Wrecks, Arms & the Man, Richard II

Written by:
John Sullivan
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Theater during the season in New York can amount to a rich diet. This Fall, for instance, offered an array of works by known, unknown, nearly known, and canonical writers: ‘Wrecks (Niel La Bute), True West, (Sam Shepard), Arms & the Man (GBS Shaw), and as always, at least one Shakespeare play on or Off Broadway, this time a brilliant Richard II.. They have nothing in common but time and place. Some offered a few surprises.

Wrecks is a monologue by Neil Labute seductively performed by Ed Harris. Man, unnamed, meditates on the wreckage of his past, a failed romance, a few blasted hopes, some regrets, but without self pity. He is a mild mannered man, pleasant, appealing, basically fundamentally the same character who appeared in Working Girl, only here he is rueful. There’s a soft shrug of the shoulder in his tone, ‘what can you do, we endure’. The role asks too little of Harris. It creates the sense that nothing too bad can have happened to the Man, no matter what he says. He seems, strangely, to be insufficiently particularized, strangely since Harris is not quite a universal or an Everyman. Or is he?

Arms & The Man (1895) is early G.B.Shaw without bite. A starving Bulgarian soldier, (fed chocolate creams by the heroine) representing the title’s Arms, lands by happenstance in the bedroom of the heroine, Raina Petkof while fleeing from battle. Father Petkof concentrates all likely authority figures including the army’s ranking officer, the head of Bulgaria’s first family, and the nominal jailer of the girl’s romantic fantasies. Take it from there. The play is not quite farce, though its situation is farcical; is not quite satire, though the romantic hero gets cut down below size and satirized––Shaw cannot speak without a lashing of satire; and feels like the pleasant entertainment he intended with his first collection, Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant. More accurately, and atypically for him, Arms and The Man is a romantic comedy, not the form Shaw chose once he had honed his wit. The scathing critic of manners and mores had not yet emerged in the mid ‘90s, but even this early in his long career, all his characters are talkers, and the wittiest of them tend to be heroines. So too here.

Raina Petkof, the debutante about to “come out” into society, wise-cracks at every turn of event on visitors, courtiers, mother-daughter relations, pompous fathers, and the stray Bulgarian officer Captain Bluntschli who commandeers the Petkof residence for himself and his cohort. He bursts through Raina’s bedroom window like the romantic fantasy of the sheltered, seventeen year old girl living on a diet of chocolate creams. He devours her supply and falls onto her bed when she leaves the room to arrange for his welcome with the household. Thus Shaw’s metaphor; thus the action; thus the occasion for speechifying.

The girl is charming, her mother indignant, her father dim. Shaw played the types. Though billed as a full play, Arms & The Man unfolds like a one-act play with the romantic by-play and the implicit anti-war theme fully stated by the end of Act I. These repeat rather than develop. But that is to quibble and compare, unfairly, with the great plays to come like Heartbreak House, also staged this season.

As for the Richard II this season, it rested on Michael Cumpsty, a strong, powerful looking man with a big voice. These are commendable features for an actor playing big roles–Hamlet, Richard the Second, both for the Classic Stage Company. His handsome physical presence created an impressive image of Richard as a forceful king only reluctantly surrendering his crown after defeat in battle. Productions often enough play Richard as rather limp or febrile, suggesting that his defeat results at least in part from a weak willingness to lose. Rather, as the text indicates clearly enough, and as Cumpsty plays him, Richard is a charming man capable enough of his royal duties, but regrettably attracted by his own reflection, in the wording of one critic. This is the “shadow” that falls over his character.

To skip to a late episode momentarily, the “mirror scene” exemplifies this flaw at its most theatrical. Richard calls for a mirror to see if and how his sorrow in defeat has marked his face. (4.1.265ff). Bolingbroke mocks his play-acting wish and reproves him drily: “the shadow of your sorrow has destroyed the shadow of your face.” But Richard has revealed his pleasure in posing long before this, in the first scene of contest between Mowbray and Bolingbroke. He interrupts them several times and quite enjoys his role as supreme judge: “We were not born to sue but to command.” Attraction to role-playing is equally clear in his appreciation of Bolingbroke’s rhetoric rather than his argument against the crown in that same scene. Richard observe Bolingbroke’s command of the language with interest and perhaps wonder: “How high a pitch his resolution soars.”

Neither of these tendencies to self-reflexiveness would have predicted his degradation and death. Richard’s tragedy instead hinges on two mistakes: he seizes Lancaster’s lands, thus inviting reprisal; and he precipitously deposes himself. Apart from its possible illegality, and to provide an angle here on deposition other than histrionic, Richard’s act creates a political power vacuum. He compels the court to reconsider his initial claim that the crown is divinely appointed: “Not all the water…can wash the balm of an anointed king.” (3.2.55 though the court must address the results of Richard’s action pragmatically and instantly. Perhaps Shakespeare leaves the idea of divine right ambiguous; it’s a poetic figment consistent with Richard’s conviction that god has an army in “heavenly pay” to defend him. He nonetheless loses the battle and then surrenders too much by offering to resign: “What must the king do now…Must he be deposed?”

