Dr. Ralph’s 10 Things to Know about THE FALL OF KING HENRY

These notes originally appeared in the 2010 Actors’ Renaissance Season program. 

1. When was the play first performed?

It must have been before 1592, when a pamphlet by Robert Greene, a rival playwright, bitterly paraphrases a line from the play and calls Shakespeare “a Tiger’s heart wrapt in a Player’s hide.”

2. Where was the play first performed?

Probably at the Theatre in Shoreditch (north of the City wall) by Shakespeare’s company, then Pembroke’s Men.

3. How does this play fit into Shakespeare’s career?

This play, among Shakespeare’s first, is part of Shakespeare first “tetralogy,” a set of four plays dealing with the historical period from young King Henry VI’s reign through the death of King Richard III, who will here become a major character.

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Chris Seiler as Richard and Greg Brostrom as Clifford in THE FALL OF KING HENRY. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

4. How is this play like Shakespeare’s other plays?

Like the other early histories it is packed with action, overtly drawn characters, flamboyantly decorative verse, and strong dramatic irony. On display is Shakespeare’s usual taste for paradox and contradiction.

5. How is this play unlike other Shakespeare plays?

All of the Henry VI plays are different from Shakespeare’s other plays because the major protagonist shifts each time one of them dies in the packed storyline. It falls to the weak king and his ferocious wife Margaret to provide continuity.

6. What do scholars think about this play?

Most think it the best of the trilogy of Henry VI plays. Here we see Queen Margaret in full throat, and here Richard “Crookback” emerges in Technicolor verse — “Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile.”

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Rene Thornton Jr. as Richard Duke of Gloucester in THE FALL OF KING HENRY. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

7. Is there any controversy surrounding the work?

No. Greene’s snide remark (see #1 above) seems to confirm Shakespeare’s sole authorship.

8. What characters should I especially look for?

Queen Margaret and Richard Duke of Gloucester (future King Richard III), but you won’t need to look for them; they will be no harder to find than the Wicked Witch of the West or the Joker.

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Allison Glenzer as Margaret in THE FALL OF KING HENRY. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

9. What scenes should I especially look for?

The play is chock full of great scenes, but two of the most memorable scenes are at the beginning of the play: the “Molehill Scene” in Act One, scene four, where Margaret torments the Duke of York; and Act Two, scene five, in which the miserable King Henry watches the war being waged in his name.

10. What is the language like?

Lots of chewy speeches, playful rhetoric, and black humor.

 

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Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen is Co-Founder and Director of Mission of the American Shakespeare Center, author of ShakesFear and How to Cure It, and Gonder Professor of Shakespeare in Performance in the Master of Letters and Fine Arts program at Mary Baldwin University. 

The Next Generation of Playwrights Has Arrived

IMG_3730.pngIt’s been long anticipated and highly publicized, and now the wheels are officially in motion. Anne G. Morgan, our Literary Manager at the ASC, is beginning to sift through play submissions for the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries Project.

Take Note

Launched in April of this year, the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries (SNC) Project is an initiative to develop one new play to respond to each of the 38 plays in Shakespeare’s canon. The project is a competition: in addition to a $25,000 prize, the winners will get their plays produced at the ASC in repertory with the play it stems from. This year, Anne is searching for companion plays to Henry IV (Part 1), The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Comedy of Errors, and The Winter’s Tale, two of which will be produced in 2019.

“Before you read it, any play you open could be the next great play,” Anne says. “There’s so much potential in this early phase.” Anne started working at the ASC at the beginning of September, and she’s already got her rhythm: in addition to reading play submissions, she’s refining the application form, answering emails, and absorbing as much institutional knowledge as possible.

On February 15, Anne will send viable play submissions to a group of readers who will help determine the list of finalists. “I am really excited about the moment we start to narrow down the pool. When the reader reports come back in, I’ve done my own reading, and it starts to become clear that we’ve got some good options, that’s the moment that’s really exciting to me.”

Mind the Gap

Fresh from the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, Anne has plenty of experience with new play cultivation through her work with its National Playwriting Conference. While at the O’Neill, she was able to sharpen her skills in application management and in advocating for living playwrights; these skills will come in handy during her work on the SNC Project.

