Henry IV, Parts I and II

From the New York Times
Falstaff: Corrupt Buffoon or Joyous Inspiration?
November 9, 2000
By Ron Rosenbaum

Jack O'Brien, celebrated Shakespearean director, is challenging, no, defying, an absent Harold Bloom, celebrated Shakespearean scholar. The subject: Falstaff.

"You can't have him, Harold! You can't have him. You just can't."

It's a joyful challenge. Mr. O'Brien thinks Mr. Bloom is "a great mind, a wonderful writer," but he calls Mr. Bloom's ecstatic embrace of Falstaff "so over the top."

To which Mr. Bloom responds, when I read him that quote: "You can do a hell of a lot worse than go over the top over Falstaff. I am very over the top over Falstaff."

The Falstaff Wars have come to Lincoln Center.

The object of this contention fat, slovenly, perpetually soused sexagenarian knight-turned-highway-robber, tavern lout and misleader of youth, most particularly of the crown prince, Hal, in Shakespeare's two "Henry IV" plays is generally regarded as one of the great characters in all literature, so it's not surprising that the contention over portraying him should arouse such passion. In fact, for centuries scholars and directors have been fighting over Sir John Falstaff.

Mr. Bloom celebrates Falstaff as the embodiment of all that is natural, joyful and free in human nature. The question for Jack O'Brien and Kevin Kline, who is playing Falstaff in the Lincoln Center Theater production that opens on Nov. 20 is whether Mr. Bloom loves Falstaff too much. Whether Mr. Bloom's love is blind, or blinds him to complexities in a character to whom he gives credit (with Hamlet) for "inventing the human." Whether Mr. Bloom loves Falstaff even more than Shakespeare loved him. As much, perhaps, as Falstaff loves himself. And that's a lot.

As David Scott Kastan distilled the argument in his Arden edition of "Henry IV, Part 1": Is Falstaff "the vitalist truth-teller who exposes the life-denying lies of power?" the Bloom view "Or is he the disruptive force of misrule who threatens the hope for order and coherence?" One can find echoes of this debate over appetite and restraint in our recent political history: the bitter division over the Falstaffian appetites of a certain former president, for instance, mirror the debate between Falstaffian indulgence and good governance in the "Henry IV" plays.

Falstaff, in effect, is a giant Rorschach on which we project the conflicts within our bodies and in our body politic over the pleasures of the flesh and the consequences of human frailty. Civilization and its discontents.

Over the years it has often been a stage-vs.-page contention, with directors and actors all too easily seduced by the almost guaranteed audience appeal of Falstaff's comic turns onstage, with most scholars (Mr. Bloom is a formidable exception) less swayed by Falstaff's charm on the page.

In the 18th century, Samuel Johnson sneered at him: "The fat knight has never uttered one sentiment of generosity, and for all his power of exciting mirth, has nothing in him that can be esteemed." Even those who are relatively untroubled by the way Falstaff's wicked, wicked ways corrupt the crown prince drawing him into a plan to rob a wealthy caravan, causing Hal to lie to cover up Falstaff's crime, luring the heir to the throne into a tavern world of idleness and debauchery, away from his princely responsibilities to his father (whose very crown is threatened by rebellion) have trouble forgiving Falstaff certain things.

As recently as last year, a scholar writing in "The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare's History Plays" frostily asserted that Falstaff comes to represent a world of "degeneracy," that his "presumptuous" behavior and unconcern, even delight, at the death of others "cannot be condoned."

By contrast, Falstaff romanticizers over the centuries have made him the patron saint of Merrie Olde England, a mildly debauched Santa Claus at most. Or, more complexly, as Orson Welles did in his 1966 "Henry IV" film, "Chimes at Midnight," Sir John becomes a melancholy tragic-comic figure, almost an analogue of Lear in his struggle to maintain a brave front in the face of age and mortality. Perhaps the most influential Falstaff of the modern age has been Ralph Richardson's 1945 version, whose emotional power transformed Harold Bloom. (Richardson was "the essence of playing in every sense of playing," Mr. Bloom says.)

