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.
Eisenhower opened at Alleyn's Theater in January 1972, less than three months after the opening of Harry Truman Part II. But audiences drawn to it in the hope of more of the same would have been disappointed - instead of the heroism of Ridgway and the marines in Korea, they would have seen a far darker view of the military, and in particular of a man whom Americans of all political stripes still regarded with respect bordering on awe. For an English playwright - and an English actor; Burbage took the title role when Eisenhower opened - to portray Eisenhower not as the 'honest Ike' of his public persona, but as a thoroughly ambitious and unscrupulous political animal, and a knowing ally and promoter of the hated Nixon, was a dangerous move.

Or so one would assume. But although Eisenhower, like the rest of the Nixoniad, became unpopular for this reason retrospectively - publicly condemned in the Senate in 1981; its author accused by name in a presidential speech in 1983 as having been part of the 'enemy within' - its initial performance went off fairly quietly by the standards of the day. Burbage's injury forced him to withdraw from the production after only a week, but it is still far from proved that the gang members who attacked him were politically motivated. The financial links between several New York street gangs and Nixon's Urban Pioneer Program are nothing unusual -  many street gangs of the time in cities across the country received these grants, justified as promoting inner-city enterprise and community cohesion (and no doubt also providing an useful demonstration to attract urban votes), and there is no hard evidence that the gangs in question were even expected to participate in political activities such as get-out-the-vote efforts, far less 'dirty tricks' of the kind later infamous in the United States. And there is, for that matter, no evidence that Burbage's unidentified attackers even belonged to a gang which had been paid under the UPP.

Sterling Hayden, a New York theatre veteran who had appeared in the role of Nimitz in Harry Truman Part I, stepped into Burbage's place and the run continued for another seven weeks. Its relatively short run may have been due to competition from a recently-arrived touring production.
Actor-director George C. Scott had stunned Hollywood audiences in 1971 with his production of Fletcher's Patton; extraordinarily ambitious, foul-mouthed and spectacular to the point of megalomania, Patton was the kind of play made to show off what the enormous and technically sophisticated theatres of Los Angeles and the West Coast could do. Nor was it the first such epic. The vogue for "grand slam plays", which began with Lean's Company and the Paramount Theater in the 1960s, would last for many more years, with expatriate English playwrights such as Fletcher, Kyd and (later) Webster and Middleton avoiding the traditional circuit of theatres in New York, Baltimore and Boston, to head for the broad canvases and newly-rich audiences of Southern California, fast becoming the true capital of American theatre.

But the kind of plays best suited to Los Angeles theatres were, by definition, difficult to perform on the smaller stages of the traditional theatres of the East Coast (or anywhere else in the world for that matter) and were therefore frustratingly difficult to take on tour. Shakespeare mocks the failures of one such effort, probably the 1964 London production of The Longest Day, in the Prologue to Henry V, when the Chorus remarks: "But pardon, gentles all,/The flat unraised spirits that hath dar'd/ On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth/ So great an object. Can this cockpit hold/ The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram/ Within this wooden O the very casques/ That did affright the air at Agincourt?" The producers of The Longest Day had attempted exactly that with respect to the 1944 invasion of Walcheren and Beveland, and the result, on the cramped stage of the Lion Theatre in London, must have been ludicrous. Only a hastily arranged and very popular run of outdoor performances in the grounds of Kenwood House saved the blushes of Zanuck's company and the purses of his investors.

Scott, however, made it work. Patton opened in April 1972 at the Empire Theater in New York, in a radically rewritten version with many of the battle scenes excised, and was an immediate success. A few wealthy New Yorkers (Sullivan among them) had already made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles to see it at its original home in Mann's Chinese Theater, and had whetted the appetite of their less fortunate fellow citizens. Scott, to the fury of Alleyn (and presumably Shakespeare) was the guest of honour at a Gracie Mansion revel that summer; an honour which had so far escaped Alleyn, despite Lindsay's many years of patronage. The rift between Alleyn and his New York patrons would be slow to spread but ultimately disastrous for both him and Shakespeare.