She ends up being a customer service representative, an agent, and an editor for each winning playwright. Anne notes, “It’s really important to me that, not only am I taking care of the playwright when I sit down and read their play. . .I’m taking care of the writer the moment they email me with any question they have in the application process. . . .And then after we select [a play], I want them to feel taken care of with any notes that we have, in the rehearsal process, and all the way through opening night.”

Anne is excited to be involved with a playwriting initiative that is so specific: rather than putting out a general call for new plays, we are asking for plays which accommodate a large cast, walk hand-in-hand with a Shakespeare play, and utilize universal lighting.

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The call for play submissions is open, meaning anyone can submit. Anne has some advice for submitters: “Read all of the information on the website…and articulate how [your] play can speak to the Shakespeare play to which it is corresponding.”

All Aboard

Now that the wheels of the SNC Project are moving, Anne is excited to engage more than just budding (or established) playwrights. Over the course of the next year, ASC fans can get involved with the SNC Project both by spreading the word about the project and by coming to the theatre to see the plays during the rehearsal process. “One of the exciting things about new plays is that they’re not finished…so having an audience is very helpful for a playwright to hear, for example, where the laughs happen and why… so they can make rewrites.”

As the wheels of the SNC Project start their 20-year run, they promise to turn quickly. By September 2019, the ASC will have produced two world premieres of new plays, have two more plays chosen to produce in 2020, and be in the process of selecting two more plays for 2021. So take note and mind the gap; all aboard! It’s going to be a fast ride.

Behind the play: Matthew Radford Davies talks LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST

Love’s Labour’s Lost joined the repertory of the Summer/Fall Season last week.  Today we catch up with director Matthew Radford Davies to hear his thoughts on the newest addition to the Blackfriars Playhouse lineup.

You’ve directed the Mary Baldwin University MFA company in the Blackfriars Playhouse, but this is your first time directing the resident troupe.  What’s different?  What’s the same?

Working with the resident troupe, I find myself practicing what I preach during the semester, which is an enabling experience.  The professionals are skilled musicians, not just of instruments, but also of the sound box that is the Blackfriars stage.  They play the frets that we spend time locating in class.  One of the central tenets of our MFA approach is collaboration, which is a buzzword in theatre pedagogy but which is even harder to effect than to spell.  I’m delighted to affirm that the collaborative spirit as the ASC, to which our students aspire, is alive and well.

You mention in your director’s note a 1930 quote from Harley Granville-Barker. “Here is a fashionable play now three hundred years out of fashion.”  Why was he wrong?  What makes this play fashionable in 2017?

I don’t think Harley G-B was wrong.  (Is he ever?)  But plays have their times, their kairotic moments, and just as quickly find themselves out of joint again.  Coriolanus, a long-neglected play, is everywhere at the moment, perhaps unsurprising given the current political climate.  As the world stumbled from Edwardian excess into a Great Depression, and the threat of war began to rear its head once more, it’s easy to see why theatregoers might struggle to care about the emotional anxieties of la jeunesse doree.  Post-war, I suspect the play started to re-engage with sexual politics, feminism, and the battle of the sexes.  Meanwhile, the slipperiness of the language and the generic uncertainty of the ending clearly appealed to the postmodern sensibility that favored skepticism and heterodoxy over conformity and hierarchy.  Beneath its elegant exterior and its plotted edicts and male-directed mandates, lurks a roguish energy of doubt and questioning that, I think, contemporary directors find intriguing and appealing.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is often heralded for its linguistic brilliance.  We’ve been calling it “Shakespeare’s most exuberant word-fest.”  Shakespeare is, of course, known for his mastery of the English language.  What is it like working on a play that’s particularly spectacular even by the high standards set by Shakespeare’s other works?

I remember once reading that language in LLL is a character in its own right.  If so, then this character is as intriguing and untrustworthy and compelling as all the others in the play.  Throughout the canon, Shakespeare displays the fabulous paradox of an author both enamored by and deeply skeptical of, the written language.  In Love’s Labour’s, as in so many of his plays, letters are the guarantors of disaster, but in this play the spoken word gets equally challenging treatment, since what the characters say is as untrustworthy as it is seductive.  So, as theatre makers, we need to do more than just say the lines clearly, we need to luxuriate in them, their syntax and sound, their rhetorical dexterity.  Not surprisingly, amid such linguistic opulence, the simple lines — often short and expressed in Anglo-Saxon terms – land most powerfully.  One of my favorite lines in the play, in the entire canon, in fact, is Berowne’s simple, sudden exclamation, “ — O, my little heart.”  But that purity of expression gains its power, its energy, emerging from its rhetorically dense context.

