Welcome back to the latest installment of Stacy Keach’s blog, as he reports from the rehearsal room of HENRY IV, PARTS 1 and 2 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. In this installment, Stacy begins to delve into the role of the fat knight, Sir John Falstaff. It’s a role which, as you’ll see, brings up many memories for the longtime star of stage and screen. –DL
I first played Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations, many years ago. Forty-seven, in fact. I was twenty-seven years old. It was the summer of 1968, at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Gerald Freedman and Joe Papp, the artistic directors of the Public Theater, had offered me the role the previous fall, and I had spent the entire year prepping.
That fall, you see, I was teaching a Shakespeare course at Yale School of Drama (a school I had once attended and dropped out of, but that’s another, longer story). My students included a young Henry Winkler, later to be known as “the Fonz,” already a profoundly gifted comic actor, as well as my younger brother, James. James and I actually roomed together that year, in downtown New Haven! It was a pigsty.
That year at the Yale Rep, I starred in We Bombed in New Haven by Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22. I also appeared in Pirandello’s delightfully twisted history play, Enrico IV (which I’m glad to see Michael Kahn has picked out for next season) as well as the title role in Coriolanus. As if that wasn’t enough I played the Baron Tuzenbach in The Three Sisters at the Long Wharf Theatre. In between it all, I studied the role of Falstaff with my students and in my scant free hours. No rest for the wicked.
I also remember watching Orson Welles’s masterful film Chimes at Midnight, which had just been released in the United States in 1967. Orson approached Falstaff not as a braggart or a drunk, which was the convention at the time, but as a kind of self-portrait. His Falstaff was a flawed, impulsive person, with an entire lifetime’s worth of regret. I saw how Falstaff actually reacted to his own self-destructive behavior, reflecting on something that he has just blurted out. It was still a comic performance, but one with a profound tragic dimension.
In the summer of 1968, as I got ready to play Falstaff in the Park, I had the good fortune to get cast in my first film, End of the Road. The bad news was that the shoot was also that summer, in an abandoned button factory in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. I did what every young and invincible actor does: I improvised. I remember, every day, hurtling down the Taconic Parkway in the passenger seat of a wood-paneled station wagon, applying my makeup and false nose, which wiggled loose every time we hit a bump. The car would pull directly into Central Park, and out I would come, having transformed into the swaggering fat knight Falstaff, ready to spar with Sam Waterston’s Prince Hal.
That summer, as a result, is a blur. I mostly recall the joys of performing in Central Park, and I also remember the incredible heat of performing in a fat suit and leather costume. I lost a lot of weight that summer. I also remember sleeping a lot of hours on that mattress in the station wagon, on my way back up to Great Barrington.
The truth is, I was much too young to play the role back then.
We had the Invited Dress Rehearsal for Part 1 last night [Stacy means Sunday, the 16th] and I hope that people see how much weight I’m bringing to the role – figuratively as well as literally.
The show is looking fantastic, and it was great to hear it play in front of an audience. There were some bits that got huge roars of laughter. And some bits that are profoundly moving.
Michael [Kahn] has built a very striking moment toward the end of the first act when we hear Glendower’s daughter sing a song of lamentation. The words are by the Welsh poet Hedd Wynn, and it’s actually a World War I poem. As I said last week, the play works much better in its original period. Shakespeare is showing the ways in which the mythic, older England is slowly dying out.
One of the reasons it’s a privilege to play Shakespeare at the beginning of your career and then many years later, is that you discover things in the plays that you’ve encountered in your life. One of the reasons I love Falstaff is that – despite being old, and fat, and a drunk, and a liar, and having a whole host of other faults – he never seems to feel old. It reminds me of the proverb, “Child is the father of the man.” There is no other character in Shakespeare who so gloriously enjoys being alive as Falstaff does. “I like not such grinning honor as Sir Walter hath,” he says toward the end of Part 1. “Give me life!”
That’s why I love him. And I think Shakespeare did too.
Thanks for talking to me, bub. I’ll see you next week.
Drew Lichtenberg is in his third season as the Literary Associate at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and is the production dramaturg for Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.
He holds an MFA in Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism from Yale School of Drama.