Timeline: premieres and selected subsequent performances of the Nixoniad

Late 1969 - Shakespeare arrives in New York
1970 - working on Eisenhower and The Tragedy of John Kennedy
Around September 1970 - begins work on Harry Truman Part I
February 1971 - first performance of Harry Truman Part I at Alleyn's Theater
May 1971 - first performance of the masque The Tragedy of John Kennedy, venue unknown
November 1971 - first performance of Harry Truman Part II at the Empire Theater; Burbage arrives in New York
January 1972 - first performance of Eisenhower at Alleyn's Theater
October 1972 - first performance of Lyndon Johnson Part II at Alleyn's Theater, under the title The History of Lyndon Johnson
November 1972 - Richard Nixon re-elected as president; Beaumont arrested
December 1972 - closure of Alleyn's Theater; Alleyn leaves the US for France; death of Harry Truman
January 1973 - death of Lyndon Johnson
February 1973 - Burbage and Beaumont return to England
May 1973 - first performance of Lyndon Johnson Part I at the Great Rose in Boston
January 1974 - Shakespeare returns to England
August 1974 - first performance of Lyndon Johnson Part III at the Haymarket Theatre in London; resignation of President Nixon
December 1974 - first New York performance of Lyndon Johnson Part III
April 1975 - first performance of Richard Nixon at the National Theatre in London
June 1976 - first New York performance of Richard Nixon
9 September 1991 - death of William Shakespeare
1994 - death of Richard Nixon; first complete performance of the Nixoniad (including John Kennedy), produced by Trevor Nunn in London
1997 - revised Oxford edition of Shakespeare's works omits John Kennedy, based on vocabulary analysis showing it was mostly the work of other authors
1998 - Kenneth Branagh produces The White House, a heavily abridged adaptation of the Nixoniad, as three plays, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon
2001-2 - The US National Theater Corporation tours the country with The West Wing, its own adaptation of the Nixoniad
Summer 2004 - Citizens Theatre stages its "Other Voices" Nixoniad project, including, as well as Shakespeare's plays, John Kennedy, Ensler's Lady Bird and Cole's The Mountain (both commissioned for the project) and Fletcher's Fear and Loathing and The Right Stuff

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

We can only regret that Shakespeare did not follow Eisenhower with his own John Kennedy. Kennedy's relations with his family - in particular his father Joseph and brother Robert - would have been fascinating to see on stage in Shakespearean form, as would the closely-fought 1960 election campaign that pitted him against Richard Nixon. Kennedy's presidency, too, offers plenty of dramatic material - the failed foreign interventions in Central America, the first steps towards involvement in Indochina, the Patrol Crisis, and of course his eventual assassination. Instead, we have the composite John Kennedy of which little is definitely Shakespeare's work, taken by Fletcher, as already mentioned, from the lost 1970 masque. However, we can deduce a little about the structure of the masque from the fragments which survived in Fletcher's play.

Fletcher covers the period from (roughly) June 1960 to the Patrol Crisis in November the next year, finishing on a triumphant note as the young president outfaces his hawkish advisors and negotiates a mutual climbdown and establishment of legally-binding air identification zones. (The Madrid Accord would eventually evolve into the Open Skies Treaty and play a major role in reducing tensions in the later Cold War.)

Shakespeare's contributions are all found in the first two acts of Fletcher's composite Kennedy and, compared to the rest of the Nixoniad, they are jarringly light-hearted. Masques were customarily lighter in tone than formal plays, even when they dealt with serious subjects such as (to take one famous example which survives) the possibility of an accidental nuclear war - the long Prologue to Act II mocks Kennedy's famous 'lockjaw' accent and literary aspirations as well as Nixon's prickly demeanour, and makes Nixon's vehement anti-socialist paranoia more of an eccentric flourish than a destructive and central part of his character. The election is almost a political comedy, with the Kennedy family's plotting and counterplotting even verging on farce. The darker second half of Kennedy is, paradoxically, more Shakespearean, even though there is probably nothing by Shakespeare in it - the failure of the Veracruz landing and the growing fear of an all-out bomber war fit the rest of the Nixoniad thematically, and we can only regret that Shakespeare never handled them in play form. The clashes between MacNamara, Le May and Kennedy would surely have been of equal quality to the Truman-MacArthur and Truman-Eisenhower scenes earlier in the series, and indeed the many other similar scenes in Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.  Instead, with Eisenhower ending only around 1955, Shakespeare never brings John Kennedy on stage at all - except, of course, in spectral form in Lyndon Johnson.