I mentioned to Jack O'Brien that Mr. Bloom had once told me that seeing Richardson's Falstaff at age 16 had been a revelation, his initiation not just into the glories of Falstaff, but into those of all Shakespeare.

"Yes, and he hasn't stopped talking about it since," Mr. O'Brien says tartly.

Indeed, Mr. Bloom has taken Falstaff veneration one step further, from romance to rapture. In his best-selling book "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human," he envisions Falstaff exhibiting a "comprehensiveness of consciousness that puts him beyond us," a higher form of being, "Immortal Falstaff."

Mr. Bloom attacks those who criticize this reverential view as a cabal of "academic puritans and professorial power freaks," prudes who fail to realize Falstaff's Bloomian transcendence, who fail to revere his life-affirming irreverence. Most famously, Mr. Bloom has declared: "Shakespeare essentially invented human personality as we continue to know and value it. Falstaff has priority in this invention."

One scholar, speaking for many, has riposted that Mr. Bloom has abstracted Falstaff from the web of relationships in the plays, inflated him to monstrous parade-float dimensions, "like the Sta-Puff Marshmallow Man in `Ghostbusters,' " striding through the skyscrapers.

"Absolutely not," Mr. Bloom tells me. Far from abstracting from the relationships, he believes he sees more deeply into them: "In the plays, Falstaff's major relationship is with Hal, whom he loves as the son he never had, the son who betrays him murderously."

Despite scholarly dissent, the success of Mr. Bloom's big book on Shakespeare has made his conception of Falstaff the one currently foremost in the mind of the reading public. The one that a director like Jack O'Brien, and an actor like Kevin Kline, either have to bow to, rein in or otherwise grapple with.

"You can't have him Harold . . . you can't."

Mr. O'Brien is determined to resist what he sees as Mr. Bloom's uncritical worship of Falstaff, the reduction of the complexities and scope of Shakespeare's history plays to a focus on a single fat man, no matter how witty and alive he is.

Mr. O'Brien and his long-time dramaturge and colleague, Dakin Matthews (who made the one-evening compression of the two "Henry IV" plays that is the basis of the production at the Vivian Beaumont), both seem ready to joust with Mr. Bloom's vision. Mr. O'Brien is a witty and versatile director: he has done Shakespearean and classical productions at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, while back East on Broadway he is best known for "Hairspray" and "The Full Monty," although he also made a deeply affecting success of Tom Stoppard's arcane, scholarly drama "The Invention of Love," a Lincoln Center Theater production in 2001.

Talking to Mr. O'Brien early in the rehearsal period, while Kevin Kline is still searching the depths of Falstaff's character ("Kevin is looking for mushrooms in the basement with a flashlight" is the way Mr. O'Brien puts it), one gets the feeling that as much as Mr. O'Brien would like to wrest Falstaff from Mr. Bloom's conceptual grip, he's finding the charisma of the character hard to resist himself.

"He is unbelievably seductive, isn't he?" Mr. O'Brien says of Falstaff. We're conversing, after the day's rehearsal, in a theater district restaurant called Angus McIndoe, next door to the theater that is home to "The Producers," a show that demonstrates the enduring appeal of the corrupt but charming Falstaffian type: who was Zero Mostel in the original Max Bialystock role but a Jewish Falstaff? (With his own Bloom to boot.)

Falstaff and, by implication, Shakespeare ask: is there such a thing as a redemptive wickedness, a healthy subversive wickedness, and at what point does it stop being charming and become something worse?

One thing people will discover about Mr. Kline, Mr. O'Brien says, is that "Kevin can be very wicked in this role" in a way that is a meditation on the ambiguous charms of wickedness. Falstaff's disarming charm, his expansiveness, can crowd the other characters, however sharply etched, to the margins and make it a more one-dimensional affair, an affair with Falstaff rather than a consideration of the conflicting aspects of the human psyche on the vast stage of history.

