Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Michael Best
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King John: Performance History

85The twentieth century: from spectacle to experimentation

Beerbohm Tree was a hard act to follow. One reason for the decline in stagings of King John may well have been a kind of "rain shadow" effect; the stage tradition had established that King John was a play that demanded spectacle, and it must have been clear for producers that they would not be able to out-do Tree's cast of hundreds. Intermittent productions in the early years of the twentieth century by F.R. Benson as part of a cycle of the complete Histories (1901, 1909, 1913, and 1916) followed, but tastes had changed, as a reviewer in the Birmingham Mail makes clear:

86Amongst all the plays of Shakespeare this is, perhaps, one of the least acceptable to modern audiences. There are great scenes and tragic episodes, but the atmosphere is too satiated with mediaeval barbarism to appeal strongly to an audience of the twentieth century. (April 29)

87The challenge offered by the work of Poel, and more widespread experimentation with methods of staging generally in the early twentieth century, will have added to this general dissatisfaction with an approach now considered old-fashioned. It is also probable that the decline in interest in King John was, in part, due to the long period of peace between the First and Second World Wars. It is a battle-ridden play, as well as an intensely political one. If Tree's production had reverberations of the Boer War, the Second World War was very much in the mind of audiences attending productions in the mid-century period. One review of the 1940 production by Andrew Leigh and B. Iden Payne makes clear the generally patriotic interpretation of the play; in striking support of the motivation of the producers in doing so, the review is interrupted by a prominent announcement, set off in a box from the text:

88The Bastard was the early champion of English unity

9.16 p.m. to 4.51 a.m.
The Moon
Rises 6:50 a.m.; sets 10.31 p.m.

and took the field against Pope, Barons and even the King himself, to keep the English spirit high. (Times, 9 May 1940)

89The Birmingham Evening Dispatch also makes the obvious connection between the production's patriotic interpretation of the play and the contemporary crisis faced by the country. The reviewer quotes the Bastard's final lines:

90Come the three corners of the world in arms
And we shall shock them: naught shall make us rue,
If England to itself, do rest but true.

These lines which close "King John" have a topical air. There may be only one corner (with two others non-belligerents) against us at the moment, but Shakespeare's clarion cry is one which must find an answer to-day in the heart of every Englishman. (8 May, 1940)

91The ghost of Beerbohm Tree still stalked the production, however; the reviewer for the Birmingham Post commented that the actor for John, George Skillan, "by a coincidence of makeup looked very much like Sir Herbert Tree," while the Times reviewer commented on the continuing insistence on historical costuming: "Messrs. Iden Payne and Andrew Leigh have evolved the action in a series of handsome pictures bright with medieval blazonry."

92The following year, as the blitz raged in London, Tyrone Guthrie's 1941 production provoked one reviewer to point out an anachronistically appropriate line:

93"King John" is the second best war-time play in the language, and the Old Vic production last night at the New Theatre is a timely reminder of it. The play even contains the extremely apt line about "An airy devil in the sky who pours down mischief." [TLN 1286-7]

94Guthrie adopted a deliberately non-realistic staging technique. In marked contrast to Tree's habit of bringing horses on stage, Guthrie mounted his actors on hobby-horses. The review continues:

95Tyrone Guthrie has lightened the production--some of the battle scenes, in fact might be fitted into a revue . . . with their toy turrets and kings on prancing hoppy horses. (G.W. Bishop, 7 July, 1941)

96The costume design for the production gives some idea of the effect. © University of Bristol Theatre Collection Guthrie was, no doubt, working within a wartime budget that required minimalist staging, but he is also clearly responding to the general twentieth century movement in staging towards stylization and an emphasis on ensemble playing rather than a reliance on star performers; his influence was to become profoundly important in the development of the Stratford Festival, Ontario, of which he was founding director.

97While acting continued to stress characterization, and reviewers continued to praise or blame actors for the authenticity they brought to their parts, Guthrie's use of a staging that commented mockingly on the warring factions in the play is a sign that directors were bringing a new approach to their productions: a play was to be filtered through a specific directorial vision, a thematic interpretation of the play as a whole. This trend was certainly influenced by the writings of critics like G. Wilson Knight and the whole school of thematic critics who followed. King John lent itself to this mode of production, with the Bastard's crucial speech on Commodity a perfect starting point. In his 1945 production for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Peter Brook was among the first to dare to clarify Shakespeare's language for a modern audience. A young Paul Schoflield as the Bastard was assigned these lines:

