Pritzker Military Museum and Library – Shakespeare and the Citizen Soldier

In fall 2016, The Pritzker Military Museum & Library filmed a series of in-depth interviews with scholars, artists, and military veterans entitled Shakespeare and the Citizen Soldier. In partnership with Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the four episodes explored the role of soldiers and warfare in Shakespeare’s work and the role of Shakespeare in informing our understanding of soldiers and warfare.

I went to the Museum to watch the live taping of the last episode, and while touring the collection beforehand, I was struck by the fact that the Pritzker is an art museum. Not, of course, only an art museum, but the two major exhibits on display during my visit were both exhibits of Vietnam-era art. One was of photographs taken by the Department of the Army’s Special Photographic Office (DASPO) of the day-to-day lives of American servicemen. The photos are alternately chilling, inspiring, beautiful, awful. They convey a sense of the war that brought home a kind of reality that was unavailable to me through reading books about it. The other exhibit was a collection of Viet Cong propaganda posters. Again, I was given a view of the war from the point of view of the North Vietnamese that any amount of statistical and historical information about “the enemy” could not convey.

For me, the most intriguing through-line in Shakespeare and the Citizen Soldier was exactly how reciprocal that relationship between art and history is. The series featured actors, directors, soldiers, and scholars, all working together to bring stories of war to the stage in responsible, evocative, and truthful ways. The knowledge exchanges were surprising in many ways, but one after another, participants claimed that the value of the exchange had been in their favor—that is to say, most seemed to feel that they learned more from their involvement with their collaborators than they contributed.

The four sessions focus on different aspects of the larger topic. The first episode features Chicago Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director and Founder Barbara Gaines alongside Fordham University Professor Stuart Sherman. Sherman collaborated with Gaines on Tug of War, CST’s flagship double production chronicling the foreign and civil wars from Edward III to Richard III. Gaines and Sherman discuss how they went about telling this story of war, using Sherman’s historical knowledge to inform the art. Gaines had many advisors on this project, including a handful of veterans whom she interviewed personally in an attempt to bring onto the stage something like the experience of having been at war. Interestingly, Gaines repeatedly states that it is not possible for a civilian to truly understand what being a soldier in wartime is like. While such a claim responds to the mystique that surrounds war and soldiers, it is an odd claim for a theater artist to make; an important aim of the project of Tug of War is to convey that very experience—to allow audiences who are not veteran’s insight into what war is like. Gaines describes a very powerful image that has stuck with her and which she used in conceptualizing the play. The image is from an adaptation of The Odyssey in which a river speaks of the bodies that have floated down it, the death that it has seen. Sherman—who also at one point claims that veterans have understandings which are unavailable to civilians—responds to Gaines that the theater is that river—the river that “knows the costs, the collective costs of killing.” Such a sentiment is compelling; one hopes that art can, at its best, bring that knowledge to its audience.

For Stephan Wolfert, a veteran-turned-actor who was featured in the second episode, “Shakespeare wrote veterans perfectly.” Wolfert served as an infantry officer for eight years before leaving the Army and eventually becoming an actor and director who works with veterans, using Shakespeare to help veterans re-integrate (or, as he calls it, “decruit”). Not only does Wolfert claim that Shakespeare (who was not a veteran) understands veterans, but that as a consequence, Shakespeare wrote characters who veterans understand easily. Wolfert’s account of his first experience with Richard III’s opening speech is illuminating; for Wolfert, the story of a soldier lamenting his inability to fit into civilian society, and his sense of being deformed by his experiences in war, rang perfectly true. So true that he uses that speech, amongst others, to introduce veterans to Shakespeare, using theater as a kind of therapy.

The third episode features CST actors James Vincent Meredith and Jessie Fisher as well as Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Yandura, chair of Military Science at Loyola University. Meredith and Fisher played Othello and Emilia respectively in CST’s 2016 production of Othello. Yandura worked with the cast to help them better portray soldiers. The production was set in modern day, and Emilia was also a soldier, so the two actors worked closely with the LTC to develop both a sense of soldiering based on both physical and psychological training. Learning actual drill from Yandura (in what he described as an abbreviated “basic training”) was, according to the two actors, incredibly valuable to them and the rest of the cast. Theater ensembles are used to developing a group identity and esprit de corps, but doing that through military drill was both inspiring and educational. Meanwhile, Yandura felt that he learned more than he imparted; his exposure to the stories of the actors and to the play gave him new ways to think about how he might use theater skills to train his own students at Loyola. Yandura said that he found the actors, with their attention to detail and their willingness and their professional training in the ability to submerge their own egos in order to emulate the behavior of others, were amongst the quickest candidates he had ever trained.

Fisher’s experience was particularly fascinating, as she learned both from Yandura and Yandura’s wife (also a veteran), who came to rehearsal and was willing to discuss what it was like to be the wife of a soldier. Fisher’s Emilia being a soldier created a very interesting reading of the character. As a soldier, her first loyalty lies with her commander, Othello, and her comrades, including her husband Iago. Assigned to “babysit” the civilian Desdemona, she is at first resentful of the woman who has no place in a military zone, and who is keeping her from “more important” duties. It is only as she realizes that the men are behaving poorly, and that Desdemona is demonstrating the pure loyalty which she believes she has a right to expect from Iago and Othello, that she comes to sympathize with her charge. This exciting new reading would have been difficult to create without the help of LTC Yandura.

In thinking more about the way that art and history inform each other, I am reminded of the vital importance of both as the foundation of a free society. According to the staff of the Library, there were protests by American servicemen when the exhibit of North Vietnamese propaganda art opened. These veterans were angry that posters showing our soldiers being killed and our planes being shot down would be displayed. Apparently, those protesters mostly changed their minds after actually seeing the exhibit. I wonder if their minds were changed about more than just the appropriateness of the exhibit; perhaps their perspectives on the war itself might have been shifted slightly, too.


