Overheard at the Playhouse last Saturday night, in escalating probability of physical violence ensuing:
- “Yeah, I’m not sure I can sit with you. Not if you’re wearing that rose.”
- “There are way too many Lancastrians in this building. We need to even the odds.”
- “Is she wearing one of each color?” “Must be a Warwick.”
- “I side with winners, thank you.”
- “Traitor!” “Oh, you can talk.”
- “Oh, sure, wear the murderer’s color.”
- “I can’t believe you’re wearing Henry’s colors.” “I’m wearing Margaret‘s colors.”
- “Who won in the bracket?” “Well, no one, yet!” “But who won the semi-final? Richard didn’t win. Margaret. Margaret won.”
- “Who wins? Tell me who wins!” “We do!” “You do not! Henry of Richmond is not a Lancaster! He’s from a totally different house!”
- “Who is left standing at the end of this play? Who is left standing? You answer me that!”
As we say in the South, “Them’s fightin’ words.” The occasion which precipitated these verbal volleys was the closing night of 3 Henry VI, from our Actors’ Renaissance Season. To encourage the rivalry between the Houses whose conflict drives the plot of the play, the box office sold white Yorkist and red Lancastrian roses, so that any and all could proclaim their loyalties. The box office staff informs me that they sold over 60 roses that night, so it would appear that many of us feel quite strongly about the question of which branch of a centuries’-extinct dynasty should wield monarchical authority. I witnessed two fistfights (mostly joking) nearly break out, saw lovers managing to sit side-by-side while wearing different colors, and overheard, during both the pre-show and the interlude, any number of slurs, challenges, and insults, thrown about by a proud and suddenly partisan audience.
What fascinated me about the ambiance of the evening was seeing how involved nearly everyone in the audience had become with the family drama of the play. Admittedly, a closing night audience at the Blackfriars Playhouse can be a bit of a stacked deck, because it tends to draw in a lot of regulars, a lot of MBC students, a lot of friends and families. Last weekend, we had the ASC’s touring troupe in the house as well, along with large Little Academe groups in from Penn State Harrisburg and Baldwin-Wallace College — so it was an audience predisposed to be riotously joyful. Certainly this success speaks to our wonderfully skilled actors — I also overheard several people saying they’d never seen better performances out of this group, that the show left them constantly and literally on the edges of their seats, that they were exhausted by the sheer emotionality of the performances. 3 Henry VI is definitely an ensemble show, and this ensemble did a thoroughly captivating job making such a large cast of characters compelling. Rather than following a single, straightforward rise and fall, where causes have prescribed effects, 3 Henry VI exists in a more chaotic and haphazard universe. The play is a series of great moments, all belonging to different people, and so the cast must work together to wring emotional response from the audience each time someone new triumphs or flounders. The twists and turnabouts, rocketing from extremes of sympathy to revulsion, would test the ability of any actor, and ours met the challenge admirably.
Another reason for this active audience engagement is that the story itself is just so good. Shakespeare was working with great material, so it’s easy to see why history plays were among the most popular and most-often-produced in the sixteenth century. Admittedly, the Henry VI plays, written so early in Shakespeare’s career, do have their flaws, but a large gulf can exist between the technical merit of the script and the visceral enjoyment experienced by the actors and the audience. If the ASC has proven anything in the last three Actors’ Renaissance Seasons, it’s that these plays can be just as crowd-pleasing and energetic as the more widely appreciated plays in the canon. Even at the ASC, we perform fewer histories than any other genre, because of the popular perception that the public won’t receive them as well as effervescent comedies or psychologically wealthy tragedies, but so many recent productions, 3 Henry VI among them, have put the lie to that assumption. On Saturday night, the Playhouse was electrified, sizzling, the audience members enraptured by the events unspooling in front of them. The feeling at intermission was more akin to that of a major sporting event than a typical theatrical performance. I’m so glad that I live and work in a place where I can heatedly argue the succession of the English crown in the fifteenth century on a Saturday night — and have dozens of others in on the discussion as well — a place where these events still resonate through their theatrical mirrors, where people have come to care enough to pick one rose over the other and to defend their choice vigorously.
For what it’s worth, I do have to confess a personal stake in the affair: I am a descendent by blood of the House of York, I wear the white rose, and I wear it proudly.