Benedict Andrews on “The War of the Roses”

The role of history will.. be to show that laws deceive, that kings wear masks, that power creates illusions, and that historians tell lies. This will not be a history of continuity, but a history of deciphering, the detection of a secret… and of the reappropriation of a secret that has been distorted or buried.

- Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended.

The War of the Roses describes the development, decline, and decay of a civilization. We begin in a prelapsarian culture on the brink of collapse and we watch its king, Richard II, lose his wealth, his kingdom and his role. His usurper and successor, Henry IV, rules a wounded kingdom in a continual state of emergency and unrest. This disturbance is manifest in damaged relations between fathers and sons. The sons, Hal and Hotspur are cast as rival twin brothers driven to dark, glorious dreams of redemption. Hal’s killing of Hotspur, his reconciliation with his dying father, and his betrayal of his friend Falstaff cause him to redeem his lost honor. As Henry V, he unifies his torn nation by leading it to acts of slaughter in France. His son is crowned Henry VI while still an infant. During his reign, the kingdom descends into factional politics and brutal civil war. History becomes a bloody nightmare. During these wars, we witness the rise of the future king, Richard III, an exquisite monster whose rule will be a reign of death. His kingdom is a shadowland peopled by the dead.

The various plays which make up The War of the Roses contain evolving descriptions of a garden. Its evocation haunts the stagings. Sometimes, it is a memory of paradise before the Fall. On his deathbed, John of Gaunt reaches back to this garden when he describes England as “this other Eden… this teeming womb of kings.” Sometimes, the garden is cited as an exemplar of ideal government. Society is defined as an act of cultivation, selection, and exclusion. The destruction of the garden is used to denote the deterioration of the kingdom. On his deathbed, Henry IV fears that under his wild son’s reign, the kingdom will become a “wilderness again / peopled by its old inhabitants, wolves”. Following the horror of war, eviscerated France is compared to a neglected garden which has degenerated into wildness and ruin. When York suggests resolving the political dispute between theHouses of York and Lancaster by plucking white or red roses from a briar, the garden provides the props which will allow the kingdom to split into deadly factions. The plucking of these “dumb significants” is the germination ofunfathomable violence.The tension between wilderness and civilization, between anarchy and government, between utopia and concentration camp is embedded in the metaphor of the garden. It is a walled dream of paradise, a cultivated land manured with the blood and bone of war.

In these plays, England is a garden which kings struggle to keep. In his Four Quartets, T.S Eliot wrote,

We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments…
History is now and England.

-  ”Little Gidding”, section 5, lines 15-24

In Shakespeare’s history plays, the bare stage is the metaphoric garden where history is played over and over.The Chorus in Henry V suggests that “a crooked figure may / Attest in little place a million” and urges the audience to work their thoughts to re-create history on the empty stage in collaboration with the poet’s words and the actors’ playing. The audience are reminded that the staging of history is a staging of illusion. It is remembrance and prophecy; epitaph and fantasy; prayer and cry.

On the bare stage, player kings are crowned and usurped nightly. The pageantry and blood pump of history is replayed nightly. History is replayed as shreds of ceremony and dusty portrayals of bare life. The words of the poet become flesh in the body of the actor. The ghosts are history are paraded across the stage.

This cycle of plays is a vast, resonating memento mori. As in the hundred shivers of Richard II’s smashed mirror, it reflects and refracts the skull rounded by the golden band of sovereignty. This crown is the driving force of the cycle. It is the hollow eye of the storm of history. The crown is a target of longing, a seat of power, a theatrical prop, and a symbol of subjectivity. Shakespeare’s vast poem x-rays the skulls of kings. The skull wears the crown. It contains a little kingdom. It is the silence behind the language. It contains the tongue that speaks history, the eyes which witness it, and,the brain which animates the hands that kill. It is where dreams of desire, horrific prophesies, splendid hopes, and the languages of power echo. It is the price and the outcome of power. Dust.

Benedict Andrews, December 2008