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Historical Heritage

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There has often been a tendency in the modern world to dismiss the past, as Henry Ford did with his statement that “History is bunk,” and pretend that it has no influence on the present. Most modern dramatists insist that the past cannot be so readily ignored. Major historical events, beliefs, and people reverberate through the ages, and it is dangerous to deny this. To understand the relation between action and consequence or cause and effect, it helps to establish what the past entails and how it affects the present. When modern dramatists write about historical times and people, their aim is often to show the ways in which history impacts the present. Many dramatists consider the central importance of the past as being its ability to help us define who we are in the present. Arthur Miller has written about the past as “merely a dimmer present, for everything we are is at every moment alive in us” ( Timebends 131).

Of the three plays in this chapter, two deal with particular periods in American history, and the other takes place during the reign of Henry II of England in the twelfth century. Robert E. Sherwood’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois concentrates on the life, influence, and decisions of a single historical figure, while Arthur Miller’s The American Clock takes a broader stance, considering the wide-ranging impact of a whole period, that of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. Although the events of James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter take place so many centuries earlier, it becomes evident that throughout history the burdens on leaders and political figures remain constant, and the complex and often devious ways of the politician have changed little over the years. Notably, these plays resonate with the contemporary society for which they were written and continue to have relevance in current times.

Written as the storm clouds of World War II were gathering, Abe Lincoln in Illinois directly addresses America’s reluctance to join in the European conflict by asking us to witness the parallel in Lincoln’s initial pacifism and gradual realization that, despite his reluctance, he must get involved in a civil war to save American democracy. Sherwood uses dramatic license to depart, at times, from recorded fact, and includes imaginary characters to provide a more cohesive drama. However, he also includes sixty pages of notes citing sources on which he based the play.

In a series of brief scenes, Sherwood takes us from Lincoln’s early days in New Salem, Illinois, in the 1830s, through major events in his personal life in Springfield and his burgeoning political career, to his election as president in 1861. So it covers the making of a president rather than the presidency itself, although Sherwood includes some foreshadowing of how the presidency will run. We are offered insight into the person Lincoln was, both public and private, and the tensions that continually lay beneath his open manner. We are shown Lincoln’s background and beliefs, so we may better understand what he did and said. We are shown the internal and external influences that combine to color Lincoln’s decisions and political direction. Thus we see the process by which a man of peace can willingly lead a nation into war.

With forty-six named characters, plus extras, The American Clock is an ambitious play. It is best viewed as a mural in which one can see individuals at close range, but when one stands back the larger society with its pattern of interconnections becomes visible. In the play, Miller tries to balance epic elements with intimate psychological portraits to give a picture of a society and the individuals who make up that society. The play uses the horrors of the 1930s to illustrate how America survived in the past, in order to teach us how to survive in the similarly threatening 1980s.

Miller’s Jewish Baum family face difficulties, but survive by striking a balance between their own needs and those of others. Moe’s dignified strength, Rose’s vitality and ability to live with contradiction, and Lee’s discovery of the importance of humanity as he discards limiting ideologies all point toward a positive future. The play ends, significantly, with a sense of optimism, even if all the problems the characters face have not been fully resolved. It leaves us with a sense of hope despite the evidence of continuing difficulties, because we have been shown that however bad the world becomes, humanity’s capacity for love, faith, and connection cannot ever be fully crushed.

The Lion in Winter deals with the political and personal wrangling of Henry II in his futile attempt to keep his kingdom together after his death. The reason for his failure, Goldman suggests, is the inability to love or trust that runs through his family. These same failings lie behind many of the worse moments in human history. Goldman tries to stick to known historical facts in his presentation, although he admits to simplifying some of the political maneuvering and conflating time to move events along at a more dramatically acceptable pace. Because there was no law of primogeniture in Henry’s time, a single son   rarely took over his father’s throne, so Henry fears that, like Shakespeare’s King Lear, he will be forced to divide the lands he has spent a lifetime uniting.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois dramatizes Abraham Lincoln’s life from the time of his romance with Ann Rutledge until he leaves Springfield to become president. In 1831, Lincoln is twenty-two, arriving in New Salem, Illinois, where he helps clerk the local elections. The schoolteacher befriends him, extends his education, and advises him to move somewhere bigger. But fearful of large towns, Lincoln becomes postmaster and stays. He is well-liked and is selected to run for State Assembly as a conservative Whig. He agrees to run for political office to increase his standing, so that he might propose to Ann with whom he is deeply in love. He does nothing in the Assembly once elected, and, when Ann dies before they ever have the opportunity to marry, he moves to Springfield to open a law practice and dally with political office. Mary Todd decides he has prospects and determines to marry him. Fearful of her ambition, he jilts her on their wedding day. Two years later, he meets an old friend, Seth, who motivates him to take a stance on slavery, an issue he has been dodging. Returning to Mary, he marries her and enters the political arena in earnest. Unsuccessful during his elected term in Congress, he takes an unpopular stance against the Mexican War and loses his seat. He follows this with a run for the U.S. Senate, displaying his growth as a polished and convincing speaker. His relationship with Mary sours, even as he is nominated for president and wins the election. The play closes as he heads to Washington to take office.

