Ronald Porter is a regular contributor to the Conservative History Journal and I am delighted to be able to put his review of Brenton's play about Harold Macmillan on the blog. I hope this might become a new departure for other contributors as well.
NEVER SO GOOD [By Howard Brenton ]
Reviewed by Ronald Porter.
Any play about the life and times of Harold - ' You've Never Had it so Good ' - Macmillan should have been interesting. There is certainly no excuse for poor historical research or big mistakes over the casting of the main characters.
Jeremy Irons, who played Macmillan, never really looked like him and he got that clever, sophisticated, complicated and contradictory personality quite wrong. Anna Chancellor, as his wife, Lady Dorothy, was equally unconvincing. I must admit that portraying a Cavendish - the Queen Mother was from the same stable on her mother's side - on stage, is always going to be difficult, though it should not be entirely impossible. Anthony Eden's 'half woman, half man' personality, so ably encapsulated in just those four words, by Rab Butler, was nowhere to be seen in the portrayal by Anthony Calf. And one of the most embarrassing pieces of acting I have seen for a long time was Ian MacNiece's performance as Winston Churchill, whom he got completely wrong. Churchill was made out to be a far too dumpy and ignorant version of Billy Bunter. There was very little of Greyfriars in the real Saviour of Mankind .
Had my friend and hero, Bob Boothby - or Baron Boothby of Buchan and Rattray Head, to give him his full title, which he rather enjoyed - been alive today, I am sure he would have ADORED the play. And spoken up for it. And encouraged 'all ' - his favourite description of the voters - to go and see it.
The other errors and omissions in the play are too numerous to mention but here are just a few .
It has taken a little time to recover from the trip back in time but Tory Historian has now returned to the twenty-first century, ready to discuss both the production and the history as presented in the plays, which is very different from the history as it happened though, curiously, the overall pattern is not inaccurate.
(Tory Historian has finally worked out that Prince John, Henry V’s younger brother and later the Duke of Bedford, was not murdered spectacularly and bloodily by Joan La Pucelle but was actually the man who had her tried and executed. Furthermore, he died in his bed, which is quite an extraordinary idea, and was the founder of the University of Caen and a man who commissioned some of the finest illuminated manuscripts of the period. This is not a side of the man that is made at all clear in the Histories. One wonders whether the stylized appearance of Olivier’s Henry V, based largely on the “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry”, did not also take some ideas from the “Bedford Book of Hours”.)
Anyway, back to the Histories as written by Old Will and performed by the renewed Royal Shakespeare Company. First things first: the series was superlative. The whole ensemble performed extraordinarily well, doubling, tripling and quadrupling parts, as it is usually the case with the long sequence that has several hundred characters. Some of the actors are heading into the great Shakespearian league in Tory Historian’s opinion. Jonathan Slinger (Richard II and Richard III, as well as other parts), Geoffrey Streatfeild (Hal, Henry V, Suffolk and smaller parts), Chuk Iwuji (Henry VI, Montjoy and others), Patrice Naiambana (a superlative Warwick and other characters) are stars to be watched. They are not the only ones.
The use of vertical and horizontal space, the speed of action and movement on and off the stage, the fantastic acrobatics on ladders and ropes and the imaginative use of very limited scenery – mostly a couple of large gates, one above the other, and the occasional bed for carousing or dying – made those long, complicated plays engrossing.
Let us hope the RSC has thought of filming the sequence and the DVDs will be available though they will be no substitute for the excitement of being there.
The plays, while they follow events as they happened after a fashion, do play fast and loose with dates, ages of characters and, above all, time lags. It is hard to work out from Henry VI that the Wars of the Roses took up something like thirty years, depending on what you consider to be the end.
But, of course, they are not really history, despite the fact that so many people think them to be just that. The general pattern of what happened is there but, more importantly several themes are worked out, more obviously in the first tetralogy or Richard II to Henry V, which was written some years after the Henry VI and Richard III sequence.
