An interview with a Falstaff
We know that with the Oldcastle and then the Brook joke, Wives obviously came after Part 1. As an actor, do you think it came after Part 2?
Oh, that’s a great question. I would guess no, as an actor. I would think that, in fact, it might be a kind of interesting segue. Because his concern is about age. There’s a concern about age running in Merry Wives that I don’t feel in Part 1, but I feel very strongly in Part 2. Part of the reason he’s so desperate to get it on with these younger women is to convince himself that he’s still got it. That’s an interesting question. I hadn’t really considered that before but, yeah, seems like it falls between the two in development. To me, anyway, from the inside of having played the character.
I’m intrigued by the fact that you played Henry IV, and scholarship has it that Falstaff is a father figure, he’s a substitute father to Hal. Having played both parts, what do you see?
Yeah, I think that’s really true. There’s the father of our body and then there’s the fathers that we choose, and I think that that’s true for everyone. If you’re fortunate enough that the father of your body is also to some degree the father that you choose, then you are a fortunate person. Whether they be teachers or comrades or colleagues that you have later in life, there’s a sense that people are fathers, parents to our desires. I think Hal has got to feel the pressure of being the son of this guy who is an almost purely political animal. It’s even hard to like Henry. It’s such a challenging role because he is such a politico that it’s difficult to like him. Even Claudius in Hamlet is warm sometimes in his love for Gertrude and his desire for her. There’s something humanizing about that in him. Henry IV doesn’t seem human until he breaks to tears over Hal, because then it seems to me it’s not just about who’s ruling next, it’s about I love you and I don’t understand you and you frustrate me, that kind of thing. A lot of fathers feel that with sons.
But going back to your question, I think that … well, my son just stopped by and my relationship with him is really important to me, so in playing Henry IV, I remember thinking a lot about my pride as a father and what I hope to impart as a father and what I hoped my son would struggle with and would not have to struggle with. If there were mistakes that I’ve made, I hope that he will not make them, that kind of thing.
Which is some of what Henry IV says.
That’s exactly what he says, and it was great for me when I played Henry IV to have that kind of underpinning. The production was called Falstaff, a conflation of Parts 1 and 2 that Ralph Cohen constructed himself, and I think Ralph would admit this: that it demonstrated that Shakespeare was very wise in separating Falstaff into two plays and not making him the center of either one because [Falstaff] didn’t work ultimately, I think. So when I say that I played Henry IV, I did and I didn’t because the cuts were heavy and we were trying to communicate a lot with less time to develop it, so that made it challenging.
But I still had that very strong awareness of Henry IV going in to playing Falstaff and the parallels are so sharp in the play that I don’t think you can miss the fact that Falstaff is a kind of father to Hal. And what I was saying before is that Hal is under such pressure by his biological father and this political father that it makes sense that he would seek out a father of release, a father who says it’s all right to be libidinous, it’s all right to test that side of yourself, it’s all right to find out about that. In fact, you should go find out about that; that’s the better part of life because there are two messages, and Hal tells us from the outset which one he’s going to choose. He knows what his responsibility is. But it’s interesting that he has such difficulty releasing the other one. He only finally fully releases it after his father’s death.
It’s interesting how little time Shakespeare gives [Hal and Falstaff] together in Part 2. They don’t have a ton of time together in Part 1, but they have two really rich scenes. Part 2, it’s one scene, a partial scene even. Act 2, Scene 4, is very different in Part 2 than it is in Part 1. It doesn’t have the size and richness and hilarity—even the joke is lame. And Shakespeare is so willing to let it be less than; he actually compares it, parallels it. He puts in Act 2, Scene 4, the same gag, and yet it’s not as good a gag as in Part 1. And then there’s Doll Tearsheet and she wasn’t there before and that’s another conversation.
And there’s Pistol. Pistol comes in and he does the energy of the old Falstaff, and Falstaff gets to sort of sit back and watch it. One of the things I asked Ralph in that scene was "am I doing too little? Should I be doing more? Should I be moving more because I’m not doing anything?" The answer is no, you shouldn’t. That guy is doing all the moving; you just sort of take pleasure in what he’s doing. But he’s sort of doing you, the big, boisterous room filler, the performer. It’s really interesting that Shakespeare does that, that he’s willing to say, “Let’s let Falstaff watch, keep Falstaff quieter.” And then you get that moment of “I am old, I am old.” I think that’s more powerful as a result of that. He’s been sequestered over there to the side and had to make room. But he does take Pistol on when it comes down to it. And he’s victorious over Pistol, who’s basically a stage soldier [laughs].
