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Translating the Elizabethan Theatre: the Politics of Nostalgia in Olivier's Henry V

Martin Butler
Affiliation:
University of Leeds
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Summary

A curious and revealing detail in the Globe theatre sequence which opens Laurence Olivier's film of Henry V is the repeated introduction of a stage boy, who holds up placards indicating the title and locations of the play we are about to see. The first placard informs us that this is ‘The Chronicle History of Henry the Fift with his battel fought at Agin Court in France’, and subsequent placards announce locations as an ‘ANTE CHAMBER IN KING HENRY'S PALACE’ and ‘THE BOAR'S HEAD’. Generally speaking, the film's invention of this boy is in keeping with the archaeological thrust of its opening sequence, which represents Henry V as it might have been staged in a reconstructed theatre of 1600. Olivier, or his text editor Alan Dent, could conceivably have known that written labels had been used as location indicators in some Elizabethan playhouses, since the practice was extensively discussed by W. J. Lawrence in an essay of 1912 which had long been incorporated into theatre historiography. However, Olivier's management of the labels, with a boy carrying placards, is quite different from that described by Lawrence, as is the labels’ aesthetic effect. The first placard is directly transcribed from the title page of the 1600 Quarto, to the extent of carrying over some of its pre-modern spellings. It thereby guarantees that the ensuing film is authentically based on Shakespeare's text, though at the risk, even before the performance starts, of implicitly conceding the priority of print. The other placards are even further removed from Elizabethan labels, as they are clearly indebted to the literary markers of location which had been institutionalized in Shakespeare editing from the eighteenth century onwards. Like (for example) ‘Rouen, a room in the palace’ or ‘Another part of the battlefield’, their combination of specificity and vagueness echoes the difficulties encountered by early editors when looking for descriptors which adequately expressed the conventions of Elizabethan stagecraft in terms that met expectations derived from the scenic practice of their own theatres. Presumably Olivier's placards were intended to help cinema-goers of 1944 orient themselves within a forgotten set of performance conventions, but to today's audiences (more familiarized as we are to the codes of the open stage) they seem uncomfortable intrusions in the supposedly coherent archaeology of the Globe.

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Translating Life
Studies in Transpositional Aesthetics
, pp. 75 - 98
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2000

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