What’s the best place to enjoy a scrumptious lunch surrounded by ever-changing exhibits by local artists, while hearing celebrated actors and writers engage each other in stimulating, illuminating conversation? On Thursday last, it was the Woman’s National Democratic Club (WNDC), located in the heart of Dupont Circle.
The WNDC, which since 1922 has called the historic Whittemore House home, has for decades offered the civically, politically, intellectually and culturally engaged or inquiring the opportunity to hear and actively connect with speakers of all stripes, persuasions and specializations, from diplomats and politicians to doyen(nes) in the arts, letters, and sciences.
So while at first glance, a mansion might seem an unlikely host for, in the words of co-president Anna Fierst, “two of the finest actors of this generation” to expound upon their art, their longtime friendship and professional relationship, and their current roles in a Shakespeare history play having personal historical resonance for them both—it was, in fact, a perfect fit. As were Edward Gero and Stacy Keach, who play King Henry IV and Falstaff in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s STC) Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (running through June 8th. Purchase tickets here) a perfect fit for Anna Fierst’s description.
DC theatergoers have reveled in Gero’s Helen Hayes Award-winning portrayals of Shakespearean characters, including Henry IV, and in the multiple-award-winning Keach’s Macbeth and Richard III. They also had the rare experience of seeing the two masters as the quasi-mirror images of Gloucester and Lear (“ascending the summit of the Shakespeare canon,” declared Gero) in STC’s King Lear (2009). So it was no surprise that the WNDC’s capacious dining room was filled to capacity to hear the two actors engage in conversation about two of their most rewarding and challenging roles.
They were joined by writer, educator, editor and lecturer John F. Andrews, president and founder of the Shakespeare Guild of America (who, noted former WNDC president Rosemary Monagan, has “edited and written as many works as the Bard himself”), remembered fondly by many for his years in Washington, who moderated the discussion. (The felicitous confluence of distinction in both persons and place was not limited to the podium: in the audience was Guyanese writer, teacher and diplomat E.R. Braithwaite, author of the autobiographical novel To Sir, With Love, which was made into a 1967 motion picture starring Sidney Poitier.)
Quickly ticking off highlights of each actor’s career, Andrews called Keach’s turn in the title role at STC “one of the most stirring performances of Richard III I’ve ever seen.” Gero recalled first seeing Keach in New York’s Central Park in 1972, leading an all-star Hamlet that included James Earl Jones as Claudius, Colleen Dewhurst as Gertrude, and Barnard Hughes as Polonius, with Charles Durning, Tom Aldredge, and Raul Julia in gravedigger cameos. Just 17 then, Gero was blown away, and determined to become an actor (“If I’m terrible, it’s all your fault,” he ribbed Keach); years later, the two would become fast friends, finding they had much in common. In 2006, Gero became part of Keach’s “summit team,” and did Lear with him in Chicago.
Keach told of playing Falstaff at a dubiously young age with Joe Papp in 1968, having just seen Orson Welles become the “whoreson round man” in his own Chimes at Midnight (1965) and having been struck by “how close to himself Orson had made this character,” turning the usual caricature into a complex human being. Although he had played grandfathers in school plays (which in itself recalls Welles, tho this wasn’t mentioned) at 27, and was in fact teaching a class at Yale, Keach was “absolutely terrified,” and decided to teach another on Henry IV and V to help him bone up on it.
(“Then, I was trying to be old and fat,” he observed wryly.) Falstaff is ambitious, said Keach, but also a hedonist. He knows that his theft “is going to create a problem with Hal sometime down the road. He’s a complicated man. Welles understood that and played that.” For Keith Baxter, who played Prince Hal in Welles’s film and, four decades later, in both parts of Henry IV at STC, said Keach, it’s “a love story between two sons and two fathers.” The prince sees the king as a cold father, King Henry sees his son as a layabout; for Falstaff, “because Hal is a good drinker, he’ll be a good king.”
Keach recalled the heartbreaking climactic scene in Chimes, when Falstaff runs to the newly crowned Henry V and cries, “My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!” only to be met with a cold stare: “I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers; / How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!” Aware of the responsibilities that now are his, Henry “turns his back on Falstaff,” his old friend and drinking buddy; he has no choice.
For Gero, Hal is, in a way, a Shakespearean Luke Skywalker who must sort out, learn from and come to terms with two “father figures . . . this hedonist and this humanist.” What Falstaff would call cold-blooded, the king (and king to be) would call the man in charge. “I tend to go with the Jungian reading, a young man coming of age. Get rid of Falstaff so he can kill Bardolph in Henry V.”
