Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Spectacle of Power

Okay, before I get back to reading the play I want to give everyone a heads up on the fascinating conversation I've been having in the "comments" section of the blog. One of my readers, Jonathan Evans, has reminded me that a great performance of one of Will's plays can really change everything you think about the play-as-text. I know I haven't talked much about the performance aspect of the plays--mostly because, owing to geographical constraints, I've seen very few good productions. These are living works of art, and it's important to remember that. Jonathan's comments refer specifically to the Richard Eyre production of Richard III, performed at the National Theatre in the early 1990's. From what I gather, Eyre sees Richard as a three-dimensional man rather than a stock Vice figure, and manages to exorcise some of the proto-vaudevillian moments that tend to tip over into dark comedy. Thinking about the play this way reminded me that it's awfully easy to get a picture stuck in one's head when reading any kind of literature. Drama--unlike, say, a Victorian novel--forces us to rethink, re-visualize, and re-imagine stories that we think we know by heart. In that sense it's a moral and intellectual exercise as well as an aesthetic experience. Jonathan's description of the Eyre production is at the end of the "Kiss Me Deadly" post. Check it out.

Now back to Act 3, and some thoughts on populism and power.

Most of us remember the story of "The Emperor's New Clothes" from childhood. The Emperor is cozened by some crafty tailors who claim to have discovered magical fabrics that only the wise can see. Unwilling to admit that he isn't wise, the Emperor allows himself to be presented to the people stark naked; his courtiers, equally afraid of being thought foolish, praise his invisible garments and his good fashion sense. Eventually a child points out that the Emperor is, in fact, unclothed, and the crowd's "suspension of disbelief" collapses.

The story illustrates a sort of "vanishing point"--quite literally--of absolute power. The king is so omnipotent that no one dares contradict him--so he's easily manipulated by stronger personalities and ideas, which then undermine the illusion of infallibility. Once the populace begins to suspect that there's a human, desiring body beneath the trappings of majesty, he's easily deposed. This happened rather dramatically early in the twentieth century, when the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, allowed his private life to infect his public persona. The Bolsheviks seized on this as proof that Nicholas was "just a man," not a demi-god--this assertion allowed them to shift the locus of power from the mythologized Romanov dynasty to a romanticized notion of The People.

Pageantry and spectacle can work to further validate a ruler whose power is secure, however: Elizabeth I's "progresses"--ceremonial, highly theatrical tours of the country--paradoxically celebrated both the queen's omnipotence and her concern for the average citizen (see picture above left). I've often thought our American suspicion of public pageantry has had the disquieting effect of shifting the "drama of power" to the private sphere--we take an inordinate interest in the private lives of powerful people, but apply no such scrutiny to their professional behavior. Constitutional monarchies have an advantage here--the spectacle of royalty (ideally) creates a unifying fantasy for the nation, which can be useful when asking people to do something (like pay more taxes) for the Greater Good. Of course this only works if the royals themselves realize that their role is to dress up and shut up--once they reveal that they have opinions, desires, and a will of their own, they become more trouble than they're worth.

The significance of spectacle was much on my mind as I read through the remainder of Act 3. Spectacles--in the form of parades, allegorical dumb-shows, and (even) public executions--enabled medieval and early modern monarchs to enlist the populace in their absolutist project. The sheer force of Richard's personality makes him terrifyingly effective in an intimate setting; when he's trying to convince a few people of his own class to do his bidding, he seems (up to this point) unstoppable. But his most significant actions remain furtive, illegitimate, hidden from public view. He has no demonstrated ability to work his magic on crowds, as Richmond does at the end of this play, or Henry V in the second tetralogy. Richard may have deceived and intimidated the court and the Mayor into following him, but he's made no such effort with the citizenry. His ambitions propel him into the public sphere, but it's pretty clear that he has no idea how to be a public figure.

The Scrivener who writes the (belated) indictment of Hastings seems to reflect the disconnect between Richard and the citizens he hopes to rule:

Here is the indictment of the good Lord Hastings,
Which in a set hand fairly is engrossed,
That it may be today read o'er in Paul's--
And mark how well the sequel hangs together:
Eleven hours have I spent to write it over,
For yesternight by Catesby was it sent me;
The precedent was full as long a-doing;
And yet, within these five hours, Hastings lived,
Untainted, unexamined, free, at liberty.
Here's a good world the while! Who is so gross
That cannot see this palpable device?
Yet who is so bold but says he sees it not?
Bad is the world, and all will come to naught,
When such ill dealing must be seen in thought.

It seems to me that this short scene marks the turning point of the play, when Richard's fortune literally catches up with his swiftly-plotted schemes, and begins its descent. A potent combination of intimidation, seduction, and mendacity has won him the allegiance of the court, but he's neglected to appeal to the people, who have the collective power to affirm or reject him as king. The Scrivener, like the child in the Andersen fairy tale, is well aware that the Emperor has no clothes--"who is so gross/That cannot see this palpable device?" Who's such a moron that he doesn't see what Richard's up to? "Yet who is so bold, but says he sees it not?" But who is brave enough to speak the truth? Only the women in the court, who, as we've seen, are relegated to the sidelines, their ritualistic laments and prophecies having (for the moment) no lasting effect on the action. The Scrivener represents the discontented populace as a whole, and stands in for the other writers--Tudor propagandists--who will be bold enough to see the "truth" of Richard's deeds.

