Henry IV (not Shakespeare) at Shakespeare Theatre (2 cents)

If I asked you who wrote a play titled “Henry IV”, I assume you would not hesitate and would say “Shakespeare”.  And you would be correct, of course, but you would not have given the only correct answer.  You could have also answered “Luigi Pirandello” and been equally correct.  And we attended a staged reading of Pirandello’s “Henry IV” last night at the Shakespeare Theatre (as translated by Tom Stoppard), as a part of the theatre’s ReDiscovery Series, occasional professional readings of little performed, yet classic, plays.

Now if I asked you Henry IV was, and if you were thinking Shakespeare, you would say that Henry was the 15th century king of England, first of the Lancasters.  Or, if you thought I was asking you a trick question, you might think I was referring to Henri Quatre, the early 17th century king of France.

But Pirandello’s Henry IV was neither French nor English.  He was an earlier Henry IV, Koenig Heinrich IV, the 11th century leader of the Holy Roman Empire. Henry was the emperor from 1085 to 1105.

(By the way, last night’s reading was a one-night only event, and a substantial number of those in the audience seemed to be surprised that we were not seeing a reading of a Shakespearean play about an English king.)

Henry’s reign over this German empire was marked by unrest and civil wars and, more importantly, by a major battle with Pope Gregory VII  (a pope dedicated to the reform of church practices) over “investiture”, or whether a king, or the pope, had the authority to appoint bishops of the church.  Henry was excommunicated by the pope (and his bishops declared unemployed).  Henry later requested penance from the pope, by wearing a hairshirt, fasting and going barefoot, in front of the Castle at Canossa, in northern Italy, a part of the Holy Roman Empire.  The pope forgave him and allowed him back into the church, but Henry soon showed that his penance may not have been sincere.

But this is not the plot of Pirandello’s play; it is only background.

Pirandello wrote his “Henry IV” as a play about contemporary madness.  Madness is a repeated topic for Pirandello, who wrote this particular play in 1922, shortly after his wife was declared insane and institutionalized (she remained institutionalized for the rest of her life; she died over 35 years later).

Here are the basics of the story line:  The scene is an insane asylum. An unnamed upper class Italian, age 26, participates in a historical pageant, where all the participants take upon themselves the identity of an 11th century figure.  He becomes Henry IV, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.  During the reenactment, something causes the horse he is riding to bolt, and he is thrown and knocked unconscious, waking up to believe not that he had been playing Henry IV, but rather that he in actuality was Henry IV.  For years, he is humored in this asylum, complete with 11th century decor and attendants who treat him as royalty and themselves dress daily in costume.

Twenty years later, some of those who had participated in the reenactment with him engage a psychiatrist to try to cure him and bring him back to reality. The psychiatrist says that the way to do this is to have his old friends go to see him dressed in 11th century costumes and that, by a weave of planned statements and revelations, bring him back to reality.

Tensions rise and Matilda, one of the friends who may have been an old girlfriend, believes that he recognizes her as Matilda not as the historical figure as she is dressed. The psychiatrist tells her this is nonsense. At the same time, Di Nolli, another old friend and also a participant in the reenactment of 20 years ago, as well as current lover of Matilda (and who may have been a rival for Matilda’s affection twenty years earlier), does not understand why, at this time, the presumed Henry IV refuses to believe that he is a simple 11th century monk, but rather John Damian, an 11th century ally of Pope Gregory trying to reform the church and eliminate royal investitures and therefore an enemy of Henry. Is it possible that Henry recognizes Di Nolli, as well?

Throughout all of this, the play veers more towards comedy, perhaps, than tragedy.  Certainly none of the classical elements of tragedy predominate.  But, towards the end of the play, events take some unexpected twists, increasing the tragic elements not only for Henry, but also for some of his visitors. I will not detail them here.

So, we have madness, which appears like madness, but which makes a certain amount of sense, so it may or may not be madness.  We have psychiatry, which proves itself a vacuous profession, certainly not up to the task, at least under this particular physician.  We have people wearing masks, both those who work and live in the asylum, and those who come to visit.  But are these the only masks being worn?  What is reality?  What is a game?  Who is manipulating whom in this play?  And do any of the characters in fact have any choice as to the roles they are playing in their day to day lives, in their 11th century lives, and on this unique day?

Pirandello was a radical playwright, especially for Italy in the years following the first World War.  There is much radical in this play.  But much of Pirandello’s life, and that of his institutionalized wife, was radical for the times as well, so perhaps the play speaks to a personal and to a broader set of issues.

The acting (headed by Patrick Page and Ted van Griethuysen) was excellent, as could be expected.  We left the theater (following a very interesting talk back with Georgetown University professor Gianni Cicali, who had fascinating insights into the play, the author, and the times) wanting to see more Pirandello, and to learn more about him and his writing.

Perhaps one day.





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