Andrews turned to Keach, recalling the performance he had just seen. “When you said, in Act II, Scene IV, ‘banish plump Jack, and banish all the world,’ I heard your voice crack a little bit. I’ve never heard that done before; it was like a premonition.” Turning to Gero, Andrews asked how he approached the journey from Richard II’s Bolingbroke to Henry V.
Bolingbroke “is Shakespeare’s master politician,” said Gero. “He is Machiavellian—not in a pejorative sense,” he added. “He knows he must master public opinion. . . . But he learns that from Richard II.” Finding another echo in popular culture, Gero said he likes “to think of Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 as Parts 1 and 2 of The Godfather.”
Going them one better, Andrews informed everyone that Shakespeare may have also invented the computer. Hmm? In Act IV Scene 1 of Richard II, when Richard surrenders the crown to Bolingbroke, he says, “Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be; / Therefore no no, for I resign to thee.” Rendered mathematically, it’s 1-0-0-1 . . . binary code. (So there, all ye doubters!)
Delightfully, Gero upped the ante. How about Henry’s final counsel to his son: “Therefore, my Harry, / Be it thy course to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out, / May waste the memory of the former days.” Sounds like modern foreign policy, he observed.
There are also the temporal curiosities, continued Gero: everything happens on a Wednesday. Henry IV to Westmoreland, “Cousin, on Wednesday next our council we / Will hold at Windsor; so inform the lords;” to his son, “On Wednesday next, Harry, you shall set forward;” Falstaff to himself: “A trim reckoning! Who hath it? / he that died o’ Wednesday.” Wednesday’s child, noted Gero, is full of woe.
What about the approach you take to the role? Is it different now than when you first took it on? “I feel a lot closer to the role now that I did 47 years ago,” said Keach. The circumstances, too, have changed. “When we did Parts 1 & 2 together” without break, he said, “the sun was coming up over Central Park as it ended.”
Can you tell us something about your book? Seems it all began when Keach was doing a series in New York, ‘Lights Out,’ about a boxing family, when he was asked by the man who would become his collaborator if he had considered doing a memoir. Two years later: “All in All: An Actor’s Life On and Off the Stage,” copies of which Keach would graciously autograph at the end of the program.
But first: a few questions from the audience.
To Keach: Does the way the actor opposite you plays the prince affect the way you play Falstaff?
“No. It changes from night to night, but even if Harry were a ghost, we’d still play the role the same way. It’s in the text.”
Gero looked at him quizzically. “What was your answer?” He turned to the questioner. “Yes,” he replied with mock severity. “If the ball’s coming over here, I have to play the pitch wherever it comes in. I may not agree, but I have to respond. At other times, I agree with Stacy,” he added, concluding: “There’s a certain amount of negotiation that goes on.”
To Gero: How do you see Hal’s rebellion?
Gero invoked the prince’s opening speech: I know you all, and will awhile uphold / The unyoked humour of your idleness: / Yet herein will I imitate the sun, / Who doth permit the base contagious clouds / To smother up his beauty from the world, / That, when he please again to be himself, / Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at . . . “Is it Machiavellian? Or is Harry pulled along reluctantly?” The question hung suspended in the air, food for thought till the next hand was raised.
Why couldn’t Hal have kept Falstaff on as a private counselor?
Keach: “Falstaff agrees with you.” (Laughter) “But he realizes that Harry had no choice.”
To all: Which Shakespearean characters exemplify today’s world leaders?
Gero: “Henry V is Shakespeare’s textbook leader. We see him as ‘scholar, soldier, lover.’ We see him as the complete man . . . I think Harry’s [Shakespeare’s model] for leadership.”
To Keach: How did your father influence you?
“My father had a show in the ’50s, Tales of the Texas Rangers’ that he would take me to watch. And I was totally mesmerized by it. It stimulated my imagination.”
Asked about his start in DC, Gero said he arrived here in 1974, drawn by a competition at the Folger. As it turned out, “all seven of the awards went to women.” Thirty years later, playing at the Folger, “I thought, well, I didn’t win the award, but I certainly got the prize.”
To Keach: Can you tell us about the work you do outside the theater for the Cleft Palate Foundation? Born with a partial cleft lip, Keach replied, he is working with Congress to get legislation crafted that would designate corrective surgery for people with cleft lip or cleft palate as medical rather than cosmetic, so that the considerable costs would be covered by health insurance.
Meanwhile, Gero is involved in efforts to have the arts designated as part of schools’ academic curriculum, rather than extracurricular activities.
A final word? Truth be told, it was one of the first, but it seems a most fitting conclusion, particularly as it comes from John Andrews:
“Don’t miss seeing BOTH Henrys. And see them more than once.”
William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 plays through June 7, 2014 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall-610 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.
William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2 plays through June 7, 2014 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall-610 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.