The Wars of the Roses (Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III), directed by Austin Pendleton, starring Matt de Rogatis, at the 124 Bank Street Theater—Closing August 19th.
The violent reign of Richard III was a popular subject from the time of Henry VIII on, according to the several chronicles and plays that preceded Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Richard III (ca. 1592), and his own play was an immediate success with the public, as the five quarto editions published before his death attest, and has continued to be a favorite until the present day—not least because of the rich meat it provided for star actors, from Richard Burbage on. Popularity creates expectations. Richard’s opening monologue is one of the purple passages that sticks in the mind of even the most casual Shakespearean, and Shakespeare gives some hint of the story’s rootedness in the minds of his audience by meticulously chronicling all ten of Richard’s most heinous murders, recapping them in Act V in the successive entrances of their ghosts. Even though some of Shakespeare’s predecessors felt no compunction to be so thorough, he felt the need to satisfy his audience’s appetite for guilt and gore with each and every one of them, and that may well have been one of the keys to the play’s success.
The protagonist’s opening speech—a dramatic strategy so simple and forceful, that wise playwrights avoid overusing it—places Richard, an archetypal villain—and the actor who plays him—front and center at the very beginning. By omitting it and substituting a rapid succession of scenes extracted from Henry VI, Part 3, Austin Pendleton shows us that his interest lies elsewhere. Recent political developments in the United States make it hard not to see familiar dangers in the Wars of the Roses, as Shakespeare depicts them in his account of a decaying social and political order finishing itself off in internecine warfare. Richard, as Shakespeare clearly shows, was the product of those chaotic times, in which the most effective leaders perished, and so were his victims—the survivors, decadents, in fact, who had nothing more to give or take than survival—as he came to power. In Richard III, he presents before us a family portrait of some less than admirable people, among whom one emerges as criminal and dangerous. For this, Henry VI, Part 3 provides a telling introduction. With his substitution of an historical prelude for the all-too familiar speech, Austin Pendleton has given us clarity in our vision of the play and reenergized it through its resonance with current events.
In Pendleton’s version of the Wars of the Roses, its aftermath, the reign of Richard III, remains the at the center. He treats Henry VI, Part 3 (co-written and revised by Shakespeare, not necessarily with Christopher Marlowe, as the New Oxford Shakespeare would have it) as an introduction, cutting it aggressively. He takes us on an urgent gallop through the action, concentrating on the central figures of the conflict, all of whom, with the exception of the subordinate Clarence, die before Richard III begins, about three-quarters through the first part of the evening. Pendleton’s selection emphasizes the sheer cruelty of the conflict between the Houses of Lancaster and York, where loyalty is directed to the head of the family faction, in this case the Duke of York and King Henry VI, who is no more than a weak figurehead, pushed aside by his bloodthirsty queen, Margaret, the de facto leader. Just as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is York’s favorite agent of death, the sanguinary Lord Clifford is Margaret’s. The murderous episodes begin with his dispatch of York’s youngest son, the Earl of Rutland, who is still a child. This is followed by the death of York himself at the hands of both Clifford and Margaret, who gives York a cloth soaked in his young son’s blood to wipe the tears from his face. Then we see how the news of York’s death affects his mature sons, Edward and Richard, and move to the Lancastrian court, where Henry VI’s young son, Edward, is knighted. Henry has deprived him of his royal inheritance by caving in to York’s demands, and he goes out into battle to regain it, while Henry is relegated to the background.
King Henry is the only character in any of the three plays devoted to his reign who exhibits any moral scruples. Inspired by his Christian devotion, they simply render him ineffectual and weak-minded in the situation—skirting the limits of insanity. After his rejection by the Queen, Prince Edward, and Clifford, he wanders to a hilltop, views the battle from afar, and muses on his own wretched condition and that of the world at large. Henry is the only character endowed with the slightest interest in the larger moral force of what is happening around him.
After the defeat of the Lancastrians, Richard’s brother Edward, now King Edward IV, woos Lady Grey with a Machiavellian combination of threat and expedient enticements, leading directly to Richard’s long, self-revealing speech, which effectively takes the place of the famous curtain-raiser of Richard III.
Then since this Earth affoords no Ioy to me,
But to command, to check, to o’re-beare such,
As are of better Person then my selfe:
Ile make my Heauen, to dreame vpon the Crowne,
And whiles I liue, t’account this World but Hell,
Vntill my mis-shap’d Trunke, that beares this Head,
Be round impaled with a glorious Crowne.
Henry VI, pt.3, Act III, sc.2, ll.165-171
Later, after Edward IV’s forces have captured Queen Margaret and her son, Prince Edward, Richard and Clarence team up to slay the prince in front of her, inflicting her with the deepest grief, as she had abused York before killing him. This bloodthirsty appetite in Clarence is not so apparent, if we meet him first in Richard III. Richard hastily leaves the scene for the Tower, where he finds the former Henry VI imprisoned and stabs him to death. This version of Henry VI, Part 3, omitting the triumphant final scene with Edward IV cataloguing the Lancastrians he has slain, ends with Richard’s sinister speech over Henry’s body.
And so I was, which plainly signified,
That I should snarle, and bite, and play the dogge:
Then since the Heauens haue shap’d my Body so,
Let Hell make crook’d my Minde to answer it.