Lincoln comes from poor beginnings, a family of impoverished backwoodsmen, and he rises from these humble origins to the presidency of the United States. He is depicted as a man prone to depression and doubt, but capable of forceful idealism once roused. His friend, Josh, suggests he has the capacity to be a “great philosopher” or a “great fool” (56). His open and honest manner draws all to befriend him, even the Salem delinquents, who respect him and follow his instruction. We see his nurturing side as he assists Ann, later nursing her on her deathbed, and helps Seth’s little boy. Although he is selected to run for public office because those in power believe they can manipulate him, he proves fiercely independent and principled once elected. However, the support of his friends remains important, because he lacks faith in his own abilities and needs their assurances, at times, to continue.

Lincoln’s desire to improve his position is evident from his decision to become literate and leave the backwoods to join New Salem society. Here he is educated in politics by the men who befriend him. His love for Ann, Sherwood suggests, is what catapults him into public office, as he tries to gain respectability to become a fitting husband. When she dies, it sets him back substantially, and it is five years before he runs again for public office. Mary Todd’s ambition may encourage him to pursue the presidency, but their relationship is far less satisfactory. It may allow him to rise politically, but at the cost of any private happiness.

While studying with the schoolteacher, Lincoln declares that if he had to choose between politics and teaching, he would select the latter. Once sitting in the State Assembly he says nothing and loses his seat. He later runs for the position of Elector rather than Member of Congress because he is uncomfortable with having to vote on any possible outbreak of war. Fearful of abolitionists, seeing them as warmongers, and refusing to speak at their rallies, Lincoln nevertheless disapproves of slavery, but refuses to get involved in the debate, feeling that slavery is upheld by the Constitution, since slaves are property. “I am opposed to slavery,” he tells us. “But I’m even more opposed to war” (75).

However, once he commits himself, we see a different story. Sherwood patches together parts of Lincoln’s more famous speeches to convey his evolving convictions. Lincoln loses his seat in Congress because he is too outspoken, specifically by coming out against the Mexican War. In debates against Stephen Douglas for the Senate and then for the presidential nomination, he wins by a landslide, despite calling for an end to slavery and reluctantly promoting the need for civil war to achieve this. Against the gusto of Douglas’s speech, he sounds calm but sincere, as he reveals the hypocrisy behind Douglas’s stance and refutes all his negative assertions. Using anecdote and humor to convey his points, Lincoln speaks without notes, as if directly from the heart, and swiftly wins his audience. Drawing on the Declaration of Independence, he declares that slavery is unconstitutional, and the Dred Scott decision (which tried to assert African American inequality), wrong.

What causes Lincoln’s change of mind is a hypothetical creation of the playwright, though based on known beliefs of Lincoln. The earlier Lincoln is shown to be a man of doubt, indecision, and even indifference, but in 1842 a change takes place and his character evolves into a figure of passionate conviction and decisive action. Sherwood allows Lincoln to meet with Seth, an old friend heading West with his freedman, Gobey, in the hopes of establishing a free society. Sickened by the concept of slavery, Seth declares that he would rather start a new country than belong to one that would support such an institution. Feeling that America would lose more by the loss of such citizens as Seth than she could from restricting slavery, Lincoln determines he must block any expansion of slavery to the West, a belief that develops into a declaration that slavery is evil and must be abolished entirely. His patriotic prayer over Seth’s sickly child is effectively a prayer for the survival of the United States through troubled times ahead, a prayer in hindsight we know was answered, but at the time would have been provoked by genuine fear.