Perhaps this was a deliberate strategic decision. After the turbulence surrounding Eisenhower, Shakespeare would have become even more aware of the intimately political nature of the US theatrical community. The success of Patton against Eisenhower underlined the east-west cultural split which would be echoed by the on-stage clashes between the Californian Nixon and the East Coast political establishment, and which, of course, would worsen - tragically - in the 1970s and early 1980s. But the US stage was a divided political arena as well, and stage players needed political patrons. With Gracie Mansion perhaps seeming less secure as a hinterland, Shakespeare may have felt the need for caution in order to secure his possible line of retreat to Kennedy territory in Boston; a retreat he would in fact make less than a year later. Instead, he turned his attention to Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

The crowning glory of the Nixoniad is, without doubt, Richard Nixon itself. But Lyndon Johnson Part II is a close second. If we divide the Nixoniad into two chronological (and "rhyming") halves, the first, from Harry Truman Part I to Eisenhower, opens with a funeral and ends with a worrying foreshadowing of war, as Eisenhower commits his government to massive retaliation against any attack on the United States or its allies. The second half begins - if the plays are read in the order they were written - with a triumph. Act I of Lyndon Johnson Part II, or The History of Lyndon Johnson as it was originally titled, depicts the closing stages of Johnson's successful campaign for re-election. And while the obvious comparison is with Act I of Richard III, in which the ostensible triumph of the House of York is immediately undermined by Gloucester's envy and ambition, the opening speech from Johnson - "The clouds are lifted, Heaven on us smiles/ A calm breeze and the Sun's benevolent eye!" - is an uncomplicated admission of triumph.

In fact, Shakespeare's authorial outlook in the first half of Lyndon Johnson Part II (and for that matter in Lyndon Johnson Part I, which he wrote the following year) is jarringly optimistic for those of us who have just watched his bleak portrayal of the realities of political strategy in Eisenhower. Johnson wins the election in a crushing victory (as in real life) over his opponent, the Western conservative Goldwater. Interestingly, Shakespeare makes more of his Western-ness than his conservatism - which could be seen as unsettling political prescience, as a reflection of the increasingly febrile political atmosphere in New York in the weeks and months before the 1972 election, or, less charitably, as a sign that the threat to the New York theatre from the Californian companies was still very much on his mind.

In Act II, Johnson turns his attention to the issue of civil rights. It is surprising that so little reference is made to Kennedy's efforts in this area - after all, Shakespeare directs our attention to the offstage presence of Eisenhower, commenting on the incongruity of seeing American airborne soldiers escorting little children to school in their own country. But the ghost of Kennedy remains resolutely in the wings until Lyndon Johnson Part III. Act II and Act III also feature one of Shakespeare's most hotly-debated characters, Doctor King.

King has been the subject of more critical writing, praise and condemnation than any other character in the Nixoniad - than any other character in Shakespeare's writing, almost, with the exception only of Shylock. In contrast to many subsequent portrayals - by Cole, most famously, and also by Freeling and Beaumont - Shakespeare's King is far from saintly. He is ambitious, cunning and aggressive, a skilled actor and orator capable of shifting gear from Biblical sermonising to callous strategy in the space of twenty lines (as in II.iii) and overrides dissent from his allies with a high hand, even facing down Johnson himself in III.i. But this portrayal has to be seen in the context of the Nixoniad's overarching theme. Shakespeare rejected the option of treating King as a martyred saint, because he wanted to portray him as something more important to his argument - a successful politician, with the determination of one faction married to the idealism of the other. There is no agonising in King, no second thoughts - he acknowledges that his aims are ambitious (not only civil rights for black Americans, but a wholesale reordering of American society to favour the poor and marginalised) and goes after them anyway, by whatever means he can. Shakespeare has been condemned for giving him a death wish - but it's more correct to say that he portrayed King as a man who realised the likelihood of his own death and accepted it, as simply another tool that could come to hand. Doctor King, Shakespeare decided, was far from a saint, but he is as close as the Nixoniad comes to a hero.

"I have lost the South for a generation", the historical Lyndon Johnson said on signing the Voting Rights Act; Shakespeare's version does so (oddly, offstage) before the beginning of Act IV. And here Shakespeare again plays with history for dramatic effect. The first US marines were deployed into combat in Indochina in February of 1965, and the Voting Rights Act was signed only in August that year. Shakespeare swaps the dates, to give Johnson a slide from triumph towards disaster. And in place of the historical sequence of events, which saw US assistance to the German colonial government grow gradually from 1962 onwards, Shakespeare gives a simplified story of three main events, following hard on each other's heels; the news of the disastrous siege of Dienbienfu, and the commitment of US air power; the appeal from the German ambassador for aid from Germany's old ally, America; and the fateful decision to send a division of marines to Karlshafen (now Haiphong).

