Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Rosemary Gaby
Peer Reviewed

Henry IV, Part 1: Performance History


35Twentieth-century history "cycles"

The stage history of Henry IV, Part One from the Restoration period to the beginning of the twentieth century is dominated by famous Falstaffs, Hotspurs and elaborate scenery. Even while Beerbohm Tree was still mounting hugely extravagant productions, however, thinking about the staging of Shakespeare's plays was undergoing radical change. Research into Elizabethan performance conditions led to a recognition of the advantages of the simplicity of the Elizabethan stage in terms of immediacy and fluidity of action, and under the influence of men like William Poel and Harley Granville-Barker, it became possible to experiment with simpler staging and to offer fresh readings of the texts. One of the many new possibilities that emerged was the idea of grouping the history plays together; with the staging of history "cycles" instead of individual plays.

36The notion of reading and performing Henry IV, Part One in the context of Shakespeare's other history plays entails a radical shift in perspective. The two parts of Henry IV tell the story of Prince Hal's apprenticeship for the crown and lead on, in Henry V, to the culmination of all this in Hal's triumph as King against the French at Agincourt. Viewed in the context of these other plays Henry IV, Part One becomes more the story of Prince Hal than a play about Falstaff or Hotspur. In his study of Henry IV, Part One in the Shakespeare in Performance Series, Scott McMillin calls this the "one decisive change" to mark the stage history of the play. McMillin notes that although Hal's prominence is only apparent when the plays are viewed together, Shakespeare actually wrote more lines for the prince than for any other character (1-4).

37History cycles have taken many different forms. "Cycle" is borrowed from the medieval "Mystery" play cycles which staged biblical history from the Creation to the Last Judgment. The term implies some sort of circular movement, and perhaps when grouped together the plays do show how often historical struggles repeat themselves. In effect, however, the term is used to refer to the mounting of a number of history plays sequentially, so that audiences can view several related plays in a season, a week, or even a day. The first history cycles were staged in Weimar, Germany by Franz Dingelstedt in 1864. Dingelstedt presented a week-long feast of seven Shakespearean histories, as a celebration of Shakespeare's tercentenary (McMillin 3). His adaptation was revived in Vienna in April 1875. Another cycle of ten history plays was staged by Saladin Schmidt in Bochum, Germany, in 1927 (Kennedy 5).

38In England the concept was slower to arrive. It seems to have originated with one visionary business man, Charles Flower. Flower was the Stratford-upon-Avon brewer who founded the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford in the late 1870s. Impressed by reports of the Meiningen company in Germany, Flower's dream was to establish a permanent, subsidized ensemble company, which would no longer have to rely upon star-performances and box-office appeal. One significant part of this dream was the possibility of experimenting with the staging of little-known Shakespeare plays like the Henry VI trilogy and the mounting of a complete cycle of history plays (Beauman 32-33).

39Frank Benson started to experiment with history cycles at Stratford in the early 1900s, but the exercise caused little stir in its day. The practice of staging the two parts of Henry IV also commenced, firstly with Sir Barry Jackson's 1921 productions for the Birmingham Repertory Company, and then, less successfully with William Bridges-Adams's matinee and evening performances, staged to mark the opening of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford in 1932. It was not until 1951, however, that a Shakespeare company at Stratford had the resources to turn the history cycle into a truly impressive event. After the Second World War two successive artistic directors, Jackson and Anthony Quayle, had turned the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre into a prestigious venue. Stratford's major contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain was a season of four history plays--Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V--staged on a single permanent set with actors carrying through their roles from one play to the next. As T.C. Worsley pointed out, "only an organization such as Stratford has now become would be capable of presenting these four plays in this way" (Wilson and Worsley 31). Anthony Quayle had assembled a large, highly-skilled cast. He played Falstaff himself, Michael Redgrave played both Richard II and Hotspur, Harry Andrews was Henry IV, and Richard Burton--at the time a relatively unknown young Welsh actor--was cast as Hal.