As the chief Tudor propagandist, Will had a vested interest in establishing a stark contrast between Plantagenet absolutism and Tudor populism; hence the somewhat comical scene that follows, when Buckingham utterly fails to summon Richard's theatrical magic and thereby win over the people with his lies. He regales the crowd with tales of Edward's licentiousness and bigamy, praises Richard to the skies--all to no effect:

And when mine oratory grew toward end,
I bid them that did love their country good
Cry 'God save Richard, England's royal king!'

"And did they?" asks Richard. "No," Buckingham replies, "they spake not a word."

Here we see a central theme for the rest of the play: the failure of mediation. Richard obviously can't proclaim himself king; he needs Buckingham to do it. But Buckingham's theatrics prove ineffectual--so it's left to another mediator, the "Recorder," (reader of official proclamations and edicts) to finish the job. The slanderous intervention is twice removed from its origin, and doubly weakened. A ruler's efficacy depends in large part on the people he delegates his message to--a truly powerful monarch can't be the sole owner of his agenda. But Richard's power seems to inhere in his person--whenever he has to be heard through others, his words fail to move an audience.

Our current president, for all his good intentions, seems not to have internalized this political rule of thumb, i.e., that good mediation is the key to political success. Will understands it quite well, however...which makes me wonder why more politicians don't read his plays. Hey, maybe I can get Obama to read my blog....

Anyway, Will's message is clear--Richard can act, but he can't rule.

Failing to rouse the citizenry on the usurper's behalf, Buckingham next attempts to stage a "tableau"-- today we'd call it a photo-op. He's going to use what we used to call "reverse psychology" to get Richard the crown. The scene has a simple back-and-forth movement: Richard pretends he's more interested in a contemplative religious life than in "serving" the country, Buckingham makes his case for the illegitimacy of Edward's heir, Richard demurs, the Mayor and a few of the citizens press him, finally he gives in with ostentatious reluctance. Now, I've always had trouble seeing this scene as anything but high camp--Richard, posing on a stairway, flanked by two bishops in full high-church regalia. I imagine him in some sort of quasi-ecclesiastical garb as well, prayer book in hand, his air of piety so contrived and overdetermined that he seems to belong in a Genet play instead.

Jean Genet, in case you missed reading him during adolescence, was a French dramatist associated with the Theatre of the Absurd in the mid-twentieth century. His plays are peopled by homicidal maids, lecherous Bishops, homosexual sailors, and the like. If you don't read him before age twenty, forget it. He's like D.H. Lawrence that way--he just doesn't make sense once you've had a real job. But if time travel were possible, you might be able to find me back in the late 1970's, sitting in an IHOP (no dark, smoky cafes in the Midwest) my kohl-rimmed eyes fixed intently on a copy of Genet's Complete Plays while a menthol cigarette dangled from my lips....

Come to think of it, that's a pretty good argument against time travel.

But getting back to Richard's photo-op--Buckingham orders him to "play the maid's part," i.e., play hard to get, but also pretend to a "gentle, kind, and effeminate remorse" at having to depose his brother's (unfortunately illegitimate) child. We've already seen, in his exchange with Anne, that he's good at slipping from one gender role to another when it suits him. This can lead to a kind of simpering, campy Richard, and he's been played that way many times. In this interpretation, the scene would "peak" when Buckingham, pretending to give up his entreaties, berates Richard one last time, then says

Come, citizens. 'Swounds, I'll entreat no more.

"'Swounds" is a shortened form of "by Christ's wounds" which is a medieval and early modern version of "for Christ's sake," i.e., a mild oath. Richard gently admonishes him for it:

O do not swear, my lord of Buckingham.

I've always found this remonstrance so over the top that it seems to push the whole scene over into comedy. After he says it, the people begin to leave, and he has to call them back--as if he knows he's overdone it.

But reading Jonathan's description of the Eyre production made me realize that this could be done in another way altogether. First, I've always assumed that there are only a few citizens present. But if there were an actual crowd, wouldn't it feel and look completely different? I mean, the scene would be an answer to the anxieties expressed by the Scrivener, a spectacle of of royal power and authority, grounded in religion (as it so often was and is), instead of a ludicrous attempt to shove Richard down the throats of an unwilling citizenry. Richard's religious "props" could be part of his "costume" from the beginning--he could present himself as a spiritual man, an answer to the licentious weakness of his brother's reign. Certainly this version would have much more relevance for us today--religion is, at least in this country, the foundation of right-wing populism.

At the end of the scene, Eyre has the citizens loudly proclaim Richard King; this addition would, I think, accentuate the proto-fascist elements of the play we've identified elsewhere. It would also make the scene an effective spectacle rather than a failed one. In this version, the citizens would be rather like Anne in the wooing scene--reluctant, mistrusting, but finally won over. One thing that does argue for this reading is that Richard enters "aloft," i.e., from above. This is the pinnacle of Richard's ride on fortune's wheel (I'll talk more about that next time), so it makes sense that he'd be literally higher up than the rest of them. In which case, the scene can't be comic--it has to represent the real political triumph of a character who will later fall.

Next: The wheel turns, the lambs are slaughtered, Richmond gathers his troops.

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