In this election season, what could be better than a marathon march through Shakespeare’s history plays devoted to the Wars of the Roses? Tug of War: Civil Strife romps through parts 2 and 3 of Henry VI and Richard III, with cynical modern dress and raucous song and dance numbers for the court crowd (contrasted with more somber musical interludes for a common soldier and his wife), and a pointed take on our baser tendencies to become enamored of anything that can be made to look good on TV.
The would-be usurper the Duke of York and his son Richard emerge as two peas in a pod in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production. York’s semi-psychotic song and dance routines in which he gleefully anticipates the havoc he will wreak on the Lancastrian court presage the maniacal power-madness of his son, who proves far more bloodthirsty and—perhaps, consequently—far more successful than his father at rebellion and usurpation. When it came his turn to use Pink’s lyrics to demand that we “Get the Party Started,” Timothy Edward Kane as Richard mimicked the hip-shimmying dance of his father, played by Larry Yando. These extra-textual song-and-dance moments forged an interesting connection between them that I have not seen in other instances in which I have seen these plays staged sequentially.
In his own time and place, Shakespeare would have had much direct experience of the kinds of social unrest that is depicted among the commoners in part 2 of Henry VI. Stephen Greenblatt’s introduction to the Norton Shakespeare tallies up thirty-five riots in the last two decades of the sixteenth century, a whopping twelve of them taking place in June 1595 alone. Shakespeare likely wrote the play featuring Cade in the early 1590s, but his history plays about the struggle for the throne during the reign of Henry VI (1422-1461, with a brief reprise from 1470-71) were popular on the London stage throughout the 1590s, when riots by the working classes swept the city outside of the theater.
Some of these riots were occasioned by frustration over the consolidation of political power in an aristocratic class seen as woefully out of touch with the life circumstances and needs of the working classes. Some were occasioned by fury at the encroachment of immigrants fleeing religious persecution as Protestants on the Continent into London and its workforce. Sound familiar? Director Barbara Gaines thought that it did, too. Kevin Gudahl does a star turn here as a Jack Cade made over in the image of Donald Trump.
It’s topical, and wicked good fun, but it’s more than that: it’s an insightful read of Cade’s role in part 2 of Henry VI. The crafty Duke of York privately encourages the rebel Jack Cade to foment rebellion against the aristocracy among the commoners. In our present day, these behind-the-scenes political machinations parallel conspiracy theories of early 2016 that Trump—who once lent financial support to the Clintons, who, in turn, attended his wedding to his third, current wife, Melania—had been suborned by the Clinton campaign to run against her as a straw man. The Duke of York, after all, never intends to make Cade king. Cade is a means to York’s own ends. He’s a troublemaker and a distraction from the real threat to the crown, York himself. Paradoxically—and hypocritically—Cade styles himself a man of the people, and a scion of the royal blood. He simultaneously demands that anyone with a whiff of education, good breeding, or wealth about them be summarily executed, but dubs himself “Sir John Mortimer,” heir to the English throne. The riots that he incites in London swell to such a dangerous head that the king and court are forced to flee.
Both York and Richard take turns in the gilded tire that has served as the throne in both halves of Tug of War, which began last spring with Edward III, Henry V, and part 1 of Henry VI. The tire is a synecdoche for the throne and the power that comes with it, but also a constant reminder of the wars we currently wage over oil. Tires are petroleum products also used, paradoxically, to consume other petroleum products via the vehicles that roll on them. They are also toxic, leeching their poisons into the water table.
Never depicted with the gilded throne, Cade makes his first appearance descending from the fly space on a tire throne of his own devising, painted like a Union Jack. The gilded tire is garish, but the Union Jack tire protests too much; it’s the Fourth of July parade attendee who is wearing a flag t-shirt with flag shorts and baseball cap, while also waving a flag. It telegraphs Cade’s nominal, over-the-top allegiance to the very national entity he intends to disrupt. Cade and his followers sport Union Jack buttons summarily stamped with the single, all-caps word: CADE.
Determined to root out everyone whose pretensions to education mark them out as elite, Cade fulminates against grammar schools, and issues the dismissive assessment of all educated people: “intellectual degenerate.” (A t-shirt slogan that should be made available in the theater lobby immediately). In a grim re-enactment of Trump’s vicious, parodic imitation of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski’s arthrogryposis, Gudahl’s Cade lampoons the shaking of the palsy sufferer Lord Say once his goons have taken him into custody. If the precept that we should learn history in order that we do not repeat its mistakes has merit, we would all do well to consider how comfortably the Cade shoe fits Trump.
