Falstaff, Welles, Fat People, and the Age That Never Existed

Orson Welles as Shakespeare’s Falstaff in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT

I have a Facebook friend and fellow blogger/writer who, like me, is 1) fat, and 2) has not hesitated to express his profound misgivings about the presidency of Donald J. Trump. The other day my FB friend posted the observation that many of the more vitriolic responses he’s received to his posts have been laced with references to his corpulence.

As a fellow roundish person, I can attest that cluelessness and meanness and sometimes even overt discrimination against fat people is a form of prejudice by and large still acceptable, regardless of political orientation. In the Age of Trump–that Fearless Leader who, though not exactly slim or handsome himself, makes a habit of judging women by their scalability, one to ten–we may expect this noxious propensity to grow apace.

Small case in point. It’s been a while, but I recall that the author of The Secret—you know, the book whose simplistically magical view of reality being shaped by thought would suggest that the millions of victims of modern genocide were somehow “manifesting” an unconscious or karmic need for slaughter—advised her readers who, say, intended to lose weight, to stay away from fat people and even avoid looking at them, lest their minds and wills be somehow contaminated.

Friend, if this is magic, it is dark magic.

But I digress.

I bring up my FB friend’s post as, as it were –forgive the food metaphor, under the circumstances– antipasto to the main dish.

Which is, that I replied to the original Facebook post thusly:

“Sweet Jack” is, of course, Falstaff, one of the greatest characters in English literature. (“If sack and sugar be a fault, then God help the wicked!”)

In reply to my comment, another FB acquaintance posted a remarkable interview with that Falstaffian genius, Orson Welles, who directed and plays Sir John in the newly restored 1960 Chimes at Midnight.

[amazon_link asins=’B01FRMOXJO’ template=’ProductAd’ store=’debramurphy-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’7a9f95fe-e8a7-11e6-a5e2-952e589f0ec0′]Welles speaks lovingly and feelingly about Falstaff as one of the few truly life-affirming good great characters in English literature. (“There’s hardly a good man in dramatic literature who dominates the whole scene,” says Welles.)

I believe Welles gets to the heart of the character’s (and perhaps much of Shakespeare’s) lasting resonance when he speaks of the great fat rascal as a child of “Merrie Olde England,” lost and abandoned in an ugly modern world where “commodity” rules.

Says Welles:

I think Falstaff was really “Merrie England.” I think Shakespeare was greatly preoccupied, as I am in my humble way, with the loss of innocence. And I think there has always been in England and older England, which was sweeter and purer, where the hay smelled better, where the weather was always springtime….You feel the nostalgia for it in Chaucer and you feel it all through Shakespeare, and I think he was profoundly against the modern age, as I am. I’m against my modern age, he was against his. And I think his villains were modern people….

I think he was the…perfect English writer in that very thing, that preoccupation with the Camelot, which is the great English legend…and innocence is what Falstaff is. He is a kind of refugee from that world and he has to live by his wits, he has to be funny…he has no place to sleep if he doesn’t get a laugh out of his patron. So it’s a rough modern world that he’s living in. But I think you have to see in his eyes…you’ve got to see that look that comes out of the age that never existed but exists in the heart of all English poetry.

Here’s the entire interview.

For an insightful review of Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, see my son John’s blog on Bardmovies.

Categories: Acting Shakespeare, Bard Greats, Henry IV, Orson Welles, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.
About Debra Murphy

Debra is a novelist and blogger in Oregon. Visit her website at http://debramurphy.com

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