The questions are about the inevitable tension between legitimacy, loyalty and fitness to govern. In what circumstances can one rebel against an anointed monarch? When he is unfit to wear the crown? When he is a usurper?
There is also the overriding concept of England and Englishness, whether in John of Gaunt’s famous speech, Mowbray’s despair at having to leave his country and forget his language, Bolingbroke’s return from exile, Henry V’s battle cry or poor Henry VI’s unaffected pleasure at being back in his own land, despite the danger that surrounds him.
England is special, being an English king is a terrible responsibility and the tensions are never fully sorted out, not even in the character of the hero, Henry V. The notion is that they will be reconciled in Henry VII but that is Tudor propaganda. There was no legitimacy in Henry’s claim and his army of French invaders supported by rebels against the anointed king triumphed through force and treachery against a ruler who then had to be shown to be unfit to rule retrospectively.
Shakespeare takes no real sides though he seems to have been antagonistic to high churchmen, most of whom are villainous intriguers. How much of the trouble in Henry VI might have been avoided if the Bishop of Winchester (a scheming Beaufort), later a cardinal, had not been so intent on establishing his power over the young king and thwarting his uncles?
One of the best scenes in this production is the death of Cardinal Beaufort in Henry VI Part II, where his prayers for God’s mercy are silenced by the ghost of the murdered Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the King’s uncle. With those two powerful personalities out of the way the fun between the Yorkists and Lancastrians begins.
Which side is Old Will on? An interesting question, given the circumstances in which the plays were written and given the final one with the fantastically evil, hunchbacked Richard at the heart of it. The problem is that Richard the Monster is an inexplicable and unusual character, who suddenly morphs from Richard the loyal son of the Duke of York, member of a warm and affectionate family, brave and talented soldier. Towards the end of Henry VI Part III and in Richard III the clever, complex plays become crude propaganda.
Even then Shakespeare’s genius shines through. Richard is a favourite part for actors, most of whom seem to be able to find much that is human and, if not admirable, then attractive. After all, even according to the text, the hunchbacked, crippled monster excites loyalty in men and love in women. Famously, Richard wonders about that himself while spurring himself on to greater nastiness.
It’s not as if the series was particularly pro-Lancastrian. Quite clearly, they are usurpers who have cheerfully executed everyone who stood in their way and who supported the rightful king or his heir, imprisoning said heir, Mortimer, for life; when the Duke of York explains his claim to the throne, Warwick and Salisbury easily accept them and Henry VI finds them hard to refute.
Nor are the Yorkists particularly unpleasant in their behaviour except the boys to Lord Clifford who had tormented their father and, worst of all, murdered their much loved younger brother, a child who would have been spared by anyone except a man demented by his father’s death in battle years before that.
The Rutland episode in Henry VI Part III is very peculiar. Easily the most brutal and revolting in the whole sequence, it trumps the infamous murder of the young princes in the Tower. Presumably, it is not so well known because the three parts of Henry VI are performed rarely whereas Richard III is fairly frequently.
Lord Clifford maddened by the death of his father in battle finds the Duke of York’s youngest son, a child who is hiding with his tutor after what is presumably the Battle of Wakefield, and cuts his throat. Subsequently, the Duke is captured (in fact, he was killed in battle) and tormented by Clifford and other Lancastrians before being murdered. Part of the torment is Queen Margaret producing a napkin, which she had dipped in Rutland’s blood, and rubbing it into York’s face.
Before his death the Duke, naturally enough, curses the She-Wolf of France and expresses the hope that she would experience a torment that equals his on learning of Rutland’s death. Unusually, she does not remember this curse when her own son is killed after the Battle of Tewkesbury.
When the three brothers learn of this monstrous behaviour they, particularly Richard, go into a frenzy of rage. The deliberate murder of a child is horrific.