Richard stands on a gilded ladder at the beginning of the scene, (3.3) a perfect visual prop for the poetic imagery of his descent: “Down, down I come like glistering phaeton”, a thrilling moment of drama that Cumpsty performed brilliantly– “in the base court? Come down?” He speaks out of grief and “fondness” says Northumberland, commenting not only on the miserable king but on the larger action of rise and fall. When Richard arrives “below” in Bolingbroke’s court, all genuflect to salute him as king, which provokes his instruction to Bolingbroke: “Up cousin, up, Your heart is up I know.” The more prosaic up and down of Richard’s imaginary “buckets” on a pulley, filling and emptying from the crown as a well, or filling with his tears, lead Bolingbroke to some irritability and impatience. “I thought you had been willing to resign.”(i.e., what are you going on about?) In fact, an emotional and broken Richard will create a greater drama out of his grand undoing (in 4.1) by reversing the litany of coronation: “With mine own tears I wash away my balm…With mine own tongue…With mine own breath…” Marvelous as the scene is, it represents a minor flaw in the dramaturgy since Shakespeare never prepared us for it; put the other way round, the deposition is not foreshadowed in Richard’s character up to that point.

The actors speak beautifully in this production, a challenge since Shakespeare wrote this play entirely in verse. They did not try to naturalize the iambic pentameter by breaking the rhythm; they rather reminded us how naturally English falls into “iambs.” With this play, too, Shakespeare sees history made by the personal conflict of two characters, and particularly the problematic nature of the dukes’ allegiance to the king. In the working out of this theme, the Duke of York’s reluctance to side with Bolingbroke when he returns to England as Lancaster replays the historical issue, still sensitive in Shakespeare’s lifetime.

The story of Queen Elizabeth’s objection to the play usually cites her indignation at the staging (4.1) of Richard’s deposition. She objected; it was excised; and performed without the scene. But the antagonism between Lancaster and York drove just as deeply into the audience’s imagination. Many would have known Shakespeare’s earlier dramatizations, with the Henriad, of the “hundred years” of civil war instigated by Richard’s banishment and abuse of Bolingbroke-Lancaster. And most in the audience knew from their schoolroom history of English Kings that Richard probably had ordered the murder of his powerful uncle Duke of Gloucester and that Mowbray had arranged it. No one accused Richard of this openly in court since he was god’s deputy on earth. But no one registered surprise when he banished his henchman Mowbray. In a word, Shakespeare dramatizes the collapse of absolute monarchy on the levels of both character and political action. Could Queen Elizabeth NOT have noticed this?

The set for this production was inspired simplicity. The theater is a black box; a red carpet spread out center stage on blonde wood flooring, along with four, armless gilt chairs defined an elegant court. A photo blow up of a handsome head projected against the back wall vaguely resembled Paul Newman (well, sort of) more than any of the actors. Costumes offered telling details: Lancaster and Norfolk wore gloves, as would gentlemen warriors. The king wears beautiful shoes of patent leather and woven cloth. Doan Ly played a lovely Isabel in a simple gown, and Graham Winton made a healthy, strong Bolingbroke. The courtiers wore tails; they were jolly drunks at an opening party, singing “If you go out to the woods today you may get a fine surprise.”

Richard in jail imagines for a touching moment the new King’s triumphant march into London riding on Richard’s horse Barbary. “Would he not stumble,” Richard says ruefully; it’s the last of his possessions acquired by the new king. The production says, in effect, ‘not quite’ Two henchmen come to court carrying bloody sacks with the heads of Richard’s cohort. The authority for this, I take it, is free interpretation of text, in which Northumberland reports to Bolingbroke that various heads have been sent to London to substantiate report of their defeats. Bolingbroke’s response, “I thank thee gentle Percy” won a laugh out of all this gore. Then Exton and “bearers” bring a huge coffin holding Richard’s corpse to the new King, who “thanks them not….Though I did wish him dead/I hate the murderer.” With this ending Shakespeare balances the play’s opening when Richard dealt with his Exton, that is, Mowbray. But the moment is quite formal, its point nearly unnoticeable.

Nina daVinci

Richard II by William Shakespeare. Directed by Brian Kulick for The Classic Stage Company. Set: Tom Gleeson; Costume: Ona Botez-Ban. With Craig Baldwin (Mowbray); Michael Cumpsty (Richard); Bernardo De Paula (Bushy); Jon Devries (John of Gaunt); David Greenspan (Bagot); Doan Ly (Queen Isabel); Graham Winton (Bolingbroke); Craig Baldwin (Mowbray); others.

Other plays mentioned in this essay: Arms & The Man produced at the Pearl Theatre, was among G. B. Shaw’s first group of plays, published as Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant. Directed by Gus Kaikkonen. With Rachel Botcham (Raina); Robin Leslie Brown (Catherine); Hanna Moon (Louka); Bradford Cover (Capt.Bluntschli); TJ Edwards (Nicola); others.

Wrecks written by Neil Labute, who also directed. Featuring Ed Harris


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