Mike Bartlett’s monarchist vision: A review of Charles III

If all conservatives are, in some sense, Anglophiles, then every snob and reactionary in all these former colonies will delight in the High Tory verse-drama King Charles III, written by the young playwright Mike Bartlett. As the name suggests, it is a speculative piece about the first months of the reign of the current Prince of Wales, with the first scene taking place just after Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. Because the main characters of the play are real, still-living people, one must overcome some amount of voyeuristic discomfort, but this is easily done, partly because the iambic pentameter helps to separate the characters from their real-life counterparts, and also because it quickly becomes clear that the William and Kate, or Charles, or Camilla of the play are fictional constructions—that Bartlett has taken considerable liberty with their personalities.

The play’s verse is purposely understated. At several points one has to consciously scan the lines because they are so conversational, for example “of course| whate|ver sub|ject you |would like.But this only serves to highlight by comparison important moments when the language becomes elevated, as in Charles’s first major speech:

My life has been a ling’ring for the throne:
Sometimes I do confess I ‘magined if
My mother hap’d to die before her time—
A helicopter crash, a rare disease
So at an early age I’d be in charge.

One cannot help but hear an echo of Shakespeare in this soliloquy with its dropped syllables. The Shakespearean echoes sometimes fall flat. Much like the Weird Sisters in Macbeth, the ghost of Princess Diana shows up a few times early in the play to tell Prince William that he will be “the greatest King we ever had.” (Cue eyeroll here.) This is a bit of far-fetched foreshadowing, and at the same time not strange enough to be effective; William is, after all, the heir apparent. Diana’s ghost only meaningfully appears just one other time (to Charles) and then is never heard from again.

The play also follows a more important but no less odious subplot (in prose, mercifully!) about Prince Harry’s love affair with a radical activist who urges him to give up his birthright. It’s not that we don’t want to care about their romance—indeed we do—it’s just that we are given very little reason to care. We are told repeatedly that Harry is in love, but we’re never shown it, and are left wondering why his “love for Jessica comes first.”

But these are minor quibbles. The power of the play is found in the way it essentially rehearses the half-millennium struggle between King and Parliament, showing how the Crown is a safeguard, rather than a hindrance, to freedom. Even Charles’ inauspicious name calls to mind the execution by Parliament of Charles I. When Charles III ascends the throne, there is a Labour government in place. The Prime Minister, Mr. Evans, secretly longs for a British Republic. After Charles refuses to give royal assent to a bill that would censor the free press, Evans brings a bill before the Commons that would completely curtail any remaining power of the Monarchy. As the bill is being debated, on the advice of Mr. Stevens, the  opposition leader, Charles dramatically enters the chamber, pounding the floor with his scepter, and in one of the best speeches of the play dissolves Parliament:

Unlike you all, I’m born and raised to rule
I do not choose, but like an Albion oak
I’m sown in British soil, and grown not for
Myself but reared with single purpose meant.
Whilst you have small constituency support
Which gusts and falls as does the wind
My cells and organs constitute this land
Devoted to entire populace
Of now, of then, and those still to come.

It is refreshing that Bartlett does not feel constrained to write in an overly colloquial idiom, as do some contemporary poets who write in meter. This, surely, is not everyday speech, even for a king, and that is precisely from where much of the pleasure is derived. The play’s exalted language is much like the majesty of the Crown itself. Charles’ words bring to mind Edmund Burke’s insistence, against the French revolutionaries and their British sympathizers, that legitimate authority is hereditary. Parliamentarians come and go, but the monarch transcends time and space. He rules, not just over a “small constituency,” and with the same authority with which every sovereign from Alfred to Elizabeth II has reigned, and that authority is unavoidably divine. In this speech, one is almost tempted to hear an echo of Louis the Fourteenth’s absolutist maxim—L’estat c’est moi—but here Charles argues that the British monarchy is not a despotism; the King is the servant of all his people after the model of Christ. And we see his protection of his people in his refusal to sign the censorship bill, a bill that would, no doubt, benefit the king’s person. Or, as Mr. Stevens puts it, there never would be

“A Nazi party making British laws
Because the reigning monarch then would stand
His ground and being Head of State refuse
To sign.”