The general effect is to turn the audience into Yorkists, even if they were not that before. In fact, one wonders whether there is not an academic dissertation to be written that would prove Shakespeare, the Warwickshire man, to have been a secret supporter of the Yorkist cause. (Just joking.)
The point is that the episode never happened. It did not simply happen otherwise; nor is there a question mark over it as there is one over the unexplained disappearance of the two princes. There simply was no such event and could not have been.
Edmund, Earl of Rutland was not the youngest son of the Duke of York – that was Richard. He did take part in the Battle of Wakefield and seems to have been killed afterwards by Lord Clifford but he was seventeen, old enough to be a soldier. His head went up on the gates of York together with those of his father and his uncle, the Earl of Salisbury. It was George and Richard who were little boys and had to be sent away to safety after the battle, which temporarily put paid to Yorkist hopes and ambitions.
Why did Shakespeare invent something so utterly nasty against the Lancastrians? There seems no explanation.
While we are on the subject of unexplained matters, one cannot help wondering about the fascination usurpers and usurpation exerted over Shakespeare. Of course, there is plenty of dramatic tension in the subject but there was also plenty of danger in writing about it in Tudor times. What, one wonders, did Queen Elizabeth and her various courtiers make of these discussions about legitimacy?
What did they make of a later play, also about usurpation and legitimacy, the very popular Hamlet? And what did King Jamie make of yet another play on that theme, Macbeth, with its uncanny description of what we would now call a totalitarian state?
Or were rulers then, as they are now, so thick-skinned that nothing short of a rebels’ standard, a sword or an axe brought their attention to these matters? One can believe that about James but Elizabeth? Surely not.
Tory Historian is taking a trip into the fifteenth century this week-end. It is very conveniently to be found at the Roundhouse in North London. Tonight it is Shakespeare's "Richard II" (well, all right, parts of the fourteenth as well) and tomorrow the two parts of "Henry IV".
As described earlier, "Henry V" had to be seen out of sequence, as tickets for tomorrow evening's performance had already been sold out. That means a break tomorrow evening and the three parts of "Henry VI" on Saturday.
"Richard III" will be given a miss. It is not a particularly good play - far less subtle than the others, being straightforward Tudor propaganda, as Tory Historian has discussed once before. It is a historical travesty and a terrible calumny on a king who was reasonably successful and reasonably popular.
Instead, a re-reading of Josephine Tey's "The Daughter of Time" is called for as well as, possibly, some of the new and more accurate books on the subject. If only there were time to read all that is needed.
Incidentally, Richard II ascends the throne as a child though not as a baby, which is the fate of Henry VI. Much trouble comes from these unhappy inheritances. Setting aside the question of who murdered the princes in the Tower and the problem of their legitimacy, it is quite clear that Richard III is right in thinking that a child ruling England at that time was a recipe for a disaster.
Further reports from the late Plantagenet reign will follow.
Two separate events in my life in the last week or so have coalesced in one theme. Things happen like that sometimes. The first was a double book launch at the Social Affairs Unit of Peter Whittle’s “Look At Me – Celebrating the Self in Modern Britain” and of Lincoln Allison’s “Disrespect – or how the wrong kind of niceness is making us weak and unhappy”.
Both books are about the modern world and of the many ills that have befallen it, thus being slightly outside this blog’s scope (though not totally so) but another interesting event was a visit to the exhibition, now closed, at the Courtauld Galleries that was about Renoir’s painting “La Loge” and various social and artistic matters surrounding it.
There are many interesting and debatable subjects in Mr Whittle’s book – too many for this posting. (There might be a return engagement at a later stage.) He builds up structures around five people, who, he thinks, are typical of modern Britain in its self-obsession: Kayleigh, Harriet, Sue and Marc, and Jason. They are, in various ways, narcissistic, anti-social, self-centred, shallow and, without acknowledging this to themselves, unhappy.
Two questions arise inevitably: are they really typical of Britain or of the British of certain generation and are they particularly new with no antecedents. I would say not really to the first and definitely no to the second. However, the phenomenon may be more widely spread these days than before.
