Thursday, 3 December 2015

Richard Nixon, written a year after Nixon's resignation in 1974, benefits from the perspective - the scheming and satanically furious Nixon of Lyndon Johnson Part III is unquestionably a gripping character, and (as Sir Ian McKellen remarked) "just amazingly fun to play", but it's only in the last play of the Nixoniad that Shakespeare truly gives the character the human depth of his best villains. Nixon is no motiveless Iago, the audience gradually realises, but a fully realised character - the best and deepest of Shakespeare's antagonists, perhaps with the exception of Richard III and Hotspur.

Just as Lyndon Johnson Part III does, Richard Nixon focusses its attention on the protagonist's last year in power - 1974. This is a gamble - watching the plays in the order they were written, we go straight from the triumphant Nixon raising his fists in victory in Act V of LJIII to the agoraphobic, persecuted figure of Act I. And once again Shakespeare chooses to echo earlier plays by opening with a funeral.

January 1974 was the fifteenth month of the Kansas City flu pandemic which had hampered the first run of The History of Lyndon Johnson back in 1972 - and it is worth remembering that this is the first and only time that Shakespeare would write a play about events which he had, in a sense, directly experienced. And it was the month in which it claimed its most famous victim - Nixon's scandal-ridden vice-president, Spiro Agnew.

The echo here is a distorted one. Remember that Harry Truman Part I opens with Roosevelt's death - the inexperienced new president mourning his idolised predecessor and wondering how to fill his place. The same is true, although in a more nuanced and less certain sense, of the elegy for the dead Kennedy which opens Lyndon Johnson Part I. But Agnew, as even Nixon acknowledges, is far from a moral exemplar - Shakespeare does not have to veer far from the historical record (here as elsewhere he leans heavily on Caro, and on Woodward's journals, published the year before) to paint him as a corrupt and bigoted individual, who was, at the time of his death, facing criminal charges, and would almost certainly have been forced into resignation had he survived the flu.

But his death, at least in Shakespeare's telling, has the same seismic effect on Nixon as Roosevelt's on Truman. "My brother, my twisted working hand" he calls Agnew, and in a soliloquy accuses the dead man of opening "the gate to Hell/ - and there must I thee follow?" Eighty lines into the first scene of the play, Shakespeare has already given more insight into Nixon's driving envy and his gnawing self-hatred than we have had in all of LJIII or even all of the Nixoniad so far. Nixon's historically inexplicable support for Agnew is explained by Shakespeare as psychological self-defence. He saw in Agnew someone even more vicious and petty than himself, and used him as reassurance, reasoning that if even Agnew can survive and prosper, then surely Nixon himself must be safe - "No Fury yet may seize on Nixon's head/ While Agnew breathes out poison to entice her!"

With Agnew gone, the Furies begin to gather. The next of his props to fall away is Haig - by Act II, incensed by Nixon's refusal to use nuclear weapons against the Indochinese rebels and their sponsors in Maphilindo, he has stormed out of office to join the growing American Independent Party movement led by Wallace and LeMay. (LeMay appears on stage to welcome Haig in II.iii; Wallace never does so, perhaps a sign that even Shakespeare, safe by this time in England, could not bring himself to put the man on stage.)

By far the weakest major character in Richard Nixon appears on stage in Act III - Agnew's replacement as vice-president, Gerald Ford. Ford has little to say, but his presence - and Nixon's discussion of his weaknesses with Kissinger - are critical in wrapping up one of the main themes of the entire Nixoniad. Ford is, quite simply, the last in a series of characters who represent the second-guessing and indecision which Shakespeare saw as the defining weakness of one strand of American politics. The genius of Richard Nixon is that Nixon has hitherto represented the other strand - he has been the consummate user of weapons since Harry Truman Part I, but now, at the apogee of success, he begins to feel himself outflanked - by Agnew, and then more seriously by the AIP. The final message of the Nixoniad is not, after all, "scruples make you weak" - it is "power demands compromise".

In a lesser author's hands, this realisation would be the beginning of redemption. But Shakespeare the supreme tragedian never quite allows Nixon to join the dots - to fully integrate his drive for power and his ability to innovate in political tactics with his practical-minded realisation that extremism is always a barren field. A better Nixon simply would not have been Nixon. Instead Shakespeare makes him strike out, almost instinctively, at his enemies list to left and to right. His farewell speech, a seamless amalgamation of the historical Nixon's resignation address in August that year and his concession speech in 1960, shows him still embittered and furious, only half-understanding the reasons for his downfall. And so he remained until his death.

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