40The project was heavily influenced by post-war theories about the connectedness of Shakespeare's history plays. Each play fed into the next, presenting the interwoven stories of Richard II's deposition and Prince Hal's gradual transformation into Henry V. Anthony Quayle wrote of the project:

41In approaching our tasks the producers--Michael Redgrave, John Kidd and myself, together with our designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch--never doubted but that the plays were written as one great tetralogy . . . . We well knew that each play was strong enough to stand on its own feet, and that economic necessity had for many years forced them to do so; but the more we studied the more we felt that this practice of presenting the plays singly had only resulted in their distortion, and that their full power and meaning only became apparent when treated as a whole (Wilson and Worsley vii).

42This approach had the effect of radically altering general perceptions of Shakespeare's history plays. The project elevated Shakespeare's status as a political writer because it argued the existence of an elaborately planned historical series, and it elevated the status of Prince Hal because he became the central hero of a rediscovered national epic.

43The casting was integral to the over-all conception of the tetralogy and created an important shift of emphasis in Henry IV, Part One. Although Redgrave as Hotspur and Quayle as Falstaff were the acknowledged stars, both were prepared to rein in their performances to allow Richard Burton's Hal to dominate the story. Redgrave's Hotspur was a rough, impetuous Northumbrian, attractive in many respects, but less thoughtful, modest, and ultimately less interesting than Hal. Quayle's Falstaff was also designed to be less attractive than was usual. He seemed less genial, less in tune with Hal, more grotesque and more self-conscious in his role as the prince's jester than before.

44Richard Burton was chosen for Hal because it was thought that he might just have the stage presence and personal magnetism needed to maintain interest in the character across three separate plays. In the event the choice paid off. Burton, an actor whose eyes had "the far-away look of a young man whose inner life may be much more important than his outer," (Wilson and Worsley 47) presented a new prince whose consciousness of his destiny informed every moment. From the beginning his prince was aloof, reserved and never fully part of the Eastcheap world. His "I know you all" speech at the end of 1.2 was delivered with serious intent, and an enduring stage tradition was established in the play-scene of 2.4 where Falstaff's plea "banish not him thy Harry's company--banish plump Jack, and banish all the world" was followed by a momentous pause, before Burton delivered "I do, I will" as a chilling rehearsal for Falstaff's rejection at the end of Part Two. The critics were impressed. Harold Hobson wrote: "Mr. Burton looked like a man who had had a private vision of the Holy Grail ... . Instead of a lighthearted rapscallion Mr. Burton offers a young knight keeping a long vigil in the cathedral of his own mind" and Ivor Brown agreed: "An excellent feature of this production is the emphasis on Prince Hal's sense of destiny. The madcap side of him, sometimes overstressed, is played down: Richard Burton's admirable performance is one of Every-inch-a-King-to-be" (Wilson and Worsley 69).

45The experience of performing history cycles unleashed a huge range of possibilities for Henry IV, Part One at a time when audiences might have suspected the play had nowhere new to go. Just six years before Quayle's production, John Burrell’s production for the Old Vic Company in London had appeared to set an enduring standard. Although presented by a particularly strong cast in repertory with Part Two, this production followed the traditional practice of casting its major stars, Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier as Falstaff and Hotspur respectively. By all accounts they completely dominated the play. Richardson's Falstaff was quick-witted, jovial and endearing and Olivier's Hotspur was a dashing hero in tights. Hotspur had frequently been played with a stammer. Olivier hit upon the inspired notion of stammering only on the letter "w," allowing him to end on the gloriously pathetic line: "and food for w —." Ironically this dramatic death was also the last gasp of a long stage tradition. Subsequent Hotspurs were caught up in a more complex story.

Shifting Interpretations

46Since 1951 Henry IV, Part One has been produced on its own and in combination with Part Two by companies all over the world. History cycles, however, require large casts and companies with the resources to commit to a long-term project, so most of these have originated in England. Some spectacular cycles have been staged outside Britain, and in translation, including Leopold Lindtberg's productions of the first and second tetralogies in Vienna in the early 1960s and Ariane Mnouchkine's Kabuki-inspired productions of Richard II and Henry IV, Part One for Théâtre du Soleil in Paris in the 1980s (Mnouchkine initially planned a cycle of six plays but the project was cut short in 1984 by the resignation of her Falstaff, Philippe Hottier). The most frequently discussed and well-documented cycles, nevertheless, have been from British institutions like the RSC and the BBC. The cycle-thinking of these companies has inevitably led to a strong focus on the story of Prince Hal, but there has been very little consistency in the way that story is told. In fact Henry IV is remarkable for the diversity of interpretations its history has attracted on stage and in film. Successive directors have been able to offer contradictory yet plausible re-readings of the politics and relationships explored within the story of the rebellious prince.

