Wednesday, 9 December 2015

We can only regret that Shakespeare did not follow Eisenhower with his own John Kennedy. Kennedy's relations with his family - in particular his father Joseph and brother Robert - would have been fascinating to see on stage in Shakespearean form, as would the closely-fought 1960 election campaign that pitted him against Richard Nixon. Kennedy's presidency, too, offers plenty of dramatic material - the failed foreign interventions in Central America, the first steps towards involvement in Indochina, the Patrol Crisis, and of course his eventual assassination. Instead, we have the composite John Kennedy of which little is definitely Shakespeare's work, taken by Fletcher, as already mentioned, from the lost 1970 masque. However, we can deduce a little about the structure of the masque from the fragments which survived in Fletcher's play.

Fletcher covers the period from (roughly) June 1960 to the Patrol Crisis in November the next year, finishing on a triumphant note as the young president outfaces his hawkish advisors and negotiates a mutual climbdown and establishment of legally-binding air identification zones. (The Madrid Accord would eventually evolve into the Open Skies Treaty and play a major role in reducing tensions in the later Cold War.)

Shakespeare's contributions are all found in the first two acts of Fletcher's composite Kennedy and, compared to the rest of the Nixoniad, they are jarringly light-hearted. Masques were customarily lighter in tone than formal plays, even when they dealt with serious subjects such as (to take one famous example which survives) the possibility of an accidental nuclear war - the long Prologue to Act II mocks Kennedy's famous 'lockjaw' accent and literary aspirations as well as Nixon's prickly demeanour, and makes Nixon's vehement anti-socialist paranoia more of an eccentric flourish than a destructive and central part of his character. The election is almost a political comedy, with the Kennedy family's plotting and counterplotting even verging on farce. The darker second half of Kennedy is, paradoxically, more Shakespearean, even though there is probably nothing by Shakespeare in it - the failure of the Veracruz landing and the growing fear of an all-out bomber war fit the rest of the Nixoniad thematically, and we can only regret that Shakespeare never handled them in play form. The clashes between MacNamara, Le May and Kennedy would surely have been of equal quality to the Truman-MacArthur and Truman-Eisenhower scenes earlier in the series, and indeed the many other similar scenes in Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.  Instead, with Eisenhower ending only around 1955, Shakespeare never brings John Kennedy on stage at all - except, of course, in spectral form in Lyndon Johnson.

Perhaps this was a deliberate strategic decision. After the turbulence surrounding Eisenhower, Shakespeare would have become even more aware of the intimately political nature of the US theatrical community. The success of Patton against Eisenhower underlined the east-west cultural split which would be echoed by the on-stage clashes between the Californian Nixon and the East Coast political establishment, and which, of course, would worsen - tragically - in the 1970s and early 1980s. But the US stage was a divided political arena as well, and stage players needed political patrons. With Gracie Mansion perhaps seeming less secure as a hinterland, Shakespeare may have felt the need for caution in order to secure his possible line of retreat to Kennedy territory in Boston; a retreat he would in fact make less than a year later. Instead, he turned his attention to Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson.

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