History is the discourse of power. Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended.
Here's a good world the while! Why, who's so gross
That cannot see this palpable device? Richard III, III, 6.
Borders are always drawn in blood and states marked out with graves. Ratko Mladić, Serbian Army Chief of Staff during the Balkan War.
Beginning with King John and ending with Henry VIII, the ten works known as Shakespeare’s History Plays dramatise five generations of brutal power struggle in mediaeval England. Although they were never written to be performed as cycles or as single epic works, the contemporary stage has seen a number of notable versions of the history plays as epic theatre. Peter Hall inaugurated the Royal Shakespeare Company with a cycle of eight plays, The Wars of the Roses, in 1964; again with the RSC, Adrian Noble made The Plantagents, an adaptation of the second tetralogy in 1988. Michael Bogdanov directed another famous seven-play adaptation, The Wars of the Roses, at the English Shakespeare Company in 1987. And so on.
Less illustriously, Bell Shakespeare did their own version, Wars of the Roses, in 2005. That production begged the question: why should 21st century Australians be interested in plays that are so crucially concerned with the question of Englishness, and which in fact have been formative of the fiction of English national consciousness? Can our staging these plays be anything more than a colonial gesture of defiance or obsequiousness, either being different sides of the same cultural coin? Or is there something else going on in these plays that can elicit a proper contemporary attention? Is there still something they can reveal?
Tom Wright and Benedict Andrews answer these questions authoritatively with their adaptation, The War of the Roses. Rendering eight plays in four acts over eight hours, this is a work of massive intellectual and theatrical ambition that will be impossible to encompass properly here. Trying to think about it is rather like a pleasurable version of Hercules's adventures with the Hydra: every time I address a thought, another two spring up and demand attention. But, as Wittgenstein so comfortingly says, one has to begin somewhere.
The War of the Roses is theatre of a rare and desolating beauty. It generates its startling visual richness from a poverty of illusion. Andrews strips the stage to its back walls and finds for each of the four acts a single informing (and utterly transparent) theatrical metaphor. This lyric simplicity has the effect of framing and foregrounding Shakespeare's language. It highlights the literary beauty, wit and power of the speeches, not by reverent attention to their formalities, but through excessive physical demands on the performers, which excavate the visceral truths of poetry.
In these plays, The War of the Roses is no longer plural. It is a single war, an Orwellian total war without end, a war in which peace is only war by other means, a war very close to that within which we live. And yes, in this intellectually epic realisation, Wright and Andrews demonstrate that there is indeed a reason to mount these plays in this day and time. Yes, they are parables that concern themselves with much more than narrow questions of British nationalism or pretty kings. Yes, in these old stories of English kings we can see, reflected in their faces, our own complicities, our own shames. They reflect for us the nightmare of our history, the blind, murderous tragedy that continues in our own time.
Power never goes out of fashion.
Giving it the proper capitals, Shakespearean critic Jan Kott called it the Grand Mechanism: the eternally revolving machine of History that raises high and casts low, so that he who at first believes he makes history becomes at last history’s plaything, the executioner executed. In the History Plays, the primal violence that inaugurates the State is laid bare; the illusions that conceal its bloody origins are torn roughly aside. Pomp and ritual, the notion of justice, the vision of an “anointed king” whom God blesses, or a President with a personal phone line to the Almighty, all fly up like the painted scenery on a stage to reveal a bleak world driven by the machinery of power, in which the only thing that counts is who is stronger. In this world, the world that Shakespeare brought to artistic fruition in the dark, bestial universe of King Lear, history is Godless and bereft of meaning.
The wheel turns: the pretender murders the king and seizes the crown, only to become himself a victim. Thus, as Camus sardonically observed, you might witness the true meaning of Revolution. Hegel thought history had a deeper and rational purpose, the evolution of the human spirit towards freedom and enlightenment: Marx, following Hegel, thought it a mechanism that would generate freedom for the masses enslaved by capital. But Shakespeare’s view of history is altogether starker.
It is, in many ways, a pre-Christian vision. As a young man, Shakespeare encountered the Latin poets, in particular Seneca, whose bloody tragedies influenced works like Titus Andronicus, and Lucan. Marlowe's translation of Lucan’s Pharsalia, his epic poem about the Roman Civil Wars, was popular in Elizabethan England when Shakespeare was writing the Henry VI plays, and may in fact have been their model. In this poem, Lucan describes the cosmos as a malfunctioning machine facing inevitable collapse under its own weight, a universe without meaning or purpose. Certainly in both works, ruinous civil wars lead to the creation of a tyrant - Caesar in one, Richard III in another.
Like Lucan and Seneca, Shakespeare saw history as an endless wheel of pain, a cycle of suffering that serves no purpose but its own continuation, and whose only production is corpses. The wheel turns and turns again: blood oils the axle, its iron rim crushes the human body under its irresistible weight, the next king rises and murders and falls. And for what? For the golden circle that is without beginning or end, the empty crown of state, the beautiful delusion that, once it has seduced its victims, reveals its true face:
... for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court ...