98That smooth-faced gentleman expediency, or as they say
Commodity, the bias of the world,
The world, who of itself is piezèd balanced well . . .
(Prompt Book, emphasis indicating manuscript additions)

99Brook cut the play very little, despite his later justification of severe cuts to Shakespeare when he cheerfully remarked that "what we have removed is what is no longer necessary." Reviewers commented approvingly or disapprovingly on his choice to open the play with a scene which was either "designed to suggest the underlying weakness of a King who was strong only in seeking his immediate advantage" (H. W. Bush, Birmingham Gazette 7 October, 1945) or which left "an impression of fussiness, as when the first curtain opened on a bacchanal" (Birmingham Post October 16, 1945). If Beerbohm Tree introduced elaborate stage business (slicing off the heads of daisies) intended to underline his interpretation of John's character, Guthrie and Brook used costume and stage business to generate an interpretation of the play overall, and through it a commentary on current social issues. Interestingly enough, some stage business recalls the kind of providential intervention Shakespeare removed in his reworking of The Troublesome Reign where he transmuted the spectacle of the five moons appearing physically into an ambiguous report from the mouth of Hubert: Brook (following the earlier production in 1940 by Leigh and Payne) introduced stage thunder at the point when Arthur leaps from the wall of the castle. Nature comments offstage on human tragedy.

100Two sides of the Atlantic: tradition, stylization, satire

British performances of King John in the twentieth century have been extensively and insightfully discussed by Cousin and Hodgdon. On the other side of the Atlantic King John was first performed in 1738 in Philadelphia (Child lxxix), and it continued to hold the stage until the middle of the nineteenth century. Edwin Booth, older brother to the John Wilkes Booth who assassinated Lincoln, produced the play in 1973. Touring companies (notably that of Charles Kean) brought the play regulary to North America. One notable home-grown production was that of Robert Mantell, who performed the play in Chicago and New York in 1907-09. A review of this production by W Winter in the New York Tribune commentS that "The character of King John . . . is, of all his characters, one of the most difficult of authoritative, enthralling representation." Winter observes that the character of the king is revealed slowly to the audience; the opening scenes show him to be an "intrepid, resolute, expeditious warrior, not openly exhibiting either malevolence, weakness, or guile." But after Arthur is captured, John "suddenly reveals himself as a subtle, crafty, treacherous, sinister villain. . . . the author's revelation of him in this new light tends to bring with it a sense of discord, and to make the character seem anomalous." The reviewer's praise for the production as a whole is based on his perception that Mantell's performance, "from the beginning [interfused] malignity with royal arrogance, duplicity wiht irascible valor, and a lurking incertitude beneath an outside show of power."

101From the middle of the twentieth century, Shakespeare festivals sprang up in North America: initially at Ashland, Oregon, and Stratford, Ontario, then later in a remarkable proliferation of festivals and productions varying from largely amateur to major professional companies. Though some of the open-air performances may merit Irene Makaryk's somewhat dismissive comment, "The hallmark style of these productions is similar enthusiastic rushing about, playing comedy for its outrageousness and slapstick, tragedy for its melodrama," there is no question that these festivals have both generated an audience for Shakespeare and become increasingly inventive and polished in recent years. Many are recorded in the Internet Shakespeare Editions' database of Shakespeare in Performance. King John may not have been high on their list of plays, given the need to attract audiences with more well-known titles, but there were regular productions from 1948 (Oregon) onwards. Between about 1950 and 1980 there was a significant divergence between the UK and North America in attitudes to the play and directorial styles; in more recent years theatrical approaches have tended to converge as globalization becomes the norm.

102In the UK, audiences (or at least the reviewers) began both to discount the value of King John as a play, and to expect more directorial inventiveness; in North America the plays were fresh enough to their audiences that they could play them straight. James Sandoe, directing King John for the 1964 Colorado Shakespeare Festival, commented:

103We are playing the play uncut and without intermission and, at this point, it appears to be ten minutes more than a "two hours' traffic" for our stage. The stone seats in the Mary Rippon Theatre may challenge comfort but, as standing in the pit under an afternoon sun kept the groundlings attentive at the Globe, it seems safe to leave Shakespeare uninterruptedly to himself if, as rather a lot of people appear to believe, he is the playwright we admire 400 years later. (Program, "A Note About the Play")

104In contrast, reviews of the production at the Old Vic by Michael Bentall in 1953 were clearly impatient with the staging, constrained as it was by a permanent set also used for other plays, and costumes that were seen as a confusing mix of medieval and modern. Milton Shulman's review of the production was headlined "But WHY space suits in Shakespeare," and the details of the review are no more flattering:

