STRATFORD, Ct.--The English have always been fascinated with the history of their own monarchy. Just as the ancient Greeks knew the stories when they attended dramatizations of their tragic myths, so too the Elizabethans were familiar with the outlines of their royal history but never tired of seeing it portrayed.
Shakespeare catered to popular taste by writing 10 plays dealing with English history from the 13th to the 16th century. Eight of these cover the near-century from 1398 to 1485, organized into two tetralogies. Shakespeare did not write them in chronological order, however, so it is the more accomplished of the sets that deals with the earlier period and most often reaches the stage.
Richard II shows us a rightful but incompetent king. The two Henry IV plays give us an efficient ruler who usurped the throne. Only in Henry V are legitimacy and lustrous leadership combined in one man. Last summer, the American Shakespeare Theater's new artistic director, Peter Coe, chose Henry V to inaugurate his tenure and was lucky enough to enlist the formidable Christropher Plummer for the title role. Coe is kicking off this season with the second play in the sequence, which the AST has not offered for 20 years.
The late Kenneth Tynan, as dazzling a critic as recent years have seen, came to believe that "the two parts of Henry IV are the twin summits of Shakespeare's achievement. Line-hungry actors have led us always to the tragedies, where a single soul is spotlit and its agony explored; but these private torments dwindle beside the Henries, great public plays in which a whole nation is under scrutiny and on trial."
Two decades earlier, another great critic, James Agate, reviewing a production of I Henry IV, stated: "Shakespearean history is like beer; some is better than other some, but none is bad. I could sit for hours and listen entranced to such cataloguing as: 'Of prisoners, Hotspur took/Mordake the Earl of Fife, and eldest son/To beaten Douglas; and the Earl of Athol,/Of Murray, Angus and Menteith.'" I doubt that there are many who would agree with Tynan, and I'm sure precious few would echo Agate.
But both Tynan and Agate were Britons-and we are Americans. Director Coe, who is English himself, had to make numerous decisions about how best to present I Henry IV at Stratford-on-Housatonic rather Stratford-on-Avon. In his printed credo, Coe announces as his goal to "realize, to as great a degree as possible, the playwright's original intention." Fine, but Coe has proceeded to depart from his promise in several ways.
First, Coe has settled on a running-time of two and three-quarters hours (plus intermission), which means that the text had to be cut. That is pretty standard these days, since directors generally assume that audiences will not sit through an uncut text (unless it's written by Eugene O'Neill). But Coe has cut more than usual here. To what end? Well, instead of letting Henry IV speak his opening lines, Coes has the King sit in silent thought while we hear a taped chunk of Richard II played on a loudspeaker with a hideous echo track.
Coe then decided that the more Falstaffian comedy he includes, the better American audiences will like it (he may be right about this). So he has imported Doll Tearsheet from 2 Henry IV and interpolated a low-life scene from that play. And just before the end of the show, after the climactic Battle of Shrewsbury, Coe brings on Falstaff to declaim his long paean to the wonders of sherry sack--which also comes from the later play--and thus mars Shakespeare's carefully wrought conclusion. There are, too, some lines that have been moved from their proper place.
Coe may be fond of 2 Henry IV--indeed I am found of it too-but he should realize that the whole story cannot be presented in one night any more than can Wagner's four-day Ring cycle. The tale takes four plays to tell, but each one is self-sufficient and intelligible by itself Attempts to conflate two or more plays have been only partly successful-as Orson Welles discovered in his 1965 film version, Chimes at Midnight.
As it is, I Henry IV strikes many as a work in which Falstaff got away from Shakespeare and walked off with the play. And it is true that Falstaff's is the longest role in the play--without any interpolations from elsewhere. But the playwright's main business here is serious history. In fact, I Henry IV is the earliest extant example of the word history used to designate a dramatic genre. By playing down the history and inflating Falstaff (who is already inflated from excess of food and drink). Shakespeare's balanced design shuttling from palace to pub, from province to plain of battle-is upset.
Then there is the matter of vocabulary Shakespeare's Falstaff says. "I am melancholy as a gib cat or a lugg'd bear." But Coe's Falstaff changes this to "castrated cat" (and no bear), thus running the punchy parade of six monosyllables. Coe has also seen fit to supplant wenches with daughters Nit-picking, you say? Then how about Coe's alteration of one of the most famous lines in all Shakespeare? When Prince Hal comes upon the supposedly dead Falstaff, he says. "I could have better spar'd a better man" And Coe has substituted the word lost. That's the problem give an emender an inch and he'll take a mile. Do we really need Shakespeare translated into Basic English? What happened to "the playwright's original intention" of which Coe wrote.'
As to the mounting itself, Coe promises that his productions "will be set to period and will be staged on a set that approximates Shakespeare's architectural space "No complaint here. The ASI has, in prior regimes, given us enough gimmick ridden shows land in 19th century Texas of 20th century Latin America.
David Chapman has provided it of last summer's stage a two stets set with rugged wooden posts a pair of up stage stairs and down stage floor-traps and a few basis pieces of furniture that can be raised or lowered instantaneously. This allows for maximum fluidity and Coe has taken good advantage of it. Chapman's costumes sometimes smack of the bargain basement, but the AST is counting pennies these days in order to survive Mare B. Weiss back here for the 18th time, has helped the production enormously with his mood-enhancing lighting.
In the historical plot, the three main characters are Henry IV, his son Hal, and the Percy rebel known as Hotspur. At the time covered by the play, the actual King was only 36, and the other two were a generation apart at 16 and 39, respectively. Following the lead of one of his sources. Daniel's epic poem The Civil Wars and of course his own dramatic instinct. Shakespeare made the King older and the two rivals both about 20.
Michael Allinson looks sufficiently like a troubled and suspicious monarch whose reign has not been what he anticipated when deposing his predecessor. He sounds a good deal like the late Cyril Ritchard though he lacks Ritchard's inflective range. Since the King has a number of lengthy speeches. Allinson's delivery is annoyingly monotonous.