Using Henry Vs troops to talk about Iraq
By JERRY TALLMER
PISTOL: Qui va la?
KING HENRY: A friend.
PISTOL: Discuss with me: art thou officer,
Or art thou base, common, and popular?
Henry V, Act IV, Scene 1
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accursd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speak
That fought with us upon Saint Crispins day.
Henry V, Act V, Scene 3
The principal characters in Matt Peppers daring, fascinating St. Crispins Day are not Harry the King or Gloucester or Bedford or any of the nobility but those base, common, disreputable, and popular ordinary soldiers, enlisted men, Bardolph, Pistol, Nym, Tom, and one angry cynic, Will, loosely related to the cynical Williams of Shakespeares Henry V.
Indeed, the Will of Peppers drama at the Rattlestick Theatre on Waverly Pl. Pepper makes him Irish into the bargain gets his various comrades involved in a plot to kidnap King Henry and hold him for ransom, rather than just go out and get themselves butchered in Henry Vs self-aggrandizing war with France.
If its something of a burlesque plot, well, St. Crispins Day is a very dry take on the Shakespeare drama that playwright Pepper speaks of as probably the greatest piece of war propaganda ever written.
It was in fact another war 400 years after Shakespeare, 588 years after the Battle of Agincourt, that got Matt Peppers juices flowing juices of indignation, that is.
Why? Why, why, why, why? he says, quietly hes a quiet, thoughtful, 35-year-old relatively native Brooklynite who grew up on Long Island. Why this play? A great deal has to do with the political climate of the moment.
I got very frustrated a couple of months ago watching CNN refer to the American troops as the Allies. Now they call it the Coalition. Short pause. Coalition of two, Pepper mutters, without needing to throw in the names Bush and Blair.
Simon Hammerstein, the 26-year-old London-born New Yorker who directed the play thats rattling a stick one flight up at 224 Waverly Place, throws in three words of his own: Everything is jingo.
For that matter, William Tecumseh Sherman, the golden warrior on the horse across the way from Bergdorf Goodman and the Hotel Plaza, used only three words of his own to sum everything up: War is hell.
Heres how Will, the skeptical hard-ass in St. Crispins Day says it, the night before Agincourt:
What youre supposed to do is run into a muddy field and get chopped all to [crap]. Thats what youre supposed to do. Do you know who they wont kill? Him. Henry. Do you know why? Because theyre not supposed to. Thats the rules of this stupid [freaking] game: They make the war and you get killed in it. If we had any [freaking] brains at all wed stop killing each other and start killing them.
Matt Pepper, a graduate of Binghamton University and the National Theater Conservatory in Denver, had at first thought that the way to comment on the political (and military) climate of the moment might be to mount an ironic production of Shakespeares Henry V itself. But then he had second thoughts.
I dont think it would serve the play. Ive seen it done that way in college, and it didnt really work. I dont enjoy seeing Shakespeare done ironically. People who try to improve on Shakespeare dont do that, dont improve it, because hes better at it than you are.
Pepper has of course seen both Oliviers great 1944 film of Henry V and the 1989 version by Kenneth Branagh, but doesnt think either of those works had any affect on this play. (Director Hammerstein looked at the Branagh to freshen up for this show; he has never yet seen the Olivier.)
What did have some affect, Pepper says, was a wonderful book someone gave him, Howard Zinns A Peoples History of the United States: 1492-Present, which offers what Pepper calls an alternative perspective on where weve been and where we are now.
When Pepper completed a first draft it went to Rattlestick artistic director David Van Asselt, who liked it and suggested revisions and gave it back to me. I did the rewrites very rapidly. He gave it back to me with more suggested revisions. The whole thing went very quickly.
Hammerstein, who had directed the reading of another work at Rattlestick, was called in to direct a reading of this one as part of Rattlesticks Exposure Festival for two days two months ago, with 90 percent of the present actors. These are:
David Wilson Barnes (as Will), Lauren Berst (Cecile). Lee Blair (Father Morpath), Denis Butkus (Tom), Alex Draper (King Henry), Mayhill Fowler (Mary Anne), Michael Gladis (Nym), Darren Goldstein (Fluellen), Richard Liccardo (Bardolph), and Tommy Schrider (Pistol).
Matt Pepper is the son of Bill Pepper, a retired Bronx cop who was Sgt. Pepper, he really was, and not only that but my brother is a professor of English literature, so hes Dr. Pepper. Matt and Dr. Peppers mother, Gayle Goodall Pepper, raised us five kids and then went to work also for the police. Mrs. Matt Pepper is Kristen Geber, the daughter of a Cleveland cellist.
Simon Hammertein, the son of producer James Hammerstein, grandson of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, has won praise for his direction, ere this, of Trueblinka and of Jean-Paul Sartres Men Without Shadows, a play set during another, bigger, more consequential war.
Why, why, why.
Playwright Pepper: I dont think its very revelatory to say that war is degrading to those involved. This play? Mostly its a comedy. Seriously.
Director Hammerstein: One hour and 20 minutes. With laughs.