105Vying with the bustling production to distract you from the words were the costumes by Motley. I can take with equanimity a Duke of Austria looking as if he as just lost a battle with a vacuum cleaner and a Cardinal wearing smoked glasses he had apparently picked up from a 3-D film, but medieval armies wearing uniforms that could only be fit for space ship travel is really making too unseemly a concession to the comic strips. (Evening Standard, 30 October 1953)

106The actual performances by Michael Hordern as King John, and Richard Burton as the Bastard, were admired. [[link to come]] One interesting indication of a production still influenced by the hardships of war and its aftermath is the direction in the prompt book to the Bastard on the inflection of his final patriotic lines, indicating that they should be made conditional and admonitory rather than simply triumphant:

107Naught shall make us rue
If England to itself do rest but true.
(TLN 2728-89)

108This production marked a clear sign that the play was losing its interest in the UK; it was seen increasingly as second-rate, lacking the substance of the Richards and Henrys; the sagging reputation of the play is discussed further in the [[link]]General Introduction.

109North American audiences were less critical -- and perhaps less jaded. By the mid sixties, the Stratford Festival had performed King John once (1960), and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival had performed cycles of all ten histories twice -- refreshingly, they seem to have been uninfluenced by the general critical focus on the eight plays of the two tetralogies. Although the audience demographic for both companies is generally similar, their origins make clear significant difference in the development of their staging. The Oregon Festival had very modest beginnings; its physical structure was, appropriately, based on a building erected for the deeply idealistic and democratic Chautauqua movement. Taking its name from Lake Chautauqua in western New York State where it began, the movement aimed to bring culture and adult education to rural America. It died out in the mid-nineteen-twenties, but the ruin of Ashland's building was still in place when Angus Bowmer, a young school teacher in Ashland, initiated the festival with performances of Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice in 1935. It was two decades later that the festival hired its first full-time employee. The Stratford Festival was also initiated at a grassroots level, but its aims were as much to boost the town's economy as to provide a platform for culture, and it began with a splash: the director, designer, and star actor were from the UK (Tyrone Guthrie, Tanya Moiseiwitsch, and Alec Guiness).

110What North American Shakespeare pioneered was a stage that was modeled more closely on Elizabethan structures, with a deeply thrust performance surface and minimal provision for scenery. The Oregon Elizabethan stage was first constructed in 1947, then rebuilt in 1959 and 1992. Stratford's stage was built in 1953, designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch; it was housed at first in a tent, but three years later the Festival had sufficiently proved itself that the Playhouse was built around it. Both Oregon and Stratford provided three levels for acting, on the lines of the Globe (as it was thought to have been at the time), and both required a significant re-thinking of staging and stage practices.

111Stratford's first production of King John was in 1960. It was directed by the same Douglas Seale who three years earlier had staged the play at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The close connection between Seale's two productions is symptomatic of the close relationship that was maintained between the Stratford Festival and UK production values. Reviews of the UK production mention admiringly the "mediaeval splendour of the costumes . . . [set] against a sombre background of castle and court" (J.C. Trewin, Birmingham Post, 17 April, 1957). The Stratford (Ontario) production seems to have been similar in intention, and again the costumes, this time designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch, were praised for their splendour. Reviews varied from "dull" (Kingston Whig-Standard) to "colourful" (E.H. Lampard, St. Catherine Standard, June 28, 1960), but they single out the performance of a young Christopher Plummer -- one of many Canadian actors who made a name for themselves in Stratford -- in the role of the Bastard.

112By 1969 the Oregon Shakespeare Festival had began a third cycle through the history plays with their third production of King John. Despite the general atmosphere of experimentation in theatre and new approaches in criticism at the time, is clear that the historicist views of E.M.W. Tillyard were still largely unchallenged. The director, Edward Brubaker, summarized the play's attraction as having "all the virtues of good melodrama." He continued, stressing the importance of what he saw as the play's overall theme : "In one respect, however, King John surpasses the best of melodramas. It is grounded on a serious theme handled with intelligence and passion. The theme concerns the difficulty a usurper has in establishing peace and good order in his kingdom. . . . The moral of the play is as clear as its action is lively and spectacular. The king who acts justly need not fear. When he fears, he becomes tyrannical and loses the loyalty of his followers" (Program, "Director's Note"). As late as 1976, Ricky Weiser, directing the Colorado Shakespeare Festival production, stressed the play as inhabiting a distant past, the "age of myth and legend, art and romance, blood and death" ("Director's Notes").

