Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Henry VI plays

In the midst of all the hubbub of Mobility Shifts (to be blogged about eventually)  and of teaching three classes and doing who knows what else, I took three hours or so to see the New School for Drama's production of an abridged version of the three Henry VI plays. These are famously under-discussed in Shakespeare criticism; the late plays have an entire critical apparatus about them, centered around ideas of 'romance' and more recently 'late style,' ideas that can encompass even plays of debated quality and authorship like The Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII. Early Shakespeare, by contrast, has little constituency, despite some classic treatments  by scholars such as Theodore Weiss; although the early comedies, A Comedy of Errors and Two Gentlemen of Verona, have thrived in performance (and musical adaptation) they have not always attracted the most rigorous criticism. The Henry VI trilogy does not even have the crowd--pleasing aspect of these comedies. Full of referents--people, places, contexts--that still meant something to Shakespeare’s audience, where the times described were on more distant than those of the 1880s re to us, but that mean little even to the most historically acculturated. Whereas Shakespeare’s other history plays can get by on their psychology and dramatic action and a sprinkling of knowledge, the Henry VI plays cannot. And this is after Shakespeare has smoothed to the chronology considerably by not including, in the material covered by the third play, Warwick’s turnabout and Henry VI's brief re-ascension of the throne. 

Moreover, Henry VI is such an uncharismatic figure--sickly, pious without really being holy, somebody whose inability to effectively occupy the space of the monarchy allows for the excessive sway of the regent, Humphrey of Gloucester, in the first play; the rebellion of the peasant leader Jack Cade in the second; and the rebellion of the Duke of York and his offspring in the third play, couched in terms of legitimacy (that become increasingly mechanistic, as every royal aspirant whom somebody or other does not like is deemed illegitimate and a usurper, slightly in the manner of the Obama 'Birther' controversy) but in fact conceived in terms of competence. if Henry VI had been competent, the Yorkist cause would have had no place to stand; it is not comparable e.g. to the Carlist cause in the Spanish nineteenth century which was certainly based on legitimacy.

Thus one cannot cast Brad Pitt as Henry IV; one wither has to have an ineffectual-looking male actor or a female, which also raises interesting issues of gender politics, The director of the new School production, Casey Biggs (who I saw, superbly, play Claudius in the 2009 Theater for a New Audience Hamlet (with Christian Camargo as Hamlet) uses nontraditional casting both to comment on the King’s inherent unkingliness and also to make the tableau more dynamic, make it less historical and more dramatic. The bare- Butoh-influenced staging and the sense both of bleak despair and dark melancholy the stage's white tableau suggested added to a deracination necessary to take the play out of a strict referentiality. Surprisingly the abridgment into a manageable three hours' traffic did not damage the play appreciably; its three parts--that centering of Humphrey’s regency and the slow war of attrition, elevated by the stunning, unpredictably emergence of Joan of Arc, that made the formerly heroic English invasion of France into a quagmire, that centering on Jack Cade’s rebellion; and that centering on the Lancaster-York rivalry--were intact. The Cade play has always been my and most critics' favorite, and its cadences and attitudes are noticeably Shakespearean, so much so that, admittedly intuitively, I do not think he had a collaborator for it, I see it is largely by Shakespeare’s own hand. Not only are the humorous byplay and linguistic riffing on the dramatic situation consummately Shakespearean--and absent in plays I consider falsely ascribed to Shakespeare such as Edward III—but Shakespeare’s skepticism of the fickleness of the crowd and populist leader’s seen in plays such as Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Troilus and Cressida, is manifest here. It is too much, though, to say Shakespearean takes the side of King against peasant, the establishment versus anarchy. He recognizes that the ineffectuality of the king is what has provoked this, and generally that the reign of Henry VI, with its inexorable slide from the glories of Agincourt into civil strife and desuetude, is some sort of karmic payback for the arrogance of the English monarchy’s overreaching in its claim to the French throne. Moreover, he is worried about the anti-intellectualism of Cade’s populism, with its desire to kill off all the lawyers and clerics,  worried that a rage against the establishment will kill off high culture as well. Cade himself is confused about his relationship to the establishment, being a populist leader proud that his father was a bricklayer, yet simultaneously claiming descent from Edward III and the status of Ear of Mortimer. Cade challenges the personnel of the monarchical institution, but not the idea of monarchy--he does not have the imagination to do it, and in all the above plays Shakespeare's biggest critique of the crowd over and above its caprice and inconstancy, is its lack of imagination.

The New School production, which had begun with reciting the “O for a muse of fire’’ invocation of heavy V, ended with the scowling Richard of York, made no happier by his brother’s ascension to the throne, snarling, "Now is the winter of our discontent….” Although Edward, as the legitimate son of the Duke of York, inherits the throne which would have been his father's had not the Lancastrians gotten to him, Richard, in the last part of 3 Henry VI, asserts that he has the same name as his father, so is in some sense the real heir. Legitimacy has been boiled down to a farrago of interlocking and almost nonsensical assertions; the genie that has been taken out of the bottle by the overthrow of Richard II cannot be re-sealed; the very idea of royal legitimacy has been splintered into a multitude of improvable claims. By showing us the arc of history between Shakespeare’s toe most famous history plays, Biggs and the New School for Drama actors have shown us how daring it was for Shakespeare to write these plays, among the first depicting an attested historical event in English drama (thus going very much up against the Aristotelian tradition), and how they should receive far more attention in the context of Shakespeare’s overall achievement.

No comments: