Simon Callow on Orson Welles’s CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT and playing Falstaff
Simon Callow, who is a great friend of Wellesnet, has sent along the biggest contribution I've yet to receive towards helping keep the site active and alive on the web. I know I've mentioned to everyone who has contributed to Wellesnet that we hope to add more pictures to the site in the future. Well, to my own surprise I found some very rare pictures I had never seen, that Jeff posted to the site from two brothers who were on the set of Chimes at Midnight in 1965.
These photos are especially interesting as they not only show Welles directing in his costume as Falstaff (and according to Keith Baxter, Welles designed all the costumes for Chimes himself), but several of them are also in color, giving us a unique view of the costumes and scenery. They can be viewed at Wellesnet HERE
Now, if there is ever an American DVD release for Chimes at Midnight, the producers might want to get in touch with Marc and Bruno Yasoni about including the rare production photos they took on location in Spain.
Anyway, while talking to Mr. Callow, I asked him whether his biography of Orson Welles would be concluded in one or two more volumes. He said there will definitely only be one more book, which will certainly make for an epic final volume in his acclaimed trilogy about the life and work of Orson Welles.
The last book in the trilogy, will of course, cover Welles's staging of Chimes at Midnight in Belfast and Dublin in 1960 and the subsequent movie version Welles made in Spain in 1965, which many critics (and Welles himself) considered to be his finest work in the cinema.
In 1998, inspired by Welles version of Chimes at Midnight, Simon Callow had the chance to tackle the role of Sir John Falstaff for the first time. He relates the specific details about playing Falstaff in this instructive TALK he gave at London's National Theater in 2003.
Mr. Callow was appearing at the National Theater to talk about the two (then) recent books he wrote for the Faber and Faber series, Actors on Shakespeare. Callow chose to write about Shakespeare's King Henry the IV Part One, and King Henry the IV Part Two. Both books are still available at AMAZON for quite a reasonable price.
Here is Simon Callow's forward to the books:
My qualifications for writing this volume are a little oblique. Some years ago at the Chichester Festival Theatre I played Falstaff in a production of Orson Welles’s CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, a play drawn from HENRY IV Parts I and II, which he had directed on stage some years before shooting the film of the same name. Reviving Welles’s version seemed like a good idea at the time, but for a number of reasons, it failed rather badly – as indeed had the original production in Belfast and Dublin. On the face of it, the notion of compressing the two plays into one to focus on the relationship between Hal and Falstaff is attractive; many of the most memorable passages in the plays are in the scenes between them, and Welles was careful to include the scenes between the ailing king and his son as a counterpoint. In practice, though, however ably staged and acted, it creates an unwieldy vehicle which lumbers across the stage unhappily and unrhythmically, dangerously risking over-exposure for the Fat Knight and removing the context in which events unfold. (The film, of course, is quite a different matter: the entirely different dramaturgical demands of the medium made Welles’s selective process not only feasible but inevitable).
My discomfort in the performance constantly led me back to the full texts – pointlessly, since it was by this time impossible to restore anything more than a line or two. But it did give me a peculiarly keen appreciation of Shakespeare’s craftsmanship, and some insight into why he does what he does in the very particular way in which he does it. Some of the fruits of that painful reading are to be found in the following pages. In essence, I aim to take the reader through the play from the point of view of a practitioner, not becoming entangled in the tricky logistics of the actual staging, but presenting a practical view of the play, a sort of groundwork for a production, which may bring out some of the ways in which the play works. Anyone who attempts to write in this way is consciously or unconsciously treading in the footsteps of Harley Granville-Barker, for actors and directors greatest and most useful of all Shakespearean commentators: a tough act to follow, to be sure, but the most inspiring of models (fortunately, perhaps, for me, he never wrote about HENRY IV).
As noted above, Simon Callow's first appearance as Falstaff was in 1998 at the Chichester Festival Theatre, where Keith Baxter, graduated from playing Prince Hal in Welles film to taking on the role of his own father, King Henry IV.
Mr. Baxter's very insightful comments about working with Orson Welles on Chimes at Midnight can be found in Leslie Weisman's report for Wellesnet HERE.
The Simon Callow/Keith Baxter version of Chimes at Midnight opened in August, 1998 in Chichester, with the following cast:
CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT – By Orson Welles, adapted from plays by William Shakespeare. Directed by Patrick Garland.
Simon Callow (Falstaff), Keith Baxter (King Henry IV), Tam Williams (Prince Hal), Tristan Gemmill (Hotspur) Sarah Badel (Mistress Quickly), David Weston (Bardolph), Rowland Davies, Timothy Bateson, Rebecca Egan, John Warner.
In doing research for the part, Simon Callow also wrote the following article which gives us some fascinating insights into the origins of Falstaff.
THE FAT MAN IN HISTORY
Falstaff is one of the great characters of Western literature, but he is not Shakespeare's exclusive creation. As Simon Callow prepares to play him, he explores the ancient roots of a mythic figure
By SIMON CALLOW
The Independent - 11 August 1998
Sir John Falstaff has been widely described as Shakespeare's greatest creation and his best loved character, which in the circumstances is no mean claim. The adjective "Falstaffian" has long passed into the language. We all know what it means: fat and frolicsome, gloriously drunk, bawdy, boastful, mendacious; disgraceful but irresistible; above all, fun. Not only, as he says in Henry IV Part Two, witty in himself, "but the cause that wit is in other men," Falstaff provokes cascades of comparisons both from critics and from his fellow characters in the play; to see him is to be irresistibly impelled to describe him.
Because of all this, we feel we are familiar with the character, comfortable with him; we know who he is. It is easy to overlook how original and unprecedented a creation Falstaff is. There is no other character in Shakespeare to match him; no other character in Western literature, as far as I am aware, quite like him. There are braggarts, innumerable sots and reprobates galore: in the theatre alone there is the miles glorious, the bragging soldier of the Roman comedy of Terence and Plautus; mischievous rogues are a staple of the city comedies of Johnson and his contemporaries; and comedy, from Aristophanes to Terry Johnson, could scarcely survive without the drunkard. There are even similar characters in Shakespeare: Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well, Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, elements of the Thersites of Troilus and Cressida. But even to mention these other characters is to affirm the uniqueness of Falstaff. In his never-failing wit, the abundance of his appetite and the bigness of his spirit, he contains --- embodies, indeed --- a life-force which is so overwhelming as to be beyond type, certainly beyond morality and even beyond psychology.
Above all, he is extraordinary in the two parts of Henry IV because of the relationship he has with the young Prince of Wales, soon to be the great warrior-king, Henry V. Here is the 17-year-old heir apparently choosing to spend his life with a debauched, besotted, monstrously fat old reprobate in an East End brothel. It is as if the young Prince Charles had slipped away from Buckingham Palace to hang out with Francis Bacon - except that Falstaff is not only debauched, he is positively criminal: he and his dubious cronies beat people up in dark alleys and take purses from innocent travellers; and the young Prince Henry is no constitutional monarch's son, he is the heir of the divinely anointed and absolute monarch, who in his very person is England. What is going on, then? Is this mere truancy? Is the boy simply getting it out of his system, sowing his wild oats? Or is there something deeper going on? It seems there is.
It would be one thing if Hal were to have taken up the company of tarts and pimps, or to be slumming around with chums of his own age and class, in the manner of Darius Guppy and the young Earl Spencer. But it is quite another for the prince to have adopted this old scoundrel not merely as a friend but as a mentor, and to have extended to him every appearance of love and tenderness. What do they want from each other, this odd couple? What Falstaff gets is, in a sense, obvious: the excitement of being so close to the heir to the throne, and the opportunity to practise his habitual lese-majeste at the closest quarters; and the delight of being connected to youth, the most gilded youth of all, clearly has a tonic effect on the old rascal. But what does Hal want from him? Alienated from his cold, anxious, controlling and guilt-ridden father, he has chosen Falstaff as a surrogate father, an antidote to the sterilised atmosphere of the court. He is liberated, relieved, made to think by this fallible, permissive, funny creature of animal warmth, who inverts the pieties and the truisms he has had dinned into him. It is with Falstaff that he discovers his humanity, the common touch which enables him to do what his father has never been able, to unify the kingdom and to reach out to his subjects in a way they can understand.
But Falstaff is just a phase he's going through, the supervisor of his rites of passage. To have this absurd, impudent figure at his side after he has ascended his throne would be out of the question. He has to go, as Hal understands from the beginning of the play; it is not a question of whether, but of when. The scene at the coronation in which Falstaff is rejected is upsetting and necessary; Old Hal makes way for New Hal, and Falstaff is his Clause Four. There is a sense of elation at the establishment of a new order, but also a sense of the price that has to be paid. "Banish plump Jack," Falstaff says in Part One, "and banish all the world." Not all the world, perhaps, but some rich, natural, flawed, human part of it without which we are all poorer. It is this theme that Orson Welles stressed when he made his version of the two plays which, with elegiac intent, he entitled Chimes at Midnight, focusing on the advancement towards kingship of Hal as he outgrows and outstrips both his fathers. For Welles the rejection of Falstaff was the death of Merrie England, with its natural harmony, and the birth of the modern world, willed and coldly realistic.
