Wednesday, 16 December 2015

This essay analyses the sequence of seven plays by William Shakespeare known variously as the Modern Histories, the American Plays or the Nixoniad. Written by Shakespeare between 1971 and 1976, some during his extended stay in New York from 1969 to 1974 and the rest after his return to England, the American Plays cover roughly three decades of US history - Harry Truman Part 1 opens with the news of the death of Truman's predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt, in 1945, and the final play in the sequence, Richard Nixon, covers Nixon's second term in office, ending in 1974.

The American Plays represent a sustained creative effort of extraordinary proportions. The History Plays match them in scope and ambition, covering the whole period of the Wars of the Roses from the reign of Richard II to the death of Richard III, and were produced in just ten years - Shakespeare's "golden decade" from 1955 to 1964, during which he also wrote many of his best-known works, including The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream. But from late 1970 or early 1971, when he began work on Eisenhower, to the completion of Richard Nixon in June 1976, Shakespeare wrote nothing but the American Plays. Only in 1977 did he forsake history to return to tragic and comic subjects, with themes of exile and return - reflecting his New York experience - running through late masterpieces like Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, Twelfth Night and (most of all) The Tempest.

But the roots of the Nixoniad go back well before Shakespeare arrived in Manhattan in November or December 1969 and became part of the theatre company organised (and funded) by New York City's powerful mayor, John Lindsay or Linsey, and known universally as Alleyn's Men after its manager and director, Edward "Woody" Alleyn.

[This project is now complete; if you enjoyed it, try "The Cave of White Water", a historical novel set in the early 20th century.] 

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

William Shakespeare was born on 25 April 1927 in Stratford-upon-Avon, the second of three children. He was educated at the King's Free School, a respectable grammar school in Stratford, but did not excel academically. By 1941, his father John was writing to his elder sister Elizabeth (then serving with the Land Army in Sussex) to express his irritation at the fourteen-year-old William's poor performance. It is safe therefore to assume that it was mediocre exam results rather than poverty which prevented him from attending university - his father, a prosperous shopkeeper, was far from poor, and, indeed, his younger brother Tom studied at Birmingham University from 1947 to 1951, presumably at his parents' expense.

The outbreak in 1939 of the War of the German Succession was perhaps less disruptive for the Shakespeares than for many other English families. John was too old to be conscripted, and William and Tom (born 1929), of course, too young - Elizabeth was the only Shakespeare to serve during the war. But William's lack of a university place meant that, in December 1945 - just a few months after the Spanish surrender - he was called up for two years' National Service in the Royal Artillery. He served first in Catterick in Yorkshire and then as part of the occupation forces, the British Army of the Ebro, before receiving his discharge in November 1947.

