According to historian Barbara Tuchman, in her highly entertaining tome A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, it wasn’t a stirring speech by the young English king that gave his troops the victory against overwhelming numerical odds in the Battle of Agincourt. It was heavy rain in the week preceding the confrontation, turning the field to a sea of deep mud. Not having had to lighten their load for a sea crossing like the English army, the French defenders wore their heaviest plate armor and were mounted upon massive destriers. Their first downhill charge turned the battlefield to a mire, making the French knights and their horses easy pickings for the lightly outfitted English longbowmen. It’s said that 40 percent of the male French aristocracy of fighting age lost their lives that day. So many were taken captive that the English couldn’t supervise them all and decided to hold only the wealthiest hostage; the rest were executed. (So much for noble King Hal.) But the decisive victory for the invaders effectively ended the first phase of the Hundred Years’ War, and a royal marriage pact cementing the truce gave rise to the lineage that led to William Shakespeare’s patron, Elizabeth I.
Don’t let historical facts get in the way of your enjoyment of the “St. Crispin’s Day speech,” the patriotic soliloquy that Shakespeare puts in the mouth of Henry V, however. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” has quickened the pulse of folks with military experience (or fantasies) for more than four centuries now, and for good reason. Though it’s the emotional high point of the play, the rollercoaster that is Henry V has plenty else going for its enduring popularity as well, from the comedy of the French envoys dumping an insulting “tribute” of a barrel of tennis balls at the feet of the boy king in Scene I to the pathos of him having to execute one of his former drinking, gambling and wenching buddies for a trivial bit of looting, just to set an example. The repudiation of cowardly Falstaff, Prince Hal’s one-time mentor in the art of the pub crawl, comes as a genuine wrench to anyone who has enjoyed the antics of that lovable rogue in the Henry IV plays and The Merry Wives of Windsor.
It’s never a bad time for another revival of Henry V. The latest to take it up is the Department of Theatre Arts at SUNY-New Paltz, as the second production of its 2019/20 Mainstage series. John Patrick Hayden, a New York City-based actor/director noted for playing the superhero’s boxer father in the Netflix Daredevil series, and whose short film Veritaphobia recently won Best Comedy at the Newark Film Festival, is the guest director. He has been brought in to consult on several previous SUNY-New Paltz stage productions thanks to his expertise in fight choreography, so staging the Battle of Agincourt should give him plenty of room to stretch those muscles.
A pre-show discussion of Shakespeare’s approach to history plays will take place at 6:30 p.m. on opening night, November 14. The panel will feature Department of English faculty Cyrus Mulready, Thomas Olsen and James Schiffer joining director Hayden for a conversation moderated by student Kevin Mischo (Class of ’21, Theatre Arts).
Performances will take place in the McKenna Theatre at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays from November 14 to 17 and 20 to 24. Tickets cost $18 general admission, $16 for seniors (62+), faculty, staff, alumni and non-SUNY New Paltz students and $10 for SUNY-New Paltz students. To purchase, visit the Parker Theatre box office Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., call (845) 257-3880, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.newpaltz.edu/fpa/boxoffice.html.