Musings

Robert Cotner


e sit awaiting the opening of the play. The signal has been given for guests to take their seats, and there is a spirit of excitement in the theater — much as there must have been when the play first opened in London, sometime in 1599.

The play is Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry V, the theater, the Avon, the setting, Stratford, Ontario. Sitting to the left of the stage in the third row, we await the Chorus. Eight small, bluish spotlights illumine dimly the haze, as if from battle, across the proscenium stage. A bridge slopes downward from left to right across the stage, and crumpled bodies of soldiers in battle-dress lie where they fell on the battlefield. The audience becomes silent, and then a cellist appears, takes her seat, and begins playing appropriately somber music. The Chorus, in the person of a single actress dressed in black, enters and opens Act I: “Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them / For ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, / Carry them here and there, jumping o’er times, / Turning th’ accomplishments of many years / Into an hourglass; for the which supply, / Admit me chorus to this history, / Who, prologue-like, your humble patience pray / Gently hear, kindly judge our play.”

Henry V has been called “Shakespeare’s most famous ‘war play’.” The more subtle and realistic Prince Hal, whom we met and loved in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, has become the warrior king, Henry V, whom we hardly recognize. Jeannette Lambermont’s direction of this play is masterful. Henry’s rag-tag army, a band of men from across the British Isles, represents, as well, soldiers from all wars. Some are dressed in Medieval costumes, some in World War I dress, some in World War II uniforms, and some in Korean and Vietnam War fatigues. Henry himself wears WWII combat boots with his Medieval dress. It becomes a play commemorating all wars and the selflessness and heroism that wars engender.

Graham Abbey, who spent the winter at Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater, gives richness and texture to the character of Henry. He has a clarion voice, which lifts the spirits of his soldiers in battle and calls them to bravery beyond their own expectations. As I watched the play, I was reminded of the clarion voice of Winston Churchill calling people to bravery beyond themselves in another war. I thought, as well, of Robert Frost’s dear friend Edward Thomas, English poet killed by a shell in France in 1917: “And where now at last he sleeps / More sound in France — that, too, he secret keeps.”

Through this theater experience, my mind played hard upon the life and times of Jack Bradley, the soldier whose profile we see raising the American flag on Mt. Suribachi in Joe Rosenthal’s 1945 photograph on Iwo Jima. His son James gave the world a great gift in his Flags of Our Fathers (2000) — as does Shakespeare in this play — telling of the vital cost of freedom in young lives through war, which has brought us to this time and this place in history. As I watched the play, I thought of Paul Tibbits and his crew, who carried the first atomic bomb to Hiroshima in 1945, as told by Bob Greene in his poignant Duty (2000). This was the crucial deed of war that, for all practical purposes, terminated any existing thought of its reasonableness — though we seem not yet to have comprehended that fact.

Under the superb generalship of young King Henry, his army wins a stunning victory at the battle known as Agincourt. Ten thousand French soldiers die; “But five and twenty” English are lost, according to Shakespeare. In the concluding scene, Henry claims his French prize, Princess Katherine, played by Sara Topham, who originated the role of Sister Terry in the Second City’s popular play, Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. The scene is charged with wit and tenderness, as Henry, though a soldier now, recovers some of his Hal-like attributes with his new bride.

My favorite critic Harold Bloom saw more irony in this play than do I. Henry V, it seems to me, is the delineation of personality necessitated by the great social upheavals called war, which have plagued every generation. Under the conditions of war, playful, peace-loving boys are transformed into sacrificial beings, who – to use Frost’s memorable lines – “fall, they rip the grass, they intersect / the curve of earth, and striking, break their own;”

I write this sentence in full recognition that the freedom to do so was purchased dearly by brave boys, who, like Henry and his band, responded to the barbaric call of war down through the years. v

 

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