I haue no Brother, I am like no Brother:
And this word (Loue) which Gray-beards call Diuine,
Be resident in men like one another,
And not in me: I am my selfe alone.
Clarence beware, thou keept’st me from the Light,
But I will sort a pitchy day for thee:
For I will buzze abroad such Prophesies,
That Edward shall be fearefull of his life,
And then to purge his feare, Ile be thy death.
Henry VI, Part 3, Act III, sc. 6, ll. 76-88
The opening scene of Richard III, in which Clarence is arrested, follows hard upon this, losing no time in bringing on his reversal of fortune. The arc of Clarence’s own tragedy gains much in this full presentation. Now that we are in Richard III proper, Pendleton’s cuts become less drastic, although the plot is streamlined by the omission of much in Act III, except for the charade before the people of London that concludes it, we follow the highlights of Richard’s crimes up to the great gathering of the royal women.
At this point, Act I, scene 2, the entrance of Lady Anne, widow of Prince Edward, slaughtered just a few scenes before, following Henry VI’s funeral cortege through the streets of London, and her subsequent wooing by Richard, the accomplice of her husband’s murderer, Clarence, opens the way to her own murder as Richard’s unwanted wife and her admittance into the circle of ghosts as Richard sleeps before going into his fateful last battle at Bosworth Field. Before the intermission, however, Richard manages to Queen Elizabeth and Queen Margaret and dispatch the murderers to Clarence’s cell in the Tower.
After the intermission, the murderers carry out Richard’s orders. The fates of Clarence, Rivers, and Grey circulate. Richard is crowned. After Buckingham seals his own fate by demurring Richard’s hints in regard to Edward IV’s sons, still children, in the Tower, he meets Tyrrell, who willingly carries out Richard’s most notorious murder. The play draws to a close with the Queens’ excoriations of Richard, followed by the painful scene between Richard and Queen Elizabeth, as he attempts to persuade her to offer her daughter to him in marriage, (both shown with few, if any, cuts) and his fitful sleep before Bosworth Field, when the ten ghosts curse his future and his soul. The battle scene and Richmond’s victory speech are omitted, the lights going down as Richard cries out in his fitful, prophetic sleep, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” This brilliant concluding scene involves the most radical manipulation of Shakespeare’s text, as appearances of the ghosts are interwoven with fragments of Richard’s discussion of pre-battle matters—Richmond’s lack of military training, omens, exhortations, etc.—making the whole of the hauntings and the battle a dire nightmare.
In the somewhat narrow space of the 124 Bank Street Theater, the audience looked down on the action from bleachers. The backdrop was a blood-spattered cloth. The actors were semi-costumed with significant jackets, cloaks, and headgear, wearing mostly street clothes below the waist. This gave the production something of a “let’s put on this show no matter what” quality. Since the actors were obviously professionals, this underscored the urgency of putting this grim historical drama of social and political dissolution and criminal ambition before an audience. The show’s gritty look and feel subverted the solid professionalism beneath it, as well as a notable insouciance in regard to the mostly imported techniques for speaking the structure and rhythm of Elizabethan blank verse. All the actors, including Austin Pendleton himself, drew primarily on the most basic non-classical methods of delivery, focusing on the meaning and feeling of their lines, as well as the color of the playwrights’ words and their own voices to make them heard. If a passage needed special clarity, the actors usually slowed down, rather than point their articulation within a rhythmic scheme. For my part, as much as I honor the achievements of Berton, Linklater, et. al., I especially savored the musicality and expression of Pendleton’s approach. As far as hearing goes, there was a certain obstacle to the quiet moments (and pianissimo delivery was an important expressive tool here) in the noisy ventilation system in the theatre. The 124 Bank Street Theater is not the only performance space in New York that should take up a collection to remedy a wheezy air supply. Under the circumstances, that left the actors no choice but to put a little more voice into these very quiet passages. In fact I didn’t miss much, but I had to make an effort now and then, and it didn’t help that we were seated a third of the way up the bleachers.
The cast, beginning with Matt de Rogatis’ occasionally youthful, occasionally infantile, always impulsive Richard, brought rich resources of interpretation and expression to their roles. In his frustration with Queen Elizabeth close to the end, he fell into a whining tantrum which brought out the contemporary relevance of his role. He was able to sustain all the variety occasioned by his character’s unhingedness without any unconvincing step. Austin Pendleton’s loose, relaxed delivery and his melancholy default expression conveyed Henry VI’s cluelessness and impotence in his loyalty to God and morality to perfection. Among the varied, resourceful, and committed male performances (Jim Broaddus, John Constantine, Milton Elliott, John L. Payne, Greg Pragel, and Michael Villastrigo) I especially appreciated Pete McElligott’s Clarence, with his cello-like voice and his eloquent, if a bit prosy (not a criticism) shaping of his speeches. Debra Lass, Johanna Leister, Rachel Marcus, Carolyn Groves all offered powerful women. Debra Lass’s Queen Margaret, furiously unhinged, could have come from any doorway in the five boroughs. Her first entry was shocking. Johanna Leister’s Queen Elizabeth showed vast perception, color, and dynamics, as she built up to her final scene with the perverted usurper. I wish I could praise each performance individually, but time forbids.
The final weekend is coming up. Drop whatever plans you may have made and head to Bank Street for this unique and important production of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III.