15 June 2014

Fathers, Sons, and Wars

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about fathers and sons. Recent events, of both private and public varieties, have prompted fresh thoughts about this primordial dynamic. Becoming a parent has a way of re-tuning the mind to see familiar concepts in a new light. Watching my “Darling English Boy” evolve into a “Darling English Dad” has given me a renewed respect for fathers and fatherhood.

Just before the arrival our son, Miles, I became obsessed with family history. I was intrigued to find that my husband descends from an exclusively male lineage on his father’s side. His paternal history, like that every Englishman, is a rich tale of fathers, sons, and wars.

In May 1916, my husband’s grandfather, Russell, enlisted in the Army and joined the British effort in “The Great War”. He was but 19 years of age. Yet, the sure and steady longhand and precise signatures that appear on his enlistment form suggest maturity beyond his tender years.

British Legion 'Poppy Field' in Henley-in-Arden
He gave particular care and attention to the signing of his ‘Oath of Allegiance’. The “t” is most carefully crossed, both “i’s” firmly dotted, and a plump full stop appears definitively to the rear of the concluding character. The document exudes sincerity, duty and pride. Russell was a brave soul, amongst a host of similarly valiant youth that answered the call of King and Country. However, unlike the multitude of his fellow brothers-in-arms, Russell was one of the lucky ones that survived. As Shakespeare puts so well, “This story shall the good man teach his son” (Henry V, 4.3.56).

Shakespeare, of course, knew a thing or two about fathers, sons, and wars. His works are a vast reservoir of engaging stories on this theme. His history plays, in particular, are built upon this foundational concept. Most notably, in Henry the Sixth, part 3, Shakespeare underscores the maddening nature of war through his invention of two tragic and un-named characters, referred to merely as: “A Father who has killed his son” and “A Son who has killed his father.” Time and again, Shakespeare shows us the human cost of national conflicts, and the familial relationships behind the power play.

Recently, I had the good fortune to see Greg Doran’s excellent production of Henry IV, parts 1 and 2 at the RSC. At the heart of this narrative exists the triadic relationship of King Henry, Prince Hal and Falstaff. Troubled son, Hal, turns his back on his duty and his sovereign, by displacing his regal father in favour of a low life surrogate in the figure of Falstaff. In performance this complex choice is played with great, rollicking humour and touching pathos by Jasper Britton (Bolingbroke/King Henry) and Alex Hassell (Prince Hal), with Sir Antony Sher stealing the show as the roly-poly, custardy coward, Falstaff.

Alongside the engaging performances, Doran’s direction is crystal clear, making the grand narrative easy to follow. It was, in very deed, child’s play. I was seated next to a little chap called Gregor Bulmer, aged 8, who was at the theatre with his dad. They huddled together during the ferocious battle scenes, and the young lad was enrapt by the performances from start to finish. As the lights came up, Gregor gave his assessment: “Epic.” I asked if he understood it all, he smiled and said he had.

The epic tales of fathers, sons, and wars will always captivate us and command our attention and respect. And so they should, as we should never forget.  

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