A Curious Case of Casting
Blog # 5 The Great Shakespeare Mystery
There is one intriguing moment in the original Henry IV part two, often cut from modern productions (replaced in ours by a brilliant directorial choice), when a dancer came out after and spoke an epilogue, advertising how the Fat Knight will appear again in the next play of the cycle, Henry V. Falstaff was immediately and immensely popular, with Henry IV the most reprinted play in Shakespeare’s lifetime. They even say Queen Elizabeth wanted to see her new favorite, Falstaff, in love, so Shakespeare paused writing part two (between scenes 2,1 and 2,2 to be exact) and penned (in two weeks) The Merry Wives of Windsor. To bank on this popularity and to guarantee audience for the coming soon Henry V, Shakespeare had the dancer say: “If you be not too much cloyed with fat meat our humble author will continue the story, with Sir John in it.” But Falstaff does not appear in Henry V. So, what happened? This is a great mystery echoing down through both History and Literature. It has baffled me for years, yet the answer may be hidden in plain sight. So while I have you enticed with that Hitchcockian hook, let me first veer off onto a not so tantalizing tangent.
Many actors have superstitions, and I admit two: Before my first entrance of a play, standing backstage, I find and touch a piece of wood, to feel something real (the all-wooden Adams Theater is ideal for such an idiosyncrasy). My second little behavior is; whenever I’m walking through the door to go in to audition for a comic role, I secretly make a strewing motion (you know, strewing, as in rushes or chicken feed.) I’m emulating King Aeetes, from the classic movie Jason and the Argonauts: the iconic scene where he strews Gorgon’s teeth on the ground and skeleton warriors rise up one by one to do battle (shout out Ray Harryhausen). My surreptitious strewing is not to invoke skeletons in the casting room, but rather to summon Skeltons…as in Red Skelton, and other comedy giants: Phil Silvers, Milton Berle, the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, Jerry Lewis, Stan Laurel, Dom Deluise, Bert Lahr, WC Fields. I beckon my personal titans too; Oliver Hardy, Zero Mostel and Jackie Gleason (I hungrily scrutinized these master comics on our old black-and-white TV set, proving you don’t need X-Box to waste your youth, and if you’ve never heard of them look them up, you’re in for a treat!) When doing my audition I entreat this panoply of funny spirits to inhabit my id. The poor director is unwittingly outnumbered, and has to cast me. The inspiration these comedians give me is what floats my thorough preparation, and I can’t help but credit them in my high average of auditioning success. As Neil Simon understood about casting; “Directors don’t choose actors…actors choose themselves.”
All this got me thinking. Why didn’t any of these comic colossi, my idols, play Falstaff? Falstaff is the character man’s ultimate role, it’s his Lear…and Bottom from Midsummer Night’s Dream is his Hamlet. Charles Laughton’s Bottom, the legend goes, took 15 minutes to comically die in the play within the play, Pyramus and Thisby. When I showed my Bottom in Pittsburgh, I chewed the clock (and scenery) myself, making my Pyramus’ suicide a pastiche of all the Shakespearean deaths (everything from falling on a sword to malmsey butt drowning, asp to the breast and poison in the ear). They talk of my Bottom still in Steel Town.
Sorry; here’s yet another tangential anecdote, yet one appearing in print for the very first time anywhere, ever! An older cast-mate in that same Pittsburgh Midsummer told me that as a young actor he toured in Dream with Bert Lahr famously doing Bottom. They say Bert was the most worried man in the world. Not only did he want a laugh on every line but with a financial share in the show he was sure he was being ripped off by management. So my castmate told me that every night during the big opening procession of Theseus and Hippolyta, Bert would sneak out onstage, hiding in the dark behind a big sheer curtain in his pre-costume underwear, and with a little hand-held clicker would count the audience to make sure the numbers added up. It seems Bert Lahr sweated both Bottom’s lines and the bottom line!
Bert Lahr was one of the few ‘Hollywood’ actors with the courage to foray into Shakespeare. Jimmy Cagney, Al Pacino, Olivia de Havilland did; with of course the giant, Orson Welles, the only one to play Falstaff. Some great American stage actors have played Sir John; Kevin Kline, Henry Woronicz, Pat Carrol, Stacy Keach, but where was Zero Mostel’s Falstaff? Or WC Fields’? Or The Great One Jackie Gleason’s? Gleason had all the elements in his characters; pathos, humor, dreaming. When you think of Fiction’s three great windmill tilters, are they not the Thin Knight, the Fat Knight, and the Fat Bus Driver? Jackie Gleason as Falstaff? How sweet it would have been. Why didn’t any of our great clowns play Falstaff?
