The University of Chicago Magazine February 1996
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Cut to the Quick

Bevington and Newell emphasized the complexity of the famous father-son relationship in their adaptation.

"Cut to the Quick"--the story told in photos


Then Newell came to Court. He recalls his first impression of the theater, less than one-tenth the size of the Guthrie, as something on the order of: "Oooh, what a fantastically intimate space." He began to think more and more about revisiting the Henry IV story, this time investigating the personal, parental, and coming-of-age themes that he couldn't exploit in a bigger hall, compressing the two related but distinct plays into one and focusing just on Hal's faltering journey toward manhood. "Then I found David."

"I knew who David Bevington was," Newell recalls. "I had read his commentaries on the texts. But I hadn't realized that he taught at this university, and that he was actually on the Court Theatre board. When I found out, I began to think, wow, maybe we could do this."

Bevington was at least as enthusiastic as Newell. "I tend to teach these plays in terms of fathers and sons," he says. The politics, the ruminations about honor and justice, virtue and vice, are all fascinating, "but the reason these plays work so viscerally is that we all grow up and have to come to terms with our fathers. That's what we chose as our focus."

Unlike Newell, who preaches the primacy of artistic conception, aesthetics, and passion as the purpose for the rewrite, Bevington--the philosopher, the scholar, the academician--turns practical right away. "Shakespeare's history plays don't get performed a lot these days," he grumbles, "because they're so damned expensive." They require a large cast. They have battle scenes, elaborate costumes. Some of them are in real danger of falling out of the repertory. "We wanted to see if we could fashion a single evening out of both parts of Henry IV that would not only hang together," he recalls, "but could be done with a reasonably small cast."

Their goal was to merge the two plays, more than seven hours worth of text, then pare them down to two-and-a-half hours, less than 40 percent of the original. Bevington took the first stab at it, then worked closely with Newell and eventually with the entire cast, including the scenic and lighting designers, to make the new version a seamless, and sensible, whole. By draft 12, after extensive rewrites--eliminating whole scenes and condensing or rearranging others; inserting, expunging and combining characters; shifting parts around--they had trimmed the customary cast of 28 or so for each play down to 12 actors playing 22 parts. "This is sort of chamber music Henry IV," explains Bevington. The two battle scenes, for example, one from each play, have been compressed into one, and there's very little fighting in that. An intimate story doesn't require "a lot of soldiers running around carrying banners, that sort of thing," insists Bevington. They devised instead a simpler, more symbolic battle scene, sustained by lighting and sound effects but focusing as always on the central encounters between King Henry, Hotspur, Hal, and Falstaff.

The result--titled King Henry IV: The Shadow of Succession--is still clearly Shakespeare, every line. "David has this encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespeare," Newell explains. "He has all these plays in his head." So in a few places where the story ran aground, where the editors got stuck and couldn't find quite the right words in either play to advance the narrative, Bevington suggested passages from other related plays. In fact, the opening line, King Henry's sorrowful query, "Can no one tell me of my unthrifty son?" is borrowed from Richard II, and most of the final scene, which ties off some loose strings left hanging in Part II, is lifted from Henry V.

Purists take note: There is ample precedent. The so-called Dering manuscript, which combined the two parts of Henry IV into one play, was prepared in 1622, a year before the publication of the First Folio. There have been several subsequent efforts to combine the plays. The best known is probably Orson Welles's 1967 film, Chimes at Midnight, which scavenged from both plays and beyond to feature neither Hal nor Henry IV but Falstaff, robustly played by Welles himself. "Some parts of his play suffer," sniffs Bevington, "but in return we are given a remarkably sensitive reading of a fat comic who is at heart insecure and in need of affection," adding "I like our version better."

