Monday, September 7, 2009

Embracing the Dark Side


A few months ago my son came up to me and asked, somewhat sheepishly, if it was "okay to like playing the bad guys better than the good guys." I asked which bad guys he meant, and he said that he liked playing the Emperor in Star Wars because "he gets to say all the good stuff." I had to agree (with the caveat that seeking galactic domination isn't a laudable life goal). So much more fun to snarl "we will crush you" or "we have you now" in a deep, creepily calm voice than to cry "you'll never get away with it!" just seconds before they blow your home planet into cosmic debris. It's obvious that Will's Richard III is a precursor to George Lucas's Emperor Palpatine; both start out acting like good guys, working hard for the nation (or alliance) as a whole, while they sow the seeds of treason and murder. There are other parallels, too. Will's history plays can be roughly divided into two groups (excluding King John and Henry VIII). The so-called "first tetralogy," or group of four plays, includes the three Henry VI plays and Richard III; these deal with the Wars of the Roses (a series of dynastic wars in the mid-to-late fifteenth century) and its aftermath. The second tetralogy includes Richard II, Henry IV 1 and 2, and Henry V. As in the Star Wars saga, the plays that were written later are chronologically earlier, and are more clearly tied to the contemporary English political scene than are those of the first tetralogy, which are more mythic in both structure and theme.

Richard III stands out among Will's plays in that its principal character is a villain. Richard obviously influenced Will's conception of villainy in the later plays, prefiguring characters such as Iago in Othello, Don John in Much Ado About Nothing, and Edmund in King Lear, but none of those characters is at the center of the drama the way Richard is, and none has the sheer theatrical power Richard commands on the stage. He is evil, but also alluring, pathological, but also more insightful and "logical" in his thinking than any of the other characters, at least in the first acts. And, as my son pointed out, there's something about a bad guy that we just can't resist. Will's bad guys talk directly to audience, for one thing, daring us to commiserate with or protest their fiendish plans. His heroes, on the other hand, pitch their soliloquies just over our heads, as if seeking approval or guidance from somewhere (or someone) Higher.

A little background:

As the play begins, the Yorkists are celebrating their victory over the Lancastrian King, Henry VI. The power struggle between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians goes back to 1399, when the weak King Richard II was deposed by Henry IV--this is dramatized in the second tetralogy. But dynasties that begin with depositions are never very stable. The Yorkists, claiming that the Lancastrian succession was illegitimate, pressed their claim on the battlefield and finally defeated--and murdered--the last Lancastrian, Henry. England is now ruled by the Yorkist Edward IV. It gets confusing because there are lots of Edwards running around. The King's young heir is also called Edward, and King Henry had a son named Edward who appears in the play as a ghost, haunting Richard. The principal Edward for our purposes, however, is the aforementioned Edward IV, the new Lancastrian king, and Richard of Gloucester's (our Richard's) brother. There's another brother named George--he's the Duke of Clarence, so Will just calls him "Clarence" in the play. Richard is the youngest, so he has to get the other two out of the way if he wants the throne.

Edward's wife is Elizabeth; this is her second marriage. Her pedigree isn't that great for a queen, and Richard makes a lot of this fact. In the Ian McKellen film version, Elizabeth and her brother are played by Americans Annette Bening and Robert Downey, Jr., with American accents to indicate their "upstart" status. It totally doesn't work--they just seem like bad actors. It's too bad, because that production is otherwise excellent.

It's important to recognize, as I mentioned in my previous post, that the history plays were for the most part written as Tudor propaganda. Elizabeth I was a Tudor, the granddaughter of Henry VII, who emerges victorious at the end of this play. The death of Richard marked the end of Plantagenet rule (both the Yorkist and Lancastrian pretenders to the throne were Plantagenets), and the Tudor ascent could be seen as a usurpation itself. It was therefore important that Richard III be demonized, in order to legitimate the Tudor claim. Will's evil Richard isn't his own invention; several early historians, including Sir Thomas More, contributed to the picture of Richard as a deformed, scheming tyrant. As far as we know he was not physically malformed, nor was he in utero for two full years, or born with teeth, as the propagandists claimed. By most accounts he was a reasonably good ruler--but he'll always be remembered as the king who was "determined to prove a villain," thanks to Will.

Still, he's indisputably more popular as a bad guy than he would have been as a good king. Thanks to the charisma of Will's Richard and the actors who played him, the historical Richard has organized defenders. In 1924 the Richard III Society was founded in England; the express purpose of the group is to defend Richard's memory from the Tudor smear--but I suspect that, paradoxically, Will's wicked King is the real attraction.

What is his appeal? Like many villains, he has two personas (yeah, I know it's "personae," but that sounds unbearably stuffy). There's the "public" Richard--the good, self-effacing younger brother--and the private one--the scheming, power-hungry sociopath. Because he's so obviously "split" this way, we identify with him despite his nefarious intentions and deeds. Who among us doesn't show a "sunny" face to the world, shoving our petty envies and irrational aversions into the private sphere? No one acts the same in public and in private. In this sense, Richard is us--he just happens to have bigger aspirations, and acts on them. Because he's Will's creation, this inside/outside opposition manifests itself in lots of double entendres. When he sees that his poisonous schemes have paid off, resulting in his brother Clarence's arrest, he promises to try and free him:

...this deep disgrace in brotherhood
Touches me dearer than you can imagine.

Clarence understands this to mean, "our brother Edward has acted disgracefully; I'm really deeply upset." But his words can also mean, "I'm more implicated than you can guess in this fraternal betrayal." He goes on to assure his brother that he'll be free soon:

Your imprisonment shall not be long.
I will deliver you or lie for you.

Clarence hears "I'll do everything I can to get you out, even if it means taking your place in prison." But we, in the audience, hear the other meaning: "I'll tell enough lies about you that your imprisonment will be shortened by death."

Richard's charismatic stage presence owes a lot to lines like these; his mastery of people and events is inextricable from his command of language. If George Lucas had been a better writer, his Emperor Palpatine might have rivaled Richard in theatrical malevolence. As it is, he never transcends the usual "evil overlord" cliches, and has to take a back seat to the humorless and laconic Darth Vader. But Lucas isn't in Will's league, obviously, so it's not surprising that our favorite villain in the Star Wars saga is the guy with the impressive voice in the scary suit. Evil, like nostalgia, isn't what it used to be.

Next time, Richard's whole personality in one monologue.

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