.
To play this kind of role and actor has to have the ability to create such characters and lines himself but the sensitivity to understand them. Falstaff is a delicious character, a rogue but very witty with Shakespeare’s searching intelligence.
Almost certainly he was played by the actor who did Polonius in Hamlet, there are even two lines about his being “behind the arras” as if Shakespeare couldn’t get the odd phase out of his mind from one play to the other. Prince Hal and Hamlet are fairly similar characters, probably played by the same actor as well. Richard Burbage.
I have always suspected that Prince Hal and Harry Percy were played by the same actor too. They are never on stage together, are polar yet parallel; in the one seance where hey meet and fight, Shakespeare could have had hem do it in visors with another actor.
Some of the scenes in Henry IV are quietly and insinuatingly similar to Hamlet. The king has ascended to the throne by stealth and sinister means, the heir to the throne is a young sardonic fellow with a talent for acting in improvised plays, he makes semi-cocci fun of Polonius and the ripe Doll Tearsheet as Hamlet does of the same actors in his own play.
Hal has a kind of irritability like Hamlet. My own theory, utterly speculative is that Henry IV Part One and Part Two and Hamlet came out of the same inquiry Shakespeare took up about his relations with his own son Hamblet. It’s a name in itself not far in sound from Henry, Harry and Hal and Hotspur.
Certainly all three plays turn on relations between fathers and sons. It’s not merely the two Harry’s and their fathers in the duo of history plays but as well adhesions and conflicts between sons and surrogate fathers, the curiously conventional relations between Horatio and Polonius, almost certainly the same actor who played Falstaff, the biting and cruel wit of the double Harrys as well as Hamlet, and that Shakespeare’s son Hamblet himself had a father who had risen to a kind of regal status in London through an art as deceptive as the means of Henry IV and Claudius.
Shakespeare was after all the sons of a provincial innkeeper who probably showed up in London in his early 20s with a west English country accent he rid himself of quickly enough and a very erratic education comes from self-taught study’ as he says in the guise of Prospero, as a child he was too busy reading books to notice much of the domestic political infighting going on around him.
Somewhere back of the both historical dramas and the tragedy one can smell if one is cunning a very idiosyncratic genius pondering over the difficulties with his son with the singular ability of Shakespeare to entertain and chew over almost any point of view at all unless the character is low and coarse. Shakespeare as one who must have seemed a country lout to some as Abraham Lincoln did to many Americans form the east in his time didn’t think provincial were quite as human as Londoners.
That’s why Welshman and Scotsman take a little bit of a beating in the two parts of Henry IV and Hamlet, a prince of the Danes, a nation that had conquered and settled England many centuries before ad left many of their descendants in Brain, were seen by him as a bit on the melancholy, warlike and barbaric side.
Italians were civilized but cunning and Machiavellian, Moors lustful, and so on. Shakespeare was much more likely to be sympathetic to Shylock; he was rich and a Venetian alien not unlike himself in another country.
He was less happy depicting anybody who was the sons of a slave or a villain. Shakespeare didn’t have any trouble identifying with a man who was at once part of a society but an alien from it; he was that sort of half legitimate person himself. Shylock’s speeches about his biological legitimacy speak for him. I also think that Shylock, probably played by the same actor who did Falstaff and Polonius is reflected in Polonius’ famous “neither a borrower nor a lender be” discourse.
I would guess Shakespeare had been beaten out of more than few pounds by somebody he trusted, a lamentable sense of betray which happens to most of us; few of us have engendered as result his poetic inquiry about loaning money revolving around both men. On the other hand Shakespeare really could not abide having low characters around even in his plays without trashing them. Iago is such a character; a villain is, one must remember, is what Iago was: not a bad guy but a steward for a feudal lord. Iago makes many charming blue remarks to others; he often has the best lines in the play.
We don’t see in our time in which bawdiness is a virtue how much Shakespeare himself must have bane cloven about Falstaff’s and Hal’s visits to tavern and bawdy hoses. After all Shakespeare’s father ran a tavern. Many of the scenes between Falstaff and Hal occur in a tavern.