We think Shakespeare may have written a sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost called Love’s Labour’s Won, but there are no surviving copies.  Some scholars believe LLW might actually just be Much Ado about Nothing.  Do you think there is any merit to that idea?  Is it special to direct a production of LLL playing in repertory with Much Ado?

While the RSC recently staged this clever conceit, with the same actors “appropriately cast” across the two plays — Benedick/Berowne to Beatrice/Rosaline, for instance — with the narrative conjoined, or divided, by the Great War — I strongly doubt that Much Ado is LLW (which quite possibly existed and is now lost).  I am, however, delighted that the ASC is bringing LLL and Much Ado together in one season, especially as they’re both in period dress, since audiences can judge for themselves how well the plays work as companion pieces.  I am personally as struck by the differences as well as the connections, and the way the two productions ask us to view a similar theme and cast of characters from very different angles.

What scenes or characters should audiences specifically look for?

In this production, we have worked extremely hard to fashion individuals from a formulaic plot structure.  While the lovers are clearly patterned in groups, their concerns echoed and enriched by the “rusticals,” we also wanted to ensure they had their own arcs and expectations.  Not only do the lords and ladies each have journeys to travel and lessons to learn, they all pursue their developing loves in subtly different ways.  We’ve also worked to tie the comic subplot, featuring the love triangle between the hearty Jaquenetta, the lusty Costard and Armado, the Spanish knight down-on-his-luck, as tightly as possible to the main plot. Comedy, romance, and potential tragedy (in the form of a melancholic undertow), intermingle in this play of sophisticates, sophists, and simple rustics, and we want you, the audience, to never quite know what will float to the surface at any given moment.  We hope that the characters constantly surprise you, and challenge all of our easy expectations.

Is there anything else you’d like our audiences to know?

Romantic comedies work best when the audience is playing catch-up, just one step behind the love trysts and the comic shenanigans, and panting in excitement to keep up.  Put on your running shoes, and tune your ears: you’re in for a frantic feast of wit, wisdom, and waggery.

Much Ado about MUCH ADO

 

The 2017 Summer/Fall Season at the Blackfriars Playhouse kicks off this weekend with performances of Peter and the Starcatcher and Much Ado about Nothing.  Today, we’re catching up with Much Ado‘s director, Jenny Bennett, to get some thoughts on the show’s opening.

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Left: Allison Glenzer and David Anthony Lewis in Much Ado about Nothing.  Photo by Michael Bailey.  Right:  Jenny Bennett.  Photo by Lindsey Walters.

This is your third time directing at the Blackfriars Playhouse.  What do you most look forward to about directing here that is different from other venues?  What is similar? 

I love getting to play in Shakespeare’s staging conditions, especially the #SharedLight.  (Wait- is that a real hashtag?  If not, it should be: #SharedLight #ftw.)  There’s no distance between the actors and the audience here: they see us, we see them, we see each other seeing them and each other.  In the shared candlelight of the Blackfriars, we are all right here, right now, making this story together on the great words of these great plays.  It’s some ultimate theatremaking, in my opinion.

I’m a big fan of making theatre that makes the most of the medium, that uses artistic elements that can only happen/that happen best on a stage full of powerful actors inventing a story with the audience right exactly now.  As an audience member, I love it when a production trusts me to imagine along with it—“Oh – that actor I recognize who was just the delighted ingénue in the last scene now has on pants, stuffed her hair in a hat, and is a whole new person called Boy?  And I’m to believe that just because she and the other actors say so?  On the power of their word?  Yes, please.  Awesome!  We will imagine right into that, thanks; we will absolutely join in making this play.

We are so game out here in the audience – we’re hungry to participate in something big and smart and beautiful.  In this Playhouse, we get to unite for a few hours, bound together by a great play spoken by great actors who we imagine along with in #SharedLight (look, I did it again).  It doesn’t matter who we were when we walked into the Playhouse;  by the time we’ve walked out of it after the show, we’ve helped make a play out of nothing.  Well, nothing but words spoken and listened.  Shakespeare might relate ‘words’ to ‘wind’, though, and wind is air, and air is airy…nothing.  Far from diminishing the value of the word, what I take from him is that all human possibilities come from the word.  We exist in language, in a theater or not.  We exist, because we say so.