The hardest part, Bevington and Newell agree, was tossing out major characters and cutting entire scenes--some of them favorites, essential to the original plays but only tangential to the father-and-son theme. "The tavern scenes are terrific; we had to keep all the tavern stuff," says Bevington. But they had to lose Owen Glendower, the fierce and linguistically florid Welshman who is Falstaff's only rival as a braggart. Even more painful was losing Kate, Hotspur's wife, one of the great female characters in all of Shakespeare and just about the only respectable woman in either play. "I kept trying to sneak her back in," says Bevington. "Her first scene is an absolute gem, but we just couldn't keep enough of her to make a whole character."

The final result is a different, less far-reaching, but far more personal play. King Henry IV becomes an even more central character, as the austere and foreboding, troubled and troublesome father of a wayward but slowly awakening son. The revision also accentuates Prince Hal's role, as he matures from the irresponsible defiance of the early scenes--a mere "shadow of succession," whom his father would gladly exchange for Hotspur--into a shrewd, loyal, and gracious heir to the throne. In fact, in this adaptation Hal appears in some fashion, often just listening, in almost every scene.

Every scene? In the original Part I, Hal is only on stage once during the first act. He doesn't meet his father face-to-face until that play is two-thirds done. In Part Two Hal doesn't appear until the second act and doesn't speak with his father, who by then is dying, until the end of the fourth.

Since this version is centered on Hal, however, Newell and Bevington chose to bring in the lighting and scenic designers--Marcus Dillard and Anita Stewart, who were recruited to Court just for this play--to help them find ways to bring Hal into the play more often. Although the costumes are all in period, Stewart devised a very modern, austere version of the traditional Elizabethan unit set--with a lower and an upper level, like a balcony--but all black and curtained with scrim, a transparent fabric that can reveal or hide whoever is behind it depending on Dillard's lighting.

"It allows us to blend the realities of court and tavern into each other as they are being blended in Hal's mind," explains Newell. So as King Henry rants in court about his dissolute son, we simultaneously catch a glimpse of the Prince in the tavern, taking in his father's disappointment. The result is a play that remains as crowded with life as ever, but never strays far from the father-and-son axis.

If cutting favorite characters and scenes from the plays was hard, the loss of one of the production's key players was downright painful. Associate classics professor Nicholas Rudall, founding director of Court Theatre, was originally slated to play Falstaff. "It's a part he has always wanted to play, and he was just born to play the part," laments Newell. But two weeks into the three-and-a-half week rehearsal schedule, Rudall was offered a substantial role in a major motion picture, oddly enough playing a U of C scientist. "He couldn't turn it down," moans Newell. "We were devastated, but in a funny way the loss has pulled the rest of us together." They quickly recruited Bill Brown, a talented actor who was eager to play the part, and who is, "thank God," says Newell, "a very quick study."

By the evening of the first dress rehearsal, however, the production remained a bit shaky--and long, running almost three hours. In the weeks prior to the play's January 17, regular-run opening, Bevington and Newell were still tinkering and trimming to clarify the tale and streamline the telling. In the end (the play will close February 18), reviewers agreed that the adaptation hit Bevington's target: a single evening that hangs together.

"On the whole, this works well enough," Richard Christiansen wrote in the Chicago Tribune. "Some not get their full due....But the contrast between the high-minded courtiers and the low-life followers of Falstaff remains in place, and the opposing forces of personality on Hal are kept foremost."

"Of course," Bevington reminds us, "it's not meant to replace Henry IV, Parts I and II. Those plays are magnificent poetry. No one would pretend that there's any reason why we shouldn't on other occasions get to know and love and see them in full.

"But this is just an attempt to use the theater to see what kind of an evening of theatrical magic one can make out of these texts. Get people into the theater and get them out and leave them, not with a Cliffs Notes version of Shakespeare, but with a moving impression of Prince Hal's saga as he stumbles toward maturity. I think we did that."

(Editor's Note: Court Theatre ends its 1995-96 season with Molnár's The Play's the Thing and Beaumarchais's The Barber of Seville, performed in rotating repertory. For dates and ticket information, see "Events.")

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