I have commented before that having Shakespeare’s history plays, of Roman and English leaders, I do not need much more to understand history and politics. A month or so back, we saw a new play, All the Way, at Arena Stage. It chronicles the year that Lyndon B. Johnson became president after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was not sure how to write a review of this. Being busy with other tasks, I set the program aside. Then, we saw the American Shakespeare Center’s production of Henry V. The parallels were obvious. This history was written, with variations, 400 years ago.
The common theme is the transition of power, with an unlikely leader emerging. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, parts 1 & 2, we meet Prince Hal, who would become King Henry V upon his father’s death. Prince Hal is the tavern-slummer, hanging out with his low-life friends, Falstaff, Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym at Nell Quickly’s establishment. Hardly a kingly sort. LBJ was Vice President in Kennedy’s shadow. He was not one whom we would have expected to step up boldly to lead the country in a period of many crises. Both plays show is that transition, with a degree of historic accuracy.
The common style of theatrical presentation is a fast-paced, quick-scene transition style. All the Way is set in the round, with characters (i.e. LBJ, Lady Bird, CIA director Hoover, VP Humphrey, et al.) entering from 4 archways. Though the Blackfriar Theatre is a thrust-stage, they used the whole theatre space for their production of Henry V: kings, soldiers, drunkards, et al. enter and exit from three doorways at the back of the stage, but also the two entrances for the audience, often with amazing speed and swords drawn. several times, while reciting lines, the actors excused themselves while crossing through the rows of audience members. These techniques keep up the frenzy of the action and draw us into events.
Both plays have long character lists. Both productions used multiple-character casting, such that one actor performed up to half-a-dozen characters throughout the plays. Some of these were characters who might be in only a scene or two, and also crowd scenes, such as when Henry V or Charles VI of France lead armies into battle, or LBJ makes speeches. Of course, this requires quite a bit of concentration on the audience to distinguish the same actor as different people… and on the actors to make quick costume changes as they walk off through one door, returning moments later through another as a different door.
Henry V’s battles are on the fields of France, leading up to his victory as Agincourt. LBJ’s battles are on the field’s of TV media, dealing with the civil rights struggles in southern state, the escalation of the conflict in Vietnam, and the primary election races leading up to the 1964 Democratic Convention (“All the Way with LBJ”). Henry V’s resolution is the peace with France and marriage to princess Katherine. LBJ’s resolution is his nomination for the presidency.
History revolves. Themes and variations. If you need a prior source before Shakespeare, dust off Plutarch for a good read about power and politics.