An odd turn of my mind this morning led me to recall the opening line of the great speech with which Shakespeare brings Henry IV, Part II to a close: "I know thee not, old man" etc etc. [Spoken by the newly crowned Prince Hal to his old tutor and drinking companion, Sir John Falstaff.] Google quickly supplied me with the entire speech, which I read through, tears forming in my eyes. This took me to Kenneth Branagh's much acclaimed film re-make of Henry V, and courtesy of Netflix, I watched Derek Jacobi deliver Prologue's opening speech. I am of that generation that fed on the theatrics of Lawrence Olivier's classic film versions of Shakespeare's plays, including, of course, Henry V, and I quite naturally felt a certain disappointment at Branagh's distinctly low-key approach to that best-loved of Shakespeare's history plays. But then I called to mind something said to me by a student of literature who was, a lifetime ago, a good friend -- Richard J. Onorato.
As I have recounted in my Memoir, Richard and I were members of the Winthrop House Senior Common Room at Harvard at the end of the 50's. Richard was a handsome, incredibly fit man with a wry sense of humor and a picture-perfect tennis playing style, who was then engaged in writing a doctoral dissertation on Wordsworth that eventually became a very well-received book. One day I was going on about how wonderful Olivier was in his film version of Henry V, when Onorato broke into set me straight. What you don't realize, he said, is that Olivier has just one acting trick that he uses in every scene. He conveys intensity by making his voice rise to a higher and higher pitch, making you think that he has grasped the emotional essence of the speech, when in fact he might just as well be reading the telephone book [we still had telephone books in those days.] He then proved his point irrefutably by imitating Olivier perfectly.
Thereafter, I was never able to watch Olivier on the screen without thinking of what Dick had said. It spoiled a number of movies for me.