Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Tug of War: Foreign Fire

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If there is one word everyone uses to describe Tug of War, it is “epical.” Six hours, over sixty characters (plus “Soldiers,” “Band,” and “Chorus”), covering a century of events—and that’s just Part 1: Foreign Fire.

Few directors can manage anything this massive. Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Rose Rage more than a decade ago was memora­ble,  monumental and still only half as long as Tug of War will be by the time it wraps up this autumn with Part 2: Civil Strife. In the wrong hands, the result would be chaos. But the right directorial decisions instead can make it deeply tragic, leavened with pathos and comedy, so that the lessons of history come home. And that, in the end is what makes it epic.

Barbara Gaines has made critical and daring decisions in assembling Tug of War out of Shakespeare’s history plays. The top-level decision was to separate out the wars between England and France from those among the English themselves, giving us the two-part structure. The second was to open with the play Edward III, now generally recognized as a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd, treating it as a prequel to the very familiar Henry V and the less-known Henry VI Part 1.

As we would expect from Gaines and Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the production is deeply respectful of the Shakespearean texts. There is no presumptuous re-writing and no awkward attempts to interweave the three plays. Allowing for merciful cuts, they are strung together like beads on a rosary of national prayer.

This in turn creates challenges. The three plays are written at different times and stylistically very different. Edward III features the highly rhetorical blank verse that Kyd learned from Christopher Marlowe, interspersed with fits of early-Shakespearean rhyming. It is followed by the mature language of Henry V, one moment royal oratory, the next moment the plain speech of common soldiers or the comically rendered accents of various ethnic groups. Then with Henry VI Part 1, it’s back to an early rhetorical style, with occasional glimpses of Shakespearean magic.

The second challenge is the sheer number of characters. Sixty named characters in five hours running time means introducing a new character every five minutes, if they were strung out evenly. Which they are not.

If the shifty language and multiple characters create two challenges, then scene construction creates a third. Sometimes the action rattles along in nearly indistinguishable short scenes of French and English shouting at each other, followed by incoherent battles. Alternately, there are long, almost slow-motion scenes, as when King Edward III tries to seduce—and then to rape—the Countess of Salisbury, or the famous scene of “Harry in the night” before the Battle of Agincourt. The Shakespeare-Kyd script is like a series of short stories interspersed with the odd novella.

There are a lot of ways to mess this up, but one big way to make it work: Trust the material. I’ve seen too many contemporary productions that turn to farce, or rewriting, or forced messages, to cover up their lack of faith in the plays. Too bad, especially when Shakespeare shows them the solutions.

First, let the language be. Skilled actors adjust their delivery to the varied contours and pacing of the language, and the audience adjusts too, and quickly. It’s when actors are fighting the language that audiences get restless.

Second, double up the characters and give the trusted actors a long leash. The doubling of parts was an economic necessity of the Elizabethan theater, and Shakespeare has constructed his plays to allow for the doubling. When it’s done right, it becomes part of the fun. Where will Kevin Gudahl or Larry Yando or Karen Aldridge show up next? Which lead actor is under the hat of the Blue Cap Soldier? And Gaines has indeed given Gudahl and Yando and Aldridge and others their long leashes to be histrionic or solemn or clownish or whatever it takes to move things along.

Finally, let the short scenes be short and the long scenes be long. Abrupt transitions among the short scenes are covered with music or foolery or stylized stage movement. As for the long scenes—they are at the heart of Shakespeare’s earliest theatrical innovations. They have a specific contour to them, which he uses with increasing mastery throughout his career. Two characters confront each other. One is in a very fixed position emotionally, but gradually, as the confrontation unfolds, the fixed character begins to give away, and ends up in the diametrically opposite emotional position from where he or she began. Think of the “willow cabin” scene in Twelfth Night, when Viola/Cesario comes to woo Olivia, who begins in absolute refusal and ends head-over heels infatuated. Or Much Ado, where Benedick goes from resolved bachelor to “horribly in love.” In the tragedies, the “closet scene” is a perfect example, where Gertrude begins accusing Hamlet of having “much offended your father” (meaning Claudius) and ends with her heart cleft in twain. Or King Lear beginning as a regal bully confronting Regan and Cornwall, and ending shut out of doors, mad, and weeping.

The Henry V scene of “Harry in the night,” walking among his soldiers, meditating on his own responsibility for the deaths that will follow, and begging the God of Battles to “think not upon my father’s fault” shows the art of the long scene in its mature form. The scene in which Edward III attempts to seduce and then rape the Countess of Salisbury—the very scene that leads to the attribution of the play to Shakespeare—has to be one of his earliest experiments with the technique. It is, as has often been observed, a first draft for his narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece. But here Lucrece lives, persuading and shaming the king into conquering his lust.

As the scene (okay—technically two consecutive scenes that play as one) unfolds from its beginning to its long middle, I found myself wondering at first why it was there—what was it doing in the midst of a play-cycle about war? But as the scene evolved, its point became clear, and it was the first iteration of the underlying point of the whole epic. How do we overcome those savage emotional impulses that drive humans—not just them, but us—to do physical harm to others?

Once upon a time we were told in school that the Shakespearean history plays represented some sort of moral tale about the value of stable, conservative, divinely sanctioned government, but it’s hard to give that much credit after the complete savagery of the twentieth century. Instead, Gaines gently de-historicizes the action, partly through the costuming, which I would call grunge-chic, and partly through the stage design. She pulls the action first toward all wars, and then toward our wars.

The program is laced with quotes from participants in America’s wars, from 1776 to 1918. None is more central to Tug of War than Lincoln’s First Inaugural:

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

The evolution of the long scene in Edward III drives us to this stark truth—that the better angels can prevail, though too often, too late. Edward’s shame overcomes his lust. At Calais, he again remembers to “master our affections,” and pardons the burghers who have offered their lives to ransom the city. At the gates of Harfleur, Henry V restrains the “dogs of war” that would wreak murder and rapine upon the hapless city. Each time, though, the restraint is temporary, and more violence breaks out, just as a long and horrible war ensued before America’s better angels restored Lincoln’s union.

Gaines has made it her project to show the wars through the eyes of the common soldier. Who better to supply her the material than the wise and eloquent child of a glove-maker, armed with a high-school education, who, legend tells us, poached deer before running off to join the theater? What more to learn from our own long scenes of bitterness than how the better angels of our nature might touch our own heartstrings in this time of violent passions?


Clark Hulse is a professor emeritus of English and art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and chair of the Board of Directors of the Chicago Humanities Festival. He is author of numerous books and articles about Shakespeare, Renaissance literature and visual culture. Hulse is a Guggenheim and NEH Fellow and curator of the award-winning exhibition Elizabeth I: Ruler and Legend at the Newberry Library.