Michael Kahn's 1969 Henry V
MICHAEL KAHN: I picked up Henry V—a play that I never wanted to do. We were in the middle of the Vietnam War and I was against the war as many people of my generation were, and so my memory of Henry V was the Olivier film and as a sort of jingoistic, definitely nationalist, epic, a celebration of war. And so I picked up the play, thinking, I don't even know why I'm reading this, and I was so struck by the first couple of scenes in which the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely actually create a fake war for Henry, a fake reason for Henry to go to war in order for him to ignore them and not make them pay taxes and money to the king. And I thought, my gosh, what a cynical view of religion and war and leadership and who knew that this was in the play. And so it fit tremendously into what I was feeling and I got terribly excited and saw in the play all of these instances where Henry kills the soldiers against the rules of warfare, where Henry lies, and so I saw this play as about a fake war and a manipulative leader. And I did it and it actually, did it in sort of a modern way on a jungle gym and all kinds of things, and it actually sort of made my career. It was done at Stratford, came to Broadway.
And it was a direct response to the Olivier film which I understood was made during a time of crisis in Britain with the possibility of the invasion of the Nazis and money was given to Olivier to make this film, and I wondered why I never saw that scene. And then when I went to see the Olivier film, I realized that he'd begun the play in the Globe and the two little funny character actors who you couldn't take seriously, were played by very well known character actors, but were being played as kind of fools, were doing that scene, you know, in a kind of fake Elizabethan manner and you didn't pay any attention to it. So he left the text in, but he created, made them so silly that they had no importance. Now I, on the other hand, made it of huge importance.
Now, I got in a certain amount of trouble because once we got to the great speeches of Henry, the St. Crispin's Day speech, I didn't quite know what to do with them because I had this, you know, political villain as the lead. Though, you know, I kind of fudged those. When I came back to the play here in Washington after having lived in DC for a while, and been exposed to the realities of politics, and the complications of leadership, I could look at the play and see that Shakespeare was much smarter than Laurence Olivier, much smarter than Michael Kahn was in the 60s. He actually understood that all of those things were true, and that you could be a person who was really living off realpolitik, but was also an inspired leader. And that was for me a revelation, an understanding for me that the great, the greatness of Shakespeare is in the being able to see a great many sides to something.
This extraordinary ability to understand complexity and ambiguity is the great genius of Shakespeare. Ambiguity is a very difficult thing for people to accept. Complexity is often a difficult thing for people to accept in the theater. They want easy answers, just the same way people want easy answers in life. As far as I'm concerned, all of this fundamentalism that's in every country in the world now, is because the world is so complicated that people need very secure answers and fundamentalism gives it to them. Well, the great thing about great theater is it asks more questions than it answers. That's the challenging thing about theater. That's perhaps what's different about great theater than, let's say, other forms of entertainment, and what's extraordinary about Shakespeare is that's the truth at the heart of Shakespeare.