One can imagine any number of despotic laws being passed by any parliament. It is the king who provides stability.

The irony of Charles’ self-understanding is that he is perfectly willing to be a modern king. He believes in democracy and only asks Mr. Evans that the House debate the bill again, implying he would sign if it came to him a second time. But the ambitious Prime Minister takes this opportunity to affect the monarchy’s demise. However, Parliament, having been dissolved, cannot vote to strip away the King’s power. Charles, no doubt, would have been content to have a quiet reign, to be, as he says near the play’s tragic end, an old man who “potters round/ And talks to plants and chuckles to himself.” But this is not possible. Because Charles was heir to the throne for over sixty years,his sense of duty is too strong to neglect;it is this sense of duty, over a comparatively small issue, which brings him down.

The play ends in something of an anticlimax. Britain is nearing civil war, the stock market has crashed, and there are daily riots in the streets. (The stage directions have an assaulted monarchist protester dressed, appropriately, all in tweed.) Just as tensions are at their zenith, the tanks parked outside Buckingham Palace simply drive away. It’s as if Bartlett, having written this far, did not know how he was going to end it. Granted, William and Kate’s treachery was fairly heavily foreshadowed, but they affect it in a banal family ultimatum, which, from what we now know about Charles, we are unwilling to believe he’ll accept. And yet he does. He abdicates the throne, choosing personal relationships over what he’d so powerfully argued was his sacred duty.

Perhaps this ending, unsatisfying as it is, is appropriate. In the final act,  Charles III loses its Shakespearean echo and becomes a distinctly modern artifact. Charles could not go down like Henry VI or Richard III, not in the 21st century, and we are reminded of Eliot’s famous prognosis of the modern condition: “This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Featured image “HRH The Prince of Wales” by Tom Wood, photograph by Flickr user thelostgallery (CC BY 2.0)

Black Bodies in Space

In a recent Washington Post column (in the Lifestyles section, to be sure, but a column nonetheless), Lonnae O’Neal complains that Star Wars: The Force Awakens does not give John Boyega a sufficiently heroic role to atone for Hollywood’s past misapprehensions about “the direction this country is really going in.” She quotes a Washington writer, Tim Gordon, who observes that “every time [Finn] picks up a lightsaber, he’s getting beat down and the lightsaber is getting taken from him.” That Boyega’s character is not an annoyingly flawless, Superman-like character seems to O’Neal and Gordon sufficient evidence that the creators of Star Wars are still mired in the racist past, although they admit that the film’s casting represents about as much progress as might be expected given the persistence of reactionary elements in the highest echelons of American filmmaking.

It’s not my intention to defend Star Wars to the hilt, or to offer a blanket condemnation of O’Neal’s style of socially conscious film criticism; movies certainly exercise an outsized influence on the American imagination and understanding their subliminal messages is a worthy project. But in fact O’Neal and Gordon’s criticism is a fascinating testament to the hollowness of the atheist approach to anti-racism that’s evidently been gaining ground of late in contemporary civil rights activism. Continue reading Black Bodies in Space

Not a Cold Eye

The works of Flannery O’Connor are not for everyone. A fair number of fellow readers that I’ve encountered have been repulsed by her violent style, her grotesque images, and her gothic setting. This is fair enough, I suppose. Some of these readers, though, are discerning enough to recognize her virtues even while not preferring them for themselves. This latter group tend to be religious and literary.

Marilynne Robinson (AP)
Marilynne Robinson (AP)

It was especially disappointing to me, though, to read Marilynne Robinson’s rather cutting remarks towards St. Flannery in her New York Times interview. Frankly, I was shocked that a writer like her—who very much occupies the categories of “religious” and “literary”—should so flatly misunderstand O’Connor. Continue reading Not a Cold Eye

Conservatism and the End of the World

This week in The New Inquiry William Osterweil explores the recently prevalent “Ancient Apocalypse” film and TV genre. From Gladiator to Apocalypto to Noah to an endless shambling parade of zombie films, an Ancient Apocalypse doesn’t depict the literal end of the world, but situates its heroes at the end of an age, the downfall of a quasi-historical civilization. Osterweil explains:

