SALEM — He’s a drunk, a thief, a braggart and a bad influence on the nation’s leaders — yet people have always loved Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff, the aging, hard-living chum of the king’s son.
In a performance at Salem State University this month, Thomas Luddy, 72, will bring to life the iconic knight, a character who can’t be described as bad or good, but who offers a chill warning of what life would be without him.
“Banish plump Jack,” he tells the soon-to-be Henry V, “and banish all the world.” The king will break with him anyway, but not before Luddy gives the audience a demonstration of his roguishly entertaining ways.
A fixture in the school’s English and theater departments, Luddy has made a career of directing and acting in plays both for the school and at local theater groups in Rockport, Boston and Marblehead. Born in North Adams, son of a college teacher, he went to Boston College after high school and later pursued advanced degrees there and at New York University. He has two kids and four grandchildren with his wife, Eileen.
After landing his first teaching job in Salem State’s English department in 1965, he moved quickly to add theater to his responsibilities. Passionate about the arts, he concedes he might have pursued a career in the theater but decided, “It’s hard. You’re on the road all the time.” Even talented performers face long odds in finding success. “There’s room at the top for only a small number of people.”
He got plenty of theater in Salem while serving both art and academia.
“I’ve had an outstanding career,” he said.
As for theater, “It was the process that attracted me.” With so many disciplines involved — writers, directors, actors, costumers, set designers, musicians, crew — it can be organized chaos. “You’re doing all this work, and you don’t know if it’s going to pay off. ... Twenty or thirty egos at work.” It almost seems to require a kind of magic to succeed, he said.
The process is a little different with students, he said, who more readily defer to their teachers. But in playing Falstaff with a young cast, he wants them to react in character, treating him purely as another member of the company, one transformed into the fun-loving reprobate Falstaff, Mr. Bad Example in the flesh.
In his years as a teacher, Luddy said he has seen the quality of the students in the department improve. On the other hand, they face more difficulties.
“Funds have dried up,” he said. He doesn’t expect his charges to get jobs on Broadway or in Hollywood. Rather, many will find employment in other fields, though they will have benefited from their exposure to the arts.
“Many of our students will do local theater,” he said. And learning to communicate clearly is a plus in almost every profession.
Shakespeare offers a particular lesson in being clear, pronouncing the words and honoring both the drama and the poetry. Luddy’s Falstaff avoids a British accent but bows to the knight’s origins with what he calls a “Mid-Atlantic” voice.
“An accent is a barrier to the audience,” he said.
Of course, Shakespeare’s text often includes words that have fallen out of favor or taken on new meanings, which can confuse the audience. But Luddy maintains, “It’s your job to make clear what the unfamiliar word means.”
The script in use for the Salem State performance combines “Henry IV” parts I and II and was previously used on Broadway.
Playing Falstaff can be physically tiring, Luddy said. But it’s also an opportunity, as Falstaff, to give vent to all the weaknesses the character so happily embraces — “all the fun things.” And so, “You try to become the character. You immerse yourself in the character.”
When that works, it shows that, even in the case of an honored college professor, “There is always some of yourself in the character,” he said.
Luddy believes that during a performance, it’s only the character that exists: “We live on the stage. We don’t live anywhere else.”
IF YOU GO What: Staged reading of Shakespeare's "Henry IV" When: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, Feb. 20 to 22 and Feb. 27 to March 1, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, March 2, at 2 p.m. Where: Callan StudioTheatre, Salem State University Cost: $15 general admission, $10 students and seniors. Free with Salem State student ID. Tickets & information: salemstatetickets.com, 978-542-6365