The American Clock tells the story of America in the 1930s through the conflated stories of a vast array of characters. We meet businessmen like Jesse Livermore and William Durant who lose everything, and more successful entrepreneurs like Arthur A. Robertson and Theodore K. Quinn. We learn the plight of farmers like Henry Taylor, young intellectuals like Joe and Edie, and an assortment of people from all walks of life. At the center, Miller places the Baum family, who are partly autobiographical. Through the Baums he explores, even more deeply, the concerns and demands of such a time. The father, Moe, loses a prosperous business but keeps on going, even as his wife, Rose, begins to fall apart under the strain. Their son Lee goes from childhood to adulthood as he travels through the nation, and finally comes to terms with the demands of living in America.

Despite hardships, Miller sees the Depression as a positive period in American history, when the morally corrupt old order disintegrated, leaving the ground cleared for new structures. The main difficulty came in the uncertainty as to what these new structures should be. In the play, Miller illustrates how neither socialism nor fascism offered ideal social systems, as each is too extreme and ultimately flawed. While the former privileges the community, the later privileges the individual; what is really needed is a balance between the two. People in the 1930s struggled to understand this balance. By the 1980s, Miller saw America as needing to relearn this lesson in order to combat a mounting spiritual malaise.

In presenting his mural, Miller allows no scene breaks and presents us with a fluid montage of constant action. The characters often address the audience directly, as if to include them as part of the throng. He creates a collage of the American people, and begins the play by presenting two quintessentially American pastimes—jazz and baseball—with the band playing “Million Dollar Baby” to emphasize the 1920s American obsession with wealth. Miller also blends together people’s speech to create a single voice—the voice of America. Speech flows between the cast, with one character completing the sentence of another, to suggest a community of one mind, connected by outlook, similar values and beliefs, and desire.

The play is also unified by joint narrators Arthur Robertson and Lee Baum. Lee, youthful and initially naive, attempts to make sense of events as they unfold. Robertson, older and wiser, has an intuitive understanding of events even before they occur. Together they analyze how America survived the calamitous Depression and what future lessons can be taken from her survival. Both are involved in the action, not as outside commentators but as participants, which gives their words a greater credibility. Through these narrators Miller wonders why it was that the Depression did not destroy America. The answer he offers is not the more generally accepted one that Roosevelt saved the country, but that it was the American capacity for belief in the possibility of a better future.

Robertson’s opening Biblical image of the country kneeling before a golden calf evokes a prophecy of doom. We all know what happened to those original misguided idolaters; they paid a harsh price for their faith in wealth. These people, too, will suffer, as the Wall Street Crash is imminent, and will spark a sequence of events resulting in the Great Depression, the most widespread disaster faced by the American people since the Civil War. Even the shoeblack, Clarence, puts all his savings into the almighty stock market. He refuses to   accept that he could lose in this venture, despite Robertson’s kindly advice for him to cash in his shares. When the market crashes, as we know it will, Clarence is left with less than $50.

Even after the Crash we see people who refuse to face the truth. Some financiers, like Randolph Morgan, commit suicide; others, like Jesse Livermore, initially comfort themselves with empty optimism over the possibility that someone like John D. Rockefeller will save the day. Livermore so believes in economic prosperity that when he finally comes to recognize his own ruin, he loses all faith and is unable to continue living. William Durant has a clearer vision, looking his own ruin in the face. He knows that suicide is no answer, recognizes the illusion of the wealth he had garnered, and will not fall prey to it again. Durant may have lost General Motors, but we later learn that he survives and lands on his feet by running a bowling alley in Ohio.

It was not just the city people who suffered. Due to weather conditions as punishing as the stock market, the products of the farmers failed as much as the dealings of the city financiers. Miller shows the Taylors’s farm being put up for compulsory auction by its bank creditors. The neighbors, threatened by similar treatment, rally around their fellow farmer. By a show of physical force, the only power they retain without having any money themselves, they enforce a sale of Taylor’s property for $1, and return it to him. It will be a momentary victory, for he has no money to run a farm whether he owns it or not, and he will soon be forced out onto the road to make a living.

