History’s Mystery

Last evening, Shakespeare at Winedale, a summer program at the University of Texas at Austin, made their annual trip to the Shenandoah Valley to perform 1 Henry VI at the Blackfriars Playhouse. This performance concluded their season, which also included Twelfth Night and Macbeth. The MBC MLitt/MFA program enjoys a great relationship with this troupe — several students in the program have come from Winedale, and director James Loehlin guest-taught courses on dramaturgy and directing last fall. The Winedale performances are always high-quality and exciting — and often they’re the first chance, or among the first chances, for students new to the program and the area to see a full-length production on the Blackfriars stage.

The production was energetic and a lot of fun — more fun, I think, than most people think of the history plays as being. Some of the best comedic moments came from the depictions of the French aristocracy — it’s always fun to realize that the joke stereotyping the French as cowards goes back hundreds of years (no offense to any French nationals or expatriates reading this blog). The students really committed to the absurdity of those roles, and the fight/chase scenes were some of the funniest I’ve seen — they really made great use of the discovery space.

Before the show started, James Loehlin commented on 1 Henry VI perhaps being an odd choice — except for this theatre. The Blackfriars, as part of our Rise and Fall of Kings series, performed 1 Henry VI in the winter of 2009, followed by 2 Henry VI this past winter, and to be followed by 3 Henry VI in the upcoming Actors’ Renaissance Season. Dr Loehlin asserted, however, that the Winedale production might have been the first ever in Texas, however, at least to the best of his knowledge.

So here’s my question — Why? With only a few exceptions — 1 Henry IV, Henry V, and Richard III coming to mind — teachers and production companies alike tend to shy away from Shakespeare’s histories, yet these plays were some of the most popular of the early modern stage. Why is that? Is it only that we don’t conceive of the Plantagenets as part of our cultural heritage in the same way that 16th-century Englishmen did? Or is there something else we find unsatisfying about the history plays? What makes so many people conceive of the Henrys as less of a good show than Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Now, I’ll freely admit that I come to this from a strange place. I’m a historian at heart. I love history, I love reading books on history, I could draw you a genealogical chart of the Plantagenet dynasty. So I find interest even in the “duller” or “worse” history plays — like, many would argue, the Henry Sixes. I like being able to “follow along,” and I like to know what’s coming. As we left the theatre following 1 Henry VI last night, a friend and I were laughing, shaking our heads at Margaret and Suffolk. “Ohhhhh, it’s only going to end in tears,” I said. “Tears and pirates,” supplied my friend. “Yup. You might think you’re going to ‘rule both her, the king and realm,’ but really you’re going to get your head cut off. By a pirate.” I like that I can appreciate the play’s place in the greater story.

This appreciate goes to another part of why I enjoy the histories so much — they really were real people. However fictionalized they are, however compressed or altered they might be for the stage, there’s honest truth behind them. Real motivations for their actions, real passions, real rivalries — real events that shaped the course of Europe. We get them through the lens of Shakespeare’s position as a sixteenth-century Englishman, but that’s part of the history, too. I’ve never understood people who think history is boring — it’s all sex and violence and intrigues, the very stuff all our most successful media propagates.

So I don’t think it’s just my innate nerdiness that makes me think these plays are better than they get credit for. There’s so much good action and good language that so often gets overlooked. I know a lot of people will call the language of the Henry Sixes inferior to that in Hamlet, or even in Henry V, and that might well be an accurate assessment — but I didn’t notice that while I was watching the production last night. I was enjoying myself too much to think about making a comparison to other work. There’s potential for so much comedy (albeit some of it rather dark) and so much high drama. In the arc of the English histories, you get drunkards, robberies, sex scandals, pirates, witches, demon-summonings, popular rebellions, brutal assassinations, duels, sieges, and battles — none of this is dust-dry recitation of historical facts. These plays are the stuff of blood and power and life.

What do you think? Do you like the histories? Not like them? Haven’t had enough chance to see them to know if you like them or not?

4 thoughts on “History’s Mystery

  1. I honestly think a lot of the lack of popularity among the general public comes down to the titles of the plays themselves. What does "Henry IV, Part 1" tell you about anything? On the other hand, all sorts of visions pop up with "A Midsummer Night's Dream" or even "The Taming of the Shrew." Perhaps if they all had subtitles alluding to the sex and violence they would be at the top of the charts.

  2. We did a play at Hanover some years back, a new blend of all the Falstaff scenes put together in a wonderful show that emphasized storytelling and imagination, and titled it "The Lads of Eastcheap." (It was an adaptation by Jonathan Smith, who's led our Shakespeare in England trips to Stratford and the Birthplace Trust for over 30 years now.)That title made people curious. We called it "a new play by Shakespeare," which amused them. They came into the theater and saw the chandelier, they knew there was "swashbuckling" (whatever that is) and swordfighting; that was a big part of the advance PR. Our director is also a crack fight choreographer; give him a barroom and swords, watch him go.When they read the program notes, they discovered that this was largely material pulled from the history plays, but it wasn't a dry, dead text, it was alive and fun.Of course, I'm a proponent of exciting poster and marketing design, so I think it's possible to get folks in seats no matter the title, assuming the script/production can live up to that promise. But that's me…

  3. David — I bet that was a fun show!Amy — It's just that "The History of Henry the Fourth, with the battle at Shrewsbury, between the King and Lord Henry Percy, surnamed Henry Hotspur of the North, with the humorous conceits of Sir John Falstaff" is so much harder to fit on marketing materials. ;)It could be an interesting game, though — retitle the histories. Keep it concise (5 words or less?), but more descriptive. Hmmmm…

  4. This is a great post. I recently started working for a theatre company, and my director and I agree about the histories. We've even talked about creating a resident company dedicated entirely to the history plays.I think there's a degree of inaccessability of the history plays to an American audience. As you say, we don't view the Plantagenets as part of our heritage, and for that reason, we don't learn much about him. For example, most people won't know why the overthrow of Richard II was, inevitably, the cause of the War of the Roses. They won't know the relationships of all the characters, and those are key to understanding the nature of each house's claim to the throne.Unfortunately, I don't know how to fix that.

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