Shakespeare must have also had very ambivalent feelings about Hamblet’s lack of appreciation of him as most fathers do. One must feel much compassion for the young Hamblet as Shakespeare calls him in his play that is a kind of covert memorial to his son a few times; William Shakespeare was, as they say, a hard act for any kid of his much less a stranger to follow.
The real Hamblet apparently died before he reached his majority. Perhaps Shakespeare thought of him when he wrote about Hal, Hotspur and Hamlet, all of whom perished in relative youth. Something of this ulterior competition survives in Falstaff’s long monologue about who is real, who counterfeit standing over the dead Hotspur. It’s a hidden discourse on one who has lamentably survived his own son. It’s very possible that Shakespeare with his overlay of a London accent and spotty education might have seemed like a counterfeit himself to a lot of Londoners. After all nobody is more of a public counterfeit than an actor.
Shakespeare, one might imagine, pushed his son Hamblet as a genius learns to take up industry in a desperate way that most people would find inimical to their character much less their interests. When one get close to a genius as children do they see not the gaudy character the public knows but the driven and inwardly alchemical spirit invoking heaven and hell to reinvent himself as well as a theatre of one kind or another where he can be what he claims to be with the credentials of a magician and the talent of a genius.
As much as we are grateful Shakespeare was what he was and did what he did, it is pretty scary stuff for a son.
One should have no doubt about what Shakespeare was like and thought about himself; he’s left his opinion of his own character with its satirical bite and sometime melancholy all over his plays, sometimes quite overtly in Berowne and Jacques. One also sees in these dramas how people took him. Unlike most of us he could play himself on stage and get applause for it. Most people play other characters and still get trashed for their performance.
Like Shakespeare, Hal and Hamlet are improbably both actors as well as sons of nobles. It’s possible that some of these delicious theatre scenes reflect Shakespeare’s and Hamblet’s improvises when they were at home, shifting parts back and forth. My guess is that Shakespeare put Hamblet into some minor roles in his company, possibly for example on of the you princes in Richard Third and the boy in Cymbeline and Triolus and Cressida. Very probably Henry IV’s own rueful speeches on the means that he became a king might reflect Shakespeare’s own sense of run and fragility about his claims to nobility.
It’s plain that the issue, not significant to us in this democratic age tact is led by men who at least show in public none of the pomp and hunger for legitimacy of kings, was central to Shakespeare; as he says in The Tempest and As You Like It he found legitimacy in magic and exile from his land in a magic world n which he was the central necromancer. It must have been weird and difficult for the young Hamblet to have such a father. If the motley Henry IV I saw has the inherent incoherence of any adaptions with major surgery of a another man’s very idiosyncratic personal efforts, even the costumes had that kind of principled confusion; its baffling lack of internal integrity gave it the consistency of a repeated and finally banal vice one at best tolerates out of pity.
Some like Prince Hal seemed to be vaguely in modern dress although he looked like a character out of a comic book; others wore medieval costumes like inexplicable characters in a dream. The drama itself, off kilter because it hadn’t been designed by Shakespeare, was all the more skewed became the lines if not the dramaturgy were almost all his.
The taped music had kind of ambient quality with orchestral and choral stabs like a movie melodrama; at least it had the consistency of repetitive stupidity.
This Vivian Beaumont and Mitzi Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center sorrily is knows for this kind of quality of deep internal confusion. A few years ago I saw the very limited sitcom talent of Helen Hunt self-destruct in Twelfth Night on this same stage. It had all the meretricious faults of this production. Helen Hunt, the draw but completely miscast, out of her range, had to step nimbly to avoid falling into a swimming pool in the middle of the set that had a major role in the presentation.
As I have said, in trying to give Shakespeare two plays meant to be played, one imagines on successive late afternoons, Dakin Matthews seriously and centrally compromises and lacerates the structural intents of a form Shakespeare had carefully fashioned with a lapidary hand in these two dramas. As one can see in the epic and leisurely Henry VI and what parts Shakespeare wrote in Henry VIII these are devices Shakespeare had worked out which offer an audience a milt-dimensional meditation on history, principally certain themes are presented tragically and comically by different characters in the same play.