The Depression allowed America to start anew, to go back to her beginnings where everyone was a stranger and needed to forge new connections. Miller shows how people survive by random acts of kindness, often performed by people who do not even know the recipient: Brewster helping Taylor, Callaghan helping Banks, the Baums helping Taylor. Such acts of kindness are positive signs of connections being forged, even though many remain out only for themselves. As a recipient of such kindness, Taylor, for his part, is neither lazy nor expectant. He is prepared to work for his food and does not expect a handout; he is uncomfortable asking the Baums for even that much. His lack of greed is evident when he only drinks half of the glass of water they give him.

The Baums feel sorry for Taylor, but cannot be fully responsible for him; he must accept responsibility for his own condition. Moe explains: “Life is tough, what’re you going to do?” (142). Lee, idealistically, does not accept this as a valid response, and is unhappy with what he sees as his father’s refusal to take responsibility for Taylor. Grandpa’s reaction, however, is worse. He insists that people are not connected and you should only “worry about yourself” (143), as he does. Miller makes it clear that we should not believe Grandpa. Earlier on, we were shown how wrong his views are when he insists that Hitler can only stay in power for six months at most. We have also just witnessed his unrealistic response to Taylor’s plight, suggesting the man should simply borrow money to buy his farm back. Grandpa is living in fierce denial of the changing times and what he says is not credible. Moe’s philosophy is a lot less   selfish and preserves a necessary balance; he helps a little, but not to a point where he damages his own prospects.

Miller uses the three main Baum characters to illustrate the major different reactions he perceived people had to the Depression: Moe responds practically, Lee ideologically, and Rose emotionally. In combination, the three offer a comprehensive picture of the overwhelming impact of the Depression on the American psyche and disposition. Apart, they allow us to explore personalized aspects of the larger social changes that occurred during this period. Wealthy enough at the start to have a chauffeur, they, like so many others, overinvest in stocks. We watch as the clock runs out on their prosperity. The whole family is initially distracted by acquisition. Their Grandpa has become a nuisance who has to be shunted back and forth between the sisters rather than embraced as an emblem of the family’s connection. They waste their time in petty jealousies and quarrels. Rose is jealous of her mother-in-law; Moe enjoys nastily teasing his sister-in-law. Moe is so busy that he scarcely has time for his own son (unaware of how old he is or when he had his last haircut). They will learn, through the trials of the Depression, how to become a closer and more fulfilled family unit.

Lee’s final identification of Rose with America as a whole rests on her ability to accept contradictory beliefs. This is indicative of the binary nature of the American psyche. Rose can simultaneously support concepts of capitalism and freedom, socialism and elitism, humanitarianism and racism, for at the heart of these beliefs lie her essential optimism and belief in life. It is these that allow Rose, and the rest of America, to survive and continue to function. Rose sings out at the close of the play, refusing to give in. Although a little wistful at first, everyone joins in her rendition of “Life’s Just a Bowl of Cherries.” The country has been saved, not just by the onset of war, as Robertson suggests, but also, as Quinn adds, by a reaffirmation of belief in itself, only partly engendered by President Roosevelt. Quinn leads the final chorus with his soft-shoe dance, as everybody sings together, including, hopefully, the audience, providing a prime picture of America the brave, prepared to sing and dance with life in the face of every disaster.

The Lion in Winter begins with Henry II, an agile fifty, with his young mistress Alais Capet, sister to Philip, the King of France. Though having won his position through subterfuge and battle, recent years of peace have led Henry to desire a peaceful succession, which will maintain what he has built, rather than see it torn apart. Unfortunately, his three remaining sons, Richard, Geoffrey, and John, are each determined to get the most power for themselves, and they cajole, betray one another, and lie as they jockey for position. While Henry favors giving John his kingdom, his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, prefers her chances with Richard, over whom she has more control. Philip insists that Alais be married to one of Henry’s sons, as agreed to in a past treaty, but Henry desires her for himself. The sons keep changing alliances,   even joining with the foreigner Philip when they feel it might give them an upper hand; they are clearly willing to murder each other to get the crown. In disgust, Henry imprisons all three, and plans to marry Alais and have more sons. However, realizing the futility of this, as he cannot protect those sons once dead, he frees his existing offspring and decides the only solution is to live forever.

