Yesterday, I announced my intentions to blog every day this month, and a couple hours later I got my first serious spyware attack, which took Amadeus Lofgren (my lovely little netbook) out of commission. I have theories about how to fix him, and I do have Internet access at home, still. But I won’t get into that now — I have some posts about my relationship with technology planned, and I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Suffice it to say, I’m posting from the library right now.

I’m not complaining, though; I can’t be mad at the Internet for wrecking my computer right now, because on balance I still had a good Internet evening. I had mentioned recently going to see a production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, and was bemoaning that I’ve never been able to see Chimes at Midnight aka Falstaff, the 1965 film Orson Welles made by smashing up the two parts of Henry IV with other plays featuring the same characters (Henry V and Merry Wives of Windsor, I assume? though I haven’t checked.) Then a friend told me that, while the DVD’s hard to find in the US, the movie’s actually available for viewing on YouTube. I’m not going to link here from here, because I’ve had too many rotten technology experiences lately; but it’s easy enough to find, if you go looking, and I didn’t feel bad about watching it there, because I’d buy the damn thing if someone would sell it to me.

So, in 11 little YouTube chapters, I watched the movie. What to say? I’m not a Welles junkie, but I’m certainly a fan; I’m not a Shakespeare scholar, but I’m certainly a junkie. For me, at least, Chimes at Midnight lived up to its billing. It’s not the first Wellesian Shakespeare I’ve seen; I watched his version of Othello in college, and then, as now, I was most impressed by the boldness with which Welles makes the story his own. He’s not intimated by the fact that it’s Shakespeare. That’s the raw material, but he’s making a movie, goddammit, and he’ll splice thngs together at will so they make sense on the screen. Here he takes the potentially clownish Falstaff, turns him into a tragic hero and (of course) plays the role himself. Maybe it takes a Wellesian ego to approach such canonical texts that way. But I’ve written about adaptation before — in this article where I talked about the Watchmen movie and more Shakespeare — and looking back at that, I realize Welles’ Othello was the example in the back of my mind of what I want a director to do. If you’re going to adapt a text into a different medium, then transform it, or why bother? The original is still there; if people go back to it, so much the better, and if they don’t they weren’t going to anyway. [Pause to reflect on what Welles’ Watchmen would have looked like. Carry on.]

Thinking about the Henry plays (technically the ‘second tetralogy,’ encompassing Richard II Henry IV, 1 & 2 and Henry V, though I’m mostly thinking of the middle two right now) — from a contemporary dramatic point of view, I’ve always found them deeply weird. Maybe that’s because some parts, particularly Henry IV’s relationship with his son (Prince Hal, the eventual Henry V), seem so incredibly modern. The idea of a son growing up to replace and displace his father, and the tensions that spring from that dynamic are so much in the atmosphere of our high and low culture that they’re like oxygen; we only notice them when they’re missing. (“Surprisingly, there aren’t many daddy issues in this movie,” I’ve said more than once; but not that often, because it’s not that common.)

Probably, in part, because of this element, the plays have become an important part of the political context of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Robert Kennedy reportedly identified deeply and unironically with Henry V (when Robert Lowell questioned the comparison, RFK took a copy of H4.2 down from his shelf, read the elder Henry’s deathbed scene with Hal, and said, “That’s my father”) and the H5 rhetoric of “we happy few, we band of brothers” resonates every time we see a newsreel of a Churchill speech, or a recruiting ad for the U.S. Marine Corps. Over the past decade, particularly, the vision of a father passing the mantle to his formerly less-than-serious son and urging him to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” in order to consolidate power at home took on a particularly sinister resonance.

But despite the ingredients that should provide an easy dramatic framework — uncertain young son overcomes his wayward youth to become a great king — the Henry IV plays resolutely, almost perversely, refuse to provide us with easy satisfactions. In Henry IV, Part I, you can choose one of the following as your protagonist: (a) King Henry IV, who is pious and kind of a prig and also, by the way, only got to be King by usurping and probably murdering his predecessor, (b) Hotspur, the young rebel absolutely convinced of his own rightness and willing to cause a probably unnecessary war over points of honor; he’s kind of mean to his wife and also, not to put to fine a point on it, dumb as a bag of rocks [sidenote — “Harry Hotspur” was the real and true nickname of a historical English nobleman and not, in fact, somebody’s porn star name; actually, I take that back. If Harry Hotspur has never been somebody‘s porn star name, I surrender my faith in human ingenuity]; (c) Prince Hal, who spends most of his time drinking, whoring, and playing mean practical jokes on his friends; but don’t worry, he gives a speech early on explaining that his friends aren’t really his friends and he has every intention of abandoning them as soon as it’s convenient to his political career; and finally (d) a very fat, very corrupt, very cowardly drunk named Falstaff. Go ahead, take that one to your Screenwriting 101 class and tell me how many notes you get back: Pick a protagonist! Make sure he has a goal, and an arc, so he can go on a journey! Make him likeable!

Now part of the problem here is the facile approach to character development in modern screenwriting, and if Orson Welles let that stuff keep him up at night, Citizen Kane would have looked a lot different. But the screenwriting “rules” exist because on a basic level they work, in a way these plays just don’t. Are we really supposed to root for Hal to dump his friends and go suck up to his usurper father? (On a basic level, the answer is ‘yes,’ because after all it’s a history play and Back to the Future logic is at work; if Hal says ‘Screw the crown’ and takes up permanent residence above his favorite tavern, who’s going to win Agincourt? I think I read this Choose Your Own Adventure book!). But if Falstaff’s just there so that Hal can ultimately reject him, why spend so much time on him?

These are knotty problems, and the text doesn’t give easy answers. Fortunately, Welles isn’t interested in anybody else’s answers, anyway, and so, as Shakespeare himself was wont to do in adapting his source material (most obviously in Hamlet), Welles takes the central problem of the text and makes it the subject of his movie. Chimes‘ alternate title is Falstaff for a reason; he focuses the movie around Falstaff’s relationship with Prince Hal, letting this hard-to-classify relationship run parallel to the easily recognized one between Hal and his father.

The biggest problem of the play is Hal’s first soliloquy, in which he declares his intent to betray Falstaff from the beginning. Welles solves this in an ingenious way. Rather than speaking from the stage to the audience, Hal speaks the words to his friend, who both laughs and doesn’t laugh — because it’s a joke and not a joke. It’s a move that suits the play perfectly, since it’s in the same vein as later scenes in which they act out Hal’s meeting with his father, exchanging playful threats and insults that are far more devastating than any of the actual violence in the play. Welles, I should say, does stage powerful battle scenes — especially considering that he’s not working with much of a budget. But at their heart, the plays are masterpieces of emotional violence, and that’s where Welles really excels.

All right, I’ve already gone on longer than I meant to, and I don’t have a stirring wrap-up. But that’s part of what I’m trying to do with this blog. Getting my thoughts down even if I don’t exactly have a thesis statement or a punchy ending or even a good idea where I’m going. I liked the movie. I’m still not sure I have a handle on the plays, but fortunately, they’re not going anywhere.

I, on the other hand, need to get out of the library. I also need to do some grocery shopping, if I intend to eat (I no longer live across the street from Kroger; I have to plan in order to have food. This is no good, I tell you!)

I’ll have more tomorrow and maybe by then I will have figured out how to rescue poor Amadeus.

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