The Glories of Playing Falstaff
Brother, Can You Coin a Word?
Blog # 4 Oh, What a Knight!
Victor Hugo was asked to pen a brief introduction to a newly translated (into French, by his son) version of Shakespeare’s play. He came back with a 300 page tome. Authors, critics, and scholars cannot resist perpetually Shakesplaining the Sweet Swan of Avon and his characters. I could try to match wits with that heap of genius, trading Bardbarbs with Priestly, Auden, Hazlitt, and Granville-Barker, or try to out Bloom Bloom on Falstaffiana, but I’d fall short, so I’d best take advantage of my unique vantage point; 11 times inside the belly of the behemoth. And like Shakespeare I’ll coin a new word: Anthroportrayology; the study of Falstaff by performing him. Here are clumsy, random and oddball observations I’ve made of the Fat Knight being the Fat Knight. And so I don’t go Hugo, I will strictly stick to my self-imposed limit of 1000 words per blog and keep my thoughts tedious and brief.
Fasten your seat belts; we’re in for a blimpy ride! Tackling Falstaff is to go dirigible-istic…like entering the Versailles of bouncy castles. ‘Tackle’ is the perfect word in that it originates from the idea of gaining control over something with ropes, like a wild horse or Professor Marvel’s balloon. Gulliver-like Falstaff cannot be tied down; he rises, ascends, soars till in the clear sky of fame he o’ershines all as much as the full moon doth the stars in the firmament. He is a humongous, challenging role.
Playing Sir John is a buffet accompli! He’s not simply Vice or the Lord of Misrule; he is all things…he is vastly human. Falstaff is fully formed, forged by a ruthless world set against him. But he fights back with all he’s got: Aplomb, charm, pathos, rationality, sagacity, invention, appetite, learning, and a dozen more. And chief amongst his weapons is his wit. His nimble, youthful mind outthinks anyone; “I am only old in judgement and understanding” he says. He is the greatest rhetorical escape artist in all Literature, swiping the cheese out of any verbal trap. The feast of facets that is Falstaff will make any actor fat with acting choices.
Get that prince over the finish line! Falstaff, the Bible-quoting hulk, pursues a single less-than-divine goal; redemption on Earth. He seeks not Elysian but strawberry fields…forever. And for that he must survive the cruel world until Hal is king. He only has to delay the decay of his aging body. Shakespeare always has sub-themes in his plays, and Henry IV Part Two constantly touches on growing old, disease, mortality, and Falstaff is acutely aware of Time. He has heard the Chimes at Midnight but never gives up hope of a golden dawn.
The key is freedom! Shakespeare’s greatest creations; Othello, Hamlet, the Scottish king, and Lear are all hobbled in their first scene or two by fate’s fickle hand, learning of what will plunge them, as Sir Ralph Richardson puts it; “Into an avalanche of circumstances that will become a terrific drubbing in Shakespeare’s washing machine, stripping the characters to the very thread of their fabric.” Only Falstaff (I think the greatest creation) isn’t taken to the cleaners. Slight spoiler alert (this sentence only); Falstaff doesn’t find out his fate until the last possible moment of part two…his Shakespearean flaw is a blind spot in his inestimable wisdom…he didn’t see the trap he can’t escape coming. (Resume reading) Falstaff is free…free to be Falstaff through two entire plays. Free to do whatever it takes to survive, to which an actor can bring all his imagination and experience. He’s a chess queen that can move twice in a row; he has nearly bondless freedom
A cowardly liar? Imposerous! Embellisher yes, raconteur yes, but Falstaff sees clearly how the world works. He may steal a purse but he will not be lectured by those who steal a crown. He sees through ‘Honor’ to what it can sometimes result in; being bluntly dead. He rejects war’s self-sacrifice in principle, hollering “Give me life!” on the battlefield. He is a lover not a fighter, but if badgered into a corner, he will wolverine out using his genuine ferocity; he’ll put the fist in pacifist. For centuries critics called him a coward, and labeled his antics “a parody” of a soldier. They couldn’t comprehend that Falstaff’s choice to avoid foolishness and folly would become a legitimate viewpoint. A viewpoint standing in stark contrast to Henry IV’s, whose dying word of advice to Hal is “To busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” Shakespeare was ahead of his time…ahead of all time.