There is a subnational social group: a tribe, city-state or family, living, if not happily, at least in stability and relative peace. That group receives a prophecy of a coming apocalypse. The prophecy proves true almost immediately, though it refers to the end of the world only insofar as it is the end of the group as currently constituted, the end of the group’s forms of life, the group’s world. This end is violent, sudden, and comes from the outside, in the form of natural disaster, foreign hordes, or rival groups with better technology—although its effects are exacerbated by internal decadence, corruption, weakness, willful ignorance, and/or betrayal.

At first blush, these apocalyptic fantasies may seem to promote conservative values. They feature strong heroic individuals who win survival or glory against all odds in the burning debris of a collapsed civilization. Continue reading Conservatism and the End of the World

C.S. Lewis on movie adaptations; also my Hobbit review

My wife and I went to see the second Hobbit film this afternoon. In many ways it was a fun movie, but it lacked, shall we say, the wonder of Tolkien’s imagination. It reminded my wife of this excellent bit from C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Stories” in which he reflects on the problems involved in adapting literary adventure to the screen.

I was once taken to see a film version of King Solomon’s Mines. Of its many sins—not least the introduction of a totally irrelevant young woman in shorts who accompanied the three adventurers wherever they went—only one here concerns us. At the end of Haggard’s book, as everyone remembers, the heroes are awaiting death entombed in a rock chamber and surrounded by the mummified kings of that land. The maker of the film version, however, apparently thought this tame. He substituted a subterranean volcanic eruption, and then went one better by adding an earthquake. Perhaps we should not blame him. Perhaps the scene in the original was not ‘cinematic’ and the man was right, by the canons of his own art, in altering it. But it would have been better not to have chosen in the first place a story which could be adapted to the screen only by being ruined. Ruined, at least, for me. No doubt if sheer excitement is all you want from a story, and if increase of dangers increases excitement, then a rapidly changing series of two risks (that of being burned alive and that of being crushed to bits) would be better than the single prolonged danger of starving to death in a cave. But that is just the point. There must be a pleasure in such stories distinct from mere excitement or I should not feel that I had been cheated in being given the earthquake instead of Haggard’s actual scene. What I lose is the whole sense of the deathly (quite a different thing from simple danger of death)–the cold, the silence, and the surrounding faces of the ancient, the crowned and sceptred, dead. You may, if you please, say that Rider Haggard’s effect is quite as ‘crude’ or ‘vulgar’ or ‘sensational’ as that which the film substituted for it. I am not at present discussing that. The point is that it is extremely different. The one lays a hushing spell on the imagination; the other excites a rapid flutter of the nerves. In reading that chapter of the book curiosity or suspense about the escape of the heroes from their death-trap makes a very minor part of one’s experience. The trap I remember for ever: how they got out I have long since forgotten.

The female elf-warrior of the movie does not quite fit Lewis’s description of the “totally irrelevant woman in shorts,” but that whole action sequence, along with the overworked one involving molten gold under the mountain, seems to have been invented to fill hours that might have been better spent in enjoying Beorn’s hospitality or even observing the councils of the High Elves, who were entirely missing from this episode.

Image of Bilbo Baggins looking above the Mirkwood canopy surrounded by butterflies in the evening light
The Hobbit needed more of this, less pinball physics (credit: OneRing.net)

All that said, the second Hobbit was probably better than other recent action movies and not a terrible way to spend a few hours, so you might as well go see it.

Gnostic Love in Tristan und Ysolde

Last weekend my wife and I went with another couple to see Wagner’s Tristan und Ysolde. This opera is in many ways the quintessential modern re-telling of the medieval tale of two doomed lovers, vexed by duty, misunderstanding, and jealousy, and toiling under a magical enchantment.

