Audiences have loved Sir John Falstaff since Shakespeare first put him on stage, four centuries ago, in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. Indeed, the character was so popular that the playwright brought him back for a comic romp in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Audiences at the Shakespeare Theatre Company have been no less enthusiastic, enjoying a series of Falstaffs, each uniquely portrayed.
Under Michael Kahn’s direction, Pat Carroll turned the Falstaff of Merry Wives (1990) into a cross-dressing triumph, with Oscar nominee Paul Winfield taking over in the Free For All production that summer. Company member Ted van Griethuysen played Falstaff in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (2004), as did David Sabin, who played it in Kahn’s acclaimed single-evening adaptation (1994), as well as in Merry Wives (1998).
Director Stephen Rayne’s current production offers a new Falstaff, but another familiar face. David Schramm is known to TV audiences for his long run in Wings, and he studied the classics at The Juilliard School under Kahn’s tutelage.
“Even at a very young age, we were being prepared for roles that our instructors thought we were destined to play,” Schramm explains during a break in rehearsals. “I was at Juilliard from 1967 to 1972, but I was already hearing that I should play Falstaff, and Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night. I finally played Sir Toby last year, and now here I am.”
The production is set in the years following World War One. “Think Downton Abbey,” Schramm says, referring to the production’s 1919 time period. “It’s that moment when women have taken jobs usually done by men. The soldiers come home and say, ‘get back in the kitchen’ and the women say, ‘I don’t think so but thanks for the invite.’ It’s perfect because Falstaff thinks he can manipulate the women in the play but—surprise, surprise—they turn around and manipulate him.”
The key for Schramm is finding the truth of the character, not just the comedy. “In parts like this, you have to find a way to be as real as possible, and to be truly hurt by what happens. Humor and pain are part of the same equation. This horribly complex and painful situation is also incredibly amusing.”
Carroll took a similar approach, making sure that her Falstaff was more than a comic buffoon, or an actor’s gimmick. “Frank Rich [of the New York Times] really got what I was trying to do with the role,” she recalls. “He saw that in the last scene a tragic character appears. That thrilled me. I don’t keep reviews but I kept that one.”
Rich wrote of Carroll’s Falstaff, “Here is a weary, cynical clown, out of resources and near death… When this Falstaff receives his final comeuppance, in the act 5 forest masquerade that requires him to don a deer’s head and be ‘made an ass,’ the ridicule he suffers carries an unusually cruel aftertaste.”
Van Griethuysen, a member of the Company since its first season, states a clear preference for the Falstaff of Henry IV. “I sometimes think that Falstaff and Hamlet are Shakespeare’s greatest creations,” he says. “In a way, they complete each other, comment on each other and, at some point are very alike: in depth, diversity and humanity. We are all human but they just take it more seriously.”
Sabin, who can speak from the perspective of both plays, goes even further, identifying Henry IV as a forerunner to the psychological complexity of Chekhov. He finds particular power in the moment when Prince Hal chooses royal duty over personal affection, casting his beloved Falstaff aside.
Sabin explains, “That moment is the confirmation of what Falstaff has always known but refused to face. Some nights it brought gasps from the audience, often followed by a brief silence and then sustained applause. Some nights I could barely go on with the rest of the scene, and often it would take me one or two more scenes to collect myself.”
Sabin’s portrayal was equally moving to his fellow actors. Van Griethuysen, who played King Henry in that production, recalls, “One night, as I was walking to the stage during one of Falstaff’s scenes, I stopped short, in amazement, listening. I thought, ‘Where did that come from?’ He is like a blaze of light and energy.”
In Merry Wives, four years later, Sabin uncovered a very different Falstaff, playing him as a 1950s lounge singer in a gold lamé jacket and tilting toupée. Washington Post critic Lloyd Rose wrote that he was “preceded by a belly so immense it’s practically a second character.” Sabin noted at the time, “My goal in this production is to see to it that the audience has at least as much fun as I do. That’s the object of farce: to make people laugh as hard as they can.”
Schramm seems pleased to join a lineage that stretches back four centuries, and includes such actors as Anthony Quayle, Ralph Richardson and Orson Welles. “Such a diversity of great classic comedians have played the part,” he says. “For a character actor of a certain age and girth, it’s one of the great Shakespeare roles of all time.”
That greatness, Schramm says, lies in the audience’s ability to recognize elements of Falstaff in themselves. “We all go around with beliefs that are delusional,” he points out. “We all think it’s going to work out the way we want it to. The frailty of this man is so large that it encompasses all of humanity.”
Norman Allen’s work has been commissioned and produced by the Shakespeare Theatre Company, the Kennedy Center, the Karlin Music Theatre in Prague and the Olney Theatre Center. As former playwright-in-residence at Signature Theatre he premiered Nijinsky’s Last Dance (Helen Hayes Award, Outstanding Play) and In the Garden (Charles MacArthur Award) with subsequent productions throughout the United States, Europe and South Africa. He has written on the arts and culture for WAMU-FM, The Washington Post, Smithsonian magazine and other national publications. His work for the theatre is published by Playscripts, Inc.