With a new season of Showtime’s The Tudors coming up and Barack Obama now bogged down by controversial plans for Afghanistan, it seems appropriate to reflect on a recent trend that graced the Broadway stage over the past couple years. George W. Bush’s reign got Americans riled up, doubting their Commander-in-Chief’s decision-making abilities and crying for “change.” Hope is a theme on display in the current Broadway revival of Ragtime — possibly a little late to the game seeing how Obama’s grace period is over — but looking back at the recent cultural landscape, outrage and fear were strong themes playing out on stage throughout 2008-2009.
Surveying some of Broadway’s best offerings over the last couple years, as well as a quick glance at prime-time television programming, one common storyline jumps out. King Henry VIII and all of the Tudors-related atrocities have seen a prominent revival, most recently with the recently updated play Mary Stuart, along with the recent Broadway revival of A Man for All Seasons and the latest season of The Tudors. Three politically weighty stories, each attacking another aspect of the Tudor’s reign in Britain. American audiences have embraced these productions, on some level, because of a fury over the Bush throne, built up and managed not unlike a royal bloodline.
When London’s Donmar Warehouse staged a newly updated production of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart in 2005, British audiences had an opportunity to relate not only to the shrewd railings against their own royal history, but also their prime minister Tony Blair‘s link with Bush. American audiences then had a chance to embrace the tale of Mary Queen of Scots and her archrival Elizabeth I, as the London production transferred with much fanfare to Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre, having opened in April of this year. Without a storied Monarch to draw comparisons with, the onus falls directly onto the shoulders of the Bush administration when justifying our recent interest in the Tudors lot. Peter Oswald’s adaptation of Mary Stuart provided an exciting look into an epic political battle between two of history’s most power hungry leaders.
After King Henry VIII died, his crown was passed down to his sole son, but only briefly, as within a few years King Edward VI would succumb to a grave illness. Enter Queen Mary I and then Elizabeth I, all Henry’s descendents. But Elizabeth’s throne was not without dispute, especially from cousin Mary Stuart and her loyal followers. Religion was a main proponent of their quarrel, with Mary advocating the return of Catholicism in England. Nothing like a good ideological dispute to send shivers down a country’s spine.
America often faces this conflict, as was the case with Bush and his belief that he was doing divine work, telling the Palestinian Prime Minister in 2005 that he was “driven with a mission from God.” Such rhetoric is sketchy businesses in a country made up of so many varied religions, along with a growing population of agnostic people. After all, there is a guiding principle of church and state being separated in America, at least in theory, although that hasn’t lived up to all the hype.
The echoes of America’s hatred towards Bush rang throughout Mary Stuart, which is rather uncanny seeing how it was first staged in 1800. In an explosive scene with Mary, the lady breaks into a carnal outburst, shouting to the heavens that her cousin Elizabeth is undeserving having usurped the position without the graces of God. She screams, “The throne of England is desecrated by a bastard, and the noble people of the British Isles robbed by a simple trick. If right was honoured you would be sprawling in the dust before me, because I am your Queen.” An argument many would later make towards our president who was questionably anointed to the highest position in the land, not by election, rather by the Supreme Court. The sense of fury from those on opposite sides of the political spectrum was the same in 1587, when the play is set. Mary and Elizabeth’s rival was so hotly debated that it draws many parallels to the divisive nature of the elections between Bush and Gore then later John Kerry.
Despite a lackluster appearance on Broadway last year, the Roundabout Theatre production of Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons must credit the same sense of American outrage that Mary Stuart thrived on. Looking back to Henry VIII, an often mirror political image of Bush, this work focuses on the persecution of Saint Thomas More by the King of England. “You’re either with us, or against us.” Ring any bells? The stuff of horror when it came to Medieval England, thanks to an execution happy ruler.
Thomas Cromwell plays a rather large role in A Man For All Seasons, as he often did Henry’s dirty work, much like a more recent second in command. His utter contempt for More’s religious allegiance to the Pope, an ideal Cromwell and Henry fought tirelessly to rid from England, sparked a vendetta that ultimately caused More to lose his head. The construct of Cromwell’s argument is eerily reminiscent of the Bush administration’s using false evidence to launch America into war. When Henry’s chief minister realizes More is not actually guilty of any crime, he decides to manipulate the truth. “It must be done by law,” Cromwell tells Richard Rich when concocting a way to seal More’s fate. “It’s just a matter of finding the right law. Or making one.” Perhaps the beginnings of the now ridiculed Patriot Act. Leaders abusing power in order to win an argument turns out to be an age-old story.
Mary Stuart easily stands on its own, not only for the socially relevant storyline, but also for its leading ladies, Janet McTeer as Mary and Harriet Walter as Elizabeth. Broadway often tries at the game of Bush bashing, more recently with a tongue-in-cheek style such as Avenue Q making colorful remarks or highly comical as is done through talk of stripping away minority’s rights in Wicked. Such fodder is usually entertaining, but having a chance to unearth a play that discovered a newfound relevance after a few decades of sitting on the shelf allowed for a year of continuing the political conversation.
Published by The Huffington Post on December 28, 2009.