Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Rosemary Gaby
Peer Reviewed

Henry IV, Part 1: Performance History


24Nineteenth-century pictorialism

25Since the Restoration period English actors had performed in front of increasingly elaborate scenery. In the eighteenth century, when Quin was playing Falstaff, it was possible for him to rest in the middle of the Shrewsbury battlefield, upon a crimson velvet armchair with gilt claw feet. By 1824, however, matters of costume and scenery were treated much more seriously. Charles Kemble's playbill for King Henry the Fourth at Covent Garden boasted that:

26. . . Every character will appear in the precise HABIT of the Period; the whole of the Dresses being executed from indisputable authorities, viz. Monumental Effigies, Painted Glass, &c (Odell 2:173).

27Charles Kemble was trying to emulate the success of his previous hit-historical revival, King John, but unfortunately all the painstaking research in the world could not redeem the mistake of casting himself in the role of Falstaff. A precedent had been established, however, for the staging of all Shakespearean drama, and histories in particular. From now on audiences expected historically appropriate costuming and elaborate battle scenes. Charles Kemble worried about details like the absurdity of sending Falstaff into battle without correct armor; subsequent productions paid serious attention to such things.

28As the vogue for Shakespearean pageantry took hold in the second half of the nineteenth century, Henry IV, Part One was staged less frequently than other, more ceremonial dramas. Plays like Henry V, King John, and Henry VIII offered more opportunities for spectacular staging, and more challenging scenic possibilities. Like David Garrick in the eighteenth century, the most respected late-nineteenth century actor-manager, Henry Irving, was reluctant to stage Henry IV, Part One. The play did have one important admirer, however: the indefatigable Samuel Phelps. In his 18 years as manager of Sadler's Well's theatre, Phelps mounted nearly all of Shakespeare's plays as well as reviving a number of forgotten plays by Shakespeare's contemporaries. He first played Falstaff in Henry IV, Part One in 1846. His portrayal was very well received and he went on to revive the role hundreds of times in his career.

29One particularly elaborate production in 1864 was staged to celebrate the tercentenary of Shakespeare's birth. Phelps had left Sadler's Wells by this time and had been enlisted by the managers of Drury Lane to help revive the fortunes of the grand old theatre. Henry IV, Part One with Phelps as Falstaff helped enormously. The scenery was particularly impressive. A pictorial replica of the representation of the battle of Shrewsbury was published in the Illustrated London News, accompanied by warm praise:

30The Shrewsbury battlefield was divided by a long ridge, and the numerous combatants, arrayed in bright armor, were concealed under its shelter, until, rising from their ambush, they filled the stage with their glittering figures, all in vivid action and stirring conflict. The brilliant effect ... roused the audience to repeated plaudits. The new scenery ... has been painted by Mr. Beverley, and the whole constitutes the most worthy dramatic effort of the time (Odell 2:361).

31The critics were also pleased to see Lady Mortimer and her song restored to the stage. The only scene still missing from the play was 4.4 at the palace of the Archbishop of York, a scene still usually cut today.

32At the end of the century another elaborate production was mounted by Herbert Beerbohm Tree at the Haymarket Theatre, in May 1896. George Bernard Shaw praised the singing of Marion Evan's Lady Mortimer, but of Tree's performance as Falstaff wrote: "Mr. Tree only wants one thing to make him an excellent Falstaff, and that is to get born over again as unlike himself as possible" (Wilson 119). In the same year, across the Atlantic, a picturesque production of Henry IV, Part One was staged at Palmer's Theatre, New York, with William F. Owen as Falstaff and Julia Marlowe Tabor as Prince Henry. This was not the first time that the play's lack of roles suitable for a leading lady had been overcome by cross-gender casting, but the strategy was not a great success. According to the New York Times:

33The actress carried herself so well through all the banter with Falstaff and the tavern scenes . . . that doubtless susceptible young ladies in the audience felt their hearts beating faster. When it came, though, to Hal's interview with his royal father, and his proclamation of his martial spirit, one felt like exclaiming with Hotspur: "But yet a woman." ("New Theatrical Bills").

34Henry IV, Part One is the kind of play that can showcase the talents of a whole company. It contains strong roles for several actors and encompasses a wide range of dramatic modes. Unsuited in many ways to the nineteenth-century actor-manager system, at the end of the century the play was in dire need of a fresh approach.