The medieval legend, as told by Malory, is straightforwardly melodramatic. As the earnest of a peace treaty, the Lady Iseult of Ireland is to marry King Mark of Cornwall. Mark’s nephew and knight, Sir Tristram, is given the task of escorting Iseult across the Irish Sea in safe passage to Mark. Iseult bitterly hates Tristram, since she alone knows that he is responsible for the death of her brother in a contest of arms. While on the ship, the two enemies mistakenly drink a love-philtre intended to cement the union of Mark and Iseult, with tragic consequences. Eventually Tristram is discovered in Iseult’s bedchamber and slain by a jealous Mark, and Iseult, overcome by grief, falls down dead over Tristram’s body.

Wagner raises the story to a higher degree of tragedy. Fate plays a much larger role in Tristan and Ysolde’s downfall, especially since Mark eventually relents and releases the lovers to be together. As in any good tragedy, this news comes to the lovers too late, since Tristan is already dead, but it would not have made a difference. The love of Wagner’s Tristan and Ysolde is not the natural affection of spouses, nor even the star-crossed passion of ill-fated lovers, but a particular kind of fatal enchantment.

Ysolde’s Revenge

In the early part of the opera, Ysolde tells her maid Branganë of her hatred for Tristan, how as an enemy of her people Tristan came to her under an assumed name for healing after a battle, and how she discovered through the notch in his sword that he was the killer of her betrothed. Nevertheless, she did not exact revenge on him or reveal his identity to her relatives. This strays not too far from the medieval legend, in which Iseult begins to love Tristan against her will.

In Wagner’s telling, Ysolde’s mother, a renowned sorceress, has prepared various potions for her use: some for healing, one for undying love, and one for death and oblivion. Ysolde tells Branganë that she will drink the death-draught with Tristan, and so avenge both her love and her honor, which was compromised when she refrained from killing him. Branganë pleads with her not to do this, and instead of the death-draught, gives them the love-philtre to drink. Tristan, suspecting foul play, drinks it for the sake of honor, and is confirmed in his suspicions when Ysolde snatches the half-drunk cup and finishes it, exulting that she has atoned for both her lover’s death and her own dishonor.

The Love-Philtre

As the potion takes effect, both expecting to meet death, they realize that they have come under a spell more subtle but no less awful. They become possessed of a heedless, consuming passion for one another. The irony of the “love-draught” is that the “love” it instills is identified with death. Tristan comes to see himself as fated for death; the love between him and Ysolde is the love of a “death-devoted heart.” In the love scene in Act II, Tristan curses “daylight’s lies,” singing that he is a child of the night. Not the moonlit night of romance, though, but the black night that is the opposite of day; the absence of being and personality; nothingness. The love-philtre makes him reject the real world in favor of a spiritual void in which, somehow, everything about him and Ysolde is obliterated except for their transcendent “love.” Ysolde at first protests, but by the end of the duet she too is devoted to this eternal love that is an absence of personality.

In this way, Ysolde’s hatred of Tristan and of herself, the doom of death she planned to carry out, is fulfilled in a more terrible way than she imagined, as the lovers renounce life and earthly happiness in favor of death. Wagner himself called this duet “Liebestod” or “love-death,” although most apply this term to Ysolde’s final aria, which Wagner himself, fittingly, called “Transfiguration.”

Gnostic Love

This idea of a disembodied spiritual “love” clearly fits the Gnostic mold. Gnosticism teaches that people are fragments of the Divine Spirit that have been imprisoned in the “evil” material world. Gnostics try to escape the influence of the body and all other aspects of the material world, to become once again pure “spirit.” This directly contradicts the Biblical tradition in which human beings are a unity of body and spirit, created to live in the physical world as their natural home. Christianity adds to this the belief that the son of God took on the nature of humankind. Many early Christian heretics were Gnostics who attempted to deny, in some way or another, that Jesus was indeed fully human and fully divine, because they thought that for God to be truly incarnate would diminish the glory of the Divine.

The Christian and Western understanding of love and marriage stems from the knowledge of human beings as rightly incarnate souls. Human marriage is a “one flesh” union encompassing souls and bodies, and integrating a couple within the world through children and family ties. By contrast, the ‘love’ that Tristan and Ysolde experience as a result of the enchantment is strongly gnostic in its character, demanding total separation from the world and abandonment of the lovers’ own physical existence and individual personalities. But I think it would be wrong to say that Wagner is unreservedly advocating this kind of love.