 National Service was, of course, a formative experience for almost all Englishmen (and indeed for many Englishwomen) of Shakespeare's generation. But after his discharge, when he moved to London to pursue ambitions of acting, he would have found himself an outsider in two important areas. First, his service had been in peacetime - and in London,still showing the scars of its battering by the bombs of the Armada, even the children could have felt themselves to have more military experience than him. And second, he was joining a theatrical community whose star directors, actors and writers had almost without exception been educated together, either at university or at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Fortunately, Shakespeare had one vital acquaintance on whom to draw - Christopher Marlowe, his friend, inspiration, model and rival for the next fifteen years. Marlowe, Shakespeare's elder by eight years, had all the advantages Shakespeare lacked. A Cambridge graduate, where he had shone academically, Marlowe had been called up in 1940 and (after training with the Artists' Rifles) soldiered for four years in the Low Countries, the Palatinate and France, finishing the war as a Captain of Intelligence. The two men had become friends during the long, dull months of occupation duty in Spain - no relationship would ever be more important to Shakespeare than his friendship with "Kind Kit", and his grief when Marlowe was killed in New York in 1962 is reflected not only in his Sonnets 91 and 94, but in the eulogy (ostensibly for Henry V) which Shakespeare put in the mouths of the grieving Royal Dukes in the opening scene of Henry VI Part I, first performed in early 1963, two months after Marlowe's death. Hero in battle, orator, beloved friend and inspiration - Shakespeare may not have modelled the live Prince Hal on his friend, but Bedford and Gloster's words were without doubt meant to apply to Marlowe as much as to the dead King.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Henry VI Part I opens Shakespeare's account of the Wars of the Roses, and it does so with a funeral - a trope which Shakespeare was to reuse, of course, in the Nixoniad, with Truman's eulogy for his dead predecessor Roosevelt dominating Act I of Harry Truman Part 1 , and serving (along with the Chorus) to introduce the rest of Roosevelt's court, White, Marshall, Stettin, Morgenthal and Forrestal. Harry Truman Part I also introduces a theme which Shakespeare had already explored in Richard III and would return to in Julius Caesar, Othello, Macbeth and Coriolanus - the dangerous idleness of the ambitious military man in time of peace. Although the character who embodies this best in the entire cycle, the "high-reaching Emperor" General MacArthur, remains off-stage for virtually the whole of Harry Truman Part 1, Shakespeare makes him a constant subject of conversation, and thus ensures that his presence is felt throughout the play's action, a counterpoint to the deepening tension between Truman and the Soviet bloc, which contributes so much to the play's atmosphere of gloom and anxiety. Shakespeare's Truman is much more than simply a man out of his depth - in his Act II conversation with Marshall in particular, Shakespeare gives Truman the political upper hand against Marshall's ponderously virtuous pronouncements - but he remains, throughout Harry Truman Part I, a man who feels himself, as he exclaims to Bess in Act IV, "besieged, hemmed in by shadows", an ominous echo of the final speech of the dying Forrestal in his 'mad scene' in Act III Scene 4 - "I am embayed/ The waves, by shadows urged, dash on my hull/ And bear me wholly under!"

As in his other history plays, Shakespeare takes liberties with the chronology. Much of the intrigue in the Washington plot he drew from Caro's Chronicles of the American Presidents (as he would for subsequent plays in the Nixoniad), but in reality Forrestal's collapse and death occurred in 1949. Shakespeare shifts it back by at least a year, to use it as a harbinger of the play's climactic sequence of blows to the embattled Truman in Act V - the news of the Russian atom bomb test, the (reported) assassination of John of Bohemia, and the public downfall of White. This scene, more than any other, sets up both the central theme and the central character of the Modern Histories - Truman's hesitant and agonised condemnation of White's treachery is contrasted with the ruthless determination of White's prosecutors, a theme to which Shakespeare would return at greater length in Harry Truman Part II, contrasting Truman not only with MacArthur but with Eisenhower. And prominent among White's prosecutors, of course, the audience is introduced for the first time to Richard Nixon, who will come over the course of the sequence to embody this determination, both in his rise to office and his eventual downfall. Lifting a line from White's hopeless defence of his actions in the final scene of the play, the Scottish left-wing political historian Iain Banks called his history of the period Use of Weapons. The central conflict of the entire Nixoniad, Shakespeare implies, is over the willingness to abandon convention and precedent, and use every weapon available to win. And Truman, and his heirs, are damned from the start by Truman's original sin - his decision, made immediately after Roosevelt's funeral, to use atomic weapons to attack Manila and Batavia in order to finish the war against Spain. This ultimate 'use of weapons' will haunt Truman and his successors throughout the entire sequence.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Harry Truman Part I is the first of the Modern Histories by internal chronology, and was the first to be produced (in February 1971) but it is not, or at least is probably not, the first to be written.  Eisenhower was not performed until January the following year, but references in Alleyn's diaries suggest that Shakespeare had arrived in New York in late 1969 with a rough draft of the play already all but finished. Why, in that case, was the first performance of Eisenhower not for another two years? Why did Shakespeare put aside the draft to begin, presumably from scratch, to write about Truman?

In the absence of conclusive evidence we can only speculate. The most obvious explanation is the political one - in the highly-charged environment of New York in the early 1970s, Shakespeare could have been wary of making his first attempt on the New York stage with a play about a Republican president - especially since Richard Nixon, already widely disliked in the city, would have necessarily been a prominent character as Eisenhower's vice-president. Truman simply made a more sympathetic character for his likely audience. In 1970 Shakespeare wrote little else that survives, and certainly writing Harry Truman Part I , the shortest of the Nixoniad plays, would not have taken him more than a few months. The tempting conclusion is that he was redrafting his London Eisenhower root and branch for most of his first year in New York, starting work on Truman in response to growing pressure from Alleyn only in September or October of 1970.