Trump became a household word—or, rather, his catchphrase “You’re fired” did—as a result of his stint on the reality TV show The Apprentice. Tug of War delves into this terrain, too, not with Cade, but with Richard. Richard and Buckingham’s series of collaborative performances becomes a television program in which Richard first accuses Queen Elizabeth of practicing witchcraft to give him birth defects everyone knows to have been congenital, then kills Lord Hastings for having the temerity to assert that she will be punished in a conditional phrase (“If they had done this deed, my noble lord…”), and, finally, persuades the Lord Mayor of London that he killed Hastings in self-defense before being begged by Buckingham to take the very throne he has been attempting to steal from his own nephew. A green screen descends, as Buckingham (James Newcomb) reads from a clipboard like a television producer while Richard’s henchmen drape the red capes worn over bishops’ cassocks over their military garb for the camera. In a gesture of true cynicism, Richard reads from the Bible he took from the hands of Henry VI when he killed him, as the camera offers—on video monitors flown in for the audience’s benefit—a tight shot of his contemplative face framed by the faux devout ministrations of his bodyguards. While in her 2012 production of Richard III Barbara Gaines gave the Scrivener pride of place in an isolation spot, the Scrivener is entirely cut from Tug of War, perhaps because we need no one to ask, “Who’s so gross that sees not this palpable device?” (3.6.10-11).
Follow the money to ferret out political corruption, All the President’s Men admonished us. In Tug of War, one can follow the props. I have already noted Richard’s cynical recycling of Henry VI’s Bible for his own godless agendas. Margaret (Karen Aldridge) rises from an adulterous sexual tryst with Suffolk (John Tufts) in Lancastrian red bra and slip. As she prepares to put her game face back on, she pulls a stylish silver rosary bracelet from her bosom, wrapping it around her hand like brass knuckles. The tiny silver cross that dangles delicately across the back of her hand matches the simple silver cross worn in religious sincerity by her husband, the King (Steven Sutcliffe), but hers is merely decorative, while his is a genuine mark of devotion.
The props in Scott Davis’s austere scenic design are minimal; thus, when they do appear, they are noteworthy. Despite its documentation of violent civil conflict over, and over, and over again, Tug of War uses no weapons of any kind in battle scenes. The glaring exception to this no-weapons rule is Richard. Moreover, his weapon—a knife—paradoxically appears in the context of his amorous pursuits. Richard courts Lady Anne, widow of the Lancastrian Prince Edward, while she is engaged in a lament over the corpse of King Henry VI (whom Richard killed) at the beginning of Richard III. In a twisted marital proposal, Richard asks Lady Anne to kill him if she will not marry him. In Civil Strife, he presents her with an actual knife as he makes this proposition.
In a sickening foreshadowing of the way their short-lived relationship will end, he then offers her the ring that signifies their betrothal on the blade of this same knife. Catesby (Kevin Gudahl) silently communicates to Richard that Anne has been killed once it has ceased to be politically expedient for him to be married to her by offering their marital ring back to Richard on the blade of Richard’s knife. The knife drops out of the equation, but Richard gives the same betrothal ring to Queen Elizabeth when he sends her to court her daughter—his niece, and sister to the royal nephews Richard has had killed—on his behalf.
The media circus, the rock music soundtrack, the forced patriotism and the faux religious devotion—it all seems uncomfortably familiar. Shakespeare wrote these plays with the descendant of the king ascendant in the final act—Henry VII, grandfather to Queen Elizabeth I—on the throne. Bush, Clinton, Bush, Bush, Obama, Obama…Clinton? And Trump ran in the primaries against another Bush? Plays about a medieval, family political dynasty are of greater relevance to America’s twenty-first-century democracy than the Founding Fathers might ever have imagined that they could be.
Regina Buccola is a professor and the chair of the Department of Literature and Languages at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where she also serves as core faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies. She has published several books on early modern British drama and culture, most recently as editor of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Critical Guide and co-editor, with Peter Kanelos, of Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Suiting the Action to the Word. Recent journal publications have appeared in Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England and Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation. She serves as the scholar-in-residence at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and is one of the Midwest American reviewers for the online journal, Reviewing Shakespeare.