It is shown throughout the opera that Tristan and Ysolde are both psychologically troubled. Tristan’s death-fixation seems to be the result of being born an orphan. He feels that he has been marked by death from the beginning. This seems very Freudian, although it predates Freud. Ysolde also explicitly embraces death in her morbid hatred of Tristan, even before they drink the love-philtre. To what extent did the potion cause this gnostic equivocation between love and death, and to what extent was it the result of the lovers’ unresolved neuroses?

Surrealist painting "Tristram and Isolde" by Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali, “Tristram and Isolde” (1944)

Fatal Passion in Context

The other characters in the opera are normals, apparently designed to offset the morbidity of the lovers. Branganë, Ysolde’s maid, and Kurwenal, Tristan’s bodyguard, typify common sense and conventional notions about life and love. When Ysolde orders her to pour the death-draught, Branganë substitutes the love-philtre instead, presumably out of a belief that even a dangerous, inconvenient, forbidden love is better than death. For Tristan and Ysolde, though, love and death are precisely the same thing. Branganë operates in the mode of melodrama suggested by the medieval legend, while Ysolde is seeing things in an opposite light. In Act II, Branganë reasonably fears a trap and urges Ysolde not to signal Tristan to come to her chamber, while Ysolde recklessly extinguishes the warning torch. As the lovers sing of love and death, Branganë’s voice breaks in, warning of the dawn and the return of the king: “Take care! Take care!” Wagner’s musical contrast between the lovers and the maidservant is breathtakingly sublime, as the music perfectly reflects the contrast between the opposite worldviews.

Similarly, Kurwenal acts out the conventions of the faithful friend. While in Act I Tristan retreats in a mist of doubt and doom, Kurwenal jauntily boasts of his master’s prowess to Branganë, inflaming Ysolde’s wrath. In Act III, Kurwenal carries the wounded Tristan back to his ancestral home and nurses him, summoning Ysolde to come and work her healing arts. Tristan, though, still “death-devoted,” ruins his servant’s hopes. When he sees Ysolde’s ship landing he rips off his bandages and dies just as she arrives, achieving (as he believes) the unity of love and death.

Finally, King Marke, the jealous, churlish villain of the medieval legend, is transformed in Wagner’s rendering into a truly noble and sympathetic character. He is deeply grieved by Tristan’s betrayal in Act II, yet refrains from violence. Instead, Tristan is betrayed and stabbed by Melot, an envious friend who Wagner seems to have invented just for the purpose. Marke, by contrast, goes so far as to pardon Tristan and Ysolde in the final act, releasing them to be together (although Tristan already lies dead). Marke’s brief aria would place the opera in the sublime realm of classical tragedy, and in a conventional opera he or the chorus would have the final word. Here, though, Ysolde steals the final scene. Still under the influence of the love-philtre, she now recapitulates the themes of the love-duet and ends in a triumphant musical climax, joining Tristan in death as the curtain falls.

How to Listen to Tristan und Ysolde

When experiencing this opera, it is a good idea to be aware of the use of leitmotifs, tunes and musical phrases which reference specific ideas. Wagner uses leitmotifs to great effect in Tristan, achieving a unity of music, words, and ideas. Leitmotifs allow Wagner to shade the sung text with meanings beyond those expressed in words, and create subtle or even bold effects of foreshadowing and fate. For instance, the motif for death appears when Ysolde is singing of the love-philtre, reminding the listener that the distinction between the two potions is less clear than it might seem.

What is beauty?

A review of Beauty by Roger Scruton and The Sense of Beauty by George Santayana

It may be the most important question for a philosopher to concern himself with–more important, perhaps, than questions about politics, or epistemology, or proofs of the existence of God–is beauty. What is beauty? How is it known? And how, given the answers to these questions, may it be evaluated? I recently acquired two books on this subject: Beauty by philosopher and critic Roger Scruton (1944- ), and The Sense of Beauty by the early 20th century philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952). Both writers are consummate prose stylists who display as well as discuss a fine aesthetic sensibility in these little volumes. Continue reading What is beauty?