What form the redrafting took is unknown. It is possible that he was rewriting the part of Nixon to make the character strong enough to support the entire sequence of Modern History plays - the prominence given to Nixon in Harry Truman Part I suggests that this project may already have been in Shakespeare's mind, even though Nixon's eventual downfall was still years in the future. Hunter Thompson, the notorious journalist and author, wrote at the time that "Nixon was the dark heart of the American beast", and Shakespeare is known to have been an admirer of Thompson, even borrowing Thompsonesque phrases to give to the scabrous Prologuist of Lyndon Johnson Part III. If Shakespeare had always intended to write a Modern History cycle about postwar America, then, even in 1969, there was only one possible character for him to put at its centre. Certainly, had he any such ambitions in 1970, he would have kept them to himself - Alleyn, and still more the players of Alleyn's company, would hardly have tolerated an author who announced that his dream was to write seven plays about the rise to power of America's own Richard Crookback.

He may also have begun work on John Kennedy. The extant play by that name, though pseudonymous, is certainly contemporaneous with Shakespeare's time in New York, and written in Shakespeare's style; and for many years after Shakespeare's death it was ascribed to him. The first production of the entire Nixoniad, produced by Trevor Nunn in 1994, included John Kennedy in its chronological place.  But subsequent scholarship has cast doubt on the attribution. The play, computerised vocabulary analysis reveals, is almost certainly the work of three authors - with Shakespeare contributing the least of the three. Contemporary references to a masque called The Tragedy of John Kennedy (a masque was a type of play fashionable at the time in the US with a narrator or narrators commenting on the actions of a cast performing in mime), produced by Alleyn's company in 1971, with Alleyn, a keen narrator of masques, in the lead, provide a clue. The author of the 1971 masque is not known, but Shakespeare is the likeliest candidate.

Most scholars now believe that the extant Kennedy we have today simply took some speeches out of the mouth of the narrator of Shakespeare's 1970-71 Tragedy and added them to a structure produced by other authors, most probably Fletcher and another collaborator. The nature of a masque meant that its success depended as much on the narrator's ability to improvise around the script - a skill at which Alleyn excelled - as on the script itself, and so, even had the Tragedy survived, we would have little idea of how Shakespeare and Alleyn intended it to be performed. There is no record of a second production run of the Tragedy after 1971- and the script for Shakespeare's masque, the only one he ever wrote, was almost certainly burned, with so much else, in August 1985.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Harry Truman Part II is its predecessor's opposite in several respects. Part I's plot is many-threaded, and its cast almost the largest of any of the Modern Histories - only the massive Lyndon Johnson Part II has more named characters. Part II focusses almost all its attention on its three leads - Truman himself, Marshall, and MacArthur - and its plot, although it leaps from Washington to Japan to Korea, is simple: the course of the Korean War, from its outbreak to the relief of MacArthur.

Unlike Part I, but like some of Shakespeare's earlier histories, Harry Truman Part II includes a bye-plot - a device of which Shakespeare was particularly fond in his war plays (Henry IV Part II and Henry V for example). Martin, Lowell and Hart, the three marines whose fireside conversations in Korea act as a counterpoint to the scenes of the main plot, are less broadly comic than Falstaff, Pistol, Nym and the rest - but they are close to Bates, Court and Williams in Henry V, whose arguments with the disguised King Henry over the justice of war and the responsibility of a commander in Henry V IV.i are echoed in the exchanges between the marines at Sinuiju in II.iv of Harry Truman Part II, and the (ahistorical) meeting between Ridgway and the three marines after the Chosin Retreat in IV.ii. The characters of Ree and Kim, the marines' Korean porters, are more broadly comic. They are rightly viewed as problematic, especially since Shakespeare's Korean War is otherwise completely devoid of Asian voices, but it would be wrong to dismiss them as mere caricatures; in particular, in III.iv, Kim's marvelling at the scope of the war - "there would seem little enough food here to glut so many eager fighting men" - and Ree's reminiscences of his "house/Hard by the river's bank" certainly raise them above the level of racial stereotype which their interactions with the marines would otherwise suggest.

