Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Tug of War: Foreign Fire

Tug of War: Foreign Fire
, which premiered on Sunday, May 21, is a trilogy of Shakespeare plays assembled by Barbara Gaines and Chicago Shakespeare Theater.  These three plays have never appeared together before, and Gaines and the company magnificently pulled off this amazing coup de théâtre.

This is the first of two ambitious Shakespeare trilogies that they have planned for the 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death (as part of the Shakespeare 400 celebration).  This first trilogy consists of Edward III (an early play newly restored to the canon, more about that later), Henry V, and the first part of Henry VI.  The second trilogy, to be performed in the late summer/fall, will consist of Henry VI, Parts Two and Three and Richard III.  Each set of three plays are performed on the same day, with three breaks in between, making for a 6-hour marathon for intrepid viewers.

Shakespeare himself did, indeed, write two historical trilogies (or tetralogies, depending on how you count).  His Henry IV, Parts One and Two together with Henry V chronicle the rise of Prince Hal from tavern scalawag to king.  However, these plays were never performed together in Shakespeare’s day.  His other, earlier history trilogy, Henry VI, Parts One, Two, and Three, which tell the story of the English Civil Wars, known popularly as the Wars of the Roses, were written and performed over a period of several years.

The idea of performing plays as a trilogy, all in one day, is an ancient one.  In fifth century Athens, tragic playwrights in competition at the annual festival of Dionysius were actually required to produce three plays, plus a final comical satyr play.  All of the plays were performed on the same day and judged as a group. Modern theatrical convention, however, was against such an extended theatrical experience until the late 20th century.  One recent example is English theater director Edward Hall’s 2002 production of  the three Henry VI plays, brought together in a two-evening performance he called “Rose Rage.”

His production debuted at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2003.   Since Hall stuck to the conventional playing time of two hours, he had to edit the plays down from nine hours to five and a half, and kept staging to a minimum to allow faster scene transitions.  Even so, it was a theatrical marathon, so that, after the two performances in its UK run, theater-goers  were given a button to wear proclaiming “I Survived the Wars of the Roses.”

Gaines’s production takes Hall’s idea a step further, by creating a one-day experience that totally immerses the audience in the themes of these plays.  All three dramas focus on the Hundred Years’ War between France and England.  Gaines’s goal is to portray the horrors that this protracted conflict–or any ongoing war–inflict on the average soldier.  This theme of the ravages of continual warfare permeates the set, costumes, and the music as well as the action of the play.

The set is a bare stage, with only spare tires scattered around to indicate the detritus of a war-torn region.  Even the king’s throne is a giant spare tire, painted gold, which descends from the ceiling for scenes set in the throne room.  Suspended from the ceiling with ropes, this tire–throne resembles the tire-swing that some of us remember from our childhood.  Indeed, the kings in this play sometimes swing from the throne in a way that emphasizes how their own petulant, not to say childish, quarrels lead to the deaths of many.

A floor to ceiling scaffolding takes up the rear of the stage.  It not only serves as a battlement and lookout, but also becomes a place where kings and other royals can observe the battles, while the officers and soldiers on the stage do the fighting and dying.  This staging is especially effective when King Edward is appealed to again and again to save his son, a combatant who is sorely beset.  He refuses, claiming that the boy must earn his knighthood on his own.

The costumes, including the royal robes of the kings and queens, are ragged, thin and torn.  This too, give an air of the grubbiness of continual combat, as well as reminding us that peace, the supposed goal of war, is ever out of reach for these characters, who are always either beginning a war or ending one.  The very crowns of the kings are based on the folded paper crowns that are part of the toys found in English Christmas crackers.  When an actor in the play unfolds one of these crowns and puts it on, it is thus a reminder of the ephemeral nature of power.