The irony is painful by the end of Lyndon Johnson Part II, just as it is at the end of Henry VI, when Edward IV announces "Sound drums and trumpets! farewell sour annoy!/For here, I hope, begins our lasting joy." We know, watching, that Edward and his family have only a few years left to live, and that the peace he has established will not outlive him for long. Similarly, when Johnson, riding high on his domestic triumphs, resolves to "bear the burden/Face the foe, and pay the price" (echoing the famous words of the historical Kennedy), we know that he has doomed himself and his legacy. The stage is set for the tragedies of 1968.

Monday, 7 December 2015

The History of Lyndon Johnson opened on 16 October 1972 at Alleyn's Theater. And surely audiences would have noticed, in its ominous ending, an echo of events in the world outside the theatre doors. Onstage, Shakespeare and Alleyn were depicting the start of the turmoil that would engulf American society in the late 1960s and early 1970s, sparked by the commitment of US troops to the unpopular war in Indochina and the civil rights agitation in the southern states; offstage, the turmoil was reaching its climax, with President Nixon's crushing re-election victory just three weeks away.

Just down the street at the Raleigh Theater, meanwhile, Beaumont's intensely political Man without a Country opened in the same week. It is not well-known or often performed in England - its subject, the catastrophic presidency of James Buchanan (1857-1861), is remote to English audiences, and its long Oval Office scenes are unleavened with the kind of quick-fire argument or on-stage action which a Shakespeare or a Webster would have written. But its characters and events were and are far more familiar to Americans, and in October 1972 its references to contemporary events were literally (and tragically) explosive.

America had last seen a wave of political violence in the previous election year, 1968, with the shootings of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King (both of which would be depicted by Shakespeare in Lyndon Johnson Part III). In 1972 the gun gave way to the bomb - between 16 October and the end of the year, no fewer than 37 bombs exploded in the continental US, the vast majority in the north-eastern states, 16 in New York itself, and one, of course, outside the Raleigh Theater (one dead and 16 injured; the perpetrators remain unknown). As if to add to the misfortunes of the unhappy country, a week after Nixon's re-election, on 12 November, the first known victim of what would become known as Kansas City 'flu died in a Cook County hospital.

Faced with a growing and multi-headed crisis, Nixon and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover responded in the only way they knew. The day after the election, public safety orders closed many theatres declared to be particularly at risk of attack from the bombers; most, for one reason or another, were in New York. More public safety orders followed as the Kansas City epidemic spread; Alleyn's Theater was closed on 1 December, ending the New York run of The History of Lyndon Johnson after just two weeks.

More chillingly still, another public safety order on 15 November dictated the arrest of Beaumont, his director Robert Altman, and several of his investors. Beaumont lacked the protection of a local political patron - Robert Lindsay was still Mayor, and despite his feting of the visiting Californians earlier that year, he was still close enough to Alleyn to attend the opening night of The History of Lyndon Johnson in a very public demonstration of support. Only Beaumont and one investor, the wealthy landlord Robin Sacker, were actually arrested under the 15 November order, and both men were released a few days later - but the message had been sent and received. Alleyn embarked for St. Nazaire on New Year's Eve aboard the liner Grand Duke, beginning work on his first play, Anne Hall, during the voyage. Beaumont (along with Richard Burbage and several other prominent actors) would return to England in the New Year aboard Canberra, a voyage later immortalised by Tom Stoppard in 1999 in The New World. Shakespeare should have gone along with them. But instead he remained in the United States for the whole of the turbulent year 1973, moving from the Island to the (slightly) safer environment of Boston. His motives puzzled Burbage, as we know from his letters at the time. They are, to us, perfectly clear.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Throughout his stay in the United States, Shakespeare published and performed nothing except for the Modern History plays. But it may not be true to say that he wrote nothing else. Most of his longer poems can be dated with a fair degree of confidence, and all but two (The Phoenix and The Sea Elegy) date from the 1950s and 1960s. The Phoenix has a fair claim to being his last work, and was probably written not long before publication in 1983 - the last of his poems to be published in his lifetime. The Sea Elegy is more problematic, but its similarity in theme to The Tempest probably also dates it to Shakespeare's later London days.

