Or maybe it's a triple play, since one those plays—Henry IV—is actually a combination of scenes from two plays: Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2. Taken together with the second play, Henry V, they offer the sprawling, bawling, bawdy, and violent "coming of age" story of young Prince Hal. His character arc takes him from the "party hearty" scofflaw and companion of Falstaff to the noble King Henry V, for whom Shakespeare wrote one of his most inspiring and poetic soliloquies: the famous "St. Crispin's Day" speech to the English troops on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt.
I asked directors Tim Ocel (Henry IV) and Bruce Longworth (Henry V) some questions about the two plays and their approaches to them.
Q: The Henry IV you're presenting this season is actually a combination of Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2. Who did the compilation and what kinds of challenges did that project present?
Tim Ocel: I did the compilation; the biggest challenge was deciding what part of the core story to concentrate on and how much of Part 2 to keep. The sequence of events surrounding the Coronation event at the end of the play was also something we tinkered with for a while, it needs to be concise but not rushed...we also tried to keep the story moving forward, bringing us into the events that drive Henry V.
Tim Ocel and Bruce Longworth examine
the draft set design for Henry IV and V
Q: In Shakespeare's England it was reasonable to assume that the audience would be somewhat familiar with the history behind Henry V. That's less likely with a contemporary American audience. How to you make this play speak to that audience? Are there themes that you think are universal enough to transcend any lack of familiarity with the history?
Bruce Longworth: The themes in the play are, indeed, universal. It's a play about courage, faith, fortitude, uncertainty and human doubt, all within the context of war. It's about a young man grappling with what it means to be a King. And though the notion of kingship isn't part of our American culture, the story of heroic struggle against overwhelming odds is. The story of the play is clear and that, combined with these familiar themes, should easily transcend the lack of familiarity with the history for our audience.
Q: Until the last 100 years or so, the rebellious Harry Percy ("Hotspur") was often seen as the true protagonist of Henry IV Part 1. These days Prince Hal is seen that way. What do you see as the balance between these characters? Is that reflected in our adaptation?
Tim Ocel: The protagonist crown is worn by King Henry IV...although it's not that tidy; since lawful succession is actually what the story rest upon, the protagonist crown is somewhat shared between Father and Son -- there is a solid line connecting those two (King Henry/Prince Hal). Hotspur and Falstaff are the somewhat balanced antagonists in the story; they threaten the solidarity of England, morally and physically, from different corners of the play's universe. They threaten the unity of the royal family, threaten to undermine a clean succession, and threaten the advancement of civilization by advancing anarchy, turmoil, and disregard for the Law.
Elaborating on the universality of the themes in his director's notes for Henry IV, Mr. Ocel observes that the play "is the story of human beings shaping a civilization."
"The play," he notes, "believes in civilization – the ability of the world to become more fair and lawful; a world less inclined to chaos. In the play (though we love them both on some level) Falstaff and Hotspur offer neither civilized behavior nor a path to a better world. So though Hal's relationship with his father is strained, at least the dying King Henry offers a future filled with possibilities...even if the responsibility of that future rests, fatally, on the King.
"Shakespeare saw that the future inclines to those who believe in a forward moving energy, not to those who hold back mankind's potential due to a selfish lack of vision."
If that sounds like these plays have some contemporary resonance, that's probably because Shakespeare, like all great artists, was able to go beyond the specifics of his time and place and touch on universal human themes. It's why Shakespeare can still speak to an audience removed centuries in time and thousands of miles in space from his essay writers world.
The essentials: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis presents Henry IV tonight and Saturday this week (May 16 and 17). Next week it's Henry V Thursday through Saturday (May 22-24). Starting on Sunday, May 25, Henry IV and Henry V alternate nights except for Tuesdays when there are no performances. Performances start at 8 PM and are preceded at 6 PM by the Green Show—a 20-minute version of the mainstage show along with strolling performers of various persuasions on the green. It all happens at Shakespeare Glen, next to the Art Museum on Art Hill. Performances are free, but you may want to consider renting a chair. For more information: sfstl.com.