Mr Whittle mentions the appalling habit people have of not switching their mobiles off in places like theatres, cinemas and, I would add, exhibitions. I suspect that is thoughtlessness rather than anything sinister but there may be an element of exhibitionism there: look at me, I am so important, people want me even when I am out with my friends or family.
In that connection there is the point that a number of people go to the theatre and the opera to display themselves rather than watch the performance. Now that is definitely not new as a reading of eighteenth and nineteenth (and twentieth, for that matter) century would make it clear.
Renoir’s “La Loge” is about going to the theatre to display oneself to advantage and to see who else is present. Apparently when the painting was exhibited there were discussions as to whether the lady in it was from good society or a social climber. Unless the latter is a euphemism I’d say that she is neither but a lady of the demi-monde, who is already sizing up the next patron while the present one is also surveying the scene.
Much of the excellent exhibition is about the growth in importance, socially, of the theatre in late nineteenth century France, the people who went there and the many uses visits could be put.
There is Renoir’s other painting, “At the theatre”, sometimes known as “The first outing” which shows a young girl in a box with an older female companion, perhaps her mother or sister. The rest of the audience is a blur but there is one gentleman who is more distinct. He is quite clearly eyeing the young girl for his own purposes. Despite the prettiness of the picture, it is quite disturbing.
There are the various caricatures, sometimes directed at the aristocracy, but mostly at the middle classes, whose rather innocent attempts at entertainment that is not too expensive, are presumed to be a matter for satirical laughter.
Renoir, having painted several socially dubious pictures of the theatre also produced at least two enchanting small oil paintings of middle class couples, contentedly and companionably absorbed in the performance. They are not in the theatre to show themselves off but to watch the play.
Among other artists Mary Cassatt is represented with two pictures: one of a lady in mourning, probably a widow, who, while being watched by a gentleman in another box, is herself surveying the audience with absorptions. But the most fascinating one is “Woman with a pearl necklace” that shows a completely different female attitude.
It was assumed that the lady in question was an American visitor and there are good grounds for this assumption. She is dressed and coiffed differently from the others but above all she looks at the world differently. Neither demure nor calculating, she surveys her companions openly, as an equal. A painting like that makes one realize that the American invasion of Europe and Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century must have been quite electrifying.
This week-end Tory Historian has fulfilled a long-standing ambition and visited Benjamin Franklin’s House in Craven Street, near Charing Cross Station. Well, worth a visit if you have a couple of hours to spare.
The house is as it was in the days when Franklin lived in London, trying to negotiate an agreement between the British government and the Colonies on matters to do with taxation as well as conducting scientific research, writing many things, including his Autobiography and leading and intensely busy social life.
However, there is next to no furniture. Instead of filling the house up with contemporary artefacts, the people who run it have opted for an alternative solution. They have used voices from different parts of the room, films and the presence of one actress who plays the daughter of Franklin’s landlady and the wife of the anatomist who conducted classes in the house to give a very fair idea of the great man, his many friends and interests and of the busy life of the household at the time.
Occasionally we see and hear of riots both in America and in London with the implication that in 1775 Franklin barely escaped with his life.
All in all a praiseworthy enterprise and a fascinating slice of history. Tory Historian went with a Canadian friend who was visiting London and is, like TH, something of a Franklin admirer. Sad to say, all the other people in the group were American visitors. Not that Tory Historian has any objections to American visitors, especially if they are interested in Benjamin Franklin’s stay in London but it would have been nice to see some British students of eighteenth century history. The word “students” here is used in the widest possible sense.
Franklin is as much part of our history as of America’s. He was described as a Citizen of the World, who was also a great patriot. He was, to use our own terminology, a great Anglospherist. He was desperate to avoid war between Britain and her colonies and desperately sad and angry when it became impossible. But, when the time came, he signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.