In this version one gets a large portion of Henry IV’s lines cut out along with a central contributions of political forces Shakespeare had put into Part Two. Playing the two parts as is on one night would be repetitive because they are two main actions; the adaptor has to cut one of them very severally, even wholly, to make a play one can see in an evening that has not go to the break Shakespeare wrote deliberatively into the material.
What seems central and august in one scene takes the same material and presents it farcially or trivially and back again. Sometimes Shakespeare will take up a more linear action as he did in Richard Second or Richard Third and create a tragedy. Certainly his Julius Caesar is a kind of tragic play with Brutus as the flawed hero.
With something of the structure of Hamlet shadowed as it is by similar scenes, it implies there are no clear lines between tragedy and history or for that matter any form in Shakespeare; as Samuel Johnson says the style mixes many approaches.
In Henry IV Part One and Part Two the king who has a wastrel son is jealous of one of his allies who has a regal sons he would have liked to have foals, Harry Percy, called Hotspur. Both the fathers and sons parallel each other, first in their hopes and their losses. Both the sons have brothers that are their allies. Falstaff plays in a Hamlet-like bit of craft a play within a play in which Falstaff and Hal go back and forth in an improvisation playing both father and son.
Kevin Cline’s performance emphasizes this darkly playful resonance. A consummately intelligent as ell as great actor, Cline knows his lines will be funny, his character will be a rogue; for this reason he aims at all times for dignity and grandeur, never for easy laughs. There is nothing cruel about his Falstaff. He has the capacity for elevated sadness whenever he can manifest it. His last scene with Justice Shallow, which could be played as low comedy, is heartbreaking.
In some sense Hal has taken on Falstaff as a roguish guide rather than his father; one discovers he hasn’t seen his father for three months and has spent no time with him at all at the beginning of the play. The main action of the play to the extent that there is one is the movement of Hal for Falstaff, his surrogate father, to Henry IV, his real father. This only occurs after the death of the king. In a pivotal serene Shakespeare has Hal remove the crown from the aged and perhaps dying kings bed and put it on himself, then hurry out of the room. Hal makes his explanation very persuasive, usually played as if we should believe him.
Perhaps he is cleverly lying. In any case he never becomes other than a wastrel and angry abetter of thieves until his father dies. The niche is open for him to take the throne and he can reject the prince of rogues; Falstaff.
Shakespeare has a few speeches in which Henry IV refers rather ruefully like Claudius to the unsavory means by which he got to the English throne; he may remind us of Claudius in Hamlet yet the venal and equally murderous Claudius has no son. In Hamlet Claudius wants to call Hamlet his son and heir to the throne; Hamlet rejects him. There is obviously in this shifting of materials some inner resolution of something personal going on in Shakespeare’s mind.
I suspect that both Hamlet and Hal were played by the same actor. That would identify Richard Burbage as Shakespeare’s choice for Prince Hal. Hamlet’s ghost tells Hamlet that he is now in hell because he had perished before he could be striven of his sins by confession. We never see the queen in Henry IV; this monarch seems to have had a son without a mother. Later in another play we do see Henry V woo his French princess. We do see Harry Percy’s mother as well as his wife Prince Hal never trashes his mother like Hamlet; she doesn’t appear in the play. He does have some witty reposes to the whores in the tavern he and Falstaff frequent.
Henry IV has a kind of open lechery in its lines one doesn’t find in Shakespeare elsewhere. There is ribald talk of visiting bawdy houses, some equal innuendo about casual coitus of a bare sort,. And even a hint that Falstaff has been the amaranth of Doll Tearsheet; after all she is, as she says, easy to discover sexually, wants to marry him.
One assumes Shakespeare didn’t write an eight hour play like Henry VI or Henry IV, then cut it into parts without thinking deliberately what he was doing. Henry V, Richard II, Richard III, King John, are all neat linear plays done within three hours. Shakespeare probably favored such large double and triple tiered structures much as Richard Wagner did to keep the audience combing back into the theatre on successive evenings.
