I remember the moment I realized that I was middle-aged. I was taking a course at a nearby community college, and the campus had buildings that were a good distance from the lot where I was parked. I was running a little late, and acted on a sudden impulse to break into a run. The impulse was not unreasonable – it was something I would have done with ease when I was an undergraduate, and something about being on a college campus brought me back to that thoughtless assumption of physical movement. As I broke into a run, I noticed that clumps of young college students were laughing….at me. As I passed by, I heard the unmistakeable giggles and just in case there was any doubt, one male student shouted “Andale!” as I passed. And in a flash I realized that what would have been normal behavior for a 19 year old boy, myself many years earlier, was ridiculous for my middle-aged incarnation – the stout figure, the loss of fluidity and grace.
A few years later, I was discussing The Merry Wives of Windsor with some friends who had just seen a rather listless, unfunny production at a local theater. One of them mentioned “It’s a comedy, for God’s sake.” I replied, “Not if you’re a middle-aged man”, and received a round of appreciative laughter. Laughing with me or at me?
But it’s true. There is a definite band of male existence where hopes, fears, dreams, antipathies, are all irremediably comic. For the young man or the old man, life’s passions are the stuff of romance or tragedy – but within the space of middle age, such expressions are the essence of farce.
In The Merry Wives of Windsor, the great figure of Falstaff epitomizes all the absurdity of desire at a certain age, as the fat knight vigorously and foolishly pursues married women via a single form love letter that he sends around indiscriminately. Even his acolytes, a group of petty, hard-drinking no-accounts, are too embarrassed to be involved in this behavior and desert him in protest. One of the women, Mistress Ford, has an insanely jealous husband (and again, the passions of middle-age are the stuff of comedy as Ford stomps angrily about pursuing his suspicious fantasies.)
In the Argo recording, the male characters are well-represented by veteran character actors – dialect characters Dr. Caius and Parson Evans are ably played by Roy Dotrice and Dudley Jones. But as a group, they soon become an unruly chorus of funny voices. Where everyone is an oddball, no one stands out. Oddly enough. Even Falstaff himself beautifully embodied in all his excess and frothy indignation by Patrick Wymark, is merely the biggest, baddest wacky character, with none of the wit and radiant life force of his counterpart in the two parts of Henry IV, while Ford, in the person of Frank Duncan, is one broad note of hysterical rage, hissing “Cuckold! Cuckold” in notes of strangled fury.
And so the women in the recording come off best. Geraldine McEwan and Angela Baddeley, as the Merry Wives of the title, are bright and funny and nicely distinguished -Baddeley the older of the two, doesn’t take the business seriously enough to be angry, while McEwan uses her youthful charms to teach both Falstaff and husband Ford a lesson neither will forget. Beatrix Lehmann, as Mistress Quickly, provides a deft comic portrayal of an old, note-carrying busybody. And even Ann Page, young object of desire for nearly everyone except Falstaff, shows that she is not your typical ingenue in Susan Maryott’s sweet but sly characterization.
One of the better recordings in the series.
The Merry Wives of Windsor with Patrick Wymark, Geraldine McEwan, Angela Baddeley, Frank Duncan, Roy Dotrice, Dudley Jones, Beatrix Lehman, and Susan Marryot