What about Much Ado about Nothing is different from the two other plays that you’ve directed here (The Winter’s Tale and King Lear)? What are you most looking forward to about this play?

You know, it’s interesting that all three of these plays I’ve gotten to direct here have featured moments of the idea of ‘nothing’ (just a few examples – Leontes’ big WT speech beginning 1.2.284 ‘Is whispering nothing?’; KL sequence beginning with Cordelia’s reply to her father’s request for public love 1.1.87 ‘Nothing.  Nothing?  Nothing, my Lord.  Nothing will come of nothing, speak again.”; Much Ado….about Nothing.)

‘Nothing’ is an idea Shakespeare was very interested in, if you measure interest by the frequency the word and its puns show up in the canon.  I could be projecting, for sure: I’m definitely interested in this idea.  No – thing.  Absence of something.  Infinity.  Possibility.  A moment of creation from which tales can be spun toward harmony or chaos, depending on the spinner (and the listener).

When you add in the accent of English spoken by Shakespeare’s actors at the time, of course, you get all these homophone puns on ‘noting’, too – what we ‘note’, what we pay attention to, or not.  It’s explicit in this play on multiple occasions – Balthasar’s song intro in 2.3, ‘noting’ the daughter of Leonato in 1.1, the Friar’s ‘noting of the lady’ in 4.1.

Much Ado about Noting.  Much Ado about Nothing.  Which is it, do you think?  I think it’s both.  How great is that?  Thanks, Will.

Directing in the Blackfriars is a collaborative process.  What is it like to work with actors who have been on our stage for so many years? 

I love these rockstar nerds.  (And I mean ‘rockstar’ both literally and figuratively: the ASC troupe of actors is my favorite band.  ‘Nerds’ I mean literally, my highest praise.)  Acting in these staging conditions attracts the brave.  It fosters that courage to be present and spontaneous over a five-month run with a few hundred people looking you right in the eye.  The confidence in being, the trust in an audience that comes from long experience on this stage is a precious gift.  The staging conditions are very much about the actor and the text – just the way I like it!

Directing is always a collaborative process wherever it happens — the Theatre itself is a collaborative medium full of actors, designers, directors, stage managers, producers, and a variety of staff, and a play doesn’t happen without all of these contributions.  The whole ASC team and the artistic community they make together is a delight to get to be a part of as a guest.  I’m so excited to see the ASC bringing playwrights into the mix with the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries project, too!  They’re gonna have a blast, writing for the possibilities of this troupe, where the words have power and the actors are game.

Do you have a favorite scene or line from this play?  Have any become your favorite through the directing process? 

My favorite line and scene is all of them.  That’s what usually happens to me through the directing process, alas!  But here’s a list of dozen delights that leapt to mind at your question.  I’ll let readers listen for who says them in the show, or let readers guess the speaker, if they’re a lovely supernerd who likes a Shakespeare line quiz:

“Adam’s sons are my brethren, and truly, I hold it a sin to match in my kindred.”

“One doth not know how much an ill word may empoison liking.”

“Happy are they that hear their detractions and can put them to mending.”

“Let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me.”

“For it so falls out / That what we have we prize not to the worth / Whiles we enjoy it“

“Silence is the perfectest herald of joy; I were but little happy if I could say how much.”

“If her breath were as terrible as her terminations there were no living near her: she would infect to the North Star.”

“He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it.”

“Out on thee, seeming! I will write against it.”

“O villain! Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this.”

“I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?”

What scene or characters should audiences specifically look for? 

Audiences want to look out for the wittiest couple that ever sparred in Benedick and Beatrice.  Throughout the whole play, in fact, every character has some kind of Euphuistic wordplay.  The topic setup, volley, volley, volley, SPIKE of puns, twists, and other feats of wit in this play have tickled audiences into high hilarity for four centuries!