47After 1951 the next major history cycle at Stratford-upon-Avon was the 1964 RSC production directed by Peter Hall, John Barton, and Clifford Williams. Once again Henry IV, Part One was staged as part of a centennial celebration of Shakespeare's birth. This time, however, a distinctively grim vision of British history was on display. The year before, Shakespeare's neglected Henry VI plays and Richard III had been adapted into three plays by John Barton and mounted under the title The Wars of the Roses. In 1964 this highly acclaimed cycle was expanded to include Richard II, the two Henry IV plays, and Henry V. It was now possible to see all the history plays dealing with the period from Richard II through to Richard III in succession: a marathon which many people endured enthusiastically. For this production Henry IV, Part One had to fit into a pre-conceived world. A program note from Richard II stated:

48Behind immense variety, the themes and characters are continuously developed through the cycle. As Orestes was hunted in Greek drama, so Englishmen fight each other to expunge the curse pronounced upon the tragically weak Richard II (Addenbrooke 126).

49The influence of pattern-seeking scholars like E.M.W. Tillyard can be traced through comments like this. In this cycle Henry IV was seen not just in the context of events dramatized in Richard II and Henry V, but also as a preliminary to all the violence of the Wars of the Roses culminating in the horrors of Richard III.

50John Bury's set maintained through each play an image of a mechanistic world. The stage was dominated by two large triangle-based walls which could be rotated to disclose the steel walls of a council chamber, the grimy interior of a tavern or, for the Shrewsbury battle, a walled farm-yard with pig-trough. The oppressive and ever-present walls suggested that the human bodies on stage were subject to forces beyond their control: to what Peter Hall described as the "power-machine." What was cyclical in this production was the relentless struggle for power. In keeping with this vision Ian Holm played a relatively cold, manipulative Hal in Henry IV (interestingly he doubled as Richard III at the end of the series). His "rejection" of Falstaff in 2.4 was pitiless, his relationship with his obviously ailing father was always distant, and in his scenes with the crowd at Eastcheap a desire to control others as well as himself was never far from the surface. Hotspur, on the other hand, was a wild, energetic, cleaver-wielding Scot contributing to a "strong intended contrast between the life-loving characters (Falstaff, Hotspur, Shallow) and the emotionally dead world of politics and politicians" (Wharton 61).

51The 1964 Wars of the Roses production was a politically-sound move for the RSC. Described by Bernard Levin in the Daily Mail as "a landmark and a beacon in the post-war English theatre" (Beauman 271), the cycle rescued the RSC's finances at a difficult time and ushered in a highly successful period in the company's history. A decade later, in 1975, the RSC was in dire financial straits again, and again a history cycle helped it gain new prestige. This time, under the direction of Terry Hands, all the Falstaff plays were produced: the two parts of Henry IV, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Despite the Falstaff connection, this cycle did not revert to the old practice of making Henry IV, Part One a Falstaff play. The focus of this production was the idea of Hal's "two fathers" (Wharton 47). Brewster Mason played a likeable, gentlemanly Falstaff, in line with his revived interpretation of the part in The Merry Wives. His relatively restrained performance contrasted strongly with Emrys James's aggressive, moody, and possessive King Henry. As Prince Hal, Alan Howard played a young man with a lot of growing up to do, driven by an autocratic father to find some sanity and comfort in Eastcheap. His rejection of Falstaff was never inevitable in Part One; this was a troubled, but likeable prince poised between two very different worlds.

52The most innovative aspect of the Terry Hands history cycle was its emphasis on the theatrical dimension of the history plays. In response to a severely limited budget the production made a virtue of necessity by staging all the plays on a simple steeply-raked stage with theatre walls, machinery and lighting plainly visible. The series began, unusually, with Henry V, and used the chorus's apology for the inadequacies of the stage as a keynote for the whole series. The parallels between history and the stage were never far from view. In Henry IV, Part One this meant that the play's concern with role-playing was brought into sharp relief. A great deal of overlapping between scenes was introduced. Actors from one scene hung around on stage to watch the next, and props stayed in place to generate interesting symbolic connections. When Hal was distressed by his interview with his father, he could steady himself by reaching for a tankard from the previous tavern scene.