There are those who have argued that the "Henry IV" characters anticipated Freud's threefold division of the mind into id, ego and superego: Falstaff the embodiment of id and appetite, the honor-obsessed Hotspur embodying the superego, and Hal (or sometimes his stern and guilt-ridden father, Henry IV) the ego struggling to negotiate between appetite and restraint.

Jack O'Brien's role in the production is akin to that of the non-Falstaff characters in the play: they all try to rein in Falstaff's appetite for attention so that the play doesn't become one-dimensional, with roguish id devouring all else. There is so much more to the plays: the mercurial, Mercutio-like Hotspur (here played by Ethan Hawke) and the haunted and tormented King Henry (Richard Easton, who compares the king to Claudius in "Hamlet") and of course Hal (Michael Hayden), perhaps the most difficult and complex role of all. The widely admired actor originally scheduled to play him, Billy Crudup, dropped out after the second week of rehearsals for "personal reasons," it was said. Perhaps he's fortunate; it's a notoriously contradictory and unrewarding role.

"One feature of Falstaff's seductiveness," Mr. O'Brien tells me, "is his protean quality: you know, when you read something and then you get it up onstage, it somehow changes and even though . . . I've done this version before, when you get it into three dimensions, Falstaff keeps unfolding."

Part of the challenge of containing Falstaff comes from the decision to compress the two "Henry IV" plays into a single 3-hour-and-45-minute evening with two intermissions. Compression itself is not uncommon but not uncontroversial.

"My friend Nick Hytner," Mr. O'Brien says, referring to the new director of the Royal National Theater in London, "was appalled when he heard we were cutting at all. Why not do it in two evenings? What I couldn't say to him was that for them these characters are as familiar as Jefferson, Hamilton and Aaron Burr are to us. So it's different."

In the United States, if a "Henry IV" play is done at all, it's most often the more crowd-pleasing Part 1, which ends with Falstaff fraudulently triumphant and leaves out the more melancholy, dying fall of Part 2, with its climactic rejection scene in which Hal banishes his heartbroken former friend when the prince is crowned Henry V.

It's harder to get American theaters and audiences to commit to two evenings. Richard Easton argues that these logistical hurdles prevent the "Henry IV" plays from getting the level of appreciation they deserve even though they represent Shakespeare at a peak of creativity that rivals the better-known "Hamlet" and "Lear."

Compression is one solution to putting the entire trajectory of the two plays before a single audience in a single night. It's a tradition with a long history in fact: a manuscript of the two plays compressed into one, dating to 1622, just six years after Shakespeare's death, has come to light, and some scholars conjecture it might be based on a compression done by Shakespeare's company during his lifetime, if not by Shakespeare himself. Whole books have been devoted, without resolving the question, to the mystery of whether Shakespeare composed the two parts of "Henry IV" as separate plays or (as the late textual scholar Harold Jenkins argued) began writing a single play and then realized, halfway through what is now the first part, that he would need two parts to contain its richness.

The problem with compressing the two parts, the problem that Mr. O'Brien and Mr. Matthews (who also plays the Lord Chief Justice in this production, as well as the Welsh warrior-sorcerer Owen Glendower) confront, is that most compressions, like Orson Welles's "Chimes at Midnight," tend to make the two plays into a single Falstaff play (indeed, "Chimes" was released in America under the title "Falstaff").

Mr. Matthews's compression, first produced some 30 years ago (when Mr. Kline saw it, as a student at Juilliard), has been a work in progress. Mr. O'Brien directed a later version at the Old Globe in 1995, with John Goodman as Falstaff. The advantage of the Matthews version is that it preserves the balance between Falstaff and the other major characters. However, in the rehearsal process, the challenge is to control Falstaff's expansiveness. That was the problem with the scene they had been working on the September day I met with Mr. O'Brien.