Goldman intends this partly as a political farce. We watch the convoluted plotting of the Plantagenets and Capets as they vie for power. Characters listen behind doors, keep switching sides, and comically misread each other’s actions. Though set in 1183, the political intrigue, backbiting, and lack of truth or honesty displayed could quite easily belong in modern times. Goldman reinforces this by using anachronistic speech, putting modern idioms into the mouths of his twelfth-century characters.

Henry is the lion of the title, and the winter is both the time in which the play is set and Henry’s approaching old age. As a Count, at eighteen, Henry had met Eleanor, then Queen of France, and swept her off her feet, persuading her to annul her marriage to the king of France and wed him, thus bringing with her great wealth and Aquitaine, a large province within France. By twenty, Henry was King of England, with extensive lands in France, which he further extended through battle and treaty. In hindsight, we know that, after his death, Richard became king but abandoned his responsibilities to go on the Crusades, leaving his brother John in charge. John’s weakness led to the Magna Carta, in which he signed over many of his powers and took the first steps toward a constitutional monarchy, which contrasts with the supreme sway Henry held. Henry ultimately realizes that he cannot control things after his death, which is why he frees his sons and effectively gives up his quest to preserve his kingdom intact.

Richard Lionheart is the soldier, Geoffrey the supposed brains, and John the best looking. Though collectively they reflect their father, individually they are inadequate. Richard has had a compromising homosexual relationship with Philip, which Philip only pursued in hopes of upsetting Henry. He is also easily manipulated by Philip and his mother, Eleanor, having none of the strength of his father. Geoffrey, despite his intelligence, consistently misreads the situation and his constantly changing allegiances ensure that no one trusts him. He also struggles against an inferiority complex as the consistently overlooked child. At sixteen, John is a petulant, self-absorbed youth, willing to betray anyone, including his father, for his shot at power. But he is too stupid to even maintain the secrecy of his trickery, such as when he lets Eleanor know about his pact with Philip, thus giving her ammunition to revitalize her contest with Henry.

Had Philip been Henry’s heir, Henry’s hope to keep his kingdom intact may have come to fruition, because Philip is far stronger than any of Henry’s sons. Only seventeen, and King of France for the past three years, Philip proves to be a worthy political adversary to Henry. He is far more aware of the demands of the political game than Henry’s sons are. He displays strength by refusing   to allow Henry to patronize him, and instantly sees through the subterfuge when Henry pretends to accede to Eleanor and give Richard the crown and Alais. Philip knows he need only bide his time to exact revenge for the lands and reputation his father lost to Henry, as none of Henry’s sons will be able to control him as Henry has done.

Henry’s relationship with Eleanor is as problematic as the relationship he has with his sons. At times each professes love for the other, but they also categorically deny it. Their actions speak little of love. Both understand how politics works, know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and, one suspects, keep each other close only to know their enemy the better. As potential equals in political subterfuge, they use each other and their children to play the game. It is a game of which Henry grows tired, but which Eleanor refuses to stop. They vie for ascendancy over the other, and end up in a stalemate. Eleanor returns to her house arrest, but she contentedly remains a thorn in her husband’s side.

Henry’s choice of John for heir and husband to Alais is most likely because he sees him as the most malleable, but that would also make him the least likely to stay on the throne once his father was gone. Henry knows he needs to find a way to satisfy the other two so that they would leave John alone, but they all want the same thing. Henry understands that his family hate him, but he intends to get what he wants by being the “master bastard” (8). That his children are so weak and untrustworthy should not surprise us, given the upbringing they have received. Richard points out how they grew up watching the constant fighting between their parents. All three sons feel distanced from their parents, never having felt truly loved nor able to trust either one; so it follows they too are incapable of love or loyalty.

Every member of this family is willing to betray and even kill each other, if necessary. Ironically, it is Henry, the “master bastard,” who finally displays compassion, by letting his sons live, despite knowing that they can only wreck his accomplishment. It is Eleanor who highlights the play’s humanitarian message when she declares, “Oh, my piglets, we’re the origins of war. Not history’s forces nor the times nor justice nor the lack of it nor causes nor religions nor ideas nor kinds of government nor any other thing. We are the killers; we breed war. We carry it, like syphilis, inside” (56). These people are all intrinsically rotten, for whatever reason, living without love, trust, or compassion. While people still exist without such qualities, Goldman suggests, war will always be inevitable.

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