The Sonnets are more difficult. The order in which they are numbered probably bears no resemblance to the order in which Shakespeare wrote them - the publisher Thomas Thorpe is believed to have ordered them according to his own perception of theme, and little external evidence has survived to confirm the ordering (the poems themselves are too short for reliable dating by vocabulary analysis).

But the traditional dating of many of the (numerically) earlier sonnets to 1973 is no worse than any alternative. And, once this is accepted, the romantic deduction that some Bostonian lady was the Dark Lady of the sonnets - and the reason for Shakespeare remaining in the United States - is extremely tempting. (Tom Stoppard's Shakespeare in Love went one further by associating the Dark Lady of the sonnets with Catherine Kennedy, the widowed cousin of John Kennedy, and making both Lyndon Johnson Part I and the lost masque John Kennedy a memorial to the dead president, written as a gift for his relative - but there is, unfortunately, little external evidence to support this.)

Romantic associations aside, Lyndon Johnson Part I was definitely written with a Kennedy audience in mind. Though there was no formal relationship of patronage between Shakespeare and the family in 1973, keeping on good terms with the Kennedys would have been simple common sense for a writer in Massachusetts, especially as the year grew darker.

Shakespeare had written prequels before - Henry VI Part I was written the year after Parts II and III. But writing Lyndon Johnson Part I (originally simply The Succession of Lyndon Johnson on its first performance, but retitled by 1975) meant facing a new set of problems; with most of the climactic moments of Johnson's presidency already dealt with in Part II, how was Part I to end satisfactorily? He chose, instead, to focus on Johnson's Great Society initiative, producing a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of Johnson (surprising, because the Texan successor was never on friendly terms with the Kennedys) in particular drawing the contrast between his near-poverty childhood and Kennedy's privileged background.

In other hands, this could have become a simple tale of grievance and class rivalry. But Shakespeare handles it more subtly than that, with much of Acts I and II set before Johnson's entry into politics. Nixon does not appear in Lyndon Johnson Part I. This and Harry Truman Part II are the only Nixoniad plays in which Nixon does not appear on stage, and in Lyndon Johnson Part I he is not even mentioned by name. But, I would argue, Shakespeare's depiction of Johnson's early life is intended to portray him as the anti-Nixon. Both men come from humble origins (as indeed did Eisenhower) - Johnson's parents were poor farmers in Texas, Nixon's were shopkeepers in California. But while Nixon's memory of his status will lead him to seek revenge for his grievances, Johnson's drives him to an uneasy alliance with Kennedy and then, as president, to seek to improve the lives of the people he left behind.

Shakespeare's ambivalence towards Kennedy was not typical of English expatriates in the United States at the time. Most (Cooke, Webster and Fletcher most obviously) were won over by the undoubted charisma of the Kennedy family and their often-displayed attachment to the finer things in European culture - Shakespeare seems to have been more drawn to the lower-middle-class Truman and Johnson, and chides them only for their lack of determination.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

After the lacklustre reception in Boston of The Succession of Lyndon Johnson (now Lyndon Johnson Part I), Shakespeare's nerve may have been shaken. The diarist and journalist Robert Woodward went to see the play in June 1973 and described it in distinctly lukewarm terms - "a fair piece of work, but nothing much here not seen already" remains a valid criticism. Many of the issues it deals with were handled better in The History of Lyndon Johnson, and the Succession lacks a foil of the quality of the History's Dr King.

Shakespeare's movements for the rest of the year are (perhaps deliberately) hard to trace. He was certainly still in Boston in early July, when he wrote to Alleyn bemoaning the play's lack of success. (Alleyn did not reply; he may have derived some satisfaction from knowing that his former partner, having refused to accompany him to Europe, was finding life more difficult on his own.) He was certainly in Boston again in early December, when he completed the legal agreements covering subsequent productions of his modern histories at the Great Rose Theater there, and there is good evidence that he was there in mid-November to make arrangements for his move back to England in January 1974. But that still leaves four months unaccounted for, in which he was apparently inactive in the theatre business and in Boston's social world.

