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Shakespearian opera in the shadow of war

Prince Henry: But tell me, Jack, whose fellows are these that come after?

Falstaff: Mine, Hal, mine.

Prince Henry: I did never see such pitiful rascals.

Falstaff: Tut, tut, good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder. They’ll fill a pit as well as better. Tush, man, mortal men, mortal men.

Over the past few years, Britain has commemorated Shakespeare’s life, works, and death in parallel with an extensive remembrance of the First World War and those who served in it. The elision of Shakespeare’s work with this particular conflict is not a new trend: 100 years ago, similar celebrations of Shakespeare were occurring in the midst of wartime, and both Britain and Germany were employing his image and plays for propaganda and recruitment purposes. After the war’s conclusion, Shakespeare and the Great War continued to align in the public consciousness. In 1925, for instance, the British composer Gustav Holst wrote his short Henry IV opera, At The Boar’s Head – a piece situated very much in the shadow of devastating recent events. Holst’s name, of course, is indelibly associated with his most celebrated work, The Planets (which, coincidentally, is 100 years old this year). This suite contains his most famous ‘war’ piece: ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’.

Holst himself experienced the Great War at a distance

Whether ‘Mars’ actually relates to the First World War is a matter for debate, but if its sinister bombast is indeed an ominous anticipation of manifold horrors to come, then At The Boar’s Head is a companion piece of sorts, offering a bittersweet exploration of the impact of war on British life and identity. In the words of the Shakespeare and music scholar Julie Sanders, Holst’s opera represents an ‘era of residual patriotism, a period also defined by a deep-seated and traumatic sense of loss following devastating battles such as those at Paschaendale and the Somme’. Undoubtedly, its themes and images would have been deeply poignant for its original audience, many of whom would have borne the physical and emotional scars of wartime.

Holst himself experienced the Great War at a distance, since – much to his frustration – he was barred from military service on the grounds of ill health. It is perhaps significant, then, that his Shakespearian war opera does not feature any battlefield action whatsoever. Rather, it focuses on a domestic environment, exploring the complex reactions of soldiers at the exact moment when they are recruited to fight, and highlighting the experiences of those left behind. At The Boar’s Head is entirely set in the eponymous Eastcheap tavern that offers an alternative to the military seriousness and political hierarchies of the outside world. Holst’s pub, like Shakespeare’s, is a rambunctious, anarchic, and distinctively British environment, characterised by hearty folk songs and heavy drinking. Its patriotic and festive atmosphere is tinged with sadness and foreboding, however, since the outside menace of war – characterised musically by portentous horncalls – perpetually threatens to puncture the tavern bubble forever.

One particular scene between Falstaff (the embodiment of The Boar’s Head’s bawdy excesses) and Prince Hal (the soon-to-be Henry V) perfectly demonstrates the opera’s opposition of carefree merriment with impending combat. Just before he is summoned to battle, a disguised Hal steps forward to sing at Falstaff’s request. Hal’s ensuing aria is not actually drawn from either of the Henry IV plays – instead, Holst combines Sonnets 19 (‘Devouring time, blunt thou the lion’s paws…’) and 12 (‘When I do count the clock that tells the time…’), twisting them into a lamentation on mortality, military duty, and kingly responsibility. Falstaff, however, refuses to tolerate Hal’s glumness, and interrupts his sombre musings with a lively, nonsensical jig about King Arthur. Falstaff’s and Hal’s songs are then overlaid, creating a musical clash that distils the conflicts between the private and public spheres, between Falstaff’s anachronistic, Arcadian spirit and Hal’s recognition of the closeness of death in the present.

Owing to the opera’s single location in a place of female entrepreneurship, women have a far more prominent voice in At The Boar’s Head than in either of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, where they are pushed to the sidelines. Like Vaughan Williams’s contemporaneous Falstaff opera, Sir John in Love (1929, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor), At The Boar’s Head seemingly reflects a post-war, Suffragist Britain in which women were beginning to exercise more opinion and agency. The opera’s closing moments pointedly focus on the women of the tavern, and the distress they feel at being left behind when their male friends and lovers leave for war. While Falstaff departs, Mistress Quickly (the tavern’s owner) and Doll Tearsheet (Falstaff’s prostitute mistress) sing him a pair of emotional, touching farewells, before they are left alone on stage to comfort each other, and darkness descends. There is a twist, however, as Falstaff summons Doll to his chamber for one last tryst – a final act of rebellion against onrushing obligation and misery.

At The Boar’s Head was not successful in its day – partly because of the relative unpopularity of home-grown opera in Britain – and was viewed as nothing more than an ‘extremely interesting experiment’ in attempting to combine Shakespeare with folk songs. It has been revived only sparingly since, and has certainly not achieved the renown of other British Shakespeare operas such as Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Thomas Adès’s The Tempest. It is nevertheless a gem of a work, which captures the mood of a post-war Britain traumatised by recent events, longing to regain a lost, pre-war innocence, and looking hesitantly towards the future. By highlighting marginalised spaces and characters in Henry IV, it also invites a reconsideration of Shakespeare’s famous history plays. Moreover, it is a piece that still might hold resonance for modern societies in which families, communities, and countries are still affected by international warfare and personal loss.

Featured image credit: Gustav Holst statue, Imperial Gardens, Cheltenham. By Terry Jacombs. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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