They say the definitive English Falstaff was Ralph Richardson’s of 1945. That production also had Laurence Olivier play Hotspur in part one, and Shallow in part two. What a show that must have been to see! Viewing that production is what launched noted American scholar Harold Bloom on his lifelong love affair with Falstaff. Theatre is unique in that we hold performances in our memory…“lifetime moments” we can bring out and remember (with advantages) again and again. But remembering the original Henry IV is impossible, making The Great Shakespeare Mystery more mysterious.
And I’m not talking about that other mystery; “Who wrote Shakespeare?” That’s no mystery. Sorry Oxfordians, Baconians, Marlovians and Mark Twainians; Shakespeare the Stratfordian wrote Shakespeare! The real mystery is: Who originally played Falstaff, back in Shakespeare’s day? And why did Falstaff not appear in Henry V? It is difficult, to say the least, trying to piece together events that occurred at a time when happenings were poorly chronicled, diary keeping was rarely done and contemporaneous records have mostly crumbled to dust. Try remembering what happened to you four months ago, much less four centuries ago. So since I’m no Holmes or Spillane, Marple or Monk I will lay out evidence and facts from the Crime of the Scene and let you decide.
A big fat clue has already been dropped: Part two’s epilogue was spoken by a dancer. Wait, what? A dancer? This isn’t 42nd Street, there are no dancers in Henry IV part two. Ah, but there was a famous dancer in Shakespeare’s company. And he turns out to be our prime suspect. Will Kemp was a famous actor, comic and dancer, and one of the original members of the Lord Chamberlain’s men, along with Richard Burbage and William Shakespeare. Kemp was the most famous clown of the day, famous for his Morris Dancing, bawdy jigs and comic roles. A known jest monger long before working with Shakespeare, Will plied his merry craft all over England and the continent, even playing for crowned heads at Elsinore Castle in Denmark. He was very strong willed, they say, and always insisted he make his own personality central to his roles. Audiences came to expect Kemp routines and bits, perfected over the years. He’d use ad-libs, making faces, double-entendres, malapropisms and talking to himself as different people. Shakespeare would often write roles based on his company of actors and you can see clear traces of Kemp’s routines in the many roles supposedly played by him: Bottom, Peter, Cade, Costard, Launcelot Gobbo, Grumio, Dromio, Dogberry and Clown in Titus. Will Kemp even had a pet dog he used in his act, now immortalized as Launce’s canine sidekick, Crab. If Shakespeare’s company had a star it was Will Kemp. And many, many scholars think it was Will Kemp who played Falstaff.
But in 1599 something happened! As the Lord Chamberlain’s men were ending their performances at the Curtain Theatre, where Henry IV played, Will Kemp abruptly sold his share in the company and left. Not only that, Kemp then pulled off one of the great publicity stunts of all times. Eschewing performing in the newly built Globe Theatre, he claimed “I have danced out of the World!” and danced his famous Morris Dance, continuously, all the way to Norwich, 110 miles away. He grabbed even more notoriety when he published his exploits as The Nine Days Wonder. And all this happened just before Henry V premiered. Was this the reason Falstaff didn’t appear? Did the actor playing Sir Jack leave Shakespeare in the lurch?
But here’s the rub! There seemed to be bad blood; for Shakespeare makes fun of The Nine Days Wonder in As You Like It, which is thought to be the first play performed at the Globe (with Jaques renowned “All the world’s a stage” having double meaning). And Kemp in Nine Days Wonder belittled Shakespeare as “My noble Shakerags.” Even Hamlet appears to voice Shakespeare’s opinion of Kemp in his advice to the players: “And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them; for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too; though, in the meantime, some necessary question of the play be then to be considered: that's villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.”
So the question stands: Did Shakespeare’s biggest star and most famous clown play Falstaff? Or does the contrary question seem more valid: Would Shakespeare entrust his arguably greatest character to a mugging, adlibbing clown he lost patience with?