The surviving documents - in particular the household accounts - of Philip Massinger, then a script doctor in Los Angeles, suggest one answer. The Massinger papers for this period never name Shakespeare, but in early August he took on another servant from a short-term domestic employment agency - presumably to cater for the needs of a guest. His surviving diaries make repeated reference to his provision of introductions to various magnates and other writers for an unnamed visitor to Los Angeles between August and October. He received no income from the rental of his guest house throughout the second half of the year - in previous years, as Harold Bird's 1992 biography notes, the thrifty Massinger had made several thousand dollars a year from renting out the unneeded building, which came to him along with his own house and its estate as a bequest from the Los Angeles theatre mogul David Selznick. Presumably the guest house was unavailable for rent because it was occupied by a non-paying friend. Could this have been Shakespeare, making a sub rosa visit to the home of the rival West Coast theatre?

If so, the summer and autumn of 1973 would have been a momentous period for Shakespeare. In the Hollywood Hills of the early 70s, he would have witnessed the birth of a new theatrical tradition - one which fused the spectacles of the Californian mega-theatres with the ingenuity of the traditional East Coast and European writers, and which continues to dominate the world of theatre to this day. Patton had shown the way, and put Eisenhower into the shade in doing so - Shakespeare wanted to create his own "Grand Slam" play (the wartime term for a large aerial bomb was first used as a theatrical term for a tremendously expensive and successful play in Los Angeles in 1962), and in Lyndon Johnson Part III he would finally do so.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Lyndon Johnson Part III (briefly, according to advance playbills, The Downfall of Lyndon Johnson, but renamed before it opened) is the source of many of the most popular images and speeches of the entire Nixoniad. And from its very beginning it displays structural and stylistic innovations that were unprecedented not only in Shakespeare but in any of the theatre of his day.

Of course, many of his other plays have chorus prologues - some of Shakespeare's most memorable writing comes in the prologues of Henry V, Romeo and Juliet and others. In Henry V, moreover, the high-flown blank verse of the Chorus is repeatedly undermined by the prose conversations of the common soldiers which follow it, highlighting again and again the divide between the courtly tradition of war and its reality, which is resolved only in the play's final act. But only in Lyndon Johnson Part III does he reverse the effect and give us a prose-speaking Chorus to introduce the blank-verse action. And the impact - and the risk - is extraordinary.

For almost a hundred and fifty lines, the Chorus is on the stage alone. There is no other scene in Shakespeare's entire body of work in which a single character speaks for so long - there are few scenes even with two actors that go on for so long without interruption. And the risk is multiplied by the fact that this is the opening speech, and delivered without context. It is now one of the most famous speeches ever written by Shakespeare, which makes it almost impossible for us to imagine the effect it would have had on an unprepared London audience, seeing it for the first time in the Haymarket Theatre on 5 August 1974.

It could not have been more timely. The Chorus' description of an America falling apart ostensibly describes the tension and violence of 1968 - it opens with the Chorus announcing that he "has stood on the clifftop, and watched the wave roll west - and break and draw back", in the first of many allusions to Hunter Thompson's writings. (Shakespeare was a fan of Thompson, and the two may have met the previous year during Shakespeare's visit to the West Coast.) But it is just as applicable to the America of 1974 (and, sadly, to the America of subsequent years).

And after the prologue finishes, inviting us to "watch - and horrify yourselves", the play is one hammerblow after another. Dr. King delivers his final speech - not word for word as he did in reality, but one which combines King's biblical cadence with Shakespearean language and ambition - and is murdered. The young Robert Kennedy's death is reported, and the next scene (II.i) shows a sleepless Lyndon Johnson haunted by a parade of ghosts - including Robert Kennedy and his brother.

It's a device used by Shakespeare elsewhere - Banquo's ghost in Macbeth and the sequence of accusing spectres in Richard III chanting "Despair and die!" come to mind - but Shakespeare can be absolved from the charge of repeating his effects out of laziness; the historical Lyndon Johnson actually told an interviewer that he had been tormented in 1968 by visions of the dead Kennedys, accusing him of betrayal for planning to withdraw US support from the German government in Indochina. Johnson is known to have enjoyed Shakespeare's earlier plays; this may, literally, be a case of life imitating art.

