Personal Choice 7
In 1964 my parents took me to a production of Henry V at the Adelaide Festival of Arts. Organizers for the Festival had erected a huge tent theatre in the Adelaide parklands. John Bell played the part of Henry V. It was a night I would never forget. I had been studying the play at high school and had seen Sir Laurence Olivier in the film but nothing could prepare me for this performance and it was the first staged play I had ever seen. John Bell who was only 24 at the time and who would go on to become a very famous Australian actor, theatre director and theatre manager and a major influence on the development of Australian theatre in the late 20th and early 21st century – stole the show. I knew the play well, loved the play and would recite whole scenes at night in my little working class home bedroom. There have been many influences on my writing from my grandmother to the superb poems of the Welsh poet RS Thomas but nothing as pivotal as that hot March night when John Bell came out in the Prologue of Act IV and spoke these lines by Shakespeare before one of the greatest battles in English history and left me in a numb silence both awestruck and transformed.
Act IV: Prologue
Now entertain conjecture of a time
When creeping murmur and the poring dark
Fills the wide vessel of the universe.
From camp to camp, through the foul womb of night
The hum of either army stilly sounds,
That the fix’d sentinels almost receive
The secret whispers of each other’s watch:
Fire answers fire, and through their paly flames
Each battle sees the other’s umber’d face:
Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful neighs
Piercing the night’s dull ear; and from the tents
The armourers, accomplishing the knights,
With busy hammers closing rivets up,
Give dreadful note of preparation:
The country cocks do crow, the clocks do toll,
And the third hour of drowsy morning name.
Proud of their numbers and secure in soul,
The confident and over-lusty French
Do the low-rated English play at dice;
And chide the cripple tardy-gaited night,
Who, like a foul and ugly witch, doth limp
So tediously away. The poor condemned English,
Like sacrifices, by their watchful fires
Sit patiently, and inly ruminate
The morning’s danger; and their gesture sad
Investing lank-lean cheeks and war-worn coats
Presenteth them unto the gazing moon
So many horrid ghosts. 0, now, who will behold
The royal captain of this ruin’d band
Walking from watch to watch, from tent to
Let him cry, Praise and gory on his head!
For forth he goes and visits all his host;
Bids them good-morrow with a modest smile,
And calls them brothers, friends, and countrymen.
Upon his royal face there is no note
How dread an army hath enrounded him;
Nor doth he dedicate one jot of colour
Unto the weary and all-watched night;
But freshly looks, and over-bears attaint
With cheerful semblance and sweet majesty;
That every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks:
A largess universal, like the sun,
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear. Then, mean and gentle all,
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night:
And so our scene must to the battle fly;
Where,—0 for pity!—we shall much disgrace
With four or five most vile and ragged foils,
Right ill-dispos’d in brawl ridiculous,
rhe name of Agincourt. Yet sit and see;
Minding true things by what their mockeries be.
William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)
The Battle of Agincourt was an English (11,000 men) victory against a larger French (50,000 men) army in the Hundred Years' War. The battle occurred on Friday 25 October 1415, in northern France. The battle is notable for the use of the English longbow, which Henry used in very large numbers, with longbowmen forming the vast majority of his army. The battle was also immortalised by William Shakespeare as the centrepiece of his play Henry V.