Certain themes one finds in Homer and Sophocles haunt Henry IV as they do many of Shakespeare’s other history plays. Accidents perhaps designed by murky fates occur that seem to turn the battles one way rather than another in Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus.
There is a feeling of hidden nemesis and ruling pagan gods in these history plays even if in some cases the characters are Christian. It’s plain Shakespeare was a pagan.
My insider friend who had got me the freebies for this show remarked to me before the play while commenting ruefully on the lack of talent and craft in this production that the Vivian Beaumont complex is as close to the English National theatre as we have in America. Certainly the Vivian Beaumont is like Lincoln Center itself an imitation of that notable set of theaters by the Thames if it has two theatre to London’s complex of four, no traditional fare over centuries of masterpieces nor a living craft accessible to it if others in New York have it that can deal with a work that assists both in the past and the present. There really isn’t much difference between the physical technology available to either city or the magical staging I saw in the Duchess of Malfi last year at the Royal Shakespeare productions of Jacobean plays at the Geilgud in London. Like these English sets, this two headed and limb lopped off Henry IV had an austere stage, fluid movement, intriguing costumes doing the work of defining character and teem while in fact there were as Shakespeare players working in a kind of emptiness that itself adds a strange flavor to the magic.
Rather curiously some of Shakespeare’s most early devices of theatre enter into Henry IV. There are long speeches of insult and depreciation in this history play such as one finds richly in the very early Henry VI. There is much wild run of wit and concern with wit, sometimes asserted by Falstaff, as one find In Loves Labours Lost.
There are many passing jobs about natural inequality mirroring the vertical clad system of Shakespeare’s England. The run of rhetoric is rich and spectacular. Shakespeare doesn’t struggle to have to persuade an audience that people can be clever though then and now one finds in rarely in life. He has princes, various nobles and colorful rogues to do that for him. Even Sir John Falstaff is of patrician birth.
We would have trouble in America identifying a class or a group among us whom we would presumptively accord the franchise to be witty. We won’t find it too quickly among our professors; they are too busy in their politically correct colleges not trying to make enemies and keep a tenure that entitles them to all the freedom to be clever of a minimum security prison.
One has to commit a white collar crime and be caught at it to have their freedom. We have many rich and poor slaves but we don’t have nobles to attribute bon mots even by playwrights making sugary fictions; we only have oligarchs known for their capacity to inspire boredom as well as terror.
Most of the audience on the evening I attended seemed to be upper middle class theatergoers who could pay the sixty dollars minimum for this spectacle or were theatre people who were friends of the huge cast. One of them during the intermission, a pleasant young man of Asiatic descent who was probably a theatre major or English scholar, said to me: ”They should have called this play Falstaff; they never cut one of his lines or scenes.”
The doubled skulled if one had been removed surgically Henry IV got the biggest cuts for the king; there was a also whole major sub plot that had disappeared. Given the erratic abilities of the cast I can’t blame the director, Jack O’Brien for featuring his one trump: Kevin Cline. Yet were one to see Shakespeare done in England, there are no bad actors ever in minor parts. They all learn their craft.
In these Vivian Beaumont productions the cast is the equivocal harvest of some poltroon thinking of the financial draw. Sometimes they got an actor like Kevin Cline, one who can play western heros as well as he can do Falstaff. The other draw was Ethan Hawke, a different caliber of talent who might have been an understudy at most major collages, and who can’t stretch too far out of easy realistic roles.
One sees very commonly on Broadway that casting is done by who draws, if even if the star can’t play the role. Once the audience pays the money for the tickets it doesn’t matter. After all there might be a genre of entertainment that exhibits draws who can’t act not acting. The Maize Newhouse and Vivian Beaumont theaters are not easy stages to for even a competent actor to play on.
It is very large, three sided, seats about two thousand in the audience, is in a large chamber with many echoes. The actors are miked because few of them have the voices to be heard in such a huge space. Even with the mikes one heard a lot of bawling and shouting such as Shakespeare makes fun of in Hamlet. Jack O’Brien, the director, went for the broad stoke, not for subtlety. One can't blame the director. Aside of Kevin Cline and Richard Easton as Henry IV the poor man had bupkis out there.