Again, Shakespeare takes some liberties with the chronology, delaying Johnson's decision not to run for re-election until after the shootings - in reality he withdrew in March of 1968, but the delay makes for better theatre. For the rest of the play, we switch between the agonised Johnson, helplessly watching his country and party dissolve into chaos (and the nomination go to the anti-war advocate Eugene McCarthy), and the increasingly triumphant Nixon, who dominates Acts IV and V as one of the canon's most celebrated villains.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Richard Nixon, written a year after Nixon's resignation in 1974, benefits from the perspective - the scheming and satanically furious Nixon of Lyndon Johnson Part III is unquestionably a gripping character, and (as Sir Ian McKellen remarked) "just amazingly fun to play", but it's only in the last play of the Nixoniad that Shakespeare truly gives the character the human depth of his best villains. Nixon is no motiveless Iago, the audience gradually realises, but a fully realised character - the best and deepest of Shakespeare's antagonists, perhaps with the exception of Richard III and Hotspur.

Just as Lyndon Johnson Part III does, Richard Nixon focusses its attention on the protagonist's last year in power - 1974. This is a gamble - watching the plays in the order they were written, we go straight from the triumphant Nixon raising his fists in victory in Act V of LJIII to the agoraphobic, persecuted figure of Act I. And once again Shakespeare chooses to echo earlier plays by opening with a funeral.

January 1974 was the fifteenth month of the Kansas City flu pandemic which had hampered the first run of The History of Lyndon Johnson back in 1972 - and it is worth remembering that this is the first and only time that Shakespeare would write a play about events which he had, in a sense, directly experienced. And it was the month in which it claimed its most famous victim - Nixon's scandal-ridden vice-president, Spiro Agnew.

The echo here is a distorted one. Remember that Harry Truman Part I opens with Roosevelt's death - the inexperienced new president mourning his idolised predecessor and wondering how to fill his place. The same is true, although in a more nuanced and less certain sense, of the elegy for the dead Kennedy which opens Lyndon Johnson Part I. But Agnew, as even Nixon acknowledges, is far from a moral exemplar - Shakespeare does not have to veer far from the historical record (here as elsewhere he leans heavily on Caro, and on Woodward's journals, published the year before) to paint him as a corrupt and bigoted individual, who was, at the time of his death, facing criminal charges, and would almost certainly have been forced into resignation had he survived the flu.

But his death, at least in Shakespeare's telling, has the same seismic effect on Nixon as Roosevelt's on Truman. "My brother, my twisted working hand" he calls Agnew, and in a soliloquy accuses the dead man of opening "the gate to Hell/ - and there must I thee follow?" Eighty lines into the first scene of the play, Shakespeare has already given more insight into Nixon's driving envy and his gnawing self-hatred than we have had in all of LJIII or even all of the Nixoniad so far. Nixon's historically inexplicable support for Agnew is explained by Shakespeare as psychological self-defence. He saw in Agnew someone even more vicious and petty than himself, and used him as reassurance, reasoning that if even Agnew can survive and prosper, then surely Nixon himself must be safe - "No Fury yet may seize on Nixon's head/ While Agnew breathes out poison to entice her!"

With Agnew gone, the Furies begin to gather. The next of his props to fall away is Haig - by Act II, incensed by Nixon's refusal to use nuclear weapons against the Indochinese rebels and their sponsors in Maphilindo, he has stormed out of office to join the growing American Independent Party movement led by Wallace and LeMay. (LeMay appears on stage to welcome Haig in II.iii; Wallace never does so, perhaps a sign that even Shakespeare, safe by this time in England, could not bring himself to put the man on stage.)

By far the weakest major character in Richard Nixon appears on stage in Act III - Agnew's replacement as vice-president, Gerald Ford. Ford has little to say, but his presence - and Nixon's discussion of his weaknesses with Kissinger - are critical in wrapping up one of the main themes of the entire Nixoniad. Ford is, quite simply, the last in a series of characters who represent the second-guessing and indecision which Shakespeare saw as the defining weakness of one strand of American politics. The genius of Richard Nixon is that Nixon has hitherto represented the other strand - he has been the consummate user of weapons since Harry Truman Part I, but now, at the apogee of success, he begins to feel himself outflanked - by Agnew, and then more seriously by the AIP. The final message of the Nixoniad is not, after all, "scruples make you weak" - it is "power demands compromise".

In a lesser author's hands, this realisation would be the beginning of redemption. But Shakespeare the supreme tragedian never quite allows Nixon to join the dots - to fully integrate his drive for power and his ability to innovate in political tactics with his practical-minded realisation that extremism is always a barren field. A better Nixon simply would not have been Nixon. Instead Shakespeare makes him strike out, almost instinctively, at his enemies list to left and to right. His farewell speech, a seamless amalgamation of the historical Nixon's resignation address in August that year and his concession speech in 1960, shows him still embittered and furious, only half-understanding the reasons for his downfall. And so he remained until his death.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

The opening of Richard Nixon marked the end of Shakespeare's direct artistic involvement with the United States. Though he would never write about the US again explicitly, themes derived from his eventful years in New York and Boston continued to emerge in the later tragedies and histories which he produced over the rest of his life.