Womb with a view! After being recognized by Coleville, Falstaff clutches his stomach and says “My womb, my womb, my womb undoes me!” An intrepid scholar or two has suggested that the word choice ‘womb’ bolsters a theory that Falstaff represents a feminine point of view. And you know what?…watching Shakespeare’s maturing view expressed by female characters, through Kate in his early Taming of the Shrew talk of the shame in “offering war when they should kneel for peace”, and then in middle play Henry IV part two, the widow Percy, invoking Hotspur’s memory, sensibly plead “For God’s sake go not to these wars!” and then, late into the canon, reading Shakespeare masterfully sum up that view with Volumnia’s (Coriolanus’ mother) passionate appeal in act 5 scene 2, I think those scholars may be on to something! Knowing how Falstaff, with his womb-manly charm, seeks to kiss My Lady Peace at home, he does seem to wear Shakespeare’s feminine mantle…of course he doesn’t put on a dress until Merry Wives of Windsor.
The repelicious joys of repertory! Here is a blogblitz of the fun playing a different part each night: I’m completely surrounded by some of the best actors in the country! The super-smart audiences grow familiar as they see all three Shakespeare shows, and some more than once. I get to notice subtle similarities in the different plays, like the unique honesty of both Kate and Cordelia refusing to betray their malevolent sisters, when they justifiably could, rather suffering the consequences. It is fun to one night strive to put over Falstaff, and the next have my biggest worry be hanging a King Lear banner correctly (and I’m more nervous about that banner than anything). Likewise it is cool being ersatz father to Sam Ashdown in Henry then being actual father to him in Shrew. I love the continual discovery working with superb scene mates…the tiniest details in Shakespeare become “ah ha!” moments, like seeing Saren Nofs-Snyder play a moment a certain way caused me to alter saying the word “flattering” to the “false” sense rather than the “complimentary” sense. It suddenly opened up the whole scene with Doll Tearsheet, leading to as tender a moment as any in Shakespeare…and a thousand more joys.
Falstaffection! What I love most playing Falstaff is Shakespeare’s sub-theme of having Sir John measuring everyone he meets by how they can laugh. From the moment he first limps onstage chiding all Mankind that he alone is the cause of all laughter to the moment his life changes hearing the new king say “Reply not with a fool-born jest” laughter is Falstaff’s life’s blood. For me the saddest moment in the play is Falstaff planning how he will make Prince Harry laugh…pining for a once-was, that he doesn’t know is a never-will-be.
There is Honor in that word Falstaff! The one-of-a-kind love story that is Falstaff and Hal in parts one and two is not only momentous within Shakespeare‘s canon, but all Theatre! The act 2 scene 4 tavern scene in part one, where Hal and Falstaff majestificently take turns playing Hal’s father, and then Falstaff playing Hal with all that is unsaid and below the surface, to me is the birth of modern theatre. And then to play its mirror, the act 2 scene 4 tavern scene in part two, with decay and entropy here and glory gone, and Falstaff speak of being “the man of action”, it is Shakespeare’s genius to have Hal run out to do his duty. The world is seeing (and needing) Henry the Fifth for the first time! When you think that the next thing Shakespeare created when he took up his quill again was Beatrice and Benedick, the Ali and Frazier of repartee, you know he was at this moment in the groove of all time; his greatest plays were about to spill forth. He changed Theatre by creating human beings, introspective, flawed, conflicted. And to stand on stage and be a part of that glorious moment, that fulcrum on which all Theatre was catapulted to its full potential is…is…well the word hasn’t been coined yet to describe it.
Final Word Count: 1517. Oops! (I get it now Mr. Hugo) Oh well…to paraphrase Falstaff, “The laws of blogging are at my commandment!” (By my count I’ve coined 18 new words and phrases! And I’m sure none of them will make it into the vocabulary. But if each of the 1517 words was a newly coined word, they still wouldn’t beat Shakespeare; he bedazzled the language, coining thousands.)
For my previous blog check out http://www.bard.org/news/l14odvhph5w3vtuexgggge1jkkg8ym
My Next blog: #5 The Great Shakespeare Mystery