But it is for the interaction between its three main characters that Harry Truman Part II is rightly celebrated. There are few two-handed scenes anywhere in Shakespeare that give greater scope to the actors than the Wake Island scene (III.i), with MacArthur veering from towering mania to hysterical petulance, and Truman slowly gaining ground from his overawed entry to his final understated moment of steely determination. (Kenneth Branagh famously described his irritation at being a Shakespearean actor who was "too young to play MacArthur and too old to play Hamlet".)

 And while MacArthur's lines on victory ("The crown of crowns - within our grasp/ Dared we but reach for it!") have been misused by politicians of every stripe, the play's audience is left in no doubt who has won the debate when, in III.iii, Truman and Marshall meet to discuss for the first time how MacArthur is to be deposed.

As does Macbeth, the text of Harry Truman Part II contains tantalising clues that the original version may well have been longer. It is unusually short for a history play, the second-shortest of any of the Nixoniad plays, and Nixon himself does not appear in it - odd, if we are right to assume that Shakespeare was already contemplating a sequence of Nixon-plays as early as the production of Harry Truman Part I. Marshall makes several oblique references to the unrest in Congress, which are not tied to any extant scene, and the rousing speech given by Ridgway in IV.iv is not followed by a battle scene, as similar speeches are in Henry V, Henry IV Part I, Richard III and others. Bess Truman, too, appears only once, briefly, in Act III, referring back to the "counsel of unvarying purpose" she has (presumably) given Harry offstage immediately before.

 Many scholars have hypothesised from this that the original version contained at least three scenes which were cut out before production - the "Committee Scene" between II.ii and II.iii, presumably featuring Nixon, the "Bess Scene" before III.ii and the "Battle Scene" between IV.iv and V.i. No credible versions of any of these scenes have, however, survived to the present.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Harry Truman Part II was staged for the first time on 11 November 1971 - Veterans' Day in the US. Part I, earlier the same year, had brought Alleyn's Men only moderate success, with the diarist (and rival impresario) Ed Sullivan noting that "Alleyn's latest show about Truman is a fine achievement and rings true to those of us who lived through it - but he surely makes the audience work for their supper". But Alleyn gave Shakespeare his unquestioned backing for the second part of Truman's story.

His reward was immense. Truman Two, as the broadsheets quickly named it, was staged at the Empire Theater and ran for six months. Alleyn hurriedly capitalised on its success to re-stage Harry Truman Part I, with a new cast brought in, ironically, largely from Sullivan's own troupe, the Lincoln Company, and backed both by Alleyn's patron, New York mayor Robert Lindsay, and by Sullivan's own patron, local grandee Averell Harriman, who may also have given some financial support to Alleyn's production of Harry Truman Part II.

And it is very possible that Harriman's involvement was behind the play's last-minute abridgement. Backing a play in which Truman outdid the right-wing icon MacArthur would be bold, but not fatal. Backing a play which included, as a villain, a representation of the serving president would have meant an end of Harriman's treasured status as elder statesman, and set him up as an open enemy of Nixon. Even in its abridged form, Truman Two was interpreted as a commentary on the Indochinese War then in its eighth year. Embittered marines and deranged generals were a common theme for the satirical performers of the Island, as New York's club-theatre world was known: one of them (Alan Alda) played the marine Hart in the original production of Harry Truman Part II. The characters of Ridgway and MacArthur would certainly have been interpreted by New York audiences as referring to (or contrasting with) contemporary military leaders, and Truman's ability to face down MacArthur would underline Nixon's perceived failure to impose a winning strategy on his generals in Indochina