Richard Gilbert is a doctoral student in the English department at Loyola University Chicago. His research focuses on representations of violence in the theater, as well as adaptations and versionality. He holds an MA in humanities from University of Chicago, and a BA in theater from Brandeis University.

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.

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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.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Tug of War: Civil Strife

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Tug of War: Civil Strife is the second of Barbara Gaines’ two ambitious Shakespeare trilogies produced for Shakespeare 400 Chicago.  This second set of plays concentrates on the bloody civil wars that resulted when Henry V’s early death led to his infant son Henry VI taking the throne at the age of only nine months old,  provoking a power struggle among the leading nobles, most of them Henry’s kinsmen.  Gaines characterized the first trilogy, about England’s wars with France as “suffused with ghosts,” whereas this trilogy on the English civil wars as “suffused with blood.” She effectively evokes this idea with a backdrop that looks like a large glass window with blood dripping down it more and more as the death toll rises.

As in the first trilogy, Gaines puts her focus on the terrible waste of war and how most of that cost is paid by the common soldiers.  To that end she adds a prologue scene of a young soldier leaving for war and the sweetheart he leaves behind.  As he departs, he sings the first of many evocative songs Gaines has added to the play, “Remember me.” Throughout the trilogy, we follow this young man who appears as a foot soldier, messenger, and finally a reluctant assassin, as he is increasingly implicated in the dirty business of war.  At the end of the play, the soldier returns to his sweetheart, but in a wheelchair, and with both legs missing.  Instead of a tender reunion, he repudiates her affection, and is wheeled off stage by his fellow soldiers.    These silent tableaux underline the special brutality of civil war.  On this point, Shakespeare and Gaines are totally in sync, as in a scene where the helpless Henry VI watches as a father unwittingly kills his own son, and a son his father in battle, only recognizing their victims when they loot the corpses.

In the first part of the trilogy, we watch as several nobles, including Henry’s new Queen Margaret, conspire to get rid of the Lord Protector, known to the people as the good Duke Humphrey, one of the few characters in these plays who actually cares about the welfare of the state.  Henry’s haplessness is apparent in the scene where the conspirators have the Duke arrested and the king, though sure of his innocence, passively lets it happen and hopes for the best.  As the good Duke leaves the stage for the last time he begins to sing Leonard Cohen’s “Alleluia,” which is effectively echoed later in the play by Henry.  After Duke Humphrey’s downfall, the conspiracy falls apart, with the Bishop of Winchester almost immediately dying a horrific death in his bed on the stage, which the pious Henry views as a judgment on him.

Soon we see one of the conspirators, Richard, Duke of York (Larry Yando) emerge as a rival to the throne.  Yando plays him as a canny, amoral politician, a strong alternative to the weak and ineffectual Henry.  In an ahistorical but effective garden scene, Shakespeare had York challenge a group of nobles to take sides, plucking a white rose to support him or a red (Lancastrian) rose if opposed.   In an aside to the audience, York reveals that he has fomented dissent in England by egging on a commoner named Jack Cade to lead a rebellion.  Gaines stages this rebellion as a modern populist revolt.  Actor Kevin Gudahl has a field day portraying Cade as a vain populist  à la Donald Trump, who intends to get rid of intellectuals and “kill all the lawyers.”  After Cade’s rebellion is put down, the Yorks and Lancasters are in open warfare, with scenes of increasing violence and torture, culminating in Margaret tormenting the prisoner York by putting a paper crown on his head and offering to wipe his face with a handkerchief stained in the blood of his young son,  before killing him and putting his head on a spike.

But in the latter half of the trilogy, York’s sons, along with their great ally the Earl of Warwick (Gudahl again) are ascendant, with Richard’s son Edward eventually taking the throne.  In one of the most affecting scenes in the production, Edward’s brother Richard takes it upon himself to personally execute King Henry, now imprisoned in the tower.  But Henry, movingly portrayed by Steven Sutcliffe, finally comes into his own in this scene.  No longer wearing a crown, but rather shabby prison clothes, he finally looks the ascetic holy man he has always been.  He prophecies Richard’s bloody future path to the throne, also recounting his past, until Richard, who seems genuinely affected by Henry’s words, strangles him in a spasm of anger.

In the final part of the trilogy we see the rise of the scheming Richard, who first arranges the murder of his turncoat brother Clarence.  After his other brother King Edward dies (of natural causes), Richard becomes Lord Protector and gradually eliminates every person between himself and the throne, including his young nephews, Edward’s sons.   Here too, Shakespeare’s sensibility and Gaines production are in sync, for both show us a world in which anyone with a sense of honor has long since been eliminated by those who are more ruthless.  Only those like Richard who can lie and betray without remorse survive and thrive.

But at the very end of the trilogy Shakespeare offers some hope, in the form of an army raised by Henry Tudor, the earl of Richmond and grandfather of Shakespeare’s own monarch, Elizabeth I, that defeats the villainous Richard.  In a night scene before the decisive battle, Gaines contrives a great coup de théâtre, when the ghosts of all Richard’s victims return to him in a dream, their faces projected on the screen of blood behind the stage.  The same spirits seem to have blessed Henry Tudor, so that even before the battle takes place it is clear that Fate will be one his side.  In her added epilogue, however, Gaines plays against the Tudor propaganda of this “happy ending” by bringing us back to the young soldier in a wheel chair with his PTSD.  As we leave the theater, we are left with the sickening feeling that nothing has been fixed at all, that those in power will continue their wrangling and the commons will continue to suffer and die for it.


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.