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.

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