It’s true that playwright, particularly when in a hurry, sue old material in what they hope are new ways. Echoing Welles’ film in which Falstaff seems to be facing these confounded scurvy bells at the end of his life, the phrase “chimes at midnight” comes from Falstaff’s remark to Justice Shallow, a farcical character in this history representing provincial rudeness: “We have heard many times chimes at midnight.”
These lines remind one of Sir Toby Belch’s speech of mingled melancholy and feral hunger for life: “If music be the food of love, play on...that strain hath a dying fall.” and alter, “Shall we have no more cakes and ale” and so on. I would reckon the same actor played Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night.
Falstaff is engaging because he is afflicted with a deep inner melancholy. He blusters, is fragile inwardly, frail and doughty as many of our contemporary crones maundering on our Florida the shuffleboard courts he has once had conventional hopes and ambitions. He remarks sentimentally in passing about his days of hope as a page in a long perished court. It’s plain that he came to his current nihilism and roguery by degrees after having many other more noble ideas.
The fear of death that is at the center of Falstaff actions and wit, is echoed by many other characters in this play. Falstaff mirrors the line: “each man owes God a death.”. There is a similar line in Henry V. Most of the characters in this play either die or come close to it. Henry V himself as his audience knew died at a fairly young age. The black Angel haunts this play.
Many critics have spoken of Prince Hal, afterwards Henry V as Shakespeare ideal king. I think there is a certainly a shallow partial truth to this view; one might say it verged on treason in Shakespeare’s day to have presented his monarchs one after another including Henry V as very fallible and tormented characters with blood on their hands. Shakespeare is definitely a monarchist in the same sense Montescqieu was a century or so later in his monumental Spirit Of the Laws; both men saw the need for some executive power but hoped they would be checked by other estates if not always by virtue.
If all that stood between the populace or the nobles and havoc was the whim of the monarch to be moral they were in parlous straits. We have ourselves constitutionally if not in reality in the United States that Rome-derived idea of Shakespeare and Montescqieu: a sort of near dictator for four years, a Senate to harry and check him, a justice system to confound both in their caprice.
The history play is a form Shakespeare took from others before him, yet made his own with qualities that are native to his genius rather than following more minor writers. Usually this genre has a single main action told straightforwardly with no comedy and subplots.
Shakespeare both in this form and the tragedy garlands this skeleton with a shifting view of the same materials as if her were offering a slowly moving kaleidoscope or a lugubriously whirling polyhedron with inner lights in which the comedy echoes the serious scenes in parodies that are characteristic of his often irrepressible satirical talent.
It might be more accurate to see Prince Hal as one more variation of a slightly disguised inner life of William Shakespeare than some exterior monarchial ideal. Shakespeare often casts himself as a noble, duke or king. Like Hamlet and Prospero, Hal is exiled if in this play by his own choice from his father, living in a roisterous theatre within a theatre in which making improvised plays is one of the chief entertainments. He has a brother if in this play he has a brother as ally, a curious relation to his the son of his father’s enemy though once ally, Harry Percy, who is not a ghostly brother but a kind of doppelganger, everything legitimate Hal is not, yet like Hal and Shakespeare something of a satirist.
Hal has as well two fathers of sorts, King Henry IV and Falstaff, one of whom is a an open rogue of great wit, the other a more dour rogue of tragic mein. Henry doesn’t see his roguery mirrored in his son in a different way. Shakespeare mounted in this material in play after play; he was a consummately autobiographical writer though some have missed his confessional nature in his plays.
In life as in some of his dramas he returned to Avon finally as a legitimate gentleman; we probably have his father who misunderstood him and criticized him to thank for his plays although many have had such fathers and none but one have written like Shakespeare.
