My favorite part of any theater production is eavesdropping on the crowd at the end. Here are a few snippets of conversations I heard on my way out of Henry V last night.
Oh, well, that was pretty wonderful. Just about a half an hour too long!
So wait, why was that French girl not speaking English when all the other French characters were speaking English?
I loved it. I absolutely loved it. I was living for it all the way through.
It was good. Yeah, the sets were pretty. I didn’t really get the storyline, but that’s not that weird. It’s Shakespeare.
They needed air-conditioning! My back and rear are all sweaty! But I stayed awake!
Shakespeare! That was brilliant! Have you seen the other Henry plays? You have to see all of them. I have copies if you want to read them.
It was a perfectly beautiful evening after a hot day, a light summer breeze blowing; Cedar City had reached 100 degrees today earlier. I walked down the stairs from the large outdoor theater, where the play had been performed down in the center with the audience sitting on raised seating all around. No one seemed to be in a hurry, which I noticed quickly; Americans always seem to be in a rush to leave places.
I walked through the Shakespearean statues, quotes on the walls. There were separate theaters here for the Shakespeare festival, and a nice center venue for refreshments and green shows, lounging in the grass in the hot sun for conversation. I walked around the perimeter of Southern Utah University, all long shadows at this time of night. And then I kept walking.
I felt a bit haunted by history, after a day of heavy, and somewhat emotional, research. The ghosts were there. Not actual ghosts, of course, but the presence of those who have come before and all the stories that must be told. Then I smiled as I realized that was perhaps the perfect mood to have seen Henry V in. Shakespeare would want me to feel haunted right now.
Based on actual historical events, Shakespeare wrote a series of less popular plays about the various Henrys in the history of Great Britain. This story had unfolded with a powerful undertone of conquest and righteousness and destiny in it, underlying the entire production like a steady and distant percussion. The set had been simple and beautiful, all dripping candle wax and flowing banners with sigils and shiny gold. The costumes had been elaborate, golden crowns and swords in scabbards and thigh-high boots. And the casting had been wonderful, the actors with booming voices and conviction behind their words and fully formed relationships there on stage.
As I walked, I thought of the pride and arrogance of rulers. Toward the end of Henry V, the king reads scrolls of the deceased in battle, accounting the numbers of soldiers and peasants quickly, then taking time to read the individual name of each fallen lord. Pride and ego on both sides led to war and bloodshed. The play was full of underlying intrigue; a soldier hung for robbing a church, three of the kings closest allies caught in an assassination plot, a wife bidding a husband farewell knowing that she would never see him again, the most innocent character being tragically killed just as the conflict subsided.
I found a particular vantage point and watched the stars in the night sky over the rolling hills. I felt the heaviness of it all for a moment. Talent and ambition, pressure and worry over what comes next, tragedy and lives cut short, streets walked by people day after day and generation after generation. And then I thought of this single production, nearly three hours of brilliant theater, that brought together the lives of actors and attendees, hundreds of people in one room all moving on now to their lives, night and then day, all of us writing our own stories.
And I grinned as I remembered Henry V in the play telling his men, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.”