But events in the US in the 70s and 80s would have profound effects on the rest of Shakespeare's career - as they would, of course, on the lives of everyone else in the West.

Looking back from 2016, it is difficult to keep in mind that, for most of Shakespeare's career, his only medium had been the live theatre. The American Telegraphic Cable Theater of the 1930s had fallen into disuse long before he began to write - in the golden age of English-language theatre, the playwright and the politican alike were live performers who faced their audiences in person. The great works of Shakespeare's middle age - The Tempest, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, The Winter's Tale - were all written with this in mind, and even the Grand Slam plays of the late golden age (A Modern Apocalypse, The Hidden Fortress, The Dragon in the Sea and the like) were written for the live stage.

In a revolution as rapid as that brought in by the internal combustion engine a century before, all this was to change in the 1970s. Even as Lyndon Johnson Part III opened in Boston, the first experimental wireless stations were transmitting signals from Washington to New York. By the time Richard Nixon opened in London in 1975, licencees of the American Broadcasting Corporation could hear reports from the crowds outside the Haymarket Theatre. Four years later, the Post Office studios in London would transmit an abridged version of Henry V around the world on the Colonial Service. And the year after that, the first trials of television technology in Russia and Scotland would herald yet another upheaval.

Not every fruit of this new harvest would be a wholesome one, however. As did so many technologies before, the new mass communications media brought woe along with them. The ageing Shakespeare could well have echoed the epitaph which HG Wells wrote for himself: "I told you so. You damned fools." Everything which he had foreseen and described in the Nixoniad was to come to a head in the political revolution which led to the disasters of 1985. Hearing the AIP's candidates quoting lines which he had written for MacArthur must have twisted the knife in the wound - especially when the AIP had themselves condemned his writing the same year, and named him, along with much of the East Coast literary establishment which he still regarded as a home from home, as 'enemies within'.

Nor were Shakespeare's erstwhile professional rivals on the West Coast spared - many, in fact, fleeing the tide of public safety actions, made their way to Japan or England in the early 1980s, leaving behind them a country which was sinking rapidly. This sense of despair is reflected in the later plays of Shakespeare, and most of all in The Tempest - Shakespeare put himself into Prospero, abandoning his magic and drowning his books, and it is not unreasonable to equate the abandoned Milan with New York of the early 80s, and Prospero's humbling of the usurper Antonio and his corrupt ally Alonso as, well, wish-fulfilment.

It may have been this parallel, as obvious then as now, that led to the final interdiction of his plays by the AIP in June 1984. The ban would last, of course, barely more than a year. But, in the turmoil which engulfed the US following the events of August 1985, few had time or energy for the theatre - Shakespeare died in 1991 with his Nixoniad never having been performed in the country in which it was set. The rights to his plays went to his heirs - with the exception of those to the Nixoniad, which he bequeathed, in perpetuity, to the International Aid and Relief Committee (now the US Aid Foundation).

And, ten years after his death, it was the IARC which supported the renascence of US theatre, with its establishment (in alliance with the US interim government) of the National Theater Corporation, which was to take the Nixoniad on the road, to be seen at last as its author intended, across the troubled country which inspired it.

Other productions of the Nixoniad had raised millions for the IARC, and it received some criticism for deciding to spend time and resources on a touring theatrical company when the wounds of 1985 were still not entirely healed. But history has vindicated the IARC - and the final proof is the production which you are about to see.

London audiences have been lucky enough, over the years, to see some of the finest actors the US has ever produced - both touring productions before the 1980s and members of our large and thriving American expatriate community since then. But the National Theater Corporation is the first all-American commercial theatre company to tour Europe since 1985, and it is a great privilege and a great compliment to London that they are doing so with a full-length production of the entire Nixoniad. The production may, of course, be familiar to many of the audience already - it has already been broadcast in Britain both on television and on radio. But the plays of the Nixoniad were written for the live theatre - the 'wooden O' of Henry V, the 'little court/ In which the world is judged' of Eisenhower - and there is, without doubt, value to seeing them there.

It is, after all, how their maker always imagined them.