In this second-to-last installment of “Chimes at Midnight,” Stacy reflects on a busy week which saw the opening of the two shows in the Henry IV repertory, as well as the city and industry-wide party known as the Helen Hayes Awards. – DL
Well, the reviews have been written. The previews have all previewed. The notes have been given, the talkbacks have talked back, and we’ve opened both shows after more than three months of work.
There have been more highlights, of course, as we’ve continued to play the shows. One night during previews my good friend Hal Holbrook came to see the show. It was the same night the string broke on the bottle I pretend to pee in at the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap. That was a particularly good show.
Another night we recorded the show for preservation in the Washington Area Performing Arts Video Archive (WAPAVA). Not many people may know this, but every time a theatre performance is videotaped, the stage manager has to go around and get a signature from everyone in the cast. If even one person says no, because of union rules, it doesn’t happen. Not that I’ve ever known that to occur. Actors love to preserve things, because once it’s gone, it’s gone.
We also had the Helen Hayes Awards on Monday night. My dear and longtime friend Ed Gero presented the first “act” of awards, and he was gracious enough to invite me up onstage to give one of them away. We both wore our signature berets. I’ve been trying since the 60s, but I still think they’re going to catch on. They just have a wonderful continental flavor to them, I think.
Who knows? I don’t want to jinx it, but I’d love to come back to Washington and the awards next year, if all goes right. Maybe I have jinxed it, just by saying that.
If I sound wistful, well, maybe I am a little bit. I first played Falstaff when I was 27 years old, and now I’m 72. In a real sense, he’s bookended my career. Back then, I was young and thin and full of energy, and I remember trying very hard to look old and fat and tired. Now, of course, I try my hardest to look young and thin and full of energy. Certain roles tell you a great deal about yourself at a certain point in your life, but it’s the great ones that keep on revealing themselves to you throughout your life. You can keep on coming back to them. Falstaff is one of those.
I love him. He’s a hedonist. He loves everything about life, more than any other character I’ve ever played. And yet he’s a coward too. In the honor speech, which comes at the end of Part 1 before the Battle of Shrewsbury, and God knows it’s one of the greatest pieces of writing in all of the canon, he’s talking about his fear. It’s nakedly vulnerable. Some would say he has disdain for war, or that he’s critiquing the war machine of the King, but that’s all hogwash. He’s afraid. It’s really all there in that line he tells Hal, right before the battle: “I would ’twere bedtime, Hal, and all well.” As so often happens in the play, he’s not the surrogate father. He’s the child. All of a sudden, Hal has to take care of this much older, much more irresponsible person about whom he cares so much. He needs to tuck him in and turn off the light, and he just can’t afford to take care of him in that way any more. That realization comes at the worst possible time. It’s such a subtle, private moment in the midst of this big, crazy, whirling scene. There’s something profoundly human in that exchange. It reminds me vividly of people I’ve known who had trouble with substances.
I really am so thrilled and privileged to be doing this. I never thought I’d get a chance to revisit Shakespeare and this role. If Michael hadn’t asked me to come and do it, I never would have sought it out. It would have seemed crazy. But in this context, with this wonderful production, I would be crazy if I had said no. You couldn’t ask for a better production of this play on any level, whether it’s—no matter where. I can’t imagine it being done anywhere with the same degree of quality as Michael has given this.
It’s funny. I’ve had a renaissance in my movie career over the past couple of years, with the Bourne movies, and Nebraska, and so on. I’m going to be in the new Sin City movie in August, and back in January, I flew down to Atlanta to film Stephen King’s The Cell with John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson. My agents are all telling me I’m crazy to be doing this. Why would I want to go do a Shakespeare play for 6 months, for relatively no money at all? But it’s my priority. Nothing provides me with fulfillment like acting in Shakespeare, in one of the great roles, and doing it here with Michael. It is a great experience in every way.
This whole process takes me back to my early days doing repertory at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I was playing Henry V and I remember listening in the wings to Mistress Quickly’s speech about the death of Falstaff. A terribly powerful speech. I remember thinking, “I’ll play that role some day.” Falstaff, that is. Not Mistress Quickly.
I’ve never had any inclination or desire to play Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s a different character altogether. He’s the butt of jokes, and none of his wit and insight are preserved. I believe that Shakespeare wrote that play for Queen Elizabeth. It feels like he wrote it in two nights. He just sort of scribbled it. The only time I’ve seen that play work is when Michael Kahn directed it with Pat Carroll as Falstaff. She was one of the greatest Falstaffs I’ve ever seen. Her performance was so extraordinary that she made the play work.
But I’ve never liked that play very much. As Pistol remarks to Falstaff in that play, “The world’s mine oyster.” Well, unfortunately, not every oyster contains a pearl. Sometimes all you find is a mucky mollusk. These plays, this repertory, however – it’s a pearl.
Thanks for listening to me, bub! Talk to 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.