The Rediscovery of Henry VI

When I was in Stratford, Alan Howard was not only playing the lead in the four Henrys but also at first rehearsing and then playing Coriolanus. On four December days I saw him in all five productions! One would have thought that he would have no time to talk; but he is a generous man, and we managed a brief while. It has clearly been an extraordinary experience for him, first to play, in one season, Prince Hal (both parts) and Henry V, and then at once, again in a singlr season, to play both Henry V and Henry VI in all three parts. He is, surely, the only actor in the history of Shakespearean productions ever to do so.

Henry VI

He found Henry V to be deep, sensitive, often surprised by anguish, a practical politician who could kill when he had to - who could, yes, use the system to improve the system - but whose inner being was horribly wounded again and again by the relentless demands of power. In Howard's Henry V the pain is so intricately woven with the power and the glory that one can see, thinking back, how Henry VI is - surprisingly but indeed - the son of his father. What is important to emphasize is that for both characters Howard convinces us that this is a brilliantly legitimate revelation of the scripts. He believes - and it shows on stage - that had Henry V lived long enough, the son would have grown up to be a king of his father's kind. Instead, "he has lived all his life with a hero myth for a father, with everyone constantly talking about that incredible FIGURE: HENRY THE FIFTH. And he has had no mother for any significant length of time, just all those quarreling uncles." Nevertheless, as Howard says and demonstrates in the productions, Henry VI becomes in his own way a powerful man.

"Like Cade, but in a deeper sense, he is a revolutionary. He is so far ahead, so much deeper than anyone else that he is simply not able to lead people who are interested only in power. He says wise things all the time but won't repeat himself. Even when he is quite young, in Part One, when he takes the red rose, he is after all saying that such things aren't important. And he is right, but we tend not to hear him any more than do the thugs. It's interesting that even now the historical Henry remains the king in whom the historians take the least interest.

He is not, as people seem to think, really detached. For example, he respects York, who is in part an honorable man, and gives him everything - his title, property, everything - not just his "blood." But as the trilogy goes on, Henry increasingly develops values that separate him from all the others."

And he develops, Howard believes, partly through suffering.

"The battle of Towton (the father/son, son/father scene) is a Gethsemane for him. And earlier, so is the Margaret-Suffolk thing - he knows about them. Toward the end of Part One, his uncle Gloucester suddenly says, "Marry." But Henry has been praying five hours a day, and reading and studying. He knows about the Devil - and suddenly there is Sex! Then Suffolk manages to create the whole romantic world for him, and he wants it - which leads directly to the betrayal and the suffering.

Toward the end he is not only a revolutionary but a prophet and visionary of great power. For example, when Richard arrives in the Tower, how does Henry already know that Richard has killed Prince Edward? Also he manoevres people. He makes Richard kill him. And he gets Warwick by making him Lord Protector, by giving him the responsibility that Warwick has been avoiding - and that does Warwick in."

As I have said, what matters most - even from such intelligent and articulate actors - is the playing. And in the details of their playing, in other details of production, and in the controlling thrust of the three-part work, I found myself held, delighted, instructed, and moved - presented, I felt, with a theatrical experience legitimately possible only in the presence of a great script worthily performed. .............

Homer D. Swander

The Shakespeare Quarterly, Spring 1978.


Playing Shakespeare/Henry VI Part One