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.


  1. I thought it was generally agreed now that the third hand in John Kennedy was Philip Massinger, although I accept that the older belief that it was Francis Beaumont still has adherents. Massinger was based in Hollywood at the time, where he was known as the go to script doctor for any movie with a political or satirical theme. But he was a close friend and frequent collaborator of Fletcher, and if Fletcher was dissatisfied with Shakespeare's contributions to the play, he would have turned naturally to Massinger to clean it up.

  2. Massinger is a good candidate a priori, but the vocabulary analysis doesn't identify him (or indeed anyone else) as an author with as high a probability as it does Shakespeare and Fletcher.