This is a convincing and effective conception of the plays. But as so often with Shakespeare, there is a sense of something else, deeper, stranger, behind the narrative, an impression of buried rituals, ancient lore, vanished conceptions, which account for the profundity of our response. England had undergone a profound change just before Shakespeare's lifetime with the Reformation, and it becomes more and more clear that the old faith, and the even older faith that it had absorbed, were still present, both in the dramatist's consciousness and that of his audience. The glorious, abundant, anarchic life in Falstaff, credible within the world of the play, has an additional energy which is also somehow pagan, primitive, even primal. Shakespeare's sources are diverse; first named Sir John Oldcastle, after the real-life rebel of that name, he was re-christened when Oldcastle's surviving family, the powerful Cobhams, objected to the scurrilous portrait Shakespeare presented. Sir John Fastolfe, whose name Shakespeare borrowed more or less at random, also existed, but bore no resemblance to the character in the play. But behind these shadowy historical personages lay another figure, one often referred to in the course of the plays: the Vice of the Medieval Morality Plays, with whom Falstaff is specifically identified again and again, corrupting the youthful hero and finally overcome himself. Dover Wilson's monograph, The Fortunes of Falstaff, makes a clear case for Shakespeare's re-working of this relationship.
Something in it does not ring true, however. It neither explains the loving warmth of Hal's feelings, nor does justice to the magnificence, the regal expansiveness of Falstaff's spirit. It was a little-known American anthropologist, the late Roderick Marshall, who pointed to the existence of another tradition which is more likely to be the underlying matrix of the character and the relationship. He identified Falstaff with a figure common to many cultures, known variously as the Substitute King, or the Inter-rex. When the Divine King in these cultures becomes ill or incapable, a Substitute King is sought from among the banished descendants of the Divine King of the previously conquered peoples; once captured, "this King for a day, a week or an indefinite period of atmospheric danger, has to perform rites of over-eating, over-drinking and excessive coupling ... to reinvigorate the reproductive powers of nature." His job is to initiate the heir of the Divine King into the rituals necessary to make the conquered soil flourish - secrets unknown to the conqueror.
The parallels with Falstaff, Hal and the ailing Henry IV are evident. Marshall identifies various figures in different cultures who correspond to the Inter-rex. Some are familiar and obviously Falstaffian: Silenos, grossly fat, drunken, debauched, was the tutor of Dionysos and was one of the pre-Athenian gods, the children of Kronos, whose task was to shriek, dance, and copulate as noisily as possible after midnight to waken the sun, which might otherwise slumber on indefinitely. Bes, the Egyptian god, tutor to Horus, is the god of life's pleasures, who presides over parties and children; he is described, in perfectly Falstaffian terms, as "the old man who renews his youth, the aged one who maketh himself again a boy." Janus, the Roman god, lord of the Saturnalia, is identified with the god of sowing and husbandry, and presides over "the golden age of eternal summer" - Merrie England by another name. It is at the Saturnalia that the declining powers of the sun are encouraged by sympathetic magic: roles are reversed, the Mock King is appointed, and perhaps at some point killed. "The whole state becomes childlike to encourage the sun to do the same." And thus, at the court of King Falstaff, Hal is able to become the child that his father's court refuses to indulge; and having been truly a child, he can then become truly a man.
These figures (and many more with similarities to Falstaff, always including great girth, bibulousness, hairiness, great age and seeming agelessness, profanity, sedition and endless wit) suggest the profundity of the archetype: but how did they filter through to Shakespeare? Marshall suggests a link. Researching the 17th century Mummer plays, which almost certainly derive from folk plays which Shakespeare may well have known, Marshall was struck by the familiar pattern of the characters: the leading character simply called the Presenter but also known as the Recruiting Sergeant, Fool, Clown and Father Christmas; his wife Mother Christmas, also known as Dolly; the subsidiary characters Little Devil Don't and Old Tossip, the red-nosed drunk, his followers; and Saint George, also known as King George or any other English King, including Henry. Father Christmas is fat, red-faced, wears bullock's horns and has a bladder. He is "in many ways a bearded child who ... though just turned into his 99 years of age ... can hop skip and jump like a blackbird in a cage." Father Christmas helps the King to fight two battles, but, like Falstaff, he is dismissed and dies.
Falstaff is part of the culture of fertility which underlies our civilisation. We may control fertility, chemically and socially, but the grand patterns of human nature will not be so easily manipulated. Hal's initiation and growth to manhood can only be achieved as a result of a negotiation with nature, a negotiation which we have largely abandoned. It is salutary to think that as recently as 400 years ago, the greatest genius of the language placed a primitive figure right at the centre of his great saga of English life.