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Collection Connections: ‘A Bright Ray of Darkness’

Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, Folger staff provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, Dr. Emma Poltrack shares the items she presented on April 1, 2021 as an introduction to A Bright Ray of Darkness by Ethan Hawke. Discussion questions from the evening can be found here.


Ethan Hawke’s A Bright Ray of Darkness, follows William Harding, an actor navigating a crumbling marriage. As he struggles with personal demons, the novel takes us through the rehearsal process and production run for his performance as Hotspur in King Henry IV on Broadway.  Harding’s experience—drawing from Hawke’s own performance in the role for a 2003 Lincoln Center production—provides a number of different intersections with the plays’ performance history.

Histories were immensely popular on the early modern stage, and we see evidence of this in the printing history of the two parts of King Henry IV. Both appeared in quarto—18 of Shakespeare’s plays did not and only survived through their inclusion in the 1623 Folio—with the more popular Part 1 getting a whopping nine editions between 1598 and 1640, including two within the first year of print. This popularity is further seen in the plays’ English performance history. Theaters may have been closed after the English Civil War, but “drolls” featuring Falstaff continued to be performed, and the plays largely escaped the heavy Restoration-rewrites of some of Shakespeare’s other works.

Two pages showing early modern secretary writing; on the left is a small scrap of paper with three columns of names and a pasted bit of modern printed material; on the right, the writing out of the openning of Henry IV part 1 with edits made in a second hand
Copy of The history of King Henry the Fourth, after 1598. ca. 1623. Folger Shakespeare Library: V.b.34

One common way the plays have been edited through time is by cutting and combining both parts into a single production, as is the case in A Bright Ray of Darkness. This practice dates back to at least 1623, when Sir Edward Dering prepared a combination script for what seems to have been an amateur, at-home performance with family and friends. Dering was a big fan of theater, frequently attending and amassing a large collection of playbooks (including two First Folios). A scrap of paper inserted into the manuscript shows a provisional cast list for another pick-up production, this one of John Fletcher’s The Spanish Curate.

Intriguingly, much of what Dering cut involved Falstaff, who has otherwise enjoyed a lengthy run as one of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters. In A Bright Ray of Darkness, Falstaff is played by Virgil Smith, a towering star of stage and screen who rubs most of the cast the wrong way. A real-life Falstaff with co-star problems was James Henry Hackett, an American actor who enjoyed success in the role during the mid-19th century.  A story goes that, while performing in Edinburgh, a disgruntled cast member punctured the prosthetic stomach that Hackett wore for the role of the fat knight, resulting in an increasingly skinnier Falstaff as the performance drew on. The audience was delighted, but we can only assume Hackett was less than thrilled.

Falstaff continued, and continues, to be a focal point in performance, but other elements have had their moment in the sun. William Macready’s performance as Hotspur in 1815—a role he would continue to perform for the next 30 years—helped inspire an interest in the play’s historical action. Other notable Hotspurs include Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Humphrey Bogart, and, of course, Ethan Hawke. David Graham Jones and Tyler Fauntleroy have both taken on the role for Folger Theatre.

A large document with a wavy top edge and a seal hanging from the bottom, written tightly in early modern secretary hand
An indenture leasing to Bonetti a messuage and some adjoining pieces of property, part of which “did belong to the tenement late in the tenure of John lillie gentleman and nowe in the tenure of the said Rocho Bonetti”. Signed by Bonetti. March 20, 1584/85. Folger Shakespeare Library: L.b.352

In addition to battling a wrecked voice, Harding also had some very literal battles to navigate on stage as Hotspur. Multiple references to and scenes involving stage combat pepper Hawke’s novel, and it’s no wonder—”they fight” is a fairly popular Shakespearean stage direction. Early modern audiences had a taste for seeing theatrical fights. Actors looking to hone their skills had the option of learning from a fencing master at a fencing school, such as the one run by Italian Rocco Bonetti at the Blackfriars. Some speculate that this was the school favored by Shakespeare’s company, and possibly even Shakespeare himself.

Hawke’s novel presents a stirring portrait of what it is like to rehearse and perform Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, contributing in its own way to the performance history of this complex set of plays. To explore all of the items from the discussion, visit the collection on LUNA.


Shakespeare bust with glassesRegistration for the May 6 session on Madeline Miller’s Circe opens Tuesday, April 6. We hope you make a plan to join us!

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