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.

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