And Gentlemen in England now abed: Britten, Shakespeare, Olivier

Submitted by Spencer S. Robins
This is a scene from Laurence Olivier’s 1944 adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Henry V. Like Britten’s War Requiem, this film represents a major, public British artist’s attempt to respond to the demands of the Second World War. Both use material drawn from traditional British art – Olivier from Shakespearean theater, Britten from English church music. Both, additionally, were major successes –Henry V was the first commercially successful Shakespeare film, and the first recording of Britten’s requiem sold 200,000 copies. And both are examples of artists without direct experience of war (Olivier was a pilot in the Royal Air Force but did not see combat duty) representing the views of people who have. But they are very different works.
    Britten’s Requiem reflects his deep pacifism. He left Britain for America during World War II, and was widely criticized for it, accused of treacherously abandoning his country in its hour of need. And in the Requiem he goes far beyond mourning Britain’s war dead – he tackles head-on the destructive mindset that he blamed for their deaths. The piece is an angry cry against all who turn to violence as any kind of solution, and finds little to celebrate even in the actions of the soldiers it memorializes.
    Olivier’s film, however, is stridently patriotic in its portrayal of Henry’s war of conquest against the French. The clip I’ve selected emphasizes this aspect of the movie: it includes two of Henry’s most famous and rousing monologues. First, the “St. Crispin’s Day” speech, in which he rallies his outnumbered army with the promise of martial honor; and second, his furious reply to a French herald come to offer peace in exchange for ransom. Olivier was initially uncomfortable with this role’s uncritical patriotism, but found during the war that it was genuinely inspiring to British soldiers. Presumably, its portrayal of heroism in the face of crushing odds contributed to its box-office success.
    What interests me about this movie and Britten’s Requiem is that the British public could so enthusiastically embrace them both, coming as they did from such different places and representing such different approaches to the challenges of war, during and after the war. Olivier’s patriotism and Britten’s pacifism were both important to Britain’s emotional recovery from its struggle, Olivier’s first and Britten’s more than a decade later. I would suggest that, when artists respond to war, they draw on much more than their own experiences and beliefs. Britten and Olivier were both speaking, or trying to speak, for themselves, but for the British public and for individual soldiers as well. The War Requiem would not have been received so well in 1944; and Olivier’s Henry could not have fit in Britain in 1962. So in seeking to understand war through art, we need to look beyond the form and content of the art, and consider its place in the broad and complex process by which societies deal with war.