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An interview with a Falstaff

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Falstaff seeking a sense of connection to other humans, would you put the audience in that as well? I’m thinking of comparing with Richard III and to a degree Iago. The only friend Richard III has, perhaps other than Buckingham, is the audience. We’re the only ones he’s taken into his confidence.

“Friend” is an interesting rendition of that. He makes them complicit, I think that’s certainly true. He assumes their sympathy with his position. And Iago does the same thing; he assumes their sympathy with his position.

And Falstaff does the same thing…
He does the same thing. When I played Iago, I remember one performance saying, “How am I then a villain to counsel Cassio to this parallel course, directly to his good?” And this woman over on the stool said, out loud, “You are just so mean.” [Laughs] And I turned to her and I said, “Divinity of hell!” You couldn’t write it better than that. It was an answer to what she said. I’m like, Shakespeare’s brilliant.

But, yeah, it’s a friendship that’s weird in that there’s an assumption of sympathy and a creation of complicity, I think. But those two are villains. Falstaff may have his birth in the medieval Vice character, but the medieval Vice character is funny because in the medieval Christian plays Vice could only be defeated, it was always going to lose. So Toby Belch, Falstaff, they’re Vice figures, they’re all what we want to do some times, like just give over to our appetites. I don’t know if we want to do what Iago and Richard do; they’re angry, bitter individuals and there’s a difference there. They’re certainly attractive, and some part of us responds; we would like to take our cold revenge that would pay the world what it deserves, I suppose. It’s odd to me to group Falstaff with them but, of course, Falstaff isn’t them either; in that, in a bizarre way, he’s not essential to the plays that he’s in as they are to the plays they’re in. The play’s not called Falstaff. And I think there’s something important about that. It is Richard III. It’s not Iago, of course, but it’s such a small play cast-wise and he’s so directly Othello’s nemesis.
He directs the plot.
He does direct the plot. He’s Hamletesque in that respect, yeah. He builds the plot, and he does it on the fly, God bless him. But that’s what you love about him, isn’t it? He’s playing on the fly the whole thing and it’s a con man’s game. Part of the attraction is playing that con on the fly and riffing with whatever comes up, and I think what I love about playing Iago is that sense that here’s a guy playing it on the cuff. It’s great. He says it all the time, like, “What do I do next? Here’s an idea, let’s go with this for a while and see what comes up.” You’ve got to have a lot of self-trust to do that. And it’s hard not to admire somebody who trusts himself that much.

Falstaff is not central…
He’s not at the center. Somehow he’s central. It’s a mystery. [Laughs]
He’s not at the center of the two Henrys, but he is at the center of Merry Wives, but he’s not even the title character in Merry Wives, either.

Yeah, and he’s not who the play is really about so much. Well, it’s shared, Ford and Falstaff, their two different human imbalances are punished in the play. And you have the marriage plot. So we have the marriage of satire and romantic comedy, but the marriage plot is so boring. Ann and Fenton or whatever. God, so boring. Who cares about them?

And the subplot with the Host doesn’t make any sense at all.

Yeah. Did you ever read Auden’s lectures on Shakespeare?
No.
W.H. Auden, his lecture on Merry Wives is basically, “It produced Verdi’s great opera, let's listen to it for a bit.” He listens to a bit of the opera, then he moves on to the next play. That’s it. That’s all the credence he gives to Merry Wives of Windsor.

But going back into Shakespeare’s time, Henry IV, Part 1, you have a play in which Henry IV is the title character, Prince Hal is the hero of England, the future Henry V everybody knows him, he’s already George Washington or Abraham Lincoln out splitting rails.
Right. Until you read the real story and you go, whoa.
And you’ve got Hotspur and you’ve got Glendower and you’ve got all these great characters, and Falstaff emerges immediately—or Oldcastle—immediately as the most popular character out of that play. And to this day, Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s most famous creations. Why?

Yeah, Harold Bloom spent a whole lot of space talking about that.
Yeah, but I wanted to hear it from an actor.
[Long pause] To me it’s just, I guess, two things, if I had to define it. It’s a commitment to the force of life and a rejection of moralistic BS, and at the same time the deep irony of somebody who is willing to manipulate that to his advantage. To say that he is pure appetite and purely selfish is wrong. We’re told over and over that he’s not. And he has a generous disposition about him. I think a lot of it is accomplished in his desire to speak directly to the audience and his ability to speak directly to the audience. How do you not like a guy who is willing to talk to you that directly? Certainly Henry IV is not going to talk to you that way.

In a sense, he straddles the worlds. I hadn’t thought about this, but I suppose it doesn’t make him—well maybe I shouldn’t talk about it since I haven’t really thought about it; it’s my academic head that’s coming in. He is kind of a trickster figure in that he walks between the two worlds; he walks between the world of the elevated aristocracy and the lower class, and he can find a place in both of those worlds but, in a way, he doesn’t belong to either.

Or do you think it’s just pure force of personality.

Well, there is that, isn’t it. But what does that mean finally, when you say it, what is pure force of personality? What is it like compared to even Henry IV? Henry IV talks about his performance and how he got people to love him, and it’s all strategy for him, it’s all empty. He’s not saying people love me because I love them, he says, “Here’s what you do, you don’t let them see you too often. When they see you they’ve got to see you in this particular way. You don’t go around like Richard showing yourself to them all the time until they’re just fed up with you and they’re not hungry for you, you’ve got to keep them hungry.” I mean, that’s very coldly strategic. It’s like the technical actor, the actor who is really technically good, but you feel like you can put your hand right through the performance, you don’t feel any flesh to it. And Falstaff is flesh, you know? [Laughs] Whatever else may be said, he is great with flesh.

And maybe that’s what it is, finally, It is the sense that he is deeply, profoundly human, flawed, aware of his flaws, still committed to himself and committed to life and skeptical of all the stuff he’s told he ought to believe. “Who am I gonna serve? Why should I serve you?  Why should I serve your ends? Why should I serve your needs?” On the other side, if you have an entire army of Falstaffs, you’re in deep trouble.
I don’t know, better than the army he put together.
Maybe.

I guess it’s our sense that we always need that element that doesn’t buy the program. The program says, “Here’s what you ought to do, here’s how you ought to be,” that whole moralistic side of things. That’s the paternal voice that says, “Here’s what I need you to do, here’s what you must do, here’s who you must be.” How many people have rebelled against that? It’s there to be rebelled against in some respects, and Falstaff is there to say the rebellion is worth it, that there’s another way to live life. We all feel that at one time or another, you’re going ahead and doing the thing that you taught yourself to do, and you’re making the living you’re supposed to make. How many people wake up and hear this voice and go, “What the hell am I doing? What is this about? I don’t want this.” And whether they actually mean that or not, it’s probably just the encroachment of mortality, a reminder that you are a limited human being and all the things you hoped you had time to do, you will not have time to do. And now you must make choices. And there’s a sweetness in that, too, because limitation makes a force; as you narrow the hose the pressure gets greater.

Priorities.

Yeah, the priorities. You start saying no to things.

50 is a magical number.

It sure is. It sure is. It’s very clarifying.

And you think he’s clarified?

I don’t know. He seems to be, but at the same time he’s not really relying on himself. He’s relying on somebody else. He has positioned himself so that the power of his future still resides in someone else’s decision. So he’s caught in the illusion of a power that he doesn’t have. He feels like he’s won Hal over and that means he has one very measurable blind spot.

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