113The England of the 1970s was far less nostalgic, far less accepting of a traditional historicist approach to just about anything. The mood was cocky, as London led the fashion world, and black comedy was the rage. King John was produced by the first woman director for the Royal Shakespeare Company, a twenty-three year old Buzz Goodbody. From the perspective that forty years provides, a modern reader will find the press comments of the time unselfconsciously sexist; Ian Woodward in the Sun clearly enjoyed his interview with her:

114Buzz Goodbody certainly boasts an apt surname. She's leggy, curvy, well-endowed in the right places.

She's no ordinary girl, either. She's a pioneer in the doggedly male preserve of theatre director. . . .

Quite a girl. During rehearsals for King John she smoked 40 cigarettes a day, ate peanut-butter with everything, and kept her sanity by listening to the Beatles, Judy Collins and Bob Dylan on a portable record-player. (9 June, 1970)

115Woodward comments that she was "discovered" by John Barton, then an associate director at the RSC. This association no doubt explains Goodbody's occasional "improvement" of Shakespeare, as she added a number of passages from The Troublesome Reign. In transmuting the play from its tradition of not-quite-tragedy to outright black comedy, Goodbody indirectly freed later directors from the duty of making John's death moving in the tradition of Beerbohm Tree. Goodbody's king was performed by a young Patrick Stewart; Benedict Nightingale, writing in The New Statesman described a death scene that was about as close to the opposite of Tree's as one can imagine:

116We see Stewart's John being pushed about (literally) by his mother, . . . we see him snickering, whooping, leaning, waving his feet at his courtiers, peeping at them through the golden lattice of his throne and, finally, sliding cross-eyed off it onto his bottom in the most farcical death-scene I can remember having seen. (19 June, 1970)

117Goodbody's King John was intended for touring schools and colleges, and its mischievous revaluation of the play can be understood both in terms of the irreverence of youthful culture that was a feature of the time, and a desire to reach a younger audience.

118Her mentor, John Barton, having decided apparently that King John was a deeply flawed play that needed major reconstruction to rescue it, carried on the process of adaptation begun by Goodbody. In pursuit of relevance -- the UK was in the midst of a period of political uncertainty with a hung parliament and high inflation -- he added large chunks of The Troublesome Reign, some passages from Kynge Johann, and passages of his own "Shakespearean" language; the result was the most thoroughgoing adaptation of the play since Cibber's Papal Tyranny. John Barber commented:

119The director, John Barton, has thought well to chop the text into messes and to interlard it with chunks from another Elizabethan play about John, and from a Medieval Morality. He has also added a plentiful helping of lines of his own.

The result is a patriotic pageant about the state of England today, when (as Shakespeare never said) "The price of goods soars meteor-like to the heavens." (John Barber. Daily Telegraph, 21 March, 1974)

120Robert Cushman, reviewing the play in The Observer, picked up on the same line: "A meteor was a favourite Elizabethan image for over-reaching ambition, and on this occasion Mr. Barton has gone in for a certain amount of soaring himself." The headline for his review read "King Barton's 'John'" (24 March, 1974). Richard David (Shakespeare in the Theater 174ff) discusses Barton's production in detail. He points out that the three plays of King John vary radically in their approaches to the king and his reign, to the extent that they "directly contradict each other" (175); with epigrammatic insight he sums up the differences: "One could say that Bale's Morality was didactic, The Troublesome Reign historical, and Shakespeare's King John dramatic" (176).

121In the same year (1974), the Stratford Festival (Ontario) staged the play for the second time, once again led by an director from the UK: Peter Dews, who came from the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, and who had gained a strong reputation from his TV production of the history plays, An Age of Kings. In marked contrast to Barton's political interpretation, Dews seems to have avoided making the play pointedly relevant. In a comment that may be more American than Canadian, one reviewer remarked that "To his everlasting credit, director Peter Dews has resisted the temptation to corset the play in a facile Watergate analog. He searches for, and finds, universality rather than mere topicality" (Jay Carr, The Detroit News, 25 July, 1974). Perhaps because he was aware that his North American audience might be less schooled in Shakespeare than viewers in the UK, Dews freely modernized the language, substituting a more readily understandable vocabulary where he felt it necessary. In some cases he seems to have felt either that Shakespeare needed softening, or that his audience was far from literate, amending words and phrases that an actor can make quite clear without change: in the speech where the Citizen argues for the marriage between Blanche and Lewis, the phrase "If zealous love should go in search of virtue" becomes "If holy love . . ." (2.1, TLN 743; emphasis added).