Jonson’s description of Shakespeare in the flesh as a satirist and student of nature is aptly seen in Prince Hal and Hamlet. There is a kind of natural manic comedian in Shakespeare in plays that others would have made consistently dark that Samuel Johnson calls attention to in his studies of the English poets. Much of Henry IV like his serious works from Henry VI to Hamlet and Richard III is comedy. Shakespeare must have noticed what his trump card was in history plays early: comedy is missing from King John and it is lousy. We have to play our trumps as creative intelligences when we can; it’s as if Shakespeare can’t help being amused by his tragic plots and times. He breaks out into parody and wit when it isn’t called for.
Shakespeare was one of those playwrights who like Noel Coward and Moliere was also the director and a main actor in his productions. We can usually spot the parts Shakespeare played; he rarely has too many lines, balm for an actor having to learn therm; his speeches are usually the moot wild and philosophical runs of his verse.
He played along the way, Berowne, Mercutio, Friar Lawrence, various dukes, Hamlet’s father’s ghost, Fortinbras and so on. Like Alfred Hitchcock his appearance was his signature.
My guess is that Shakespeare was thinking initially of playing Harry Percy in Henry IV Part One. If he didn’t do it, he wanted to do it. John Barrymore, another tormented comedian, intuitively felt where Shakespeare and written for himself or an actor who could play him; he played both Mercutio and Hamlet. Shakespeare certainly played Mercutio, a character whose lines never advance the plot and seems rather unconnected with the main action. It’s also true about Friar Lawrence. Shakespeare could pay both; he wrote the play so that they never appeared at the same time.
The other quality Shakespeare is almost unique for is a capacity to invent wild metaphors Na simile. Only John Webster is in his language for this; then we have only two plays of Webster’s in that niche of wild language. Unfortunately we don’t have his letters; I think it’s clear from his plays and the lack of letters in other plays of his time that he was quite a letter writer.
Marlowe has the language too; his verse is always wedded to the action; Shakespeare and Webster have characters who are in love with slinging words the point of mania.
Falstaff is the only character of Shakespeare’s popular with Queen Elizabeth to the point where she asked Shakespeare to write another play with Sir John as the protagonist. Old and fat as he is, the butt of humor as he finds himself when contending with Prince Hal, Falstaff is a character unique in Shakespeare though he is used again in a minor way in Sir Toby Belch, Polonius, and Brabantio. One might ask: why is Falstaff not merely an unforgettable character in Shakespeare’s plays in a language of his own but very probably not even an important character to Shakespeare when he wrote the first lines of Henry IV Part One? Something happened as soon as Shakespeare took the action from the court of the king to the inn where Falstaff and Prince Hal spent their time that must have surprised Shakespeare himself. After all, the main action of the play was about the bloody hand sinister rise of Henry IV and his unhappy relations with his son, not a comedy about one of Prince Hal’s chief collaborator in London roguery.
Once the play takes off Falstaff is pushed into action he would have probably avoided like the Battle Of Shrewsbury and the rather deceptive dispatch by Henry’s forces later of Douglas and Glendower.
Falstaff has monologues in the most improbable places; he is in fact the chief monologist in a play about other people. Shakespeare according to Jonson was a very good looking man; since he never lived beyond 52, wrote most of his plays between 24 and 46 it’s strange that something in Shakespeare resonated with a character who was old and obese hustler and rogue. We don’t have monologues in our current theatre; yet it is the only chance a playwright has to offer the inner life of a character in a genres mostly of surfaces and manners.
One can only approximate this offering when a character reveals all at a denouement or if he is known as a petulantly honest fellow. When a playwright gives a character a monologue he breaks the action to either offer motive for this actions or has the character state hi philosophy. Falstaff does the latter.
Of course Falstaff is himself a satirist, wordslinger and comic wit like Shakespeare; I think there is more to it. Falstaff nihilistic discourse on life as a kind of virile force that stands apart from honor, his comment that all men die anyway; some survive longer than others because they avoid honor and conflict, probably represent some of Shakespeare own sallies in his private life.
Rather curiously the character one would expect to run monologues at us is Prince Hal; yet he has none. He remains something of an enigma to the end of the play to us. Perhaps he was as much for the author.
