And maybe Austin’s too!
Just thinking back to 2006 when I played Pistol to Courtney Glenn’s Fallstaf, I couldn’t agree more. The Weird Sisters set the Merry Wives of Windsor in the 1950’s, Falstaff taking on an unmistakable bad-boy Elvis persona (sideburns and all). We had screaming audience members, groupies, possibly even fainting. We all had character envy that season, Falstaff was a deliciously fun, even complicated character to play. It was hard not to be enamored. I think we all carry a little bit of Shakespeare’s favorite foil inside us.
This article about the pop-star-like influence of Falstaff by Henry Hitchings from The London Evening Standard proves an interesting read:
Falstaff is a glutton, a coward and an idler. His enthusiasms include drinking, boasting, petty criminality and, when the chance presents itself and his body doesn’t fail him, sex. To be “Falstaffian” is to delight in excess: a Falstaffian night out is more likely a stag party or a booze-up after a big football victory than an elegant soirée.
No other character of Shakespeare‘s is quite so loaded with faults and foibles. And yet watching him carouse on a summer evening — Roger Allam is the latest to take on the role, in Dominic Dromgoole‘s productions of the two parts of Henry IV at The Globe — we understand immediately why actors so relish playing the role. We see, too, why audiences lap up his antics with such eagerness and why he is the only one of Shakespeare’s characters to have got his own spin-off play.
Though a knight — technically Sir John, even if more convincing as Plump Jack — Falstaff dismisses what he calls the “grinning honour” of chivalry, acclaiming instead a passionate vitality. He does so with the three simple words “Give me life” — and the life he wants is one of dissipation. No wonder he is such an English icon.
Falstaff appears in three of Shakespeare’s plays. First come the two parts of Henry IV, which he dominates. Then there is The Merry Wives of Windsor, written to capitalise on the success of the earlier works (and staged later in the Globe’s season, with Christopher Benjamin as Falstaff). There is a rather doubtful story that Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives at the request of Queen Elizabeth I; she allegedly wanted to see more of this inimitable figure, and liked the idea of witnessing the effects on him of being in love.
But it is the Henry plays that define our vision of the character. In the first of them Falstaff is a tutor and surrogate father to Hal, the “truant” prince. When we initially see them together, they are discussing Falstaff’s offences: his skill in stealing purses and his fondness for sleeping in the afternoon.
For Hal, Falstaff is a welcome antidote to the stuffy seriousness of court life. Hal calls him “my old lad of the castle”, a thinly veiled reference to the inspiration for the character, the knight Sir John Oldcastle, as well as to a popular Southwark brothel. Oldcastle was condemned as a heretic yet later celebrated as a Protestant martyr, and a 16th-century audience would have grasped the connection.
Other characters view the relationship between Falstaff and Hal with horror. Falstaff hardly seems a worthy companion for a prince. His preferred environment is the Boar’s Head Tavern on Eastcheap, where he quaffs sherry.
He is strangely free from constraints. His affection for Hal appears to be his only tie; otherwise he is unfettered by protocol, and he is ready to challenge his society’s fundamental values, as when he asks “What is honour?” and curtly answers his own question — “A word.” The poet WH Auden aptly suggested that “if Falstaff were running the world, it would be like the Balkans”.
As Hal matures and begins to show regal qualities, the two men grow apart. Falstaff becomes a scapegoat. In the first part of Henry IV, his presence is always the occasion for ebullient buffoonery; in the second he appears diminished and is constantly the butt of other characters’ sour jokes.
He is a magnet for artful use of language. He’s called a “huge hill of flesh”, a “fat-kidneyed rascal”, a “stuffed cloak-bag of guts”, a “white-bearded Satan”, a “trunk of humours”, a “horse-breaker”, a “villainous abominable misleader of youth” and a “whoreson obscene greasy tallow-keech” — these not even the assessments of his enemies.
Yet it is Falstaff’s own language, which he uses to create a myth around himself, that thrills those who play him. He is a vehicle for Shakespeare’s verbal inventiveness. His speeches are tricked out with ludicrous similes: one moment he says he is as melancholy as a “lugg’d bear”, the next he likens his mood to the “drone of a Lincolnshire bagpipe”.
On the stage, there have been many magisterial Falstaffs. The definitive 20th-century interpretation is often said to have been Ralph Richardson’s at the Old Vic in 1950. The great critic Kenneth Tynan applauded this “dry and dignified” Falstaff, who in his moments of disgrace affected “the mask of sulky schoolboy”.
But Falstaff has a dynamic life beyond the theatre. There are several operas about him. Of these the best-known is Verdi’s, in which Falstaff’s love of intoxicating substances impels a tribute to the exhilarating power of music.
The character emerges in a different guise in Gus van Sant‘s film My Own Private Idaho, where he is a scruffy, drug-addled hustler. And while Falstaff does not appear in Shakespeare’s Henry V, Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh both found ways of working him into their big-screen versions.
The most remarkable Falstaff on film is Orson Welles, whose rarely seen Chimes at Midnight (1965) is one of his finest efforts as both actor and director. Welles identified closely with Falstaff, describing him as a “refugee” and a model of innocence; in portraying him as a good man ill-equipped to deal with the roughness of modernity, he was commenting on his own rejection by a film industry that had little time for his grand ambition.
Still, it is in the theatre that Falstaff’s charisma is most palpable. Watching Allam at The Globe, one cannot help feeling that Falstaff embodies certain quintessentially English attributes, a mix of the admirable and the execrable. He exhibits a drunken, slippery selfishness, yet also a resilient pride and an instinct for self-preservation. In his vices he is never odious, only ridiculous. His fabled fatness symbolises the magnitude of his humanity, and, alert to his own moral weakness, he is full of witty comment on the subject. He turns out to be a liar, but he is also capable of articulating unsettling truths.
Although St George is the patron saint of England, in truth he was a Roman soldier. Falstaff’s Englishness admits no such ambiguity. He seems to re-awaken a Chaucerian spirit of comedy and carnival.
Falstaff is a patriot of the kind governments fear: a force for liberty, with an Englishman’s aptitude for making words do just what he wants them to. Much too fat to be a fighter, he can nevertheless wriggle out of a tight situation.
At the tavern, he is a Lord of Misrule, a ruffian full of topsy-turvy wisdom. In this he prefigures Johnny Byron, the maverick anti-hero of Jez Butterworth‘s recent smash hit Jerusalem. He is a man of irrepressible appetites, whose favourite meal would be breakfast if only he could get up in time. We are even told that he “sweats to death” — and that, surely, is a very English kind of problem.