Hoist a cup o' sack to the Connecticut Stratfordians! With their new production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which had its official opening yesterday afternoon, co-directors John Houseman and Jack Landau have put the American Shakespeare Festival back into high gear.
The choice of this play marked an act of courage. Few people are familiar with it. Those with any knowledge of the plot have usually acquired it through one of the dozen or so operatic versions, chiefly Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor, Verdi's Falstaff, or Vaughan Williams' Sir John in Love. But the directors were willing to gamble (or gambol); and their slot (or slut) machine has come up with three cherries--a winning combination that ought to keep the box office coffers filled and the audience coughers silent.
Many critics have been quick to look down their pedantic noses at Shakespeare's Merry Wives. They decry its lack of psychologic or philosophic depth; they bemoan its coarse language; they complain that almost none of it is in verse. Indeed the play is prose, but not prosaic. And the critics blame Shakespeare for not producing what he never had the slightest intention of producing. There is evidence that Queen Elizabeth I was so delighted with the character of Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV that she commanded the writing of a play about Falstaff in love; and that, in compliance, Shakespeare wrote his Merry Wives in fourteen days, with nothing in mind but providing a joyous entertainment.
Merry Wives is not tragedy, nor tragicomedy. It is not even comedy; it is farce pure and simple (also impure and not-so-simple). And it is a most significant item in the canon, through being the only play the Bard ever wrote entirely about the ordinary citizenry of his own day and locale. Actually, it is a transferral to the stage of the comic medieval French verse-tale genre known as the fabliau. The fabliaux and the play depict contemporary society and diction, delight in practical jokes, revel in adultery and cuckoldry, and indulge in frank and often obscene language.
Here the dramatist, whether in two weeks or not turned out a masterful and hilarious cock-and-ball story. Like the fabliaux, the play is "mosts pour la gent faire rire"; it embodies the English version of l'esprit gaulois. Merry Wives certainly joins the company of the other classic representatives of the fabliau tradition--Boccaccio's Decameron, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and Balzac's Contes Drolatiques. So cease, ye carpers!
The current directors took the play at farce value, and acted accordingly. They have come up with a show that is fast, funny, and fluid (in more senses than one). There is not one dull moment. And there is not one inferior performance: every player is at least up to par, and most of them far above it. Praise could be distributed simply by listing the entire roster of performers.
One reason for the general excellence probably lies in the fact that the text does not require the players to convey the music of poetic lines--an area in which the company as a whole is weak. This is not to say that the writing in the play lacks interest; far from it. The text is a rich mine of various kinds of lower-class Elizabethan speech, including laughable treatments of French and Welsh dialects. It is filled with captivating puns, doubles ententes, and novel images; and it constitutes a veritable dictionary of original invectives, insults, and expletives.
No production of Merry Wives can succeed without a good Falstaff. In this fat part Larry Gates gives by far the best-rounded performance in his several years with the Festival. Wearing 75 pounds of costume, he is indeed a "gross watery pumpion"; and when he sits or falls, the earth trembles.
Of course this "puffed man" is not quite the same as the Flagstaff who inhabited Henry IV. There he had much nobility, and always emerged victorious. Here he is noble in name only; his I.Q. is perceptibly lower, and he always comes out vanquished. But he's still a lovable old wretch, even though "given to fornications, and to taverns and sack and wine and metheglins, and to drinkings and swearings and starings, pribbles and prabbles."
As the Wives of the title (and, as Falstaff thinks, titular wives only) Nancy Marchand and Nancy Wickwire are properly merry. The latter (Mistress Ford) especially does some fresh things with her lines. For instance, when she is leading Falstaff on and tells him, "I fear you love Mistress Page," she raises the last name in pitch and volume as though in summons, whereupon Mistress Page pops into view by mistake. And Sada Thompson adds much to the humor of Mistress Quickly through a command of subtle inflections and timing.
We meet again some of Falstaff's wonderful cronies from the Henry plays: the red-nosed Bardolph (Edward Asner); the swaggering Pistol (Richard Easton); Nym (Severn Darden), a "fellow frights English out of his wits"; and the aged Justice Shallow (Will Geer).
Among the newcomers, the Welsh parson Evans, who "makes fritters of English," comes off well in the hands of Richard Waring. And Morris Carnovsky is marvelously crotchety as Caius, the French physician, who is normally "abusing of God's patience and the King's English." Carnovsky has introduced some side-splitting bits with a rapier; and indeed the entire Evans-Caius duel scene is brilliantly staged. Jack Bittner rants vigorously as the Host of the Garter Inn with an excessive penchant for the adjective "bully." Frederic Warriner is aptly idiotic and cringing as the suitor Slender. And nine-year-old Mark Carson acquits himself admirably in his amusing Latin lesson with Evans.
Much of the farcical byplay is implicit in the lines; but just as much remains to be invented, and this production is inventive indeed. Dr. Caius' business of hunting for his green box turns into a frantic cat-and-mouse chase through double closet doors--an old gimmick, but still effective. When Falstaff says, "There's my purse," he reluctantly drops a small, silent pouch--obviously empty. The wives make a big point of exchanging the love letters to be sure each has the right one, when both letters are identical. Ford's "The clock gives me my cue" is accompanied by strokes on a cow-bell. When Falstaff is smuggled out in the laundry basket, the wives have to sidle along together to hide Falstaff's enormous hat from the jealous eyes of Ford. After Falstaff has drunk some sack, he is still conveniently soaking his legs in a tub of hot water, so that he gets an extra laugh by gesturing to the tub as he exclaims, "Take away these chalices." And so on.
A good deal of credit must go to the ancillary contributors. Will Steven Armstrong has designed the scenery, with some translucent green-and-tan drops; his solution for changing the scene to Herne's oak for the masque finale is highly ingenious. In fact, never before, it seems, has the Festival stage been employed by the directors with such virtuosity and flexibility. Much humor derives from the outlandish costumes designed by Motley. Mistress Ford wears an outfit of incompatible orange and mauve; and when it is side by side with Mistress Page's fuchsia one, the combination is an awful eyesore. Slender wears a pink doublet, amber hat, and ridiculous flowered chintz trousers.
Irwin Bazelon has composed the most appropriate and witty musical score in the Festival's history. The opening dissonant notes, with their absurd instrumentation, immediately set the mood for farce. Here and there a xylophone is comically used. And Falstaff is often accompanied by a tuba solo--a coupling that is just as apt here as is the pairing of the tuba with Sancho Panza in Strauss' Don Quixote. (This production even includes the actual dumping of Falstaff into the Thames; and what Falstaff later calls his "kind of alacrity in sinking" is conveyed by a descending tuba scale.) For the concluding dance of ouphes and fairies, Bazelon has composed more droll music--for tambourine and bass drum, with ludicrous oom-pahs in the brass.
My complaints are few and minor. Hiram Sherman, being innately comical, cannot as Ford quite convey "the finest mad devil of jealousy that ever governed frenzy"; perhaps it would have been wiser for him to exchange roles with Patrick Hines (Page). Ford is also too half-hearted in his cudgeling of Falstaff disguised as a witch; Falstaff ought to be beaten "grievously." Falstaff, in recounting his indignities, misses the point by interjecting, "a man of my kidney"; the sense demands, "a man of my kidney." Finally, the closing explanations of the triple elopement seem sudden and confusing because the portions containing the precise conditions and preparations have been excised. It seems unwise to do any cutting in this play; it is a relatively short one, and the running time of this production is only two hours and ten minutes.
Everyone connected with this production has brought along the necessary amount of wit. And I strongly urge you to see for yourself that Shakespeare could turn out a helluva good bedroom farce.