As Falstaff stands over the dead Harry Percy, he comments that he is no counterfeit knight; Percy himself is a counterfeit. He looks like a living man but is a corpse. In fact overbuy on the stage in that scene is a counterfeit; they are all actors. The supposed dead Percy is as much a counterfeit living actor as well. One should not forget that Falstaff stands primally for a father figure who has killed his son, the wrong father and the wrong son, in this craft a kind dream commentary on what Henry IV would have liked to have done to Prince Hal.
Ernest Jones in his study of Hamlet is very good at picking up these multiple images. Shakespeare at once handles complex plots with efficiency and runs these ambiguous dream images at us. There are innumerable examples of this technique in this play: we have after all three fathers, two sons and even the brothers of the sons as two sons more.
This sort of talent is why Shakespeare rarely invented a plot or characters; he borrowed from Greene, Plutarch, any history book, other men’s plays, always in the spirit of parody. Shakespeare’s talent was piqued by the notion that whenever he was in the presence of another man’s work he thought he could do it better or at least make it more witty. That’s why Jonson called him a satirist, why Greene called him a “magpie”. Satire is a kind of moral, acceptable and focused use of rage.
Falstaff stands both for Shakespeare, Queen Elisabeth and ourselves for the wild hunger for life that bypasses hope, looks, ambition, and the sanguine history of England itself. Shakespeare usually makes fun of drunks: the Porter and Justice Shallow in this play are drunkards. He dislikes any libidinous taste, erotic or alcoholic that coarsens the character of a human being. This play has the same line in MacBeth about liquor exciting erotic ambition but inhibiting performance.
Since Shakespeare says it twice, it might have come from episodes in his own life where he realizes the value of sobriety in bed. Outside of Toby Belch, who is a minor character, Falstaff is the only lush in Shakespeare plays whom Shakespeare gives the license to praise drink. It stands for Toby Belch’s melancholia “that music hath a dying fall”, it resonates in us because we are this ancient fat man hungering for more life it only to revel and sweat in bawdy hoses is within us no matter what age we are or what station we have.
When Falstaff reminisces toward the end of these two plays about his days as a young age in court we feel with a rueful twist of our heart how far he has come, how much youth has turned to caraways age, how it is the lot of all of us if we live awhile to become our own uncouth parody before we die. There is much talk between the two oldsters Falstaff and Shallow that all men must die. They know many men in their ripeness who have indeed perished.
It’s one of Shakespeare intriguing skews of reality going back to Lovers Labours Lost that nobles are partial to writing letters, even literate, that they are witty and moreover are elevated folk who value wit. Perhaps it was true in his day. What do I know? I’m an American.
I’ve never met a noble; only a few minor oligarchs. As for metaphysical beings, even the minor angels have never set with me over a bowl of Vegan chowder.
To give an idea of the ineptitude of poor Ethan Hawke in this production, when Harry Percy says to Hal: “I have lost my youth” in a straight ahead voice and Ohio accent in a speech that is supposed to be piteous; at that moment the audience laughed. That should have told the director something about the talent of his hapless actor playing that role. Lamentably, he was one of the draws.
One sees on the august walls of the theatre the various names that have endowed this shaw. It doesn’t operate on low commercial enterprise; it has names like the Rockefeller Foundation, the Mellow Fund and all sorts of ballooner patrons on its walls. One might think that these American nobles would be able with such massive input of lucre to influence the quality of what we groundlings see.
I’m hardly all that queer for the authentic. It’s a kind of metaphysical hope at best since we can never experience it. As Antony Burgess says, even a few weeks after Shakespeare wrote Hamlet he couldn’t see it as he had written it. Too many topical elements in his life had changed. If we can help Shakespeare with technical effects that dazzle the groundlings he didn’t have why shouldn’t we? I very much believe with Sir Thomas Became and Leopold Stokowski that if the musicians and writers of the past had our options of pretention they would take some of them up instantly.