That scene is the long, comic confrontation between Falstaff and the Chief Justice, representative of order and good governance in the play. They had tried to cut it at a table reading, but "when we put it up on its feet" in rehearsal, Mr. O'Brien said, they couldn't resist giving Falstaff more laugh lines back. Falstaff's part fattened up, although eventually, according to Mr Matthews, "we had to cut it back," put Falstaff on a diet.

That day it was Mr. O'Brien who couldn't resist the enchantment of Falstaff's stage turns; often it's Mr. Kline who wants to allow Falstaff full Bloom, so to speak. "I practically have to flail Kevin with a cane because he keeps wanting to restore bits," Mr. O'Brien told me.

Mr. Matthews talked about several other strategies they have used to contain Falstaff's seductiveness. One is to emphasize often-overlooked colder, darker notes in his character, those that emerge more saliently in the second part of "Henry IV." There, as Mr. Matthews puts it, "he's no longer expansive he's sponging off the powerful, he's squeezing the powerless."

And then there's the matter of Falstaff's cold indifference to the fate of the draftees who serve under him in the civil war. He's extracted bribes from those who can afford to buy their way out of the war, and then conscripts the poor and weak, dismissing them, at one point, as "food for powder," mere cannon fodder. Later he casually concedes the probability that some 150-plus out of his 160 conscripts have been slaughtered, certainly in part because of his selection of the poor and unfit. He shows no remorse that their deaths fattened his purse. Nor at mutilating the dead body of Hotspur to bloody his sword, the better to fake his claim for the kill.

"Jack has been trying to contain the sentimentalism and emotionalism," Mr. Matthews says. "You know, most scholars disagree with Bloom's view" that Falstaff's life-affirming, personality-creating greatness is the heart of the matter in "Henry IV," and that the dramas are a celebration of hedonic subversion, of wit and play as the supreme human qualities, and that all power is a corrupt betrayal of unfettered humanity's vitality. (After all, Mr. Bloom tells me, the others in the play are "usurpers, murderers, politicians, brutal thugs and hypocrites, especially Prince Hal himself.")

In the attempt to achieve balance, Mr. Matthews says, Falstaff's cruelly dismissive "food for powder" line "is still in there."

"But," he adds, "the death of the 157 conscripts has come and gone, I think. It's interesting Kevin was kind of waffling on how badly he wanted Falstaff to be portrayed in the martial stuff, and he put a fair amount of the negative stuff back in, and then took some of it out."

Indeed, the play is likely to be defined by Mr. Kline's mediation of all the complex contentions over the fat knight.

Actually, according to Mr. O'Brien, Mr. Kline may not come off looking fat so much as huge: "Kevin's a big guy, extremely tall, and when you pad him out he's huge, not just fat, not just a joke thing. He's a big guy. And now that his hair has grown long and his beard has grown long, we realized he doesn't have to wear a false beard. And oddly, what it's allowing him to do is evolve an extremely intimate real person, that isn't just a funny madman coming out. It's coming out of Kevin. It's just a Kevin you haven't seen."

And one that most people don't recognize. His hair and beard have become Falstaffian white, and, Mr. O'Brien says, Mr. Kline "told me the other day he walked down the street with glasses on, and for the first time in a long time he's completely unknown." But one thing that will have people talking about Mr. Kline's Falstaff is that for most of the play he is barely able to stand up and he makes the attempt into a prolonged comic spectacle. This infirmity of the flesh may be a signature of his Falstaff.

Those who may have been surprised that Mr. Kline would take on a comic role like Falstaff, as opposed to romantic-comic leads like Benedick in "Much Ado About Nothing," may not have seen his impressive performance as Bottom in the Michael Hoffman film version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The movie was a mixed bag of acting styles, but in it Mr. Kline virtually reinvented the role of Bottom, not as the traditional clownish, ham-handed working stiff, but as something of a wittily self-infatuated dandy.

