Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: James D. Mardock
Peer Reviewed

Henry V: Stage and Screen


14Patriotism and its discontents: 1897-1945

Two turn-of-the-century actor-managers, Frank Benson and Lewis Waller, established between them the model of the heroic, patriotic Henry against which twentieth-century productions would be defined. By the 1890s Henry V, its interpretation heavily influenced by the tradition of spectacular Victorian productions, had become such a symbol of British nationalism and imperialism that George Bernard Shaw complained, in an 1896 review of 1 Henry IV at the Haymarket, that Shakespeare could so unforgivably "thrust such a Jingo hero as his Harry V down our throats" (Shaw 2: 428-29). But perhaps the contexts of the Second Boer War (1899-1902) made such interpretations inevitable. Frank Benson first staged the play, with himself in the lead, at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford in 1897, and revived it frequently over the next thirty years, often to commemorate Shakespeare's birthday, which conveniently coincides with Saint George's Day, 23 April.Frank Benson as Henry V, 1900 (image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Theatre and Performance Archive). Benson's Henry was described variously as thoughtful and mechanical, and emphasized the contrast between English vigor -- as Benson pole-vaulted onto the walls of Harfleur -- and French sloth and degeneracy, represented by dancing girls in the French camp (including, in 1900, a young Isadora Duncan) and a French king so enervated by his insanity that he spent his scenes playing cards with his court jester.

15Critics during the Boer War responded positively, not necessarily to Benson himself, but to the production's suitability to "this hour of national excitement and patriotic fervor" (Illustrated London News, 24 February 1900, qtd. in Smith 36). Lewis Waller's production in 1900 at the Lyceum was praised more than Benson's for its spectacular scenery in the Kean tradition, but in spirit it was so similar to Benson's that Waller could revive his performance in 1908 at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre with Benson directing. In 1900, Waller's Henry, whose commanding presence was repeatedly praised as an epitome of masculine heroism for the new century, became the touchstone for contemporary wartime patriotism; the play inspired the scholar Sidney Lee to suggest changing the word "Ireland" to "Afric" in the fifth act chorus (TLN 3881) in order to "give this sentence an application even more immediate to our contemporary history," in effect making Victoria the "gracious empress" and changing Essex into Alfred, Lord Milner, the colonial High Commissioner.

16By the early years of the twentieth century, Henry V had come to be seen as an uncomplicated piece of pageantry, with many of the play's complications ironed out or excised. When the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald review of the 1908 performance praised Waller for "develop[ing] admirably the many-sidedness of Henry's character," it referred not to moral ambiguity or falseness, only the different tones of kingly heroism. The same years began to see a backlash, however, both to the elaborate pageant staging of the play (and of Victorian Shakespeare generally) and to the unproblematic heroism of the title character. The former came from William Poel, who founded the Elizabethan Stage Society in 1895 in order to return the plays to their original performance conditions, and who took the Chorus's apologies in Henry V as a manifesto: "[Shakespeare] goes out of his way to put in a chorus into the play especially to enable the spectators to do without" the "stage pictures" upon which Waller depended (Gomme, qtd. in Smith 40-41). Poel accordingly produced an outdoor Henry V in Stratford in 1901, specifically to provide a down-the-street alternative to Benson's and Waller's productions. John Martin-Harvey's 1916 production at His Majesty's Theatre in London continued the work of reconstructing Elizabethan practices, rearranging the theater to emulate the thrust stage of an Elizabethan playhouse.

17The second backlash, a challenge to the interpretation of Henry V as merely a propaganda play, was a result of the First World War's demolition of the romance of warfare, the exposure of patriotic battlefield sacrifice as what Wilfred Owen called "the old lie." Though Frank Benson revived the play again in 1914, the national atmosphere was no longer right for his brand of heroism. The Somme, site of Henry's victory, had become shorthand for carnage unredeemed by chivalric glory, and compared to the ceaseless iterations of the play during the Boer War years, World War One saw comparatively few productions of Henry V. It did make it possible, however, to reconceive the play as a scathing indictment of militarism that was to grow in influence for the rest of the century. Post-war productions began more forcefully to incorporate the interpretations of critics like Gerald Gould (see above), and to reincorporate the complexities in the play's picture of warfare and kingship that had been smoothed out of performances for decades. The response to William Bridges-Adams's production at Stratford -- a stripped-down production following Poel and performed with a cast of nineteen -- reflects the degree to which attitudes to Henry V, and Henry V, had changed after the Great War: although Murray Carrington's Henry was affable enough, wrote the Athaeneum reviewer, post-war audiences "do not admire conquerors" and are likely to be put off by the "Bismarckian brutalities" of the wooing scene (Athaeneum, 22 October 1920, qtd. in Smith 46). By 1920, the great English hero, even in his ostensibly comic mode, had become uncomfortably close to the warmongering realpolitik of Germany's "Iron Chancellor."

18The play remained less popular, though not unperformed during the 1920s and 1930s, perhaps, as Emma Smith notes, because "its ostensible militarism sat awkwardly alongside the politics of appeasement" (47). In 1937, Ben Iden Payne directed it on an imitation Elizabethan stage in the five-year-old Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford, and in London Tyrone Guthrie directed a much better-received production at the Old Vic, starring a young Laurence Olivier following up successes as Hamlet and Toby Belch.Laurence Olivier flanked by Alec Guinness's Exeter (left) and Harcourt Williams's sinister Canterbury, 1937 (photo J. W. Debenham; image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Theatre and Performance Archive). Although Olivier would later claim to have emulated the tone of Lewis Waller's performances despite the prevailing contemporary attitude "against heroics" (On Acting 50), the production was much more ambivalent in its approach to war than Waller's had been, and its star recalled the pensive Prince of Denmark that he had recently played, "not the hearty young Rugby forward with a leaning for poetry that we usually get" (W. A. Darlington, Daily Telegraph, 7 Apr. 1937). Indeed, the production came across, as Gordon Crosse complained, as a "pacifist tract," with Olivier's Henry constantly

trying to make up his mind about the war. All along thoughtfulness kept breaking in, whereas what the play calls for is straightforward, dashing rhetoric and no nonsense about the ethics of war. (Crosse 105)

Compared to Olivier's later filmed version, his 1937 performance, and the production as a whole, were to be more nuanced. Unlike the film, which plays the bishops for comic effect, Harcourt Williams's Canterbury came across as "hard bitten" and cynically conniving (Times,7 Apr. 1937), "an anti-clerical's dream of a divine" (Ivor Brown, Observer,11 Apr. 1937). Guthrie kept the traitor scene and the argument with Williams intact, and critics praised both scenes for their effect of deepening the king's character.The Guthrie/Olivier approach was gradually becoming the new norm.

19Lewis Casson's production at Drury Lane was mostly notable for his casting the matinee idol Ivor Novello in the lead. Critics remarked that Novello couldn't quite fill the space, and W. A. Darlington damned him with faint praise as "solidly good" (Daily Telegraph, 18 September 1938). It is a mark of how far attitudes had changed since the turn of the century that even on the verge of World War II, critics seemed not to see Casson's traditionally patriotic take on war as authentic to the play, even as they appreciated the production as presenting "a sentimentalist's dream…of war as it should be fought if it must" (Stephen Williams, Evening Standard, 18 September 1938). The Sunday Times review stopped short of defending the interpretation, but argued that it was the right approach for a certain type of audience, a certain type of theater: "Shakespeare, in this theatre, is not a man wooing a new mistress, but an old mistress trying to creep back into favour and decking herself out with forced and absurd coquetry." Casson's approach might be absurd and reactionary, but the critics conceded that it had its uses.