My Turn: How to depose your leader

Published: 1/31/2018 9:00:16 AM

Imagine a nation whose leaders are split into bitterly divided camps, neither of which cares much for the masses who salve their poverty with sedatives and black humor.

Is this a description of contemporary America or Shakespeare’s late 15th century play “Henry IV, part 1?” When my daughters, aged 10 and 12, began rehearsing this play in September, I read it for myself, looking for venerable guidance from the Bard for our troubling times. What I saw in the play was not reassuring. In short, endless war and infighting.

I found hope, however, when I attended a recent rehearsal. The two dozen young actors, ages 8 through 17, of the local ensemble Young Shakespeare Players East gathered at lunch to discuss the lessons of this 3-hour play, which they’ve carefully studied and committed to memory (in unabridged form) in preparation for their January performances at the Shea Theater.

I was astonished, first of all by their mastery of the material. Even the youngest actor knew it inside and out, and not just the scenes he acted in. It is fashionable today to lament that children are less educated, and particularly inapt at memorization (blame Siri, some say), but I saw no evidence of that here.

But I was most inspired by their ability to draw lessons from the play that are included nowhere in their scripts, lessons that could prove useful as the next generation inherits the parlous world we’ve made for them. In the play, Henry IV is in danger of being deposed by rebellious nobles, the very men who had helped him defeat the previous monarch, King Richard II.

The young actors wrestled with the question, “Why do leaders fail?”

King Henry IV broke a lot of promises, lied to the rebels, insulted them. “Your words can come back to bite you,” posited 16-year-old Annabelle. Even good leaders must be careful to manage expectations. “The rebels, they had high hopes, and even though he is a better king, they feel let down. So they rebel again,” noted Satya, age 13.

In the play, the rebels attempt to depose Henry IV, launching an unsuccessful military coup. Even though they prove unsuccessful, their better tactics deserve study by anyone hoping to change their nation’s leadership.

“The rebels worked to find people who’ve been negatively affected by the king,” Charlotte, age 14, observed. Their failure also offered a lesson, as Alex, age 9, warned, “You can oppose the king with words, or you can use force. If you’re going to use force, be careful, you must have someone good ready to replace the king.” The rebels may have failed partly because they offered no single appealing alternative to the king; instead, they proposed to split the realm in three.

The actors also asked how the conflict could have been avoided. How can we rise above that which divides us? They saw Prince Hal, the king’s heir apparent in Henry IV, as a promising example of the power of empathy. Hal walks through all three worlds depicted in the play — the court, the rebellion and the tavern (that is, the masses). “When Hal becomes king, in “King Henry V,” he’s a very popular king. He knows how to act because he’s seen England from so many perspectives,” Satya noted. Meena, age 12, added, “Seeing different worlds gives you insight. You can then make your choices based on how they’ll affect other people. That’s what Prince Hal is able to do throughout the play.”

With little input from the adults in the room, the actors covered all this ground in just half an hour. They concluded their discussion with personal life lessons they’d drawn from the play:

“People can change” — Lola, age 12.

“Don’t believe everything people say” — Alex, age 9.

“I get upset, lose control. I’ve learned from Hotspur to see the effects of that” — Nola, age 12

“I learned from the tavern to always keep a good sense of humor” — Lucy, age 10

Jon Lackman has written for The New York Times Magazine, Wired, Harper’s, and The New Yorker.


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