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.

No comments:

Post a Comment