A touch of history

Mal Whyte as Fluellen (left), David Bardeen as Gower, Ben Dibble as Henry, and K.O. DelMarcelle as Gloucester in Lantern Theater Company's "Henry V."
Mal Whyte as Fluellen (left), David Bardeen as Gower, Ben Dibble as Henry, and K.O. DelMarcelle as Gloucester in Lantern Theater Company's "Henry V." (PAOLA NOGUERAS)
Posted: March 31, 2013

At Lantern, there's a little touch of Harry in the night. But at 7 p.m. Monday, there'll be a little touch of Kenneth.

Kenneth C. Davis, that is. To accompany Lantern Theater Company's production (through April 14) of Shakespeare's Henry V at St. Stephen's Theater, historian Davis - author of Don't Know Much About History and other best-selling Don't Know books - will give an "interactive talk" titled "The Psyche of a Nation."

Davis and audience will think aloud about nationalism, war, and the difference between the myth of America and, in his words, the "darker, more complicated reality we seldom face."

It's the second of a series, Scholars: In Conversation, that accompanies the famed play, encouraging playgoers to ponder big issues of politics, history, and leadership, not back in 1415 (the date of the big battle in Henry V), not in 1599 (possible composition date of the play), but right now.

"Sometimes we go to the theater to be entertained, to leave with a laugh," says Davis by phone from New York. "But what really stays with us are the issues that hit the gut, that challenge our most cherished ideas."

"And those," says Kathryn McMillan, Lantern's associate artistic director, "are exactly the kinds of conversations we hope people will have when they leave the theater."

It was MacMillan who, on a suggestion by education director Josh Brown, contacted Davis. "I never seriously thought he'd say yes," she says, "but he said, 'I love Philly and would love to do it.' "

Davis values Henry V "not only because it's Shakespeare, but because its use of history raises such vital questions."

Such as? "How much leeway do we give artists in depicting history? We're in the midst of this flurry of historical movies: Lincoln, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, even Django Unchained, and each one has sparked discussion about accuracy, what's forgivable, what's misleading."

A related question is that of how history is used. The title of Davis' event, "The Psyche of a Nation," refers to the 1915 film epic Birth of a Nation, a notorious, racist mutilation of history. "Great movie - outright ugly propaganda" says Davis.

"I think of my two favorite film versions of Henry V. The hopeful, upbeat 1944 Laurence Olivier version was meant as a morale booster for Britain in the Second World War. The climactic battle of Agincourt is colorful and bright. But not in Kenneth Branagh's [1989] version" - there's no glory on those battlefields.

You can, says Davis, "be accurate and still be exciting. A film like Glory, or a play like [Arthur Miller's] The Crucible, are ideal in that respect. But films like Mississippi Burning and JFK pretty much throw fact overboard and leave it to drown."

Lantern has been doing such events for years. "When we did Othello [in 2008], we decided to expand them, to shed light on our present times and issues," says Charles McMahon, Lantern's artistic director. "It's no accident that in Henry, we're putting on a play about the myth of nation versus the facts." Much of Henry, he says, "concerns the run-up to war, that 'case for war' we've heard so much about with Iraq and Afghanistan."

(By the way, the case for war in Henry V stinks. McMahon: "The church wants to avoid taxes, essentially, and pretty much bribes him to go." McMillan: "Henry is absolutely taken advantage of by the clerics.")

Lantern's marketing and development director, Jennifer Pratt Johnson, attends each event and tweets about it, blow by blow. She's been doing that for about 18 months now. "We want to give people who can't come the sense of being there," she says. Earlier this week, during a panel titled "The Spark of War," she reported this exchange between McMahon and scholar Cecelia Fitzgibbon:

"Charles: Almost everyone on the English side is facing a certain death the night before Agincourt. . . .

"Cecelia: Henry shows empathy before that battle - a quality of a great leader - and puts himself in their shoes. That's the band of brothers. . . . "

Davis values that little touch of Harry: "That's why, four centuries later, this play still rattles us, still makes us think, why it's still so meaningful."

Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter, @jtimpane.

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