- The Henry VI Plays
Is Shakespeare our contemporary? No and yes, say historicist and presentist critics. Historicism constructively emphasizes the differences between Shakespeare's early modern outlook and our own, while presentism uses today's discourses to contemporize his original questions. As the distinguished Austrian poet Erich Fried observed in a reassessment of Jan Kott's seminal but controversial Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1961), Shakespeare's simultaneous otherness and modernity arise from his acute awareness of transformations taking place in his culture that we relate to in our own time of unsettling changes.1 Major productions of Henry VI from the middle of the last century have clarified this shared sense of change at multiple levels of representation and reception. At the level of historical event, Shakespeare (and perhaps others in Part One) chose to write about a wrenching downward spiral of English imperial and civil violence. As a playwright for the popular stage, he did so during a time of institutional and epistemological upheaval, when scrutinizing the past for moral and political guidance was second nature. And modern audiences watch the plays from what might be called a neo-Elizabethan perspective of cultural dislocation or divestment of previously unifying ideologies and narratives. Performances of Henry VI now routinely synchronize historical and topical conflict.
This book tells the rather surprising story of how postwar English productions normalized such expectations. Shifting local and national contexts used to illuminate key artistic and political choices of directors, actors, and theatrical [End Page 535] institutions constitute Stuart Hampton-Reeves and Carol Chillington Rutter's core methodology. Superbly researched discussions make this one of the best critical studies of the Henry VI plays. Their canonical marginality has, as the authors argue, come to manifest itself in unexpectedly radical ways. Until the twentieth century, Henry VI was only performed rarely in heavily adapted and/or caricatured forms that updated the plays according to passing theatrical fashions. The book's second chapter overcomes the inherent challenges of this thin theatrical record by showing how eighteenth- to early twentieth-century productions of plays that are so inescapably focused on the collapse of chivalric heroism entered into a kind of cultural psychomachia with the myths of British imperialism. As the empire ended, so did the plays' identity crisis, beginning with Sir Barry Jackson and Douglas Seale's landmark productions of all three parts at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1951–53 (usefully listed with other productions and their personnel in an appendix). Jackson and Seale joined a rigorous commitment to textual and stage integrity with a willingness to question traditional values of heroism, class, and gender. Their fresh thinking tapped into the emergent rebelliousness of postwar England to problematize a moment of patriotic amnesia—the Festival of Britain—and its mandate of national catharsis. Though soon overshadowed by the Royal Shakespeare Company's monumental Wars of the Roses (1963–64), Jackson and Seale's critical revisionism and elevated production values established the modernizing impetus adopted by English revivals and many performances abroad of Henry VI ever since.
Hampton-Reeves and Chillington Rutter survey these in illuminating detail up to Michael Boyd's spectrally haunted and emblematically estranging productions in 2000–2001—the fifth time an aspiring director has used a cycle interpretation of the Henry VI plays to secure his hold on the RSC's top job (187). Their third chapter, on Peter Hall and John Barton's Wars of the Roses, is one of several that stands out by virtue of its deftly contextualized analysis of Barton's adapted text, interwoven with pithy summaries of key actions and vividly recaptured sounds and sights. Drawing on personal interviews and hitherto unexamined archival evidence, the authors likewise open up fresh perspectives on Jane Howell's technically innovative, playfully ironic, but ultimately austere television productions for the BBC/Time-Life Shakespeare series (an Anglo-American collaboration that anticipated Boyd's cofunded production with the University of Michigan).
Another highlight is the chapter on Katie Mitchell's stand-alone interpretation of Part Three (Henry VI...