The Restoration and eighteenth century

When the theatres reopened in 1660 Henry IV, Part One was an obvious choice for revival. It was performed very early on by a renegade group of actors at one of the old theatres, the Red Bull, Clerkenwell. This group became the King's Company under the leadership of Thomas Killigrew in August 1660. Killigrew managed to secure from the king one of only two patents to operate a London-based theatre company. He and the other patent-holder Sir William Davenant divided up the old repertoire between them. Killigrew seems to have been much less interested in Shakespeare's plays than Davenant, but along with Julius Caesar, Othello, The Merry Wives of Windsor and one or two other plays, he did retain Henry IV, Part One.

10Henry IV was an important asset for the King's Company and was the play chosen to open their new theatre at the converted Gibbon's tennis court in Vere Street on New Year's Eve 1660. Samuel Pepys, whose diaries provide an invaluable theatre-goer's perspective on the theatre of this time, was disappointed with this performance, possibly, he claims (like many modern film-goers), because he expected too much after having read the book. This did not stop him seeing the play another three times in 1661, 1667, and 1668. Later performances seem to have pleased him more; he particularly liked William Cartwright's delivery of Falstaff's "Honor" speech in November 1667.

The most celebrated actor to appear in Henry IV before the end of the seventeenth century was Sir Thomas Betterton. He first played Hotspur, but later in his career took over the role of Falstaff. A letter dated Jan. 28, 1699-1700 claimed:

The wits of all qualities have lately entertained themselves with a revived humour of Sir John Falstaff in Henry the Fourth, which has drawn all the town, more than any new play that has been produced of late; which shows that Shakespeare's wit will always last: and the critics allow that Mr. Betterton has hit the humour of Falstaff better than any that have aimed at it before (Salgado 65).

This letter documents the beginning of the process whereby Shakespeare's plays came to be regarded as "classics" which "will always last." Betterton's skillful delivery of Falstaff's "humour" contributed enormously to the pre-eminence Shakespeare's plays achieved in the new century. His focus was very much upon the effective presentation of character, and it seems that this was the main concern of all subsequent eighteenth-century productions of the play. Audiences came to see a humorous Falstaff or a fiery Hotspur; the play became more a story about interesting individuals than the story of a nation.

Pictures of eighteenth-century performances attest to this focus on personalities. There was little attempt at historical accuracy and characters mostly wore the fashions of the day. It seems odd now to contemplate a Hal or Hotspur in elaborate eighteenth-century wigs and buckled shoes, but this was all quite normal for the time. Falstaff, of course, was an exception, developing his own particular look. His high, floppy boots (useful for disguising thin legs), old-fashioned jerkin with points, feathered hat and big gloves became a trade-mark. It is an image which has resisted change through most of the play's history.

The acting script of Henry IV suffered much less interference from seventeenth and eighteenth-century actor-managers than most other Shakespearean texts. Killigrew was less inclined to rewrite Shakespeare's plays than Davenant, and the first printed acting version of the play based on Betterton's Lincoln's Inn Fields production in 1700, presents a text which is probably quite close to that used on Shakespearean stages. As in nearly all acting scripts there are significant cuts, however, aimed at a more streamlined production. Strangely, for a period in which women were finally allowed to act, it was the female roles which suffered most. Kate's lines were heavily cut and Lady Mortimer disappeared altogether along with most of 3.1. Other cuts included all of the scene with the Archbishop of York (4.4) and many of the play's longer speeches (Odell 1:84). Betterton's version of the play seems to have set a precedent; later attempts to abridge the text followed similar lines.

Henry IV, Part One remained popular throughout the eighteenth century and also created some demand for Henry IV, Part Two (a substantially altered Part Two was first produced by Thomas Betterton around 1701). In both plays Falstaff was the major drawcard and a succession of actors stamped their mark upon the role, including the burly James Quin and the more "frolicsome, gay, and humorous" John Henderson (Salgado 177). As British theatre came to be more and more dominated by powerful actor-managers, however, Falstaff's popularity did not always work to the play's advantage. Henry IV, Part One could not provide a strong enough starring role for actor-managers unsuited to the part of Falstaff. The great actor-manager David Garrick staged it only once, playing Hotspur opposite James Quin's Falstaff in 1746. Apart from proving a humorously easy weight for Falstaff to lug off-stage in 5.4, his rendition did not meet with much acclaim. He did not have the physical presence of a great warrior, and clearly his "laced frock" and ramillies wig did little to help overcome this deficiency.

15By the end of the eighteenth century Henry IV was also appearing on stages far from its London home. It was the first Shakespeare play performed in Australia, staged by a company drawn together by an ex-convict, Robert Sidaway, at "the Theatre," Sydney, on April the 8th, 1800. The play was performed for an audience consisting largely of military personnel and the players were solemnly instructed not to present "the slightest impropriety." Shakespeare's play was followed by a new dance called "The Drunken Swiss" and an afterpiece entitled "The Irish Widow," both of which must have given the company's leading lady, Mrs Parry, a bit more exposure than was to be had from the relatively small part of Lady Percy. Unfortunately there are no surviving reviews to report on how the production was received.

Many reviewers of early nineteenth-century productions of Henry IV, Part One in England are critical of the performances they saw. Stephen Kemble, nicknamed "the big Kemble" to distinguish him from his more famous brothers, was able to play an obese Falstaff in 1802 without padding, but for one commentator at least "the effect was more painful than amusing." His older brother, John, delivered Hotspur's lines in 1817 with "almost torturing slowness" broken by occasional sudden changes of tempo for dramatic effect. William Macready (himself a notable Hotspur and Henry IV) had high hopes for Robert Elliston's last Falstaff in 1826, but had to conclude that "the character was left, as it has been since the days of Quin and Henderson, without an adequate representative" (Salgado 179-82).

Perhaps the English critics were hard to please. The American actor, James Hackett who played Falstaff so many times that he became known in the United States as "Falstaff Hackett," was harshly reviewed for his London performances in 1833 and 1839. The expectations placed on any actor attempting Falstaff were obviously high. Francis Gentleman, the editor of Bell's acting editions of Shakespeare wrote of Henry IV, Part One in 1774:

the play as it now stands, is free from superfluities, and possesses much strength of character and sentiment; yet we are sorry to say, that the want of ladies, and matter to interest female auditors, lies so heavy on it, that through an excellent Falstaff only, can it enjoy occasional life (Odell 2:41).

His statement was prophetic: the occasional excellent Falstaff ensured the play's continuing presence on the nineteenth-century stage, but its masculine focus and unsettling mix of comic and serious moods tempered its appeal.