When I wrote about you in Merry Wives, I described your Falstaff as very nimble. And he should be because he’s a cutpurse, he’s a knight, he’s a soldier, he’s quick with his wit, so he can’t be too drunk, he can’t be too slovenly, he has to be nimble, and I thought you had that.
Oh, thanks. It’s also the genre that he’s in. He’s in a comedy of that sort, and if you’re in a comedy of that sort, you are supposed to be this sort of character.
But you maintained that through all the plays. He has a reputation for being a coward; he’s called a coward, and the whole Gads Hill plot is to show how much of a coward he supposedly is, although Hal says something along the lines of "those guys will run and the other one won’t put up too much of a fight, and if he does I’ll stop," which I take it he means Falstaff.
Yeah, I take it the same way.
He does stand up to the knight there in Part 2.
They don’t get a chance to fight because of his reputation as a brave guy now.
And he fights off Pistol. Now, maybe anybody could, maybe I could fight off Pistol, I’m not sure.
I would think so. I would think so. Pistol has seen a lot of Marlowe on the stage, basically. He’s seen Tamburlaine, and he knows how to do the stage version of heroism.
Did you have to do a balance on Falstaff between the reputed coward and the guy who became a knight?
I’m not a big one for back story. I sort of stay with the text that’s there. But at the same time, some of the things that are said in the text make you think about back story. Shallow—although everything that Shallow says is nostalgic, so you have to be wary of trusting anything that he says; it’s got the glow of memory about it, and we all know about that, the glory days' glow; his fisticuffs with Samson Stockfish behind Grey’s Inn, a fruiterer [laughs]—but he says what Falstaff was like as a young man and that he was a page to Thomas Mowbray. Falstaff has been somebody who was educated in the martial arts as a page and as a squire, and then he has been knighted, so he’s been to battle and one would assume that, put to it, he can fight, he can defend himself. Now, he has also married himself to licentiousness and debauchery and he’s a big fat fellow and not the nimble, quick individual that he may have been in his youth. When he talks about Shallow’s lies, he does say, “Lord, Lord, we old men are given to lying.” So he acknowledges the fact that he too is capable of this. Yet at the same time, he is Sir John Falstaff, he has served as a page, he has served as a squire; he has served in wars, so this is somebody who probably would know how to fight. He does fight Pistol off in that scene, regardless of how you stage it with the comedy and the like, but he’s still capable of that. So he’s a coward now, perhaps, but I think it’s also partially because he’s become disillusioned by his experiences with war. You know, it’s like, “Why would you sacrifice yourself to this machine? Why would you give yourself over to this? When you can have life? You risk your life by doing this, and it is it worth risking your life for any of this?”
I had an experience that might factor into this. We went out to L.A., and we went to this ranch, and we were driving on this curving, mountainside road and could only go 15 miles per hour coming down. And it was scary, I’m frightened to death. I was telling a friend about this and I said, “I don’t know why I was so frightened,” and she said we get more frightened as we get older. Falstaff is old.
I think he’s old, but he’s also committed to living and to enjoying life. I think he sees all this warring and I think he’s just grown cynical about it, and it’s like “I’ve heard a lot of dishonorable people talk about honor and I’m so fed up with that.” It’s just that he’s smart, for one thing. “You can talk it all you want but it’s like you can’t handle the truth,” you know what I mean? [Laughs] It sort of comes down to that: He’s not Colonel Jessep in A Few Good Men, but he’s the comic side of that same argument: you can’t handle the truth: honor is a lie. Ben Curns told me a great story about doing that scene on the road at a military academy and a whole bunch of the kids got up and walked out on the honor speech. To them, honor is about something very different.
I think he’s got a piece of “is not the truth the truth?” And that’s what’s there to love about Falstaff. Rick Blunt and I actually trade texts that are nothing but Falstaff lines as a way of getting back in touch with each other. If we haven’t talked in a while, he’ll send me a Falstaff line. That’s it. And then I’ll send him one back: I’ll answer with a Falstaff. So we have this little antiphonal Falstaff talking to Falstaff. And he actually has “Is not the truth the truth?” tattooed on his leg. So we come back to that all the time, back to “Is not the truth the truth?” If you admire nothing else about Falstaff, it seems to me that that’s the thing to admire: “The truth is the truth?” And this is from a liar, a guy who will lie in a moment to get what he wants, but at the same time the reason he will lie and know that it will work for him is because the truth is the truth. And even at the time he says, “Is not the truth the truth?” of course he’s lying. That’s one of the most beautiful parts of it. He’s telling this big Gads Hill lie and he says “Is not the truth the truth?” And yet I think he knows that the truth is the truth and it's abused all the time, so why not abuse it to your advantage?