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.

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