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.

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