The Perils of Staging Shakespeare’s Early History Plays:
Henry VI: Blood and Roses, adapted from Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3 by Brian B. Crowe, presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, October 10-November 11, 2007.

Rachel Wifall
Saint Peter's College

Rachel Wifall. "The Perils of Staging Shakespeare’s Early History Plays: Henry VI: Blood and Roses, adapted from Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3 by Brian B. Crowe, presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.". Early Modern Literary Studies 14.2/Special Issue 17 (September, 2008) 17.1-9 <URL:>.

    Adapted and directed by Brian B. Crowe. Set designed by Michael Schweikardt. Costumes designed by Dane Laffrey. Lighting designed by S. Ryan Schmidt. Sound designed by Guy Sherman. Fights choreographed by Doug West. Production stage manager Kathy Snyder. With Clark Carmichael (Talbot, Mariner, Young Clifford), Rufus Collins (York, Walter Whitmore), Tristan Colton (Warder, Bassett, Dick the Butcher, Edward), David Conrad (Voice of Henry V), Frank Copeland (Exeter, Horner), Jordan Coughtry (Warder, Gentleman, Peter, Holland, George), Will Davis (Servingman, Montague, Michael), Joe Discher (Somerset), Maurine Evans (Lady in Waiting, Elizabeth—The Lady Grey), Ryan Farley (Henry VI), John Hickok (Gloucester, Clifford, Father who has killed his son), Roderick Lapid (Servingman, Vernon, Muderer, Lord Rivers), Terence MacSweeny (Mayor of London, Petitioner, Southwell, Murderer, Northumberland, Lewis XI), Daniel Marconi (Young Henry, Prince Edward), Garth Wells McCardle (Sir William Lucy, Lord Saye), Fletcher McTaggart (Suffolk, Tutor, Son who has killed his father, Keeper), William Metzo (Winchester, Spirit, Stafford, Keeper), Jed Peterson (The Captain, Petitioner, Bolingbrook), Angela Pierce (Margaret), Tom Robenolt (Servingman, Buckingham, Governor of Paris, Clerk of Chatham), Patricia Skarbinski (Dame Eleanor, Smith, Lady Bona, Nurse), Theodore Thurlow (Rutland), Scott Whitehurst (Warwick, Jack Cade), Jo Williamson (Nun, Joan Margaret Jourdain), Derek Wilson (Hume, Warder, Lawyer, Bevis, Richard), The Company (Soldiers, Guards, Commoners, Servants).

  1. In October and November of 2007, Brian B. Crowe and The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey presented Blood & Roses, a condensed one-play adaptation of Shakespeare’s first three history plays: Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3. Although Simon Saltzman of Curtain Up exclaimed, “Oh dear! It’s that bloody Wars of the Roses thing again,” calling such an endeavor “as trying on the nerves as well as the buttocks,” Crowe did a commendable job of synthesizing this unwieldy series into one unit, viewable in one evening of entertainment. As many directors have found, staging Shakespeare’s early history plays is no easy task. If the works, which encompass a dizzying number of events and multiple themes, are to be produced in their entirety, viewing time must be divided and momentum must be maintained; if they are going to be condensed, then many choices must be made regarding what material to excise and upon which themes to focus. Amazingly, Crowe was able to create a fast-moving and engaging production which, while edited, kept all thematic threads of these plays alive.

  2. Shakespeare’s first tetralogy is an epic tale of war and political intrigue, peppered with scenes of amorous seduction; at their best, these plays provide what Ben Brantley of The New York Times calls “the same kick generated by the glamorous family-feud soap operas (‘Dallas,’ ‘Dynasty’) of the 1980’s.” However, while these plays feature some juicy roles and brilliant dramatic moments, many contemporary directors don’t know what to do with them, for various reasons. If produced separately, their narrative—which follows England’s late medieval history, from the Hundred Years’ War with France to the end of the civil War of the Roses—is difficult for contemporary audiences to understand; if linked together, they are long. They are challenging to stage, since they constantly switch locale—from various cities in France, to London, to the English countryside—they teem with plots and subplots, and they feature a tremendous and utterly confusing cast of characters (as Brantley says, “It is a list of names to choke on: kings and would-be kings and cousins and uncles and aunts and fathers and sons all coming at you like a genealogical cavalry”). Furthermore, while the plays deal (albeit creatively) with actual events in the course of British history, they also contain multiple references to supernatural forces, from Joan of Arc’s conjuring of spirit helpers in 1 Henry VI, to Eleanor of Cobham’s séance in 2 Henry VI, to the ghosts which appear to curse Richard at the end of Richard III. Consequently, it is a rare occasion when one can see the Henry VI plays performed on stage.

  3. Presenting the Henry VI plays in sequence—as Crowe did, although condensed into one play — is a decidedly modern approach. Shakespeare probably did not compose the plays chronologically, and neither were they originally published as a trilogy; one theory has it that “What we now call The First Part of King Henry the Sixth may well … have been an ironic ‘prequel’” (Burns 156). Although the plays were presented in chronological order in the First Folio, performing them in cycles did not become a theatrical practice until the 19th century and this is, as Edward Burns asserts, because modern audiences are so far removed from the historical events depicted in the plays that they need the story told from beginning to end, unlike Shakespeare’s audience: “for whom a network of memories and information existed” (156). It is thus usually thought that, for intelligibility’s sake, the plays need to be told together, and most effectively along with the more widely-respected Richard III. However, an unedited production of the first tetralogy, from the opening of 1 Henry VI to the death of Richard III, will last somewhere upward of nine hours (as exemplified by Jane Howell’s uncut 1982 production for BBC TV). Furthermore, the plays are often felt to be overly complicated. Alan Dessen has lamented that “the Elizabethan fondness for episodic structure or multiple unity here collides with a post-Elizabethan prizing of concentration and subordination of elements … interpreters have therefore sensed formlessness rather than coherence in this trilogy—a problem only “solved” with the emergence of Richard of Gloucester as a focal figure” (166-7).

