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Chimes at Midnight with Stacy Keach Week 4

The following article was published on DC Theatre Scene, April 2, 2014.

In this installment, Stacy reports on the Invited Dress Rehearsal from Sunday night, and his thoughts on the underrated, powerful Henry IV, Part 2. – DL

We had our invited dress rehearsal of Part 2 last Sunday. For those of you who don’t know, putting on a repertory is a long and complicated process. First, you have to have a tech period and dress rehearsal of one show – we did that with Part 1 two weeks ago. Then you tech and build up to the dress rehearsal for Part 2. Now we go back to previews of Part 1, and we’ll open that show on April 15. That will run for three nights as we work out the kinks and then open Part 2 on April 18. Confused? So am I. I just show up and hit my mark. It’s one of the good things about being an actor.

Stacy Keach (Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company)

The first day we moved into the Harman, a few weeks back, we did the marathon run-through of both plays to give us an indication of where we were in terms of stamina. I’m 47 years older than I was when I did it before. I really have to modulate my physical energy so I don’t run out of breath. Thank God there are enough breaks. Unlike Lear or Hamlet, Shakespeare gives Falstaff a chance to rest.

Part 1 of course is great fun, and rightly one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays. I suspect, though, that Michael’s heart lies in Part 2, which is in every way a more mature and deeply felt work. It’s amazing to me that these plays were written barely a year apart. They feel like they were written forty years apart, and Falstaff seems to have aged forty years in between them.

In building this production, Michael really has been concerned about stressing the differences between the two plays. Part 2 is permeated with lots of allusion to disease and sickness. Falstaff is sick in the second play. In his first scene, he’s got the gout. He’s having his water checked by the doctor, and the question is to what degree he has the pox. Everyone is sick, in fact, of some lingering physical or mental disease. Shakespeare is preoccupied with it. It’s unmistakable.

The recruiting scene in Part 2 is one of my favorite scenes in Shakespeare. We hear in Part 1 that Falstaff has rounded up a bunch of hopeless cannon fodder, what he calls “food for powder.” But in Part 2 we actually meet them, and see Falstaff pocketing the money from the king’s commission so he can get drunk with Bardolph.

He even takes a bribe from the two most capable soldiers. It’s an amazing scene, very funny but also in some senses the last straw for the character in a moral sense. He’s simply incorrigible. He doesn’t care about sending these innocent people off to their deaths in war while he uses their money to get drunk.

It’s a scene that Farquhar rips off for The Recruiting Officer, and Brecht steals for Mother Courage. And the names of the characters! Ralph Mouldy, Francis Feeble. The one that always sticks out to me is Wart. He’s a diseased man too, in a way.

Stacy Keach (Falstaff) and Maggie Kettering (Doll Tearsheet) in rehearsal for Henry IV, Part 2. (Photo: Elayna Speight)

Part of that disease surely is drunkenness. It’s always fascinating to look at the joy Falstaff takes in what we would now call addictive behavior, something with which I have my own relationship. As an actor, you have to play that joy – you can’t undermine it – but you have to also find a way of showing the destructive toll it takes on a personality. We were in rehearsal when news came that Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the great actors, in my opinion, had died. I was so upset that Michael had to call for a break, in the middle of us staging a scene. I went into a corner and cried, in front of the entire company. I felt like I had been punched in the gut.

There’s one speech in Part 2, toward the end, that consists of nothing more than Falstaff standing onstage, alone, discussing the virtues of sherry sack: the way it feels when you drink it, how it operates on your body. It’s the greatest tribute to alcohol in Shakespeare. If you modernized the language, it wouldn’t be out of place in an O’Neill play. Definitely not a speech for Alcoholics Anonymous! His conclusion illustrates why he would make such a disastrous friend when Hal becomes king: “If I had a thousand sons, the first human principle I would teach them should be to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.”

In terms of where it comes in the play, it’s the final version of the old Falstaff we see before he finds out that Hal has becomes king. It’s placed toward the end of the play, and I’ve always thought it was very significant that it comes there.

Throughout Part 2, we hear Falstaff and friends wax poetic about his glorious past, in stark contrast to the diseased present. In the tavern scene in the middle of the play, the swaggering Pistol tells him, “We have seen the seven stars!” A few lines later, Falstaff is telling Doll Tearsheet not to mention the present times: “Peace, good Doll, do not speak like a death’s head, do not bid me remember mine end.” Later in the play, when Falstaff is reminiscing with his old friend Justice Shallow, he says the famous lines, the source for the title of this blog and the name of Orson Welles’s movie: “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.”

Much like Hal’s line in Part 1 when he promises to banish Falstaff – “I do. I will.” – there is not a word wasted, and the briefness of the expression is perfect to the expression of the sentiment. As an actor, you can easily over-emote in these moments, but restraint is key. If you simply say the words, and don’t play the meaning behind the words, the audience will do the rest. Lines like that have an endless amount of emotional content. Only a foolish actor would stand in their way.

Thanks for talking to me, bub! I’ll see you next week.

Stacy Keach

Drew Lichtenberg is in his third season as the Literary Associate at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and is the production dramaturg for Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. He holds an MFA in Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism from Yale School of Drama.

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