Saturday, December 3, 2016

On King Charles III

I saw the Seattle Rep's new production of King Charles III, which played in London and Broadway. It's written in iambic pentameter, includes monologues, and riffs on Shakespeare's succession plays. It's a "future history." The plot: Upon the death of the beloved Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles becomes king. Although the position has become ceremonial, Charles finds that his conscience does not allow him to sit still and remain a neutral symbol of his nation. The Labour Party wants to pass a law reigning in the abuses of an out-of-control tabloid press. Despite the pain the press has caused his family, he is a believer in freedom of speech and can't bring himself to sign the law.

I wish I had the play in front of me, so that I could quote some of the clever Shakespearean turns, the combination of the comic and the tragic, the puns which make individual words so ambiguous. When Charles III realizes that he is expected to sign into law something he doesn't believe in, placing his name on every document given to him, he realizes that he loses his "name."

It wasn't a great production, but it was a good one. Robert Joy plays Charles with the appropriate combination of impotence, good humor, and sweetness. When he appears dressed in regalia at the end of Act I, he understands the comedy of royal pageantry in the modern age. He's a man-child playing dress up, but -- the play's irony -- it's not clear how much his clothes are actually a costume. And his vulnerability is constant. As most critics have pointed out, he's playing Richard II wearing a "hollow crown / That rounds the mortal temples of a king / Keeps death his court and there the antic sits, / Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp." Jeanne Paulsen had few lines as Camilla, but her role was tragic, always so close to what she thinks is power just out of reach. Christopher McLinden discovers the cannons that lie underneath Prince William, a man whose entire vocation demands that he be boring. Harry Smith's Prince Harry doesn't quite reach the Prince Hal the play intends.

The play is more timely than it was in 2014, when it was first produced. We now live in an age when the value of democracy is being questioned by mainstream forces, both in the U.S., where the population elected what may be our last president, and in the U.K., where the population elected to leave and likely destroy one of the most promising institutions for peace and economic stability in Europe and the world at large. A good-hearted but silly monarch who makes impulsive decisions doesn't look so bad compared to the current president-elect of the U.S. Charles III, in some respects, is an unelected Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939), who, it should be noted, exercises the filibuster, one of the most undemocratic mechanisms of the U.S. Senate and the U.S. government as a whole, to stop a bad law from passing.

A couple of years ago, the Seattle Rep put on Robert Schenkkan's All the Way and The Great Society, a pair of plays about the rise and fall of Lyndon Johnson. (HBO adapted the former in a production starring Bryan Cranston.) The play presents Johnson as a mad, enraged president, whose desires to push through civil rights, need to maintain power, love of dominane, need of affection, and fear of humiliation are inextricable. By rooting the play's form in Shakespeare's history plays, Schenkkan captures the ability, on some primal level, to divorce the nature of leaders from the historical specificity of the political systems that put them in place. Schenkkan's Johnson is a flawed king sandwiched in succession between two other kings, each of whom meet a separate, unique tragic end.

Perhaps these productions reflect a desire inherent in the American democracy. George W. Bush was the idiot elder son of a decent president/monarch. Hillary Clinton who would have been elected if not for the Electoral College, is the wife of another previous monarch. Beyond the literal, I think it's fair to say that Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign came across as an elegant fine prince more than a studied president, although his presidency tweaked that persona. John Kennedy was more of a Prince Arthur than a King Arthur. The succession between these administrations makes sense in retrospect. Perhaps, on a subconscious level, we imagine Obama as the son of George W. Bush, who is in turn is the son of Clinton, who is the son of the elder Bush, who is the son of Reagan. History has a way of turning into a sensible narrative. Maybe we can think of various periods of American history as separate dynasties, the Founding Fathers from Washington to Monroe, the second generation from John Quincy Adams to Lincoln, the damn fools from Andrew Johnson to William McKinley, the imperial presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Obama. Perhaps Trump is just the beginning of a new, terrible monarchical line. Whether or not he is the product of a democracy may be irrelevant at this point.

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