It’s particularly true about Shakespeare because he complains about his lack of means to do certain things on stage like battle scenes. Since he didn’t like bawling actors he would have used miking if he had had it; it’s right for this production to use it to conceal the limits of craft of actors without sufficient vocal equipment. Nothing we have now in our magical pharmacies in the way of elixirs or simples can help their lack of intelligence.
Yet if one is going to use that vaporous imprimatur to make the skewed and meretricious goods out of Shakespeare masterpieces because like Hamlet’s ghost he is dependent on the living to stand for him in this world, we are liable to be haunted by the spirit of the Bard maundering in the wings of the Vivian Beaumont complex calling for vengeance on those who have dishonored his immortal soul.
One may wonder after seeing several productions at this Lincoln Center complex, thank God always on comps, why many of theme have a meretricious quality at their center that leads all this money and patronage of the local rich to disaster aft disaster. One of the elements is that once the playwright is dead they treat him like a cockroach even if he is William Shakespeare.
The only good play I have seen from this venu is Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, which they couldn’t mangle because Stoppard is alive and would have strangled after slow torture whoever was in charge had they done to him what they did to the lately perished Avon bard. They will outlast Stoppard; one Stoppard goes pffft they will deal with him too like Shakespeare as if he is some sort of noisome insect.
These Lincoln Center assassins like dead playwrights because they can treat them like Hamlet’s father’s ghost. One the playwright kicks off, they need the living to intercede for them as Hamlet eventually got around to doing for his father’s spirit. The Lincoln Center crew aren’t afraid of ghosts.
They act this way because they have a singular arrogance and contempt for both playwrights and their audience that isn’t common or a ubiquity in New York; from company to company one sees varying standards of morals and honor toward plays.
This is the same city that has companies like The Mint, an almost ideal set of theatre people with elevated nations of their calling. I’ve seen stunning productions of Shakespeare here from The Pearl, a company who did a magnificent Richard Third last year with the great Dan Dailey, Troilus and Cressida done to a startling and heartbreaking turn by the superb American Shakespeare Company a few years ago, and even a great Revenger’s Tragedy a while ago by the, shall we say politely, very erratic Cocteaus. We have the actors, the style, everything else to do great Shakespeare, great anything in New York.
This part of the dilemma is the audience. If they would stay away form these catastrophes because they are looking for caviar and are served scrapple, in a money culture though Lincoln Center is fed by innocent patrons it would all turn around; the fare would be better. Instead they probably do show up to see a fake actor with a synthetic careener like Ethan Hawke in person as if he were the living Adonis or perhaps they cruelly enjoy how he publicly makes a fool of himself.
Ethan Hawke is a good looking man; he is not an actor. In a movie the insiders give him a gun and tell him to snarl Anglo-Saxon epithets. The man should never appear on the stage unless as the audience did this envying, the hope is to get a few cruel laugh out of his woeful lack of talent butchering lines Shakespeare wrote hoping to be tragic.
Do we take in these coarse parodies of old plays at Lincoln Center because America is a rhinestone country with an Alzheimer’s take on yesterday that has a brassy disdain for the past? No.
Sadly we live in a retro culture. We love the past because it much of it once made money; history for us is like a series of shopping mall brand names for English gourmet marmalade. Ii’s easier fare to market brand name preserves to the purblind rubes than the more murky jams of our always half known or unknown present. As a result there is almost nothing on in New York stages but plays who have turned many a coin into the pockets of dead impresarios in other times.
From butchering the imaginary corpse of Shakespeare to egregiously shameless miscasting, the injury to the Bard is at bottom a moral issue between these hacks and heaven. The adapter Dakin Matthews is guilty of lack of talent, impudence, arrogance, contempt for both William Shakespeare and his current audience. Most of all this drudge is guilty of an unforgivable sin in theatre: mediocrity. The director Jack O’Brien is equally ethically culpable for betraying both author and audience, directing a fiasco only a draw not from his mostly inept cast but almost entirely Boccaccio William Shakespeare wrote the scenes if not the play,
Most of the cast were woeful to the point where they should never have been on the stage even in a Three Stooges tribute. The patrons from diverse Rockefellers to Mellon were stupidly prodigal with their money. Lucky they have a lot of it.
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