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?