September 1, 2013

All the Falstaffs among us

I, Your Humble Blogger, begin my series of posts about Virginia Opera's 2013-2014 slate of productions with this entry, the first of several about my favorite opera, Verdi's Falstaff.

During the next few weeks you'll discover why I love this sublime comedy so very much. This week, though, I want to introduce you to the character himself: Sir John Falstaff, one of the great, great inventions of Western literature. The old rascal has a number of ancestors, and an even larger family of descendants, both in fiction and in real life.
Gov. Chris Ch--- uh, I mean Sir John Falstaff

How to describe Falstaff? Well, as we find him in the three Shakespearean plays in which he's featured as well as in the masterful libretto Arrigo Boito prepared for Verdi, he is:
  • a glutton
  • a hard drinker
  • a liar
  • a thief
  • lazy
  • obese
  • lecherous
  • delusional in his personal vanity and self-image as a great lover
  • a bully on occasion
  • a braggart
  • a coward in times of perceived danger
  • scornful of the moral values of conventional society
  • utterly incapable of remorse for his misdeeds
  • and, in the end, a man of wit; a good companion when he chooses to be; oddly likeable
His likeability stems from the fact that he seldom gets away with his low-life carousing. His schemes and plans tend to end up as epic failures; when that happens, and this is key, he manages to retain his dignity and join in the laughter - even that at his own expense.

His ancestors are several. When it comes to fictional comic characters it is always useful to look to the Commedia dell'Arte,  the tradition of improvised comic plays which traveled from town to town in renaissance Italy. In the various stock characters of those troupes are found most of the comic types inhabiting our own modern sit-coms and films.

Falstaff, it seems to me, combines the traits of two of the clowns of the Commedia dell'Arte: Brighella and Pulcinella. Brighella is typically described as a rogue who would do anything for money and is a cowardly villain, though (of course) a comic villain. Pulcinella, on the other hand, is a girl-chaser who is a humpback with a crooked nose; in other words, repulsive to women. Substitute Falstaff's fat stomach for Pulcinella's humpback and they are a fair match. In the English folk-festival tradition, Falstaff relates to a figure known as the Lord of Misrule, who presided over winter Solstice rites in which behavioral norms were temporariily ignored, a practice dating back to the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia.

Scholars have speculated about several real-life characters Shakespeare may have had in me ind in creating the Falstaff of the Henry IV  plays, including a fellow named John Oldcastle; apparently in early versions of the plays Prince Hal's drinking companion was called Oldcastle before the name Falstaff appeared. In any case, as with most fictional characters, Sir John is most likely a composite of several real men with whom the Bard was familiar, apart from his derivation from stock Italian clowns.

So let's consider the list of traits above and see if there are any candidates for a "Falstaff of the Modern Age". I've got a few, though none are perfect matches. Try these:
  • Norm, the barfly from the sit-com Cheers. Like Falstaff, he's large of girth, seldom leaves his favorite tavern, is chronically lazy, but is also good for a laugh; a good drinking buddy. Just lacks the bully/thief thing. Come to think of it, if you could blend Norm's character traits with the puffed-up vanity of his fellow Cheers patron Dr. Frasier Crane, the two together would make a splendid composite Falstaff!
  • Fred Sanford from the vintage show Sanford and Son, the character played by Redd Fox. In this case, Fred's upstanding son Lamont is the Prince Hal (younger, more potential) to his Dad's Falstaff. Fred is a rogue who will get away with anything he can, always after a quick buck, a braggart, and not above the occasional untruth.
  • For a real life example, I can't help but think of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. His claims to Falstaff-ness? Well, lapband or not, there's the matter of his appetites and his size; in addition, he's fine with using the tactics of browbeating and intimidation in dealing with opponents. And then there's the fact that he's generally seen as a likeable galoot, even by those opponents.
  • Here's one from left field: Mr. Ed, the talking horse. For one thing, everyone knows that horses are fond of beer, though I don't recall Ed imbibing on camera. But he's very Falstaffian in the way he cons and manipulates his own personal "Bardolph", his owner Wilbur.
  • From Broadway there's always Alfred P. Doolittle from My Fair Lady. Fond of taverns and liquid refreshment? Check. Big blowhard? Check. Ignoring the social mores of society at large? Big check.
  • Then there's Fagin from the musical Oliver!. He's got the thieving act down pat as well as the lack of remorse for any and all misdeeds. Is he a little creepier than Falstaff? Maybe just a hair...
  • What do most of the nominees above lack? The lecherous, womanizing element. For that, let's turn to Vince Vaughn's character in the 2005 film Wedding Crashers. That would be Jeremy Grey, an unrepentant womanizer. In his comically vulgar approach to life he's a budding Falstaff; especially since once he's the age of Verdi's Falstaff, he'll have put on weight and have that repulsive thing going for him as well.
  • Can there be a female Falstaff? Why not? Let's go with Karen Walker, the hard-drinking character on the sitcom Will and Grace. As played by actress Megan Mullally, Karen was tipsy, a bully to her maid Rossario, and fairly amoral - yet likeable! Put 25 more pounds on her and we've got us a Falstaff-ette!
  • One more: Dr. Gregory House, of the TV drama House M.D. He'd be perfect --- if he wasn't so darn skinny. But really now: a lecherous womanizer not above consorting with prostitutes; a man with no use for religion or conventional morality; a good companion to his friends like Dr. Wilson; a guy with substance abuse problems of his own; a man of great wit and humor, often laced with cynicism. Think about it: imagine Shakespeare's Falstaff seeing patients in the free clinic at Princeton-Plainsboro Hospital. Don't you imagine his bedside manner would be just as caustically blunt and rude as Dr. House's. You betcha.
Those are my candidates for "Falstaff of our times". Got some of your own? Leave 'em in the comments section below!


  1. Shaggy and Scooby...Eddie Izzard did a great bit once where he compared Shaggy and Scooby to Falstaff...

    1. Ah! I commend you on your pop-culture literacy. I missed that one.

  2. Glenn,

    "During the next few weeks you'll discover why I love this sublime comedy so very much"


    As a rabid Falstaff addict myself I look forward to reading your commentary.

    1. Ah Genevieve, you're a fine fine person, did I ever tell you that? Since I don't know you, probably not. But I like you already.