The Chairs, Part II: George Wolfe Replies!

Miss me? Me, too!

As I was saying, my friends, I knew I would not be able to rest for a single second during the summer break until I’d solved the mystery of the banquet chairs in Henry V . And believe me, as the rain it raineth every day, there was enough time between martinis to do just that. This is the story so far:

In my review of the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park production of the Bard’s drum-and-trumpet play about war and patriotism, I appealed to any reader to kindly come forward and explain why the director’s design concept-the essence of his entire interpretation-was a stage crowded with row upon row of empty gilt chairs that appeared to be waiting for a bar mitzvah to happen. What did they mean ? At what point did the director, Mark Wing-Davey, and his set designer cry out in the night with the elation of the divinely inspired, “Got it! Let’s say it with chairs!”?

Can anyone help me? I asked. When we think of war, do we think of chairs? Thus it was that all summer long, the question could be heard reverberating throughout the literary salons of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and the Hamptons: “What’s with Henry V ‘s chairs?” But no answer was forthcoming. I spoke to about a dozen people who’d actually seen the loopy production, and they were no wiser than me. One of them had even enjoyed it. Here was my chance, I thought. What did she think the chairs meant? “You got me there!” she replied cheerfully.

I read all the reviews by the usual suspects, but no luck. Some of them didn’t even mention the chairs, which is typical. They mentioned stuff like the naked shower scene for Katherine of France, the sight and sound of Pistol as a 1950’s rocker from Brooklyn squatting on the toilet with his pants down, or the scholarly (if somewhat dated) quotations during the action from Mary Poppins and Fiddler on the Roof . But all of that was in the past for me.

I simply wanted to know how Shakespeare’s play about the moral and political ambiguity of King Henry’s trumped-up war was made even more relevant and contemporary by a stage cluttered with empty chairs. In other words, patient man though I am, I’d more or less had it with yet another stew of lunatic gimmicks that actually ignore and kill the play. But I wasn’t saying that at the time. “This column is intended to be a forum for discussion, and honestly held differences,” I wrote, straining at the leash. “In an unprecedented move, let me therefore invite Mr. Wing-Davey to write in and help us all figure out the significance of the chairs. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve missed the point if he will tell us why the chairs are there.”

As I awaited Mr. Wing-Davey’s response, in curious expectation as to what the bright new morrow might bring (as old Dickens would put it), I turned to the Shakespearean experts. Eric Bentley is arguably the greatest theater critic this country has ever had. He was born in England, but let’s not hold that against him. In one of his essays, entitled “Doing Shakespeare Wrong,” he points out: “If Arthur Miller were produced as we produce Shakespeare, none of his plays would ever have come into New York …. “

What is neglected is all meaning, and for Mr. Bentley “the fate of Shakespeare in modern times is the fate of modern theater as a whole …. Drama presents life. It has meaning,” he argues. “Even Shakespeare has meaning: one has to insist on the point because the prime error of the ‘modern’ movement is to have overlooked or denied it.”

I must add that Mr. Bentley, who’s still alive and kicking, wrote that essay over half a century ago. Little has changed since in the tricksy, juvenile essentials. Anyone can make Shakespeare “contemporary.” If you wanted to direct a new production of Hamlet that gave us a melancholy Dane who’s a peanut vendor, the only thing that might stop you is that it’s been done before.

Let me stress that none of this should be taken as an argument against new interpretations of sacred texts, only against productions that make a mockery of the texts. We know the few, the happy few, creative examples we experience with fresh, astonished eyes. There are no rules, though my own bias is for imaginative simplicity. As Theseus put it to the nervous actors in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

I will hear that play

For never anything can be amiss

When simpleness and duty tender it.

Mr. Wing-Davey sent word back to me refusing to comment on his Henry V interpretation. It’s his right, of course, and a disappointment. But all wasn’t yet lost-all is never lost. I could always make George C. Wolfe’s life a misery.

Mr. Wolfe, the distinguished producer of the Public Theatre, which staged the Henry V , would surely share the secret to the chairs with us. And so I telephoned his representative, the lovely Carol Fineman, and said that if anyone were to ask, say, Ingmar Bergman the reason why he made radical changes to Ibsen in his recent production of Ghosts , from everything I know about the great man, I felt confident he would respond. As if that weren’t enough, I added how I was absolutely certain that if any critic, man or dog, were to ask Peter Brook why his experimental Hamlet was staged with only six actors and scarcely any set at all, he would be glad to explain it, too, for no one loves an exchange of ideas more than Mr. Brook. And Ms. Fineman of the Public Theatre listened to all this very patiently and replied, “I’ll get back to you, sweetheart.”

Here’s Mr. Wolfe’s written response:

“In Henry V , Mark [Wing-Davey] was interested in excavating cultural, political and theatrical parallels between the Elizabethan Era and the time we’re now living in. The chairs on the set were one way that allowed Mark to explore these parallels-actors dressed in Elizabethan costumes took seats to watch the play, ultimately becoming participants in the production-one written during the Elizabethan period-and we as audience members took seats in the theater and became participants by watching the production in the here and now.”

Who knew!

It was good of Mr. Wolfe to respond. If I’m understanding him correctly, we’re sitting in chairs watching the actors sitting in chairs watching the performance. And there we have it. If I weren’t so low, however, I would resist pointing to the photograph of Liev Schreiber, the production’s modern-dress King Henry, who can be seen sitting with his back turned to a row of chairs and an intense expression on his face. He looks troubled, as if he’s trying to figure something out. Well, I’m not going to say it. I’m not going to be the one who says that he’s asking himself, “What’s with all these chairs?”

This is the thing, though: Only in theater is it possible to wipe the slate completely clean. Every new show is an exciting new beginning, every performance a fresh start, every new season a new, hopeful world. I am for all those who believe in the possibilities of change and renewal at the theater. Welcome to the new season, everyone!