Remember about three and a half months ago, when we were discussing comedy vs. tragedy, and the Aristotelian unities of action and time? Back then, we said that a play (for it to fit into the Aristotelian view of drama) must be of a single action:
one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.
-- Aristotle, Poetics
This definition pretty much rules out The First Part of Henry the Sixth. There are very few parts of the play that feel organic at all. As we’ve seen from other productions (in specific, the BBC’s Shakespeare’s “An Age of Kings”), we can completely remove the Talbot plotline and the play still works.
So what do we make of this? What does that make the play?
The play feels more like one of those old-school bio-pics. Think Lawrence of Arabia, or Patton. These are films in which we see the main events, almost like a pageant, of the central character’s life. But as we’ll see tomorrow (yeah, I’m already thinking ahead here), these may not be the best examples… maybe we should look more at something like How the West was Won or The Fall of the Roman Empire, in which the ensemble of characters is more important than a single central character. Regardless, the point here is the episodic structure of the piece. We see a number of set pieces, “great moments” in which the action takes place, ones that either we instantly recognize as historical and important or that we can accept as being potentially important as they happen and actually important by the end of the film as a whole.
In these works, characterization takes a secondary position of importance to plot, the drive of the narrative (the march of history, as it were).
This pretty much fits for The First Part of Henry the Sixth, don’t you think?
Would that make Shakespeare the first author of screenplays?
of course not… especially when we can see in 1HenryVI the influence (at least structurally), of the medieval pageant (and in extension, the mystery/miracle plays of middle ages) with their use of processional “snapshots” of the main scenes and tableaux… but you get my point, right?
Is this why the histories–which, as we’ve seen this month, are not always so “historical” or factual–are categorized differently than the comedies or tragedies?
and in specific to this individual play, might this also not explain its infrequent performance/production history? Since it’s a series of “big moments”–and mostly big moments that lead to other big moments in the later plays of the tetralogy–is this why we don’t see many stand-alone productions of 1HenryVI — that aren’t part of either a conglomeration of parts two and three, or part of a multi-season or multi-year series of all the plays in sequence?
just some thoughts to ponder…