Shakespeare: War Is King

Henry VI, played by Steven Sutcliffe, crowned king of England and France by the Bishop of Winchester, played by David Darlow, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Tug of War: Foreign Fire, adapted and directed by Barbara Gaines

Liz Lauren

The crowning of Henry VI (Steven Sutcliffe) in Barbara Gaines’s Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of Henry VI, Part 1, May, 2016

Shakespeare’s troupe, like theatrical companies everywhere, returned to what worked at the box office. That often meant mounting sequels to known “hits,” as Hollywood does now. In the patriotic 1590s, a tried and true subject was any story about England’s own history—especially about its fifteenth-century war-hero kings Edward III, his son the Black Prince, and Henry V. That is why Shakespeare spent so much of his career’s first decade writing so-called “history plays.”

Some of these nine works—Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV, and Henry V—stayed in the repertory for performance as single plays. Every now and then the plays are performed as a sequence—or at least four of them are: Richard II, Henry IV, Parts One and Two, and Henry V. These have just been offered, one per night, by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. More rarely, an earlier set of four plays has been mounted: Henry VI, Parts One, Two, Three, and Richard III.  These, though written earlier, treat later events than the popular four.

But Barbara Gaines, the founding director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, has long wondered what the history plays would look like if performed in the order of the events being treated. What better time to try out this notion than the 2016 Shakespeare year? 

The Henry VI plays are rarely performed, since their authenticity was long questioned—Shakespeare collaborated with others on them. But modern scholars have stopped looking down on collaborations. They were common at the time, when rapid production of new plays was demanded (just as collaborating writers were used in the early days of Hollywood). Shakespeare, both early and late, worked with worthy poets and dramatists, and these plays have gradually been brought into the canon.

In a sequence she has called “Tug of War,” Gaines has grouped the plays in threes rather than fours, omitting Richard II and the Henry IV plays but beginning with a recent addition to the canon, Edward III. (It was included in the second edition of the Oxford Shakespeare in 2005.) She is playing each set of three on one day, a six-hour performance with a lunch break—Edward III, Henry V, and Henry VI, Part One, this spring, and Henry VI, Parts Two and Three, and Richard III in the autumn.

The first set is now running, and it is an improbable success. Improbable because Gaines sandwiches a later composition (Henry V) between two early collaborations (Edward III and Henry VI, Part One). Not only are there stylistic differences, but a structural one. Henry V has a character called “Chorus” who makes recurring comments on the action. How can Gaines prevent this from radically breaking the middle play away from the others in its tone and mode of presentation? She does it by redistributing lines spoken by “Chorus,” making some of them appropriate to action in the other plays. Different actors assume the role of “Chorus” by throwing a flimsy white scarf around their necks. This is easier than one might expect since the actions in all three plays reflect upon each other, which was the origin of Gaines’s insight.

This is just one of the problems Gaines sets for herself. Though she has in a long career staged many war scenes (this is the third time she has directed Henry V), she is herself a pacifist, who was unhappy with the weapons and blood she had to deploy. There are no spears or swords in these three plays, and no blood.  Convincing sound effects of explosion, smoke, and screaming knock people down dead. They soon rise, robotically, touch their foreheads, leaving a long grey smear, and move off as ghosts, to haunt others (and us). The insanity of war is her theme, yet it does not become monotonous, since the humans trapped in it are portrayed with individuality and even with tenderness.  

Henry V, played by John Tufts, 2016

Liz Lauren

John Tufts as Henry V, May, 2016

When the ghosts of former kings appear as silvery images on a rear scaffolding, they repeat words we heard them speak in earlier plays, but now echoing what their successors are saying. These are not merely accusing presences. When Henry V threatens a town, he is drawing on the same language as Edward III used on defenseless captives—but both men soften their threats into forgiveness, yielding to their queens. There can be mercy in the madness.

Every actor in these plays—whether bishop or baggage handler, princess or prisoner—wears body armor at all times, a chain mail under diaphanous outer garments. Gaines is portraying a war culture that affects everyone and everything. The “New Historicists” tried in the last century to rescue Shakespeare from shallow patriotism by making his intent “subversive,” despite the fact that he wrote for patrons trying to please Queen Elizabeth, and every play was vetted by her censors. Gaines does not pretend she is presenting Shakespeare’s own views. She looks back on the plays as cultural products to be weighed in our terms. This approach resembles Simone Weil’s treatment of the Iliad as “A Poem of Violence” (La Force). Weil makes violence the “true hero” and “the center” of the Iliad. This not a judgment from within the poem, where there are many other things than violence. But it stands off from the cultural monument, to consider it “from outside,” as it were, to make us reconsider many things.


Gaines does something similar here. Her view of war does not cancel or affirm what Shakespeare himself thought, since she does not claim to be reproducing that, any more than Weil expressed what “Homer” thought. What do we think about violence or war? New Historicists like Stephen Greenblatt made Henry V a war criminal. Gaines does not believe that. Her king is as trapped as any of his peasant subjects in the war culture. This Henry, played by John Tufts, is the best I have ever seen because he is the most inward. He delivers many of his lines as if musing to himself. In the night scene before the battle of Agincourt, where he enters in disguise, he becomes peevish at the criticism of the king and argues desperately, as if with himself. Then, when he is alone, he collapses in genuine anguish at the thought that he is still tainted by the sin of his usurping father. He prays that the sin be not visited on his innocent subjects. It is a harrowing experience for us because his anguish is so genuine. (If Gaines were doing the normal sequence, like that at BAM, Henry IV’s ghost would be available to haunt his son, but here there is no preceding Henry IV.)

Shakespeare doubled parts extensively, and so must Gaines if she is to fill the parts of three plays in one long day. The interchangeability of roles also helps the theme that war shifts people about in what Shakespeare calls “the whirligig of time.” We also see the versatility or the limits of actors who play three or more parts. Tufts, the Henry V, was equally good with lesser roles in the other plays, or when briefly speaking Chorus’s lines. But Heidi Kettenring, a serene queen in Edward III and a touching “Kate” in Henry V, was not as convincing as the bawdy and swaggering witch Pucelle (Joan of Arc) in Henry VI. (I missed the real devils Shakespeare brought on stage—I guess we can’t see what we no longer believe in.)

Even the rock musicians Gaines uses to score the plays join the actors in the game of doubling. They step in and out of the action. Their punctuation of events is sometimes ironic, sometimes poignant. The whole troupe joined them for the bouncy grim cheering of war at the end, singing Leonard Cohen’s lines: “Why don’t you come on back to the war, it’s just beginning?” This sounds a note between the quiet bitterness of Kurt Weill and the noisy jeering of Joan Littlewood. It caps a searing theatrical experience. What can she do in the autumn to top this?

“Tug of War,” Barbara Gaines’s production of six of Shakespeare’s history plays for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, is performed in two day-long sequences: the first part, “Foreign Fire,” is running through June 12; the second part, “Civil Strife,” is running from September 14 to October 9.

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