By Resident Dramaturg, Philippa Kelly
“I can’t sit on the throne with this big-ass table here, can I?” says Lance Gardner (playing the Earl of Suffolk) as Joseph Patrick O’Malley (playing King Henry VI) leaves the room. We are rehearsing the top of the play, in which, with stunning speed, the Earl of Suffolk procures a penniless French royal beauty for the English King, crawls into bed with her himself, plans to get rid of the Lord Protector and his wife, and, in the long run, believes that he can pick off all impediments to his own control of the English throne. We are stopping and starting, working out how to tell the story of the play while keeping track of an important through-line—no matter what is said behind his back, the King is at all times King (until he’s not, later in the play) and must be treated with the respect due a medieval regent.
Which reminds me of the discussion I had last week at Peet’s Coffee with my colleague, fellow dramaturg Scott Horstein, our chatter filtered by the morning sun. (Look for a post by Scott soon.) We were talking about the peerage—the rank of a Duke being above that of Earl (an Earl inherits his title, but may be poor as a church mouse; whereas a Duke is anointed to his position by the king, and his Dukedom usually includes the possession of valuable land.) In our play the Duchess Eleanor, wife to the second highest-ranking male character in the play, has dreams above her station—but because her husband, Duke Humphrey, is brother to the deceased Henry V, Eleanor’s insubordinate dreams are not at all far-fetched: if young Henry were to die without issue, Duke Humphrey would be next in line to the throne.
In America today, we see a constant parade of “actors” streaming in and out of the White House. It might seem strange that some of the anointed seem to have gone from principal coffee-maker to Secretary of an important department (and all-too-often walking a path straight from the White House to prosecution). But in the England of The War of the Roses, similar things are seen to happen. Treason, murder, wealth beyond the imaginings of the common people—this is the world of the ruling Plantagenet family, who divide themselves into those of the house of Lancaster and their enemies from the House of York. Which is not to normalize what’s happening on our 2018 “stage”—on the contrary, modern democracy has never looked so much like the distant realm of those who were born with wealth and privilege and spent their lives shuttling portions of it back and forth between each other while the common people starved.