53Both the 1975 Henry IV, Part One and the RSC's next production, in 1982, have been criticized for being politically conservative. The 1982 production was directed by Trevor Nunn, and, along with Part Two, opened the company's first season at its new Barbican Theatre in London. Scott McMillin points out that "more than any other play, Henry IV, Part One is swung into position on occasions of dignity and ceremony in Stratford" and argues that this association with occasions of wealth and power has engendered a timid approach to the play and an emphasis on the psychology of Prince Hal at the expense of Falstaffian subversions (85-7). It is worth noting, of course, that Henry IV, Part One has been a "special occasion" play throughout its stage history, whether the focus has been psychological or not. Adrian Colman identifies its sense of a total England, its muted appeal to English patriotism, its mingling of the comical and the serious, its box-office appeal, and its potential as an ensemble piece as possible causes (52-53). It is a play which has long appealed to kings as well as commoners, always potentially celebratory as well as potentially subversive.

54Reviewers' interpretations of productions inevitably vary as much as productions do themselves. Nicholas Shrimpton described Henry IV at the Barbican in 1982 as an incoherent production in which "the detail was ragged" (Shrimpton, 153). Yet T. F. Wharton's account stresses the thoughtfulness of the Trevor Nunn production and particularly the subtlety of its approach to Prince Hal. According to Wharton, Gerard Murphy's young Hal was a creature of impulse rather than of calculation, Patrick Stewart's King Henry was quiet, distant and fastidious, and Timothy Dalton's moody Hotspur emerged as a parallel character to Hal: their rivalry springing more from similitude than anything else (Hugh Quarshie later took over the role from Dalton, embodying a passionate but dangerous presence on stage). Hal's real enemies in this production were Prince John and Westmorland. Their Machiavellian behaviour in Part Two made it plausible to assume that they were the ones responsible for poisoning the King's mind against his son in Part One, and Hal's uneasy association with Eastcheap was a deliberate rebellion against the sordid political world at court (Wharton 74-79).

55Perhaps the most influential late-twentieth century productions of the Henry IV plays were presented by the English Shakespeare Company between 1986 and 1989. Their history cycles toured extensively around the world, and footage from the plays can still be downloaded through YouTube. The ESC was founded by two former RSC members: director, Michael Bogdanov and actor, Michael Pennington. Like many other new companies which emerged in Britain at that time, it represented a reaction against the perceived restrictions of large-scale institutionalized Shakespeare in the 1980s, and a desire to get back to basics: to mount independent productions which could tour widely and adopt fresh approaches to the plays (a detailed first-hand account of the project is provided in The English Shakespeare Company: The Story of "The Wars of the Roses" 1986-1989 by Michael Bogdanov and Michael Pennington).

56The ESC opened with The Henrys in 1986 and added the earlier histories in 1987 to present a history cycle called The Wars of the Roses. Like its 1964 namesake, this production swung the emphasis back onto the politics of the story, only this time the "power machine" was less remote. The devastating consequences of the power struggles on stage were never far from view. This was a production which constantly made connections: connections between dysfunctional families and destructive political decisions, connections between theatre and the image-making of politics, connections between the world on stage and Thatcher's Britain after the Falklands War.

57The design of the production, its scenery, props, and costumes, emerged out of the rehearsal process. The scenery was, of necessity, portable and adaptable to any theatre, looking like makeshift scaffolding which could be (and was) cleared off stage in a moment. The costuming was eclectic, but generally logical. In Henry IV, Part One Prince Hal wore blue jeans and casual shirts and Gadshill sported a spectacular mohawk. The king and court, meanwhile, wore Victorian dress-coats. The soldiers at the battle of Shrewsbury carried muskets and fought in scarlet coats, while Falstaff dodged about in modern camouflage fatigues and Hal and Hotspur slogged it out in medieval chain-mail. As in pre-nineteenth century productions, costumes expressed something about the role instead of being tied down to a particular period.

