Monday, January 25, 2010

Henry Again: Turns Out I Had it Wrong

Turns out I was speaking from ignorance yesterday when I dismissed Shakespeare's Henry VI plays as a lesser enterprise, fit for obsessives and pedants. I' ve since run across Roger Warren's Oxford UP edition of Henry VI Part 2, including a splendid stage history that sets my own view pretty much on its head.

Warren must be about my age; he says he (too) was "fortunate enough to encounter" the Henry plays pretty much the way I did--through the BBC "Age of Kings"--that's the series that Chez Buce has been viewing just lately. But then in a brisk and informative narrative, he carries us both backwards and forward--not an overwhelming task because, as Warren says, "almot all productions of Henry VI since the 1590s have occurred within the last fifty years." Even with this limited stuff, however, Warren is able to show actors and directors haltingly feel their way to a modern understanding of their material. He says that BBC production from which both he and I take our departure was like many Shakespeare productions of the 1950s....vigorous, straightforward stagings, strong and clear in narrative, without perhaps probing very deeply into the meaning of the text or the language in which it is expressed." But performances of this sort didn't succeed in reestablishing the play in the public mind. "That was achieved," Warren says
by a remarkable production at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1953. Warren expands:
When in 1960 Peter Hall became Director of what ws then still called the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (renamed the Royal Shakespeare Theatre the following yer," he aimed to create a long-term company, the nucleus of which would continue from one year to the next, performing both in Stratford and London; and he succeeded in doing this so quickly that by 1963 he had assembled a versatile group of actors equipped to deal with the challenges of the Henry VI plays and led by Peggy Ashcroft [as Queen Margaret]. Another of Hall's aims was that his company should not only be rained to play Shakespeare, and especially to handle Shakespearian verse, but should be alert to contemporary issues, and how these illuminated the plays and vice versa. ... As Peter Hall said at the time: "We have lived among war, race riots, revolutins, assasinations .... and the imminent threat of extinction. The gtheatre is, therefore, examining fundamentals" in staging the Henry VI plays."
And there you have it; Henry VI reasserting itself into the public life of the nation and thereby back into the canon. In that I've never heard any of this before, I suppose my defenses are two: one, that I wasn't in England; and two, that I had other fish to fry.

But I'd note this also: it seems to me that this sort of theatre-as-public-life is something you could pull off in England, while it just wouldn't work in America. Movies can do it, of course, or TV, but there is not now and never has been a theatre house--no, not even West 44th Street--that can dominate and shape popular consciousness the way British theatre can.

1 comment:

td said...

"but there is not now and never has been a theatre house--no, not even West 44th Street--that can dominate and shape popular consciousness the way British theatre can."

Interesting point. Im inclined to say its correct but I think you probably overstate the extent to which theatre impacts British *popular* consciousness. Certainly theatre is a larger part of England's intellectual life but I don't know that it pervades the general culture to a greater degree than it does in America. Either way I wonder if the much higher degree of public funding in England relates in any way.