Thursday, 24 February 2011

A Hal By Any Other Name

Much to my surprise, I found myself having a good old grump this morning at my dear friend, Thomas C Foster.  However, you won't be surprised to hear that it was his chapter When in Doubt, It's from Shakespeare, that was causing the grumping.  There are a couple of factual inaccuracies in there and that really annoys me.  I'm sure none of us is perfect when it comes to making sure that our blogs are 100 percent accurate and completely free from typos.  But then we aren't asking someone to pay for the pleasure of reading our words of wisdom, nor have we set ourselves up as some sort of authority. In a published work of non-fiction such inaccuracies worry me because they automatically call into question all those facts I didn't know before I started reading and have happily been assuming to be true. For the record, it was Prokofiev who composed the ballet Romeo and Juliet and not even a newly pious Prince Hal is hard-hearted enough to hang Sir John Falstaff (nor foolish enough, I would imagine the audience would have lynched him). Rather the old knight made a finer end, and went away an it had been any christom child.  It is Bardolph who is condemned to death for robbing a church while the army is in France.  

Having said that, the main point that Foster is making in this section remains valid, namely that it is not unusual to find a more recent text reworking or in some way referencing a Shakespeare play and that recognising the relationship will often lead to a greater appreciation of the referencing work.  

One of the examples he gives is Athol Fugard's play Master Harold... and the Boys, making the point that the young man, Master Harold, is a modern day equivalent of Prince Hal, loafing around with the black workers when he ought to be readying himself to take over his father's business.  Eventually 'Hally', like Hal, is forced to take not only a position of responsibility but also a political disregard for those whose company he has previously enjoyed.

I have to admit that when I saw this play at The National Theatre in London, I didn't make the connection. However, in my defence, the performance I saw was so memorable in other ways that I think I can be forgiven. I must have seen it in the early eighties and the play (which was initially banned in South Africa) had caused a stir among right wing groups because it questioned apartheid.  About half an hour in two members of the audience (I'm doing my best to be polite here!) stood up and made their objections to black actors appearing on an English stage, in a play which had the audacity to suggest that black people might have the same rights as white, very clearly heard.  Everyone else, actors, audience, staff, froze......for a moment, just a moment, and then the audience members closest to the protestors stood up and without a word formed a ring around them and made it impossible for them to do anything other than walk out of the theatre.  The 'guard of honour' then came back, sat down and the play continued as if nothing untoward had happened.  It was English sang-froid (if that isn't some sort of linguistic disjunct) at its very best, but you will understand that it did mean that I had things on my mind that afternoon other than looking for Shakespearian parallels. 

I've always enjoyed Fugard's work, The Road to Mecca is my favourite, and so I'm sorry if I haven't done Master Harold full justice.  I shall have to go back and re-read it, although, of course, that won't be as potent as actually seeing it on stage.  One thing I will be looking out for is any way in which it makes me re-assess the Henry IV plays because I think these Shakespearian referencings can often prompt new insights into the original works as well, but that is the subject of another post altogether.


  1. WOW, your experience seeing Master Harold sounds amazing. I can see why your mind might not have been on identifying Henry IV references.

    not even a newly pious Prince Hal is hard-hearted enough to hang Sir John Falstaff

    This is kind of a bizarre error in a published book, but on the other hand I can understand how it might FEEL that way. It is pretty heartbreaking when Hal throws Falstaff under the metaphorical train.

  2. Now THAT is English sang-froid at its best I reckon. What an experience.

    One of the reasons I love going to Shakespeare's plays is to be reminded of all the things I've forgotten that come from him, so I agree with your point that Mr Foster's argument is valid even if his facts aren't. But, how could someone writing such a book get such facts so wrong?

  3. Emily, I do know what you mean about the effect that Hal's repudiation of Falstaff has. I haven't looked at the play recently enough to be certain, but I'm fairly sure that dealing with the aftermath in 'Henry V' is something that Shakespeare vacillated about. There are two different versions of the play from his life time, one of which is almost double the length of the other and I think the scenes where it is pretty much implied that Falstaff did die of a broken heart are in the one, but not the other.

    WG, don't get me on my soapbox about the lack of proper editing these days. Errors like that should be picked up before the manuscript ever reaches the printers but too many corners are getting cut.

  4. The break between Hal and Falstaff broke my heart when I saw the play even though I knew it was coming. Sounds like Foster and his fact checkers were asleep on the job. And wow, what an experience you had seeing Master Harold!

  5. Now that would have been quite an interesting theater-going experience! I am sure I would have been too rattled to keep going, but I suppose that is what it means to be a professional!

  6. I know exactly what you mean, Stefanie. If the casting and the performance has been right you should want to hate Hal at that moment, but at the same time see the absolute inevitability of it.

    Danielle, it was a South African cast; I suspect that, unfortunately, it was nothing new to them.