Henry to present at British Shakespeare conference

Dennis Henry
Dennis Henry

Henry to present at British Shakespeare conference

calendar icon03 Jun 2013    

Dennis Henry, a graduate Directing for Stage and Screen student in the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film from San Diego, Calif., has been selected to participate in the 15th annual British Graduate Shakespeare Conference June 6-8 at The Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.

“Attending the British graduate Shakespeare student conference and presenting his research will be an important opportunity for Dennis Henry and also will bring acclaim to the University of Nebraska and his graduate program,” said Carole Levin, Willa Cather Professor of History and Director of UNL’s Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program.

Henry, who has a minor in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, was nominated by UNL’s Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program to represent them at this conference. He has received a Hixson-Lied Student Presentation of Scholarly/Creative Activity Grant, as well as funding from the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film, to attend.

“I’m very excited,” Henry said. “I’ve never been to Stratford-upon-Avon before, so just to be able to go there, alone, is exciting, let alone be able to present at the conference.”

Making a case for the heart

Henry will be presenting his paper, titled “A Case for the Heart in a Pro-Anus World,” on his research into the location of the King of France’s physical ailment in Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well.”

A major plot point in the play involves the King being sick and then cured by a young woman, Helena, in exchange for letting her marry anyone she wants.

“It’s only specifically mentioned in the text that it’s a fistula,” Henry said.

A fistula is defined as the connection of two body cavities or the connection of a body cavity to the skin. Recent scholarship has promoted the idea that the King has a fistula-in-ano (near the rectum) based on the premise that kind of fistula is what Shakespeare’s audience would have been more familiar with.

“I think there’s a case to be made both from the text and theme that it is more of an ailment on the chest,” Henry said.

His research is based on the text itself, which in Act 2 Scene 1 states, “No, no, it cannot be; and yet my heart/Will not confess he owes the malady/That doth my life besiege….”

“It’s a bit dismissed that he’s not really saying it’s the heart that is sick, but I think he is saying that,” Henry said. “From there, the mistakes the King makes in the play tend to be making promises to Helena that she can marry Bertram and not understanding matters of the heart that Bertram is not in love with her. Thematically, it connects up to what the King says, as opposed to some folks who are saying it’s an anal fistula and talk about it being a pun on the title. A malady of the heart goes much more to what Shakespeare was going for, more than just a pun.”

Henry also references two crucial scenes when the King is still sick, but he’s still holding court. There are specific references in the text that he’s not standing.

“So he’s weak, but he’s still in a place where he’s commanding respect and giving eloquent speeches,” Henry said. “I think if it’s something as painful and degrading as an anal fistula that he can’t be in a position where he’s humiliated. In some recent stagings, people have him on all fours or others just have him sitting in a wheelchair-type device with a pad to sit on, which sort of makes it sound more like a hemorrhoid than an anal fistula, which is a deadly and incredibly painful ailment.”

Later, the King meets Helena alone to assess whether or not she can cure him.

“There are moments between them where they end up matching each other’s poetry,” Henry said. “He’s sort of testing her intellect to see if she is someone he can trust with his life. She wins him over, and for him to be sprawled on the floor or in a position where he’s weakened and vulnerable to that state is too extreme for that relationship to be able to happen.”

He also cites the source story of the play, which specifically says “chest.”

Topic of research spurred by devotion to play direction

His interest in this subject began about six years ago, when Henry played the role of the King in a production of “All’s Well That Ends Well” at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va.

“My director let the fistula be near the heart, but there was much discussion around it. Particularly because the executive director of the company is a Shakespeare scholar, and he buys the anal fistula story,” Henry said. “It got me thinking a lot about what did that mean for that. Is it just ‘Who cares? He’s sick and that’s the important thing?’ I think it is important where it is, and that Shakespeare would have been specific about it.”

Henry is looking forward to presenting his research at the conference.

“It’s pushing me to be sure my research is good because I have to take questions afterwards,” he said. “I will have to answer for anything I say, so that’s a real good incentive to do good work.”

Levin praised his paper.

“The paper on the play ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ that Dennis has submitted to the conference is a fine blend of scholarship and artistic development as a director,” Levin said. “By using textual and thematic evidence to argue that the King’s fistula was near his heart rather than near his rectum as is usually presented, means that the scenes in the play in which the King appears must be staged differently, and the whole emotional impact of the play would change. Dennis is very impressive both as a scholar and a practitioner of theatre.”

In addition to other graduate students presenting papers, the conference will feature scholars, such as Renaissance drama expert Martin Wiggins, the University of Kent’s Catherine Richardson and former Head of Letters at Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust Mairi Macdonald. In addition, conference participants will attend a production of “Hamlet” by the Royal Shakespeare Company starring Jonathan Slinger, who will also be speaking about his work at the conference.

“I’m looking forward to getting to know the other folks who are out there and hearing the other presentations to know what issues are being discussed,” Henry said. “Hopefully that influences the next thing I research.”

Looking toward the future

This summer, Henry is directing “Red Line Stories” for the 2013 Nebraska Repertory Theatre Destinations Series, and he is the assistant director for “Emma” for the Nebraska Rep.

Next Fall, he is directing his thesis play, “Silence” by Moira Buffini.

“It’s set in England in 1000 A.D., so going way back, there’s been a lot of research I’m doing for that,” Henry said.

Henry hopes his future career will include acting, directing, teaching and research.

“My degree here is in directing,” he said. “Directing is really a spot where those two worlds meet—scholarly research and acting. I’ve always worked as an actor and have been interested in the research. Directing brings that together because you have to know what you’re talking about if you’re going to put something on stage, especially if it ends up being something historical.”