Monday, January 25, 2016

Reading the Bad Plays - You Know How Bad It Is When King John Reminds You of Contemporary Politics - or Nous Sommes Angiers

I have revived a project that an old friend of mine and I started, twice,  of reading all of those plays by xthat most people don't get around to reading.  We read several of them together before she died, Love's Labours Lost, Pericles, Measure for Measure and a few of the more often read ones.

I read King John over the weekend and have to say that it is an incredibly frustrating play in many ways, containing some extremely beautiful verse that you can't help but regret is so wasted on such a messed up play filled to the top with such horrible characters,  The quote that is most famous put in the mouth of the putrid King John's son as he was about to become Henry III,

I am the cygnet to this pale faint swan,
Who chants a doleful hymn to his own death,
And from the organ-pipe of frailty sings
His soul and body to their lasting rest.

Considering what a total piece of slime his father was from the start of the play (and in history) it is extremely frustrating to have such such beauty said on his behalf.

The play, itself, was probably doomed to be ineffective due to the scope of complexity of the subject matter.  The Plantagenet/Angevin crime families, their crimes, their infighting, etc. couldn't be dealt with in a years long TV series.  Heck, you'd need a long TV series just go get through the public life of King John and his equally putrid brother, Richard.  Trying to do it in a single play is bound to falsify the real history of it by having to leave most of it out.  It is futile to try to find anyone involved  who deserves our sympathy.  What with the various governments, all of them ruthless crime families who could give our worst Eastern European, South Asian or American Republican crime families something to recognize.

Every dramatic presentation of the figures in those intrigues has falsified them.  The Lion in Winter, with the benefit of James Goldman not having to placate members of the crime family which ruled England several centuries later, written when modern history of the period had laid out how truly awful those folks were, still presents them as romanticized cartoons.  The movie with Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn is absurd.  There were simply no good guys to be had, not even when you have Katherine Hepburn play one of them, turning Eleanor into a Connecticut aristocrat - as she did every character she ever played that I'm aware of.   I dread to think that there are probably large segments of the allegedly educated population who believe Eleanor of Aquitaine was Hepburn.  The presentation of them as some kind of enlightened rulers with any sympathy to the people they tyrannized and bled for money in their petty attempts to keep territory and steal it only shows how thoroughly Americans have bought into the bull shit pageantry of English kings and queens.

George Orwell made the most interesting point about the play that I've ever seen, in the context a truly wonderful essay about how literature goes in and out of relevance depending on current events.

The obvious explanation of this sharp difference between the dominant writers before and after the war of 1914-18 is the war itself. Some such development would have happened in any case as the insufficiency of modern materialistic civilization revealed itself, but the war speeded that process, partly by showing how very shallow the veneer of civilization is, partly by making England less prosperous and therefore less isolated. After 1918 you couldn't live in such a narrow and padded world as you did when Britannia ruled not only the waves but also the markets. One effect of the ghastly history of the last twenty years has been to make a great deal of ancient literature seem much more modern. A lot that has happened in Germany since the rise of Hitler might have come straight out of the later volumes of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Recently I saw Shakespeare's [sic.] King John acted — the first time I had seen it, because it is a play which isn't acted very often. When I had read it as a boy it seemed to me archaic, something dug out of a history book and not having anything to do with our own time. Well, when I saw it acted, what with its intrigues and doublecrossings, non-aggression pacts, quislings, people changing sides in the middle of a battle, and what-not, it seemed to me extraordinarily up to date. And it was rather the same thing that happened in the literary development between 1910 and 1920. The prevailing temper of the time gave a new reality to all sorts of themes which had seemed out of date and puerile when Bernard Shaw and his Fabians were — so they thought — turning the world into a sort of super garden city. Themes like revenge, patriotism, exile, persecution, race hatred, religious faith, loyalty, leader worship, suddenly seemed real again. Tamerlane and Genghis Khan seem credible figures now, and Machiavelli seems a serious thinker, as they didn't in 1910. We have got out of a backwater and back into history. I haven't any unqualified admiration for the writers of the early nineteen-twenties, the writers among whom Eliot and Joyce are chief names. Those followed them have to undo a great deal of what they did. Their revulsion from a shallow conception of progress drove them politically in t he wrong direction, and it isn't an accident that Ezra Pound, for instance, is now shouting antisemitism on the Rome radio. But one must concede that their writings are more grown-up, and have a wider scope, than what went immediately before them. They broke the cultural circle in which England had existed for something like a century. They re-established contact with Europe, and they brought back the sense of history and the possibility of tragedy. On that basis all subsequent English literature that matters twopence has rested, and the development that Eliot and the others started back in the closing years of the last war, has not yet run its course.

For me the best part of the play, the most revealing and intellectually honest is the second act, when the competing armies of Austria on behalf of prince Arthur, John's nephew and a claimant to the throne, Phillip of France, King John, his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine and various others are poised to pillage the city of Angiers,  When they demand that the Citizens of Angiers declare which of the various factions they recognize as the legitimate ruler, John or Arthur (who John is often believed to have mutilated and murdered - perhaps with his own hand, not fell off a wall as the play says) or whoever, they essentially say they don't want any part of the royal intrigues.   In the whole play, the brief appearance of the representatives of the people of that beleaguered city are the only ones with any real claim to our allegiance because they are the ones who are most like us in the hands of our ruling elite.

I would describe how the poor Citizens of Angiers try to get out of the royal cross-hairs by getting John's niece Blanche married off to King Phillip's son, Louis, but the intrigues involved are better read than described.  They're far from obvious if you haven't reviewed the background information.

The author was biting off way more than an honest person could turn into a play.  It's doubtful anyone could have done it.  If x couldn't, who could?  The overall meaning of the play is the corruption of power, the insanity of it.  It is regrettable that he included the death of John - you feel like giving a medal to the monk who allegedly poisoned him.   I am afraid it is a lot more relevant to contemporary politics in the United States than it should be.  The Republican pack, the Republicans in congress and the triangulating establishment Democrats aren't much more rational or honest.

*  I'm inclined to think X was Bacon.  I will not pretend that that illiterate guy who couldn't spell his own name as he drew out the letters wrote the plays, especially as I'm sure this will infuriate the usual fly-specks.

Note:  From what I know of Henry III, in addition to voluntarily reissuing Magna Carta, he spent a lot of his early reign trying to prove he wasn't as awful as his father.  The pattern for screwed up English politics, though, had been cast and they still haven't gotten over it.  The great insight into history by William Faulkner is true.

No comments:

Post a Comment