Henry IV: Theatrical Prequel

Happy one month into the New Year, Faithful Readers!

I’m sorry I missed you for our first performance a couple weeks ago, when we brought A Midnight Dreary, our immersive Poe-and-alcohol performance, back to DC in mid-January. I had some personal stuff happening in my Real World Life that was occupying most of my time and I figured you all could go without me waxing rhapsodic about horror for another 1500 words. And it turns out I was right, because we sold out that performance! Thank you all for coming to that! Sometime I’ll share with you all yet more of the thoughts I have on that subject. But that’s a blog post for another time. Today I want need to talk to you about the reading of Henry IV, parts 1 & 2, that we’re doing tonight, free of charge, at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop!

We’re reading Henry IV tonight because we’re performing Henry V in April, and Henry V, in case the Roman numeral at the end of the title didn’t give it away, is that rarity in theatre; a sequel. While we are used to sequels in our movies and books and video games, it is unusual to see playwrights doing them. Tennessee Williams didn’t follow up the success of The Glass Menagerie with Menagerie 2: Broken Glass, Broken Dreams. Eugene O’Neill foolishly declined to pen the logical successor to his masterpiece with Long Night’s Journey into Day. There was no The Importance of Being Frank from Wilde, no Rumors 2: Electric Boogaloo from Simon. And Arthur Miller had a bad habit of ensuring that his plays could not be followed by having his characters die at the end; there could be no Life of a Salesman or 2 Fast 2 Crucible. Most playwrights seem opposed to following their characters across multiple stories and adventures.

rambo

I can’t imagine why.

There is a theatrical reason for this. The Aristotelian Unities insist that plays should be structured with uniformity of action, uniformity of time, and uniformity of place; that is to say, they should be about one thing, happen in one day, and take place in one location. We have largely thrown those last two restrictions out by now, 2500 years after Aristotle said them, but we generally abide by the first rule (not least because it is the rule most open to interpretation). Plays tend to follow one problem from its inception to its conclusion. If there is room for a sequel in a play, it suggests that there are loose ends floating around, and in order for a story to be satisfying (cathartic, as Aristotle would describe it) it should have resolved itself by the time the play ends.

This is not to say that theatrical sequels or series are unheard-of or impossible, though. Just unusual. Angels in America is a two-part play. So is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which also happens to be a cross-platform sequel to a book series, making it a rare and unstable Doppelzequel. The Greek tragedians almost uniformly organized their plays into cycles of three tragedies and one comical satyr play, and these tetralogies often focused on the same characters, such as Orestes or Prometheus, or at least a continuous story, such as the Curse of Laius (these examples are also all intended to be viewed back-to-back). August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle springs to mind, as does Brian Friel’s setting of Ballybeg, as interconnected narratives; not sequels per se, but inhabiting the same universe and populated by the same characters. Charles Mee’s Summertime and Wintertime overlap a few characters and a setting while telling very different stories. Alan Ayckbourn’s very odd House & Garden exists as a single play happening simultaneously in adjoining theatres, which is a stretch as far as my sequel/series theme goes but is so goddamn weird I never pass up an opportunity to mention it.

And then, of course, there was Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote two tetralogies, one spin-off, and a lost sequel, all but the last circling around the same period and family. The lost sequel, of course, is Love’s Labours Won, an alleged follow-up to Love’s Labours Lost. Since all we have of …Won is the title, there is room for disagreement on whether it was actually a sequel, an alternate name for a different play, or a completely unrelated story, but the structure of …Lost certainly suggests room for a sequel. The spin-off is The Merry Wives of Windsor, a light comedy following the adventures of fat idiot knight Sir Falstaff, bosom friend of Prince Hal in Henry IV. And the tetralogies are a series of historical plays during the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses. Confusingly, these series are referred to as the Henriads even through the cycle begins with Richard II and ends with Richard III. More confusingly, there are eight plays in the series but the plays are only about five kings; Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III, the plays for IV and VI being broken into two and three parts, respectively. And most confusingly of all, the Second Henriad was written first and the First Henriad second, like the Star Wars movies.

house-of-plantageneet

I don’t know, it doesn’t seem THAT confusing.

