My Summer of Swords And Sweet Syllables
'God for Harry, England, and St. George!" we cheered as we rushed unto the breach and into the battle, swords aloft, severely outnumbered but so sure of victory. A strange army was ours, especially since each soldier was required to don makeup before his armor. During the summer of 1990, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival staged "Henry V" in the outdoor, mock-Elizabethan theater, and by some fluke I was added to the cast. I had just been released from eighth grade, a lanky kid in a shrunken Led Zeppelin T-shirt trying to catch up with his feet.
I could remember squirming through plays at the Shakespeare Festival as a small child, clutching a hot cider and a chess pie as my feet dangled off the seat. I gazed at the staged spectacle before being lullabied to sleep in iambic pentameter. I had been too young to fully comprehend Shakespeare's plays, but something about the language gave me the vague impression that grand and noble things were happening.
Suddenly, I was in the middle of that spectacle, just after replying to a newspaper notice about "needing six young men to play the roles of squires, armor-fitters, and luggage boys." Thus commenced a summer of 47 performances in front of a nightly crowd of 1,200. This was not just a remarkable theatrical experience, but an intense relationship with great literature.
Because the luggage boys did not have any lines, most of our time was spent standing in the background, spears in hand, listening intently to the veteran actors, who carefully caressed their words before tossing them into the air like messenger pigeons. Slowly, I started to subconsciously memorize long passages from the play, merely from being in such close and frequent proximity to the language.
Shakespeare's language meant so much more to me in action than it did on paper. The words donned an immediate relevance on stage. Language was not only an intellectual and emotional agent, it became a visceral thing as well. The speeches of King Henry taught me the great persuasive power of speech. Words, like chemicals, could be mixed into explosive combinations. Surprisingly, the many performances and my growing familiarity with the script did not lessen the impact. On the contrary, each performance was a rebirth of meaning and emotion.
Sometimes, when I go jogging, pieces of "Henry" come back to me. The words come bubbling out from somewhere below my lungs, and suddenly I am in the thick of the fray again, swinging a pike for my king on St. Crispin's Day.