Graham Abbey drew a wonderful three-part assignment at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival this season: playing the young, irresponsible Prince Hal in both sections of Henry IV, the greatest of all historical dramas, and then playing him again, in a different theatre for a different director, as Hal takes his place on the throne and conquers France in Henry V.
The result, for most of the summer, was as rewarding as everyone had hoped. Then the atrocity of Sept. 11 suddenly gave Shakespeare's words a disquieting new subtext. Graham Abbey began his Henry season in peacetime and will end it in wartime, with the last performance of Henry V on Nov. 4.
Henry IV makes engaging entertainment partly because Shakespeare draws parallels between kingship and the lives most people live; as dissolute Hal turns into brave Henry, he touches every father and every son in the theatre. Henry V, a different matter entirely, is a great war play: Laurence Olivier's 1944 movie version was produced as a morale-booster. It's not a simple war play, however. It calls England to arms but doesn't ignore the barbarism that accompanies war or the self-deceptions of rulers. Henry becomes a brutal soldier who kills prisoners, and we learn that his chief victory will soon turn to failure. As Chorus reminds us, the France that Henry won will be handed back by England soon after his death.
But those aspects of the plays matter less than the core themes, leadership and personal transformation. And as it happens, those themes have become unusually relevant since Sept. 11.
Except for the terrorism itself, this remarkable autumn has brought nothing more remarkable than the transformation of George W. Bush. He's a 21st-century Prince Hal, a callow and unformed figure who before our astonished eyes has been turning into the dedicated and poised captain of the West. Like Hal, the young George W. was an excessively fun-loving fellow who lived in the shadow of a powerful father. Like Hal, he took his father's place.
Yet becoming President (by a narrow margin that required judicial certification) did not noticeably enlarge him. In office, he was slow to command authority. For one thing, he couldn't speak properly. At times his language skills, as they say in public school, seemed nearly as limited as those of Dwight Eisenhower, president from 1953 to 1961, a notoriously incompetent speaker.
With George W. Bush something quite different has happened. The horror of Sept. 11, perhaps combined with the shakiness of his own first response, has somehow annealed him. He emerged from the early days like the reborn Hal, a man of confidence and passion. Almost overnight, it seemed, he acquired mastery of himself and the subjects he had to speak about. At his most important press conference, he spoke off the cuff for more than half an hour without misplacing a fact or (this was the really startling part) mispronouncing a word. It was almost magical, as if a good fairy had visited him at the moment of crisis, bringing the gift of tongues.
As Shakespeare knew, a monumental challenge will sometimes draw astonishing performances from people considered unpromising, revealing talents even their mothers never guessed at. It is a miracle we read about often but seldom witness.
Or did President Bush, like Prince Hal, have a secret all along? Was he hiding his essential self, as Hal did, until the moment he chose to reveal it? In his first half-year, people said he didn't work hard. Can that have been a sham? Eisenhower had his office release a daily account of his schedule that omitted a multitude of crucial meetings, a deception that was revealed when scholars studied his office logs decades later. He liked being thought easygoing, even a touch lazy.
Thoughts about the nature of the current war and the current leadership are unavoidable while watching Henry V. It happened that an evening performance fell on Sept. 12, and Mr. Abbey found himself playing before a shell-shocked audience that included many Americans who wanted to go home but were trapped by the closed border. He spoke briefly at the end of the evening, feeling that the occasion required words of sympathy for the victims of the attack. Since then he's felt a special sort of electricity in the theatre, an unusually vibrant connection between audience and play. I felt it too. I saw it recently with what must be the most attentive student audience in my memory.
As Mr. Abbey told me the other day, he thought he heard echoes of Shakespeare while listening to a Bush radio address recently: "The Bush thing is very much like Hal -- they're both people put in a situation of leadership that changes them." Perhaps similar pressures change actors, too. Recent history has inserted itself into Mr. Abbey's performance. When he speaks Henry's lines about the atrocities of the French he feels some of the anger he felt on Sept. 11. He, too, may have grown. Friends of mine who saw him last spring said that, while he was fine as Prince Hal in both parts of Henry IV, he wasn't strong enough for Henry V. But when I saw him last week he gave a performance of real power. He seemed to inhabit the part comfortably, the way George W. Bush now inhabits, to the world's surprise, the White House.