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.
The role of Hotspur is in the hands and, alas, the voice--of Christopher Walken, winner of an Academy Award for The Deer Hunter. He has done a lot of Shakespeare in the past, though one would never guess it from his current performance. His regional American accent is all too prominent. His line-readings often make no sense. There are guttural sounds, snarls, nasalities, and a tendency to make every third line a climax. He seems to operate on a well-known theory; when in doubt, shout. There are better ways to convey pride, strength, and fearlessness. All this is regrettable, for Hotspur is penned as a virtuoso of language. I kept getting the impression that Walken was rehearsing for Stanley Kowalski and repeatedly wandered onto the wrong set. (The AST's 1962 mounting of this play had similar problems with a Hotspur played by Hal Holbrook.)
The best surprise of the production is Prince Hal, originally to have been played by Richard Thomas, who withdrew to work on a television film. His successor is Chris Sarandon, whose Hal turns out to be just splendid. I had seen him on stage and screen in modern parts, but nothing prepared me for the admirably trained classical actor he proves to be. Sarandon is now 40, but he has no trouble convincing us that he is a young man half his age, right down to the way he lolls on a bench He speaks clearly, clearly, and musically-and he knows what he is saying.
Reports of the historical Hal's fun-loving and riotous youth date from his own time. But Shakespeare gives him just one self-revelatory soliloquy in which Hal claims that his carousing is essentially an act and that he knows full well what will be expected of him as a mature ruler. The notion that he is a pretender as well as the Pretender has upset many critics (Quiller-Couch went so far as to brand the speech Shakespeare's "most damnable piece of workmanship"). But it can make sense of one perceives that there are two Hals. Good OF Hal, and the Prince (it is instructive to compare the off stage and on-stage Mozart).
Sarandon delivers this speech with serious intensity, and makes one believe that he is indeed a kind of proto-Hamlet, putting on a show and maintaining a measure of inner detachment Quite consistently, he retrains from displaying as much love for Falstaff as Falstaff shows to him. And Sarandon's facial expression on finding the "dead" Falstaff alive after all is absolutely wondrous.
Quite shrewdly, Shakespeare brings Hotspur and Hal together only for the climatic personal duel at the play's end Here director Coe has made a serious mistake He bade his fight master. B H Barry, to stage the combat so that Hotspur repeatedly gains the advantage and could dispatch the Prince, but repeatedly chooses through sheer bravado to spare Hal and permit him to rearm Hal's combative skill is thus cheapened, and his eventual victory is made hollow, the result of mere chance. (It is, by the way, not known who slew the historical Hotspur.)
Still, Coe's epilogue is affecting, with Hal all alone, facing front. He plants his sword firmly in the ground, makes the sign of the cross, picks up his weapon, and determinedly and sedately walks off upstage--a man who-unlike his father, has learned from intentionally mixing with all strata of society and is well along in the process of equipping himself for his destiny as the model hero-king, Henry V.
Then of course there are Falstaff and his companions, whom Shakespeare put in the play not for comic relief but as a parallel to, and a commentary on, the main-history plot. In Shakespeare's lifetime, Falstaff was spoken of more than any other character, and the work circulated in a half dozen editions, always with a reference to the "humorous conceits" of Falstaff in the subtitle. Since then the role has been written about more than any other except Hamlet, and so tempting has it been for players that even women have acted the part professionally.
Falstaff is generally regarded the greatest comic figure in English literature, and more will agree with Orson Welles that it is "the best role that Shakespeare ever wrote" than will share Bernard Shaw's narrow view of the man as "a besotted and disgusting old wretch." We find in him features drawn from the miles gloriosus of ancient Roman comedy, from the stage Vice, Devil, Fool, and Lord of Misrule, from Rabelais and Heaven knows what else-all heightened through Shakespeare's astonishing inventiveness into something far greater than the sum of his parts.
The Cambridge community has over the years been treated to some remarkable Falstaffs. Jerome Kilty was an amazing Falstaff already as a Harvard student; and he has often done the role since, even (in the 1966 2 Henry IV) on the AST's own stage. One recalls fondly the portrayal by the late Harvard professor Daniel Seltzer, and the touring 1960 traversal by Eric Berry. Building on his experience, Barry went on to achieve in the AST's 1962 production of I Henry IV an embodiment that was in every way stupendous.
This time around, the AST has the services of that wonderful actor Roy Dotrice, whose portrayal of the aging John Aubrey in Brief Lives has, on four occasions, been a peak in my play going experience. If not yet in a class with Kilty and Berry, Dotrice's Falstaff (his first, I believe) is stunning all the same. He is quite at home in Falstaff's language-whether parodistic, satiric, prevaricatory, or just witty-and has amassed a line repertory of gestures and other movements to go with it.
He captures Falstaff's deep love for Hal, a love that is nothing less than paternal (for Falstaff is as much Hal's father as is King Henry); he is quick to tousle the youth's hair or put his arm around Hal's shoulders And he makes "If to be old and merry be a sin" as touching as Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes" Chalk up another triumph for the doting Dotrice.
The lesser roles are in general better handled than in Coe's Othello last summer. Eight of the players assume two roles apiece (the practice of doubling was of course standard in Shakespeare's day) Edward Atienza is particularly laudable as a cleanly spoken Worcester, though he overacts the Welsh rebel Glendower (who has parody built into him and does not need any more superimposed). And Karen Stott gives pleasure through Lady Mortimer's prescribed song (with a real on-stage harp accompaniment by Sophie Gilmartin), though her Doll Tearsheet, as I indicated, belongs in the sequent play, which I wish Coe would offer us complete before long.
[The AST's production of I Henry IV' continues in Stratford through August 1, to be followed by 'Hamlet' The drive to the AST grounds on the Housatonic River takes about two and three quarters hours at legal speeds, via the Massachusetts Turnpike, Interstate 86 and 91, and the Connecticut Turnpike to Exit 32 to 31. Performances in the air-conditioned theatre tend to start promptly at the designated hour. There are facilities for picnickers on the premises, and four minstrels sing and play on the lawn for half an hour before curtain.]