58Bogdanov's production constantly defied audience expectations, but some of the most obvious skewing of the text of Henry IV, Part One occurred in the final scenes. Michael Pennington's cold-blooded Hal finished off Hotspur by stabbing him in the back after Hotspur had won the fight but chivalrously and rather foolishly refused to kill an unarmed man. Falstaff stole the corpse and brought it back in the final scene so that his claim to have killed Hotspur was made in front of the king. Hal was left alone and bitter at the end of this production, out-faced by Falstaff and forced to begin his image-building again in Part Two. This was a production without heroes, irreverent in many respects and often unsubtle, but it confronted its audiences with difficult questions about the plays and their relationship to our own world.

Henry IV on film and television

59The story of Henry IV, Part One on film and television is marked by even starker contrasts than its stage history. It has not appealed to mainstream Shakespeare film-makers as have its fellow histories, Henry V and Richard III. Instead, its most well-known screen realizations have been either very careful BBC productions for TV, or the quirky, off-beat films of Orson Wells and Gus Van Sant. All these screen versions of Henry IV, Part One are influenced by cycle-thinking in one way or another, but they present widely divergent readings of the text.

60In 1960, history cycles came to TV in the form of a fifteen-part series comprising Shakespeare's two tetralogies, under the title "An Age of Kings." In publicity for the series the producer Peter Dew emphasized its focus on people and faces as opposed to settings and effects. Some of those faces included Robert Hardy as Hal, and Sean Connery as Hotspur. In 1979 the BBC did Henry IV, Part One again, as part of a project to film the entire Shakespearean canon. This time the second tetralogy was directed as one series by David Giles and the first tetralogy came later as a separate entity. Henry IV, Part One begins with a flashback to the death of Richard II, and in Part Two the story continues with the same actors, sets and costumes. The production was again geared towards telling the story of the future Henry V, a hero who, whatever his faults, did become a great king.

61David Gwillim plays a fairly likeable Hal throughout the tetralogy. He speaks his "I know you all" speech as if the ideas within it are only just coming to him, and his least likeable moment, the scene with Francis the drawer, is cut. Nevertheless, at times this prince is hard to read. He shows little affection for Falstaff and has to think for a moment before hiding him from the sheriff. He seems to be sick of play-acting, disillusioned with his companions and keen to test his skills in the real world. Despite the overall heroic treatment of the story, Gwillim's reading of Prince Hal is subtly shaded.

62Hal's father, played by Jon Finch, is an interesting mixture of remoteness and guilt. His guilt manifests itself physically in his constant clasping and rubbing his hands. BBC research discovered that the historic King Henry had leprosy, so this hand "business" was introduced as a keynote to create a connection between his illness and his guilt about Richard's murder. His judgmental tone in 3.2 (brilliantly anticipated by Falstaff and Hal) is symbolically undercut by the hand washing that accompanies it: an effective idea, but marred by low-budget continuity problems (are those gloves meant to be on or off?).

63The highlight of the production is Antony Quayle's Falstaff: a more genial and more conventional Falstaff than his 1951 performance, but still capable of unsettling audience expectations with his soliloquies and asides delivered directly to the camera. Quayle's Falstaff shows that he is acutely conscious of Hal's waning affection, and he constantly performs in an attempt to regain it. The anxious edge to this Falstaff prepares us, however, even in Part One, for his rejection. Law and order will prevail.

64The series was made with the earnest intention of providing a performance record of the complete canon "for all time." It was also designed for sale to educational institutions, so the pressure was on to film the plays in a way that would appeal to educators: minimal cutting, BBC accents, no gimmicks, and nothing too controversial (Collick 52-57). The makers also had to contend with a very low budget. Despite some good performances by outstanding actors Henry IV, Part One remains a relatively bland event which fails to use the enormous resources of film in any imaginative way. Claustrophobic studio sets and unimpressive battle sequences sit uncomfortably beside a serious attempt at historic realism, and it is hard to escape the feeling that this standardized Shakespeare is rather stodgy fare.

