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.

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