William Shakespeare really liked to write about a specific period in English history. Eight of his historical works – Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Richard II, Richard III, Henry V, and Henry VI, Parts 1 and 2 – all deal with the 15th-Century royal infighting for control of the English throne known today as The Wars Of The Roses. These eight plays were a sort of Tudor-era version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with events in some plays carrying echoes into the next, characters in some plays making guest appearances in others, and the whole collection of plays joining up to tell one enormous epic tale.
A handful of playwrights, directors, and dramaturgs have capitalized on this connection; they’ll pick one character that makes small appearances across separate plays and collect all the scenes dealing with them into a single work, thus “finding” a full play about that character hiding in plain sight; one of my regrets from my theater days was not having ever staged one such play that my colleague Colin found with Queen Margaret of Anjou as its focus. Orson Welles did something very similar with this work – except his focus was on the character of Sir John Falstaff, the aging, gone-to-seed former knight Prince Hal slums around with just before his father King Henry IV enters his final illness.
It’s clear – and poignantly so – why Welles was interested in the character. At first blush, Falstaff seems to be a figure of fun – he’s vain and boastful, he drinks like a fish, he drags Hal to the brothels. But he’s fiercely devoted to Hal and to the court; during a battle scene, even though he spends most of the sequence hiding behind trees and then fainting in fright, he still has pushed himself to show up. He wants to do the right thing, but he’s made some foolish choices and gone for comfort over struggle a few too many times, and deep down he probably knows that it’s cost him. But he trusts Hal is a devoted friend – even though Hal’s pulled pranks on him and has warned him that sooner or later he’s going to have to give up his carefree life – and so it’s heartbreaking when Hal finally rejects him at his coronation.
Welles was at a similar point in his career. After the early successes of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles spent the next several years struggling to produce first a film adaptation of Othello, then an adaptation of Don Quixote. In both cases the funding came out of his own pocket, and filming was often interrupted by Welles having to go off and appear in someone else’s movie or TV show simply because he needed money for his own works. Othello took three years to complete and received mixed reviews at best; and as for Don Quixote, Welles never finished the film. He’d also spent the previous 30 years juggling multiple lovers and two wives, and by 1965 his second marriage to Italian actress Paola Mori was on the outs. And after years of the crash diets he’d used to manage his weight in his heyday, he’d finally decided “screw it” and leaned into his love of food, alcohol, and tobacco, even though it lead to him ballooning up to 275 pounds. So – just like Falstaff, he could have made much better choices, in both his professional and personal career, but he’d favored ease and pleasure a little too much and he’d obsessed over the wrong things, and at some point along the way it had cost him. He still had the respect and acknowledgement of those in the know – but that respect often came with a grudging admission that these days he was a little bit too much of a handful.
Even though Falstaff doesn’t seem to have the self-awareness to realize his mistakes until it was too late, Welles playing Falstaff suggests that he does. He repeatedly makes Falstaff look ridiculous, such as with the aforementioned battle scenes or with a sight gag involving three pages struggling to hoist Falstaff atop his horse. The whores in the brothel and Hal’s other companions all have no problem laughing at him, and so neither do we; and Welles knows that. And then he shows us Falstaff’s moment of realization, during Hal’s coronation when Falstaff salutes him and Hal coldly says “I know thee not, old man.” Welles sets the scene up with Falstaff standing totally alone, with sniggering court members looking on, and looking utterly bereft; Falstaff is realizing just how cruelly he’s been betrayed, and just how much his own behavior lead to that; and I’m convinced that this is Welles’ way of saying he knows as well.
My only complaint about the specific print I saw was that the sound was a little too garbled; even though I’ve seen and read a lot of Shakespeare, it was still frustrating trying to hear the muddy dialogue in places. Fortunately I was able to see Welles’ cinematography well enough, as it was proof positive that even though Welles was admitting he was kind of a goof, he still was a talented goof.