Hard facts are few, but the few we have are mostly on the Kemp-was-Falstaff side. In one of the very few diaries of the time, Philip Henslowe describes lending Will Kemp money to buy ‘Giant Hose’. Giant Hose could be taken to mean padded stockings, to simulate Falstaff’s heft. There is also evidence a very early Will Kemp used padding, called bombasting, for one of his pre-Shakespeare comical characters. Did he break out the old fat suit for Falstaff? One of Kemp’s other early routines, from his own ballad Singing Simkin, has a character hiding in a chest, from a jealous spouse. Did Shakespeare lift Kemp’s old bit for The Merry Wives of Windsor? In some of the small individual versions of each play, called Quartos, careless printers would sometimes list the actor rather than the character’s name; for example one Romeo & Juliet quarto says ‘enter Will Kempe’ instead of ‘enter the clowne’ (Peter). A 1600 quarto of Twelfth Night lists the names ‘Will Kemp and Richard Cowley’ instead of ‘Dogberry and Verges’. And (dramatic music) one Henry IV part two manuscript says ‘Enter Will’ a few lines before Falstaff starts singing “When Arthur First in Court…” Also in Henry IV Falstaff does have one fleeting reference to being able to out-caper anyone; caper meaning dance. And that part two epilogue dancer threatens to dance his way out of any hard opinions the audience may have. Was that dancer Kemp? Does all this point to Kemp as Falstaff?
The “not Kemp” side has few facts, as negatives rarely do, but there are some interesting persuasions. It is widely agreed that Shakespeare wrote for his actors, creating tragic roles for Burbage his brilliant leading man, clown roles for Kemp, and even after Kemp left and was replaced, the clown roles turn into witty, singing fool roles, to match the persona of Robert Armin who played Touchstone, Autolychus, Feste, Gravedigger and the Fool from Lear. I have a perspective that most all scholars don’t have. I’ve played Falstaff a lot and I’ve also played many of the Kemp roles and even some Armin roles; Falstaff just feels different. He is no clown. Kemp characters mangled words, misspoke and were almost always a naïve persona, the willing objects of jokes and tricks. Kemp even calls his own style ‘blunt mirth’ in his Nine Days Wonder. Falstaff is unrivalled in mastery of language and wit. With an intelligence matching Hamlet’s, Falstaff is certainly one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations. Would the progression of Shakespeare’s Kemp-inspired roles lead up to naively put-upon Bottom and Gobbo, veer off to the colossally complicated Falstaff, and then back to the simple malaprop-prone Dogberry, Kemp’s last role for the company? It’s just a feeling, but I have played these characters, and I get such a strong sense of Kemp, yet I do not feel him in Falstaff. There is some (vague) evidence as well, that suggest John Lowin and Thomas Pope, actors in the company, played Falstaff as various points. These scholars may know a lot, but proper casting is something I live with every day of my career. Is Falstaff too grand a role for a clown?
This leads to another question: If Kemp didn’t play Falstaff in Henry IV who did he play? There do not seem to be any Will Kemp roles in part one or part two. And who was that dancer in the epilogue? Well, it was the tradition to have jigs and dances after every play; even Julius Caesar, so as Groucho says ‘sometimes a dancer is just a dancer’, but if it was Kemp speaking the epilogue, what was his role in the play? Well, from my experience in all the Falstaff plays, there is one character who has multiple Kemp qualities: using the wrong words, carrying on both sides of conversations, a put upon persona, a commoner touch and a ton of busybody energy. And that character is: (dramatic pause) Mistress Quickly! You laugh, and so did I a bit, that is until I read that while women in Shakespeare’s plays were often played by young boys, it was not always the case. Sometimes they were played by the older actors…and one of Kemp’s earliest creations, from before his Shakespeare days, was the role of a gossipy, talkative female street seller. And when that one manuscript is misprinted with “Enter Will” a few lines before Falstaff sings, who is it that enters at that exact moment? (Perry Mason music) Mistress Quickly.
Whether Kemp played Falstaff or not, I truly don’t believe his leaving the company was the reason Falstaff didn’t appear in Henry V. Plays are funny things, and for the playwright sometimes the play will help write itself. And the Henry V that poured out of his brain told Shakespeare: “Falstaff can’t be in this play!” His free spirit, his love of life, his humanity and anti-authority is what Hal had to leave behind. And those of you lucky enough to see Henry V next year at the festival will find out what happens to Plump Jack: (Spoiler! It has to do, much like King Lear, with a broken heart). Regardless of who played him, Falstaff simply cannot appear, and will not appear in next year’s Henry V …and for me, someone who revels in the glories of playing Falstaff, that’s show biz…
Up next: Blog #6: A heartfelt farewell