Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Ashland Shakespeare: Henry V and Troilus

Wonder if they planned it that way: the Ashland Shakespeare Festival is offering Henry V together with Troilus and Cressida on the same bill, offering an opportunity to compare-and-contrast two plays whose similarities may run deeper than at first appears.

Not obvious: Henry is a hugely popular shoot-em-up war story (or so it is thought; see infra), a dependable crowd-pleaser made famous through two pretty good movies.  Troilus is perhaps the least-loved Shakespeare of all; at Ashland today, they couldn't fill even the small theater.

But on second look: they are written not quite back to back--about three years apart, on the very cusp of Shakespeare's 20-yearish career (tantalizingly, it seems that Hamlet may  be sandwiched in between them).  And at the very least, they share war as a common theme--in Troilus, the war par excellence, the ten years' conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans immortalized in Homer's Iliad.

I described Henry as a shoot-em-up which I suspect remains as the conventional popular view (it was certainly my impression when I first saw the Olivier movie, produced in the shadow of World War II).  But I think the cognoscenti these days would argue that this conventional view is too simple.  Grant that that there are stem-winding war speeches ("once more into the breach!").  But they are at least coupled with, and perhaps dominated by lots of not-so-subtle criticism of warfare.  Indeed, it is a war play almost devoid of battles: instead we have a series of almost pageant-like vignettes, variously about the cruelty, savagery, rapacity and naked fear.  "We band of brothers," says the King.  "He could wish himself in Thames up to the neck," observes the common soldier John Bates.  If the recruiting officer wants to stage a showing to drum up business, he'd better take a second look.

And say this for Troilus: nobody ever mistook it for pro-war.  This was the third Troilus I've seen in my life, to my mind the best, and absolutely convincing on one point: of all Shakespeare plays this must be the most rancorous and unpleasant.  But "unpleasant" doesn't mean "bad,"  Recall the larger context: Shakespeare took a  lot of risks; he tried almost everything. And while he didn't always write "successful" plays, I'm not sure he ever wrote an uninteresting play.  And Troilus is more than interesting, it's fascinating: how any one dramatist could wring so many dimensions of anti-war sentiment out of a three-hours progress on the state is a kind of miracle in itself.

I think most critics say that Troilus is two plays: a war story and a love story.   I'm not so sure.  A competing view is that you can see it as only one play, once you realize that Shakespeare's (rancorous) view of love and war is that they are pretty much the same.  And on this basis, you can understand it as of a piece with the other anti-war play, Henry V--just Henry V carried remorselessly to its logical conclusion.The Ashland Henry V is not exactly a top-of-the-chart presentation: good enough, but you could wish for better.  Still, it's enjoyable in the way a working dramatist would want it to be enjoyable, and given the chance, I wouldn't mind sitting through it again tonight.  Troilus also has its ups and downs, though by my sorecard more ups and downs.  Still it would be a hardy theatregoer who would want to take it in twice in a row, or even twice in a decade.   It is the only Shakesepeare play I can think of where the epilogue, instead of trying to curry favor, shakes his fist at you and tells you to bugger off.  

1 comment:

Jimbo said...

I had to read Troilus and Cressida in college. It was pretty depressing; that's all I remember. I must go back and check it out again ow many years after. Did like Kenneth Branagh's version of Henry V. But he does these so well.