This would be Harriman and Sullivan's only joint production with Alleyn and Shakespeare - with Alleyn's support now assured, Shakespeare spent the next few months putting the finishing touches to his much-rewritten Eisenhower. The title character had not appeared in either Truman, giving the writer-director a free hand in casting him. While established members of Alleyn's company carried on their roles from Truman (the veteran Canadian actor Marcus Shepherd White as Marshall and the young Welsh tragedian Anthony Hopkins as Nixon, for example), Shakespeare successfully entreated the star of so many of his Globe productions to cross the Atlantic to play Eisenhower. Richard Burbage was about to embark on his short and tempestuous career on the American stage.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

The core of Eisenhower is a single brief scene - the Blair House conversation, III.i, between Eisenhower and Truman. In what is otherwise one of the weaker plays of the Nixoniad, lacking the drama of Harry Truman Part II and Richard Nixon or the strong characterisation of Lyndon Johnson Part II, this scene stands out - and serves as the best and most explicit exposition of the central conflict of the entire play, tying its theme directly to Nixon for the first time.

Truman has summoned Eisenhower to ask him to run as the Democratic candidate for president, with Truman's backing. Unknown to Truman, but not to the audience, Eisenhower has already agreed with Republican leaders to run as their candidate, with Nixon as the candidate for vice-president; he meets Truman, therefore, suspecting what Truman is going to ask, and already knowing that he will turn it down, but (perhaps) curious about Truman's way of thinking. In two long speeches, almost soliloquising, with only brief interjections from Eisenhower, Truman sums up his presidency; the decision to use nuclear weapons in 1945, the stalemated war in Korea, the undermining of his adminstration harking back to the downfall of White (seen in Harry Truman Part I ) and the disloyalty of MacArthur. Eisenhower at first joins in this reminiscence, relating his own memories of the aftermath of the bombing of Manila (an invention by Shakespeare; the historical Eisenhower never visited Manila). He then, with shocking brutality, attacks Truman's weakness in agonising about his various decisions. "Not for an instant had I stayed my hand" if the choice of nuclear weapon use had been his, he tells Truman.

The speech is a startling change of tone in a scene which, until this point, has resembled nothing more than the Rose Garden scene between Truman and Marshall in Act II of Harry Truman Part I. Even Eisenhower's vocabulary is, until this point, deliberately similar to Marshall - the sudden shift from bland agreement to direct conflict underlines the difference between Marshall the noble and loyal elder statesman and Eisenhower the smooth and subtle plotter. It's a device Shakespeare would use again, of course, with the shift in Hamlet from Polonius the doddering purveyor of moralisms to Polonius the conniving accomplice of Claudius.

Eisenhower upbraids the tortured Truman as morally weak. In the European campaign, he tells him, he dealt with men "more highly-minded and more soaring proud" even than MacArthur - his generals in the European campaign - and "made them bend to harness/ Or broke them in the bending". Eisenhower, in this speech, embodies the total-war philosophy that White bemoans in his "use of weapons" speech in Act V of Harry Truman Part I - no ally is too proud or aggressive to use, no weapon too destructive to wield.

Nixon is never mentioned by name in the scene, but the reference back to White's words is clear - the latest weapon which Eisenhower has decided to use is White's persecutor.

Truman's decision to withdraw from the campaign follows in the next scene - another invention by Shakespeare; historically, Truman fully intended to run until after his defeat in the New Hampshire primary. And, in his discussion with Bess in the following scene, he uses almost exactly the same words which Shakespeare will give to Lyndon Johnson in the same position in Lyndon Johnson Part III - "the road too hard, cold wind and little ease/ The load too great to bear" compared with Johnson's "set down, set down, the load you long have bore/ Lift now your tread from off the awful road" as he talks himself into standing down from re-election sixteen years later.

History rhymes for Shakespeare; the return of the exiled York in Richard II heralds his son's failed plot in Henry V and points the way for a later York's grab for power in Henry VI Part I, and Richard's murderous ambition in Richard III. Every generation, as he tells it, throws up a new ambitious Plantagenet, warrior-like, tender towards perceived insults and jealous of his rights. In the same way, he constructs the Nixoniad in two halves, with Truman's agonies of indecision echoed by the ghost-haunted Johnson, and Eisenhower's all-in approach to both war and politics epitomised in Nixon.