  4. The plays are thus often abridged, and directors have felt the need to make major adjustments, including the reordering of scenes, the complete excision of events and characters, and even the outright addition of nontextual, explanatory material. Patricia Lennox notes that, for the three-part 1961 RSC production of the first tetralogy, director John Barton “cut the original 12,350 lines [of the three parts of Henry VI] in half and ended with a final version of 7,450 lines, of which a little over 6,000 came from the original. The remaining 24 percent of the dialogue was crafted by Barton himself, primarily from Shakespeare’s own sources, Hall and Holinshed” (241). In these abridged cycles, what is expendable and what is essential must be carefully considered by the director, and that should be according to his or her intended focus: if the questionable nature of hereditary claims to power and the tenuousness of political control—looming themes throughout Shakespeare’s entire historical oeuvre—are to be the main theme of a production, the Jack Cade scenes of Part Two must be kept intact. However, if a production aims to focus on the personalities involved in this period of English history—the holy and fragile Henry VI, his supportive and domineering wife Queen Margaret, the ambitious and high-strung York—then the Jack Cade sequences may seem tangential and distracting. If a production is meant to examine England’s medieval civil war and make the twists and turns of the English monarchical succession understandable, then the character of Joan of Arc may be excised; however, if a director wishes to focus on gender constructs and gender relations within the plays—ubiquitous concerns throughout the series[1]—then the character of Joan must be retained. Whatever focus a director may choose when paring down these plays, however, it is worth considering that seemingly expendable scenes may reflect and reinforce crucial themes of the plays as a whole—and may not be expendable after all.

  5. While H. R. Coursen agrees that editing may be necessary for a successful production of these plays, he—and I—disagree with those who assert that the early trilogy is simpy chaotic. Coursen argues that “These plays are hardly ‘shapeless’” (215), noting both that “The plays are long but marked by constant parallels” (214) and they “are very ‘unified’ for apprentice work” (205). He then goes on to persuasively list multiple thematic parallels joining the plays. I would also argue that what has been called the “formlessness” and “clumsiness” of the early histories is an illusion; the plays of the first tetralogy are joined by a strong current of themes and motifs which keep surfacing, if one would only look.

  6. In Blood and Roses, which ran a little under three hours, Brian Crowe did not rewrite the play texts, nor did he, as is the fashion, re-envision the plays with particular contemporary concerns in mind[2]. Instead, he did a remarkable job of retaining a little of everything that goes on in these plays—from Joan’s battles with Talbot, to the séance initiated by the ambitious Eleanor Cobham, wife of Gloucester, to Jack Cade’s rebellion.

  7. Costumes were reflective more of personalities than specific eras. When Margaret began acting as the Lancastrian Commander-in Chief, she wore riding pants and boots, a long red riding jacket and a tie. With this outfit, one would expect her to wield a riding crop, and the message was clear: her commanding presence, while slightly masculine, still expressed a strong current of female sexuality. Henry was dressed in vest and tie, with tousled hair and wing-tip shoes, looking like a shy college professor, book in hand. The stage set was simple, consisting of cold, metallic scaffolding; however, while it looked modern, it did not reflect a specific time and place, but rather the bleak inner world of the ruthless characters who inhabit the play.

  8. In a series of plays depicting cyclical behaviors (as history is known to repeat itself), Crowe drew clear parallels through the doubling of actors, the repeating of key phrases, and through visual means. The young Henry VI, for one, also played Edward, son of Henry VI and Margaret. In an added scene at the opening of the production, the young Henry attended his father Henry V’s funeral, at which a banner of the handsome warrior king hung by his coffin (featuring the star of the company’s season-opening Henry V, directed by Bonnie J. Monte); during the funeral “a disembodied voice inton[ed] the stirring St. Crispin’s Day call to arms from Act IV of Henry V” (Seigel). At the play’s end, after Richard confessed his ruthless ambitions for the future, an analogous banner quickly and ominously descended, showing the darkly charismatic, deformed Richard as King. And, while the play began with a nod toward what went before the Henry VI plays, it ended with the opening line of the next play, Richard III: Richard’s “Now is the winter of our discontent.” In this way, according to Naomi Seigel, Crowe “has provided the weak-willed Henry with a past and future that, given the work’s dense, difficult-to-grasp scenes of unrest and anarchy, help propel the audience through the most obdurate thickets and beyond.”

  9. Just before the intermission, the first half of the production was summed up in a performative mosaic which included the echoing of key phrases which echoed thematic concerns (curses, premonitions, the phrase “I will rule”). This ended with the peace-loving yet doomed Henry saying “Blessed are the peacemakers”; the stage then went dark. In the second half of the production, the ever-growing collection of heads on pikes which remained on stage also served to reiterate and emphasize the relentless cycle of violence and power struggles illustrated within these works—timeless and universal human concerns.

Works Cited

[1] I argue for the centrality of both gender concerns and supernatural agency within these plays in “Swords and Curses: The Problem of Female Power in Shakespeare’s Early History Plays” (Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1999).

[2] Ton Hoenselaars discusses modern adaptations of these plays in Shakespeare’s History Plays: Performance, Translation and Adaptation in Britain and Abroad, Ed Ton Hoenselaars. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. 

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at

© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at

© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).