Since Mr. Kline was unwilling to talk about his preparation for the role, I asked Mr. O'Brien if Mr. Kline was bringing something of his Bottom (no pun intended) to Falstaff.

"I see the antic disposition and the incredible intelligence he brought to Bottom," Mr. O'Brien says. But there's more to Falstaff, something both more profound and more clownish. And like the great Shakespearean clowns, beginning with Will Kempe, who probably first played Falstaff, "he's cheap," Mr. O'Brien says fondly of Mr. Kline. Meaning he doesn't shrink from the easy laugh when it's there. "I'm cheap, too," Mr. O'Brien says, "and we both like cheap stuff and so did Shakespeare! There's a lot of cheap stuff in the play, and sometimes we look at each other and ask: `Do we dare do that?' "

I asked Mr. O'Brien whether he had brought something from his experience of concocting popular theater entertainments like "Hairspray" to his approach to Shakespeare.

"This is popular theater!" he insists. "I don't treat them differently. This is the most popular theater the world has known, because it's lasted 400 years and the jokes still land. Show me another script, from Lady Gregory on, where the jokes still land. They don't with Shaw, they don't with Wilde, with the exception of one play."

So Falstaff's jokes will land, little doubt about that. Who the jokes will finally be on, where Mr. O'Brien and Mr. Kline will land in the landscape of the Falstaff Wars, remains to be seen. Will we get the Falstaff of Samuel Johnson, the critic who warned us, "No man is more dangerous than he with a will to corrupt, who hath the power to please"? Or the more life-affirming, truth-telling, profound "moral elevation" that Harold Bloom finds in Falstaff?

Mr. O'Brien himself at times seems divided on the question. At one point, he sounds somewhat like Harold Bloom when he calls Falstaff "the healthiest person in the play. He sleeps at night, he has women regularly, he's doing great. `What are we here for,' he says, `but to celebrate?' "

At other times, Mr. O'Brien reacts against too much celebration: "I think that's why Bloom stumbles and falls and gets sort of gooey and giggly about it."

Mr. Bloom says, "I totally dissent from Mr. O'Brien, although I wish he and Mr. Kline, whom I admire, well with the play."

Does Mr. O'Brien think it's his task to wrest Falstaff back from Mr. Bloom?

"Oh, I assure you," Mr. O'Brien says, "Falstaff doesn't need my help at all."

***Cast List***
Anastasia Barzee
Terry Beaver
Richard Easton
Ethan Hawke
Michael Hayden
Dana Ivey
Byron Jennings
Kevin Kline
Audra McDonald
Stephen DeRosa
Jeff Weiss
Tyrees Allen
Tom Bloom
Christine Marie Brown
Stevie Ray Dallimore
Genevieve Elam
Peter Jay Fernandez
Scott Ferrara
Albert Jones
Ty Jones
Aaron Krohn
David Manis
Dakin Matthews
Jed Orlemann
Lorenzo Pisoni
Steve Rankin
Lucas Caleb Rooney
Daniel Stewart Sherman
Corey Stoll
Baylen Thomas
Nance Williamson
C.J. Wilson
Richard Ziman

***Production Credits***
Jack O'Brien (Direction)
Dakin Matthews (Adaptation)
Ralph Funicello (Sets)
Jess Goldstein (Costumes)
Brian MacDevitt (Lighting)
Mark Bennett (Original Music and Sound)

California Shakespeare Theatre is considering a production of Dakin Matthews' adaptation of Henry IV Parts I and II for its 2004 season. Matthews is a former Artistic Director of California Shakespeare. His adaptation is a work in progress, and consolidates the plays to allow an audience to experience the a deeper understanding of characters, especially the transformation of Prince Hal into King Henry V.

California Shakespeare Theatre's 2003 season included Julius Caesar and The Winter's Tale.

More About Henry V:

Part 1: The Story of Shakespeare's Henry V

Part 2: Behind the Scenes--Making Henry V

Part 3: The Director--From Front Room to Screening Room

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