Wednesday, 2 December 2015

The opening of Richard Nixon marked the end of Shakespeare's direct artistic involvement with the United States. Though he would never write about the US again explicitly, themes derived from his eventful years in New York and Boston continued to emerge in the later tragedies and histories which he produced over the rest of his life.

But events in the US in the 70s and 80s would have profound effects on the rest of Shakespeare's career - as they would, of course, on the lives of everyone else in the West.

Looking back from 2016, it is difficult to keep in mind that, for most of Shakespeare's career, his only medium had been the live theatre. The American Telegraphic Cable Theater of the 1930s had fallen into disuse long before he began to write - in the golden age of English-language theatre, the playwright and the politican alike were live performers who faced their audiences in person. The great works of Shakespeare's middle age - The Tempest, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, The Winter's Tale - were all written with this in mind, and even the Grand Slam plays of the late golden age (A Modern Apocalypse, The Hidden Fortress, The Dragon in the Sea and the like) were written for the live stage.

In a revolution as rapid as that brought in by the internal combustion engine a century before, all this was to change in the 1970s. Even as Lyndon Johnson Part III opened in Boston, the first experimental wireless stations were transmitting signals from Washington to New York. By the time Richard Nixon opened in London in 1975, licencees of the American Broadcasting Corporation could hear reports from the crowds outside the Haymarket Theatre. Four years later, the Post Office studios in London would transmit an abridged version of Henry V around the world on the Colonial Service. And the year after that, the first trials of television technology in Russia and Scotland would herald yet another upheaval.

Not every fruit of this new harvest would be a wholesome one, however. As did so many technologies before, the new mass communications media brought woe along with them. The ageing Shakespeare could well have echoed the epitaph which HG Wells wrote for himself: "I told you so. You damned fools." Everything which he had foreseen and described in the Nixoniad was to come to a head in the political revolution which led to the disasters of 1985. Hearing the AIP's candidates quoting lines which he had written for MacArthur must have twisted the knife in the wound - especially when the AIP had themselves condemned his writing the same year, and named him, along with much of the East Coast literary establishment which he still regarded as a home from home, as 'enemies within'.

Nor were Shakespeare's erstwhile professional rivals on the West Coast spared - many, in fact, fleeing the tide of public safety actions, made their way to Japan or England in the early 1980s, leaving behind them a country which was sinking rapidly. This sense of despair is reflected in the later plays of Shakespeare, and most of all in The Tempest - Shakespeare put himself into Prospero, abandoning his magic and drowning his books, and it is not unreasonable to equate the abandoned Milan with New York of the early 80s, and Prospero's humbling of the usurper Antonio and his corrupt ally Alonso as, well, wish-fulfilment.

It may have been this parallel, as obvious then as now, that led to the final interdiction of his plays by the AIP in June 1984. The ban would last, of course, barely more than a year. But, in the turmoil which engulfed the US following the events of August 1985, few had time or energy for the theatre - Shakespeare died in 1991 with his Nixoniad never having been performed in the country in which it was set. The rights to his plays went to his heirs - with the exception of those to the Nixoniad, which he bequeathed, in perpetuity, to the International Aid and Relief Committee (now the US Aid Foundation).

And, ten years after his death, it was the IARC which supported the renascence of US theatre, with its establishment (in alliance with the US interim government) of the National Theater Corporation, which was to take the Nixoniad on the road, to be seen at last as its author intended, across the troubled country which inspired it.

Other productions of the Nixoniad had raised millions for the IARC, and it received some criticism for deciding to spend time and resources on a touring theatrical company when the wounds of 1985 were still not entirely healed. But history has vindicated the IARC - and the final proof is the production which you are about to see.

London audiences have been lucky enough, over the years, to see some of the finest actors the US has ever produced - both touring productions before the 1980s and members of our large and thriving American expatriate community since then. But the National Theater Corporation is the first all-American commercial theatre company to tour Europe since 1985, and it is a great privilege and a great compliment to London that they are doing so with a full-length production of the entire Nixoniad. The production may, of course, be familiar to many of the audience already - it has already been broadcast in Britain both on television and on radio. But the plays of the Nixoniad were written for the live theatre - the 'wooden O' of Henry V, the 'little court/ In which the world is judged' of Eisenhower - and there is, without doubt, value to seeing them there.

It is, after all, how their maker always imagined them.

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