I’ll give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt on the difficulties and pitfalls and artistic risks inherent to theatrical sequels because, well, he’s Shakespeare. He does as he pleases. He also gets a pass because most of them are histories, and therefore based on real events. Shakespeare didn’t create the Wars of the Roses, they actually happened. It may not be convenient to us as an audience for the life, death, and legacy of Henry VI to be broken into three parts on stage, but a lot of stuff happened because of him, stuff that couldn’t be adequately expressed, in Shakespeare’s mind, in a single play. The founding of the House of Lancaster, their consolidation of power, and their greatest triumph under Henry V is too complex a story to be told in one sitting, so Shakespeare broke into pieces, choosing to hew more closely to the narrative itself than to the conventions of theatre.

Which brings us to tonight, where we explore a piece of that story. As I mentioned before, we will be performing the second and third pieces of the First Henriad, Henry IV, parts 1 & 2, condensed in true We Happy Few fashion into a single two-hour performance by Cofounder-in-Exile Hannah Todd. It is named after King Henry IV, and happens predominantly during his reign, but it in actuality is mostly about Prince Hal, the soon-to-be King Henry V, and his growth from a callow playboy in the company of ne’er-do-wells to a noble knight and worthy heir to the throne. Since Henry V explores, in part, Henry’s nobility in light of his checkered past we figured a reading of this play would be a good way to introduce that character and his erstwhile companions to the audience. Plus its another opportunity for you to spend some quality time with the We Happy Few team, for free! Who could pass up such an opportunity? I hope you can make it to CHAW tonight, by 7:30PM, to see it!

A New We Happy Few Show is Coming!

And we’re back! We Happy Few is returning from a long hiatus after our very successful run of Romeo and Juliet last year, and We’ve got a tempting, but rarely produced, masterpiece on the boards for Capital Fringe this summer. As you may remember, when Hannah Todd and Raven Bonniwell founded We Happy Few, they created a company dedicated to producing small-cast, stripped down, ensemble versions of classic plays. Over the past 3 years, We have done exactly that, putting on small cast versions of The Tempest, Hamlet and, Romeo and Juliet. What do all of those plays have in common? They’re all written by William Shakespeare! But our mission is bigger than just Shakespeare, We are committed to perform classic plays in our special style. So we are branching out this summer by performing the rarely-produced, but razor-sharp, Duchess of Malfi by John Webster.

Duchess of Malfi Title PageThe original title page for the quarto of Duchess of Malfi. Are there awesome gems of knowledge hidden in this image? You bet your sweet bippy there are. And you can find out what they are in the next blog post! (Photo courtesy of the University of Oxford)

Haven’t heard of the Duchess? Don’t worry. If you like the intrigue of Shakespeare’s Histories or the madness and murder of his Tragedies, you are going to love The Duchess of Malfi. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? It gets awesomer. We have all kinds of special treats planned for our audiences. From a pre-show talk on July 16th to a post-show discussion with some of the creative team on July 19th, there are all kinds of ways for you to get closer to this play. Even better, you can come back to this blog and check out cool features where you can learn about the play, meet the cast and creative team, and get sneak peeks into rehearsal. Speaking of sneak peeks into rehearsal…

Alan, Paul, and KiernanAlan Katz (left), Dramaturg and Incredibly Handsome Man, Paul Reisman (middle), Director and Even Handsomer Man, and Kiernan McGowan (right) , Producer and Handsomest Man of Them All (Photo courtesy of the wonderful Gwen Grastorf)

I will be one of your hosts for these awesome goodies. That’s me on the left, during one of the first rehearsals for Duchess, doing some dramaturgical “table work” with the director and actors. Table work comes in the first few rehearsals of the production, where the cast and creative team literally sit around a table to read the script and the director explains his vision while initial questions about the script are answered. As the dramaturg, table work is important for my job, since my job is to bring a historical perspective to the production and to help make the play more accessible to you, our audience. Join me for some upcoming blog posts where you can learn about the true story of the Duchess of Malfi, a story rife with dangerous secrets, illicit affairs, intrigue, madness, and murder where Big Brother lurks around every corner in this disturbingly modern world.

Tickets are on sale now! We open on July 13th at Flashpoint DC and run through July 23rd! Buy your tickets now!