The music, played live onstage is drawn from centuries of music about war.  These war ballads allow Gaines to truly show the plight of the common soldiers, who sing about the losses and horrors of war.  This music really haunts these plays, whether played in the background or between scenes.   Only in the third play does it become intrusive.  Many in the audience actually groaned when a soldier on the center stage rose in the middle of a scene to sing Pink Floyd’s anti-war anthem “Us and Them.”

Overall, the three plays complement each other well.  The first one, Edward III, which chronicles Edward’s successful attempt to reclaim France, is a play that was anonymously published in 1595.  It has only recently re-entered the Shakespeare canon, though a linguistic analysis suggests that Shakespeare may only have written about 40% of it.  The reason this play works so well here is that it has many parallel scenes to Henry V, in which once again an English king battles the French. To underline those parallels, Gaines has the ghost of Edward III, dressed in white, literally haunt Henry V, who is Edward’s great-grandson.  For example, when Henry threatens violence to the citizens in a besieged town, the ghost Edward, up on the scaffolding, repeats some lines in which he, too, had issued similar threats.  Throughout Henry V the king is repeatedly reminded of the feats of his illustrious ancestor, Edward, in France.  Just as in Greek tragedy, the bloody deeds of one’s ancestors doom the later generations to similar blood-letting.

The recurring motifs between the two plays—the dubious claims to the French throne, the king threatening non-combatants with torture and rape, and war being viewed as a game by nobles while soldiers suffer and die—bring home the pointlessness of war and its endless repetitions.  The accumulated death and destruction so haunts these plays that, when a common soldier declares (to a disguised Henry) that the cause of this war is not just, so the king is to blame for all the deaths of his soldiers, we find ourselves siding with the soldier. Therefore Henry’s explanation for why the deaths of his soldiers should not be blamed on him, rings hollow to us.

The transition from Henry V to the final play, Henry VI, Part One takes place almost seamlessly on the stage.  First we see the seemingly triumphal finale of Henry V, in which Henry defeats the French and seems about to unite the two kingdoms by marrying the French princess.  But suddenly, his robe and crown are stripped from him as the chorus reminds us that Henry died too young, while his son and heir was still a babe.  Henry V’s crown and robe are then replaced with white versions, symbolic of death, though he remains on the stage for the commencement of the next play, Henry VI, Part One, which begins with Henry V’s funeral.  Only now, in Gaines’ version, the dead Henry is condemned to be an observer of his own funeral, as he views with growing horror the infighting and internal power struggles that begin right in front of his casket.  Gaines then once again shows us the futility of war, for both we and the dead Henry soon see all of Henry V’s gains in the field squandered by the wrangling English nobles who leave the brave field commander Talbot with neither supplies nor support, so that Talbot’s defeat and death are inevitable.

The finale of this trilogy is somewhat less effective than the transitions between the plays, partly because it is difficult to make a finale out of a play that Shakespeare intended as the first of the three parts of Henry VI.  This fall, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, we will see most of these characters return in Henry VI, Parts Two and Three as part of the next trilogy that will end with Richard III.  In that trilogy, labelled by Gaines “Tug of War: Civil Strife,” we will see the infighting among the English nobles erupt into open civil war.   But Gaines has purposefully split up Shakespeare’s three-part series, perhaps in part to make the point that war has no finale because we keep fighting the same wars again and again in each generation.  To emphasize this point, Gaines adds a postlude, in which the entire cast dons those fold-up Christmas cracker crowns and sings a couple of choruses of  “Why don’t you come on back to the war?” from Leonard Cohen’s “There Is a War,” concluding on the line “let’s all get even.”  Nothing is finished, war just keeps coming back.  Thus we conclude with a depressing but appropriate commentary on our inability to keep the peace.

Cynthia Rutz is an instructor and past chair of University of Chicago’s Basic Program of Liberal Education, a great books discussion program for adults. She also teaches at and is Director of Faculty Development for Valparaiso University. She earned her PhD from the University of Chicago, with her dissertation on Shakespeare’s King Lear and its folktale analogues. She received her BA in mathematics and philosophy from St. John’s College, Santa Fe, New Mexico.