122The last years of the twentieth century

As part of its project to film all of Shakespeare's plays, the BBC filmed King John for television in 1984. Perhaps because of a limited budget, the production avoided any attempt to use the film medium to create a sense of realism, as it used sets that were deliberately stagy, and there was no attempt to create filmic battle scenes. In keeping with the aim of the series to avoid controversial directorial intervention in the plays, it is a "fundamentally a conservative interpretation" of the play (Cousin 100). The television medium allows director David Giles to underplay the high rhetoric of many passages in the play, as his actors are able to speak lines in quiet intensity rather than the higher level required to project from the stage. This approach is allows George Costigan's Bastard to address the camera directly in closeup in his soliloquies, and accordingly he becomes more than ever the sympathetic center of the play. The women also benefit from this mode of understatement, especially a brilliant Claire Bloom as Constance, making the supposedly "mad" scenes bruisingly and movingly sane. The other women are also impressive, with Mary Morris's splendidly reptilian Eleanor and Janet Maw's surprisingly feisty Blanche. Leonard Rossiter portrays John as weak, vacillating, supercilious, and manipulative, more like a teenager than a king, by turns aggrandizing and sulky. Cousins's discussion of the stage history of King John in the Manchester University Press series on Shakespeare in Performance--mentioned frequently in this essay--reviews the BBC film and several other late twentieth century British productions in some detail.

123It is a measure of the now-marginal status of King John that on the rare occasions it was performed in this period it was relegated to smaller theaters. Deborah Warner directed it for the RSC in 1988 at the Other Place, and Robin Phillips for the Stratford Festival in the smaller Tom Patterson theatre. Like Goodbody and Barton before her, Warner saw King John as a morality play, peopled with almost parodic personalities; like them she emphasized the play's political satire:

124[T]his play . . . presents politics as a lethally stupid boy's game, showing every player outsmarting the others until even the smugly invincible Cardinal . . . delivers one fatwa too many. . . . On comes Nicholas Woodeson's John, a puny power maniac, ungraciously attired in greatcoat and pinstripe . . . blowing himself up like a bullfrog under the eye of his warlord mother.

125Comes the siege of Angers, and the two armies go to it hammer and tongs with the city's spokesman sitting pretty on the walls, munching a sausage, and observing the battle like an exciting Centre Court match. (Irving Wardle, The Times, 4 May, 1988)

126Warner's production was about as far from the operatic, cinematic lushness of a Beerbohm Tree as it was possible to get: the stage was minimalist, and the text was performed virtually without cuts. The only striking feature of the set -- severely limited by the space in the Other Place -- was a large number of ladders variously arranged to suggest the acting spaces the play requires. If "commodity" added up to nothing more than a rather nasty game, perhaps the stage set was in part designed to suggest snakes and ladders, with the human power-brokers the snakes.

127While Warner's production was minimalist in its staging, it is important to realize that any modern production has access to far more sophisticated lighting and sound effects than were available in the age of spectacular productions. Changes in technology are almost transparent to the audience, with the result that we take for granted kinds of spectacle that were unavailable to an earlier director. Robin Phillips provided a brilliant example of effective use of modern technology in his 1993 production on the small, deeply thrust stage at the Tom Patterson theater in Stratford Ontario. H.J. Kirchhoff, writing in the Globe and Mail, reported that

128Phillips mikes whispered conversations and asides to produce eerily amplified reverberations which, with subtle use of lighting, gives them a sharply different flavour from more conventional dialogue. The scene in which John quietly suggests to his man Hubert . . . that he kill the captive Arthur -- "a very serpent in my way" -- is hair-raising, as is the later scene, whispered in semi-darkness, when Arthur successfully begs Hubert not to kill him. (3 June, 1993)

129Kirchhoff was sufficiently impressed by this production that he comments on the play that "it's hard to imagine why [it] is so lightly regarded and seldom performed."

130In a move increasingly common in more recent years, Phillips set the play in a not-quite-modern period. The effect is to make the play seem less a product of a now-alien culture, without introducing potentially jarring anachronisms:

131By altering the period in which it is set – no great loss considering the playwright's cavalier commitment to historical veracity – Phillips has transformed it from a tedious tale of petty kings feuding over the spoils of a tottering Britain, to a riveting dissertation on self interest and self service. By setting it in the Edwardian era, . . . he downplays its macho battling to highlight the duplicity that oozes from virtually every wretched character in the tale. (John Coulbourn, Toronto Sun 2 June, 1993)