Another thing that I love about this play is the notion that since we’re all invented out of nothing, we can reinvent ourselves out of nothing, too.  Several people in this play are confronted with a rebuke of who they are, or how they’ve been behaving – they overhear people talking about them or are directly told they’ve made a terrible error.  The real mettle of a person is revealed by what they choose to do with that information.  Grace is available to those who take action to repair what’s broken, to be available to Love, to be ‘good men, and true.’  Along these lines, I’m quite fond of our 5.3 Tomb scene.  Chris Johnston, Music Director, wrote the most beautiful song.  I won’t spoil it here, but I hope you love it as much as I do.

You’re ending this play with a big song and dance number.  What inspired that choice? 

Benedick did.  He says ‘Play music!’ and so I said, okay.  We’re fair giddy at that point (that’s his conclusion, anyway), so we went ahead and danced, then, too.  It’s a couple of lines earlier than the Folio’s [Dance] instruction, but we start dancing again there, as well.  Though for the other two songs in the play we chose to keep the text and write the tunes (Tim Sailer composed the delightful ‘Sigh no more, ladies’ that he sings as Balthasar;  Chris Johnston composed the gorgeous Tomb Song), the ASC often takes on musical moments in the plays as they would have been taken on in Shakespeare’s original staging –contemporary, known to the audience—something I’ve always loved as an audience member here.  That guide felt like what was wanted in this exuberant moment, so I looked for a contemporary song.  The one we picked I came upon while on the treadmill (which I stumbled off of, happily thinking this might be it).  I wrote Chris Johnston and said ‘this?’ and he said ‘YES, PLEASE!’  Gotta come to the show to see what it is, though.

Anything else our audiences should know? 

“We are the only love gods.”

“And if a merry meeting may be wished, God prohibit it!”

Much Ado about Nothing is on stage at the Blackfriars Playhouse through November.  More at –> amshakes.center/MuchAdo

It’s not just any town – it’s OUR TOWN.

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Constance Swain plays Emily Webb in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (above photos by Lindsey Walters and Michael Bailey), one of our four Spring Season shows.  See what she has to say about pairing this classic play with Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions.

You play Emily in Our Town.  How does Thornton Wilder’s classic play compare to the Shakespeare titles you’re doing this season? How is it different?

You said it right, Our Town is a classic, an American treasure.  This play works wonderfully with both Romeo and Juliet and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  These plays are chock full of lessons we’ve either learned, need to learn, or need to be reminded of.  Lessons like the power of forgiveness, the beauty of friendship, and the importance of a hearty laugh.

While Our Town shares several characteristics with these Shakespeare titles, there’s something special about its simplicity.  This play doesn’t have period dances or fancy sword fights.  There’s something familiar about the straightforwardness of Our Town.  If Shakespeare’s plays are desserts, Our Town is the meat and potatoes.

What is your favorite line/lines in the play? Why?

EMILY:  Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?
STAGE MANAGER:  No.  Saints and poets, maybe they do some .  .  .

Being an actor is a lot like being a poet, it is my hope that I realize and inspire others to realize life while they live it.  Every.  Every.  Minute.

Do you have a favorite audience moment from either your time on the road or at the Blackfriars?

There are so many beautiful moments we share with the audience in this play.  We’re on a journey, a mission, to spark the imagination of our audience.  Our Town, in particular, calls for the audience to stretch their imagination.  We encourage them to give themselves over to Grovers Corners, to take this ride with us, feeling every loop and twist along the way.

I love watching the audience turn their heads or sit up to see the house on the hill, or Mr.  Morgan’s drug store, or the graves of fallen soldiers.  The stage manager simply points to these “places” and the audience, both young and old, turn to get a better view.  None of these places are tangible, we can’t go up and touch them.  The audience knows this.  It’s no secret.  This is a play.  But they still believe in magic.  For an evening they abandon all logic and play.

How does Our Town fit into the current cultural moment?  What do you think audiences might walk away with watching this play in 2017?  

This play is a classic because it is timeless.  No matter if the year is 2017 or 3017, this play will be relevant.  Human beings will live, and eat, and love, and die.  This play is a reminder to breathe in those moments.  Hopefully, after seeing this play, audiences hug their loved ones a little tighter before bed.

Does performing Our Town with Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions impact the way audiences respond to the play?

Absolutely! This play is captivating on its own; adding Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions only enhances its charm.  Our staging conditions (keeping the lights on, directly addressing the audience) remind people that they matter, that they are just as important to this story as any of us.