65A vastly different project is Orson Welles's cult classic, Chimes at Midnight. The film has been written about extensively, and hailed by most as a flawed masterpiece (a selection of critiques is included along with Welles's script in Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles, Director, eds. Bridget Gellert Lyons and Dorothy Remy). It is based on the two parts of Henry IV but also draws on Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Welles had experimented with the idea of conflating these plays since high school, staging Five Kings in Philadelphia, 1939, and Chimes at Midnight in Dublin, 1960. Chimes at Midnight, the film, is Shakespeare by stealth. It was filmed in Spain in 1964-5, while Welles's financial backers thought he was making Treasure Island. Welles himself played Falstaff in the film, and obviously identified strongly with the role. The film begins with some dialogue between Falstaff and Justice Shallow from Henry IV, Part Two. The two old men come inside to sit beside a fire and reminisce. At Falstaff's "We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Robert Shallow" and Shallow's reply, "That we have, that we have ... " the scene fades out and the history begins. Shakespeare's history is thus framed by Falstaffian nostalgia and the story, shaped from Falstaff's perspective, becomes one of betrayal, the passing of time, and the imposition of a new world order. Orson Welles said of his interpretation: "the relationship between Falstaff and the Prince is not the simple, comic relationship that it is in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One, but always a preparation for the end" (Lyons 261). Chimes at Midnight was re-named Falstaff at one point in its history.

66The most significant thing about Welles's film is that it is great cinema. Despite severely limited resources, the black and white cinematography of Chimes At Midnight is a compelling visual representation of Shakespeare's text. The plays are ruthlessly cut and reshaped, with added voice-over narration by Ralph Richardson based on Holinshed's chronicles. Henry's first speech begins: "Shall our coffers, then, / Be emptied to redeem a traitor home?"; the film ends with Falstaff's funeral. Chimes At Midnight has often been criticized for the deficiencies of its soundtrack, but an increasingly common response to the film is to see it as presenting a Falstaffian challenge to the supremacy of the spoken word. Welles's often inaudible mutterings subvert the mellifluous Shakespearean verse of John Gielgud's Henry IV, just as the innovative camera work, composition and editing challenge the kind of word-centered approach advocated by Shakespeare purists.

67 Chimes At Midnight has been hugely influential. Its deeply disturbing battle sequences provided an impressive model for later Shakespeare film-makers, and many of the film's revisions of the text have cropped up in stage versions of the play. Perhaps the most obvious tribute to Welles, is Gus Van Sant's 1991 film, My Own Private Idaho. Arguably Van Sant owes more to Welles than Shakespeare in this very free updating of the story. The title is based on the refrain of a B-52s song, "You're living in your own private Idaho," and refers most closely to the River Phoenix character, Mike Waters (all the names are significant), whose narcoleptic seizures take him into a dangerously private landscape. The film's Hal-figure, Scott, played by Keanu Reeves, is a rent-boy who has been on the street for four years. He is one week away from inheriting his fortune on his 21st birthday and tells us: "When I turn 21 I want no more of this life." His father, Jack Favor, is the mayor of Portland, and prone to making unfavorable comparisons between Scott and his Northern cousin Bill Davis.

68Many of Welles's reworkings of Shakespeare are reworked by Van Sant. The search for Bob / Falstaff through a labyrinthine squat echoes a similar sequence in Chimes At Midnight. When Bob is found, snoring, Scott / Hal and Mike / Poins pick his pockets for drugs, before the pidgin-Shakespeare of:

69Bob: What time is it?

70Scott: What do you care? Why you wouldn't even look at a clock unless hours were lines of coke; dials looked like the signs of gay bars, or time itself was a fair hustler in black leather.

71In Chimes At Midnight Hal distracts the Sheriff from his search for Falstaff by jumping into bed with a tavern wench, at the same point in My Own Private Idaho Scott is found in bed with Mike. In both films Falstaff is ambiguously and pathetically in shot for the "I know you all speech."

72 My Own Private Idaho presents an obviously cold-blooded "prince." In this portrait of modern America the distinction between the world of the "court" and the "tavern" is a matter of money, not morality, and the junkies and hustlers Scott leaves behind are clearly the victims of the privileged world he rejoins. Van Sant disconnects Henry IV from British history, and adds a nineties twist to the prodigal son story. The underworld he depicts is squalid and precarious, but escape from that world entails a sell-out to the hypocrisies of normality. It has become a familiar theme in art-house cinema.