Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Tug of War: Civil Strife

New Rule: Those who do not repeat history are doomed to not learning from it. By repeat, I mean on the stage. Don’t try it in real life.


Every performance of history is a kind of rehearsal for life. We glimpse in the passions of the past the tune we may dance to in the future. Hip-hop founding fathers spellbind us in the Chicago Loop, while indie-rock Plantagenets cavort at Navy Pier.

The effect of Tug of War: Civil Strife is arguably very different from the effect of an individual Shakespeare history play all by itself. Richard III is about, well, Richard III. Henry VI Part 2 is about Richard, Duke of York and Queen Margaret. But when you add in Henry VI Part 3 and weave them together over six hours, the individuals recede, and larger patterns emerge. York, Margaret, and Richard remain enthralling and appalling as stage figures, to be sure, but their singular domination over history itself is less, because each rises and falls so fast.

History is of course not what happened, but a story about what happened. Too much happened to too many people to recount every detail. So history is an art of subtraction, selecting out what can produce a coherent story that still suggests the “too much.” Theater in turn makes its own selection. It picks out a few individual people and forces to confront and entwine with one another. Theater re-sequences their world and seeks for emotion as the fulcrum of meaning.

Civil Strife is story upon story upon story upon story: Barbara Gaines reworking Shakespeare reworking the chronicles reworking something that maybe happened. What comes to the fore are emotional choices gone bad: hate over love, faction over common good, mine over ours, domination over decency, service and duty over just staying at home.

Sometimes the pathway from English history to our history is short, as when Kevin Gudahl as the demagogic rogue Jack Cade mimics Donald John Trump adorned with what might be taken for a Brexit button. As Gina Buccola says in a previous post, “The media circus, the rock music soundtrack, the forced patriotism and the faux religious devotion—it all seems uncomfortably familiar.”

At other times the connection of past to present is more oblique, or admits of a possible contrast. Is political murder quite so easy anymore? Are there no laws? But the step is never large from medieval to modern, from endless war to endless war, from endless ambition to endless ambition, from chaos to chaos.

Shakespeare on stage gives abstraction a local habitation and a name, whether the character is the Duke of York or of Gloucester or simply First Soldier. Even minimalist settings, as in Tug of War, have an inherent naturalism, for the bodies of the actors are a mere few feet away from us, or right next us in the aisle. Yet Salman Rushdie has argued that naturalism in the right hands becomes so overwhelming that it breaks through to a dreamlike mystical surreality or even magical realism.

Something like that happens halfway through Tug of WarCivil Strife as Queen Margaret issues her half-mad curses and prophecies. As her fantasies begin to come true, the remaining warriors are seized with dread and are haunted by ghosts. Margaret’s words become apparitions, rash deeds, and neurotic mental states.

Magical reality in theater takes us closer to history, not away from it, moving us toward the other history below and beyond politics or economics or warfare. This is the interior history of human suffering. As York says when his enemies have foolishly provided him with soldiers: “You put sharp weapons in a madman’s hands.” In opposition to those weapons stand our knowledge of the past, and the power of theater to reproduce it. We pray they are the tools of sanity.

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.