Thursday, June 7, 2012

This wooden O

On the heels of the news that the remains of The Curtain have been excavated, I thought I would begin our 'hearing' with the Prologue to Henry V, a remarkable speech that I believe outlines the agreement between actors and audiences that was, and is, central to theatre-making.

Spoken by the Chorus, this speech belongs not to a mimetic character of the fiction, but to the liminal presence of the actor-storyteller: he is both of and in the fiction. He outlines what must transpire in order for the fiction to be engaged; for the storytelling to commence. It is a contract of the highest degree: the players will endeavor to create a world, but they are dependent on the audience -- and on the audience's acceptance of their shortcomings -- in order to bring the story to fruition.

In this way, the speech highlights some of the most distinct differences between the way we construct linear drama in the Western tradition today and the ways in which we imagine our Elizabethan counterparts did in the past. The Chorus' audience did not sit in the dark, hidden from the player's sight and watch an intact representation of fiction unfold across a stage like a voyeur. This audience was responsible for being an audience: for allowing the words and images to work upon them, for activating their imaginations in order to fulfill a joint venture. It is an invitation and also an apology. It solicits acceptance, compliance, and a sense of play.

Listen ...


O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest Heaven of Invention:
A Kingdom for a Stage, Princes to Act,
And Monarchs to behold the swelling Scene.
Then should the Warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the Port of Mars, and at his heels
(Leash'd in like Hounds) should Famine, Sword and Fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, Gentles all
The flat unraised Spirits that hath dared,
On this unworthy Scaffold to bring forth
So great an Object. Can this Cock-Pit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this Wooden O, the very Casques
That did affright the Air at Agincourt?
O, pardon: since a crooked Figure may
Attest in little place a Million,
And let us, Ciphers to this great Accompt,
On your imaginary Forces work.
Suppose within the Girdle of these Walls
Are now confin’d two mighty Monarchies,
Whose high up-reared, and abutting Fronts,
The perilous narrow Ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts:
Into a thousand parts divide one Man,
And make imaginary Puissance.
Think when we talk of Horses, that you see them
Printing their proud Hoofs i' th’ receiving Earth:
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our Kings,
Carry them here and there: jumping o'er Times;
Turning th’ accomplishment of many years
Into an Hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this History;
Who Prologue-like, your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our Play.

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