A Verse Play in Two Acts with Commentaries
By Nance Crawford
“The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”
To be honest, I am not much taken with modern Ricardian fiction. I think that in the last five centuries too much fiction and too little fact has been written about king Richard III. It was, therefore, with some trepidation that I volunteered to review Nance Crawford’s book ‘King’s Games; a memoir of Richard III’. It is (to misquote a modern footballing cliché) a game of two parts. The first part is a play about king Richard written in verse; the second, comprises the authors commentaries on late medieval England and her account of how the play was conceived, written and ultimately produced for the stage.
I have always thought that plays are better performed than read and since I have not seen Kings Games performed I am at a disadvantage in forming a valid opinion of its merit. The absence of actors and a director to ‘suite the words to the action and the action to the words’ (Hamlet again!) is not just inconvenient; it is a substantial hindrance to a full appreciation of the author’s art as I have only my own imperfect imagination and understanding to rely on. Nonetheless, whilst I cannot vouchsafe an opinion about how well this play transfers from the page to the stage, I can say with some conviction that I enjoyed reading it.
King’s Games is a mixture of fact and fiction. The author has tried to ensure the historical accuracy; however, inevitably, she has had to fill the gaps in our knowledge with her imagination. Though only eight of the twenty-one scenes are based on verified historical facts all the scenes conform to the general Ricardian narrative of Richard’s life and times, partly taken from Paul Kendall’s 1955 biography. Naturally the dialogue is imaginary. Considering how influential Shakespeare’s melodrama has been in embedding the black legend of Richard in the public psyche it is not surprising that a modern Ricardian playwright would wish to portray him in a different light; though mercifully, not the pure white legend that some would have us believe but in shades of grey. This Richard is a decent man, but fallible.
Apart from the use of verse, this play bears no relationship to Shakespeare’s work; the characters are less melodramatic the action is more restrained. Neither does the author try to compete with Shakespearean verse. Her own distinctive mixture of colloquial Anglo-American English and Standard English is refreshingly modern and contributed greatly to my own appreciation of her efforts. The character of Cecily Neville provides two example of this; in the first, Cecily is comforting her dying son Edward:
“ Well tears are for Heaven, not this place,
No, not for partings short as this, I think,
And Heaven’s waiting for you, that we know —
Your Pa and Edmund, even Georgie,
With Isobel and both their unborn babes —
The Lord be willing to forgive our debts”
In the second example, Cecily is angry with Richard:
“Cecily. But it’s not cruel to scar my name?
To slander at the Cross the womb that bore
And nurtured you, to live to this sad pass? (Turning to Richard)
Yes, slandered sir! Held up to ridicule!
With such a loathsome story as would make
A harlot blush!
Anne. He’d never do you harm!
Cecily. The serpents tooth has struck the very breast
That sheltered him, the womb that gave him life,
And God alone knows what price he’ll pay”
Anne. Please, no, you can’t blame Dickon.
Cecily. Can I not?”
The first act opens in June 1487. Francis 1st viscount Lovell is a fugitive from the battle of Stoke where Henry Tudor crushed England’s the last hope for a Plantagenet king. Hot from the battle he takes refuge in his family seat at Minster Lovell. There, exhausted and encrusted with the mud and blood of battle he sits alone in a secret room to ponder his desperate future and the destruction of the House of York. It is through Lovell’s lonely and sometimes anguished reminiscences that — in the form of flashbacks — we witness Richard’s pathetic descent from the most powerful subject in the kingdom, to a lonely guilt-ridden king.
The brutal truth is that this Richard is not cut out to be a successful medieval king. He is brave, loyal and efficient but he lacks the judgment, arrogance, guile and ruthlessness necessary to survive for long in the vicious realpolitik of late medieval England. He is naïve even gullible in the trust he places in untrustworthy men. He is not selfish enough to do what he wants to do rather than what his advisors say he should do. Ultimately, he is too given to introspection. On hearing of Buckingham’s rebellion he confides to his friend Francis Lovell:
“ I contemplate my brother Edward’s flaws
And see myself a darker image there
In my soul’s mirror, for, except for you,
My friend, I’m proved a rotten jurist when
It comes to judging men. I have now learned.”
It is doubtful that he ever wanted to be a king.
“ Crowns, to me, were bitter, paper things
Cut out to top my brother Edmund’s brow,
To match that of my father’s sad display,
When both their heads had crowned the gates at York.
Ned could not know my cares, he was now king,
More tall and gold than any plated spire.
I asked him why he wanted to be king .
He said ‘it is the pleasure of a king
To find his pleasure at his own plaisir’
His instincts made him royal — but never mine”
Richard is also inhibited from freedom of action by his personal and unforgiving creed of loyalty. He could not seize a crown merely to take his pleasure at his pleasure. For him kingship is a solemn duty, a burden to be borne. He is unable to reconcile the conflict between his loyalty to those he loved and his broader regal responsibility to rule justly in the common interest. Inevitably,since he is a man of conscience, he is consumed with guilt about his inability to protect his wife, his son, his mother and his brothers’ children.
On the night before Bosworth, Anne visits him in a dream. Although she cannot offer him redemption for all his sins, her ghostly presence enables him. to unburden his guilt and his grief for their lost son who died “all alone while his parents played at Crowns” and his lost love Anne, whom he abandoned in her hour of greatest need as she lay dying. Anne’s love for Richard is unconditional and her forgiveness fortifies him; he is able to face his fate, whatever that may be.
In the morning his courage and resolve are unimpaired. He knows he cannot trust Stanley or Northumberland but he is confident of dispatching Henry Tudor if he can just get to within a sword’s length of him. He is also aware that whatever happens England has changed forever and if he survives he must change also. As he puts on his helm encircled with the English Crown he whispers silently to Anne’s spirit “Well Anna they will all know the king.” Indeed they will. Everybody knows how the last Plantagenet king met his end.
The second part of King’s Games is altogether different in kind and in form. Richard is no longer centre stage; the author and the play now occupy that space. The summary of the Wars of the Roses is neither scholarly nor measured. It is tolerably accurate without providing any new historical material or insight into those times: yet I found it gripping. What made it so, is the author’s colourful, informal writing style and her feisty opinions. Her history is frank and informative, her style is anything but pompous and she avoids the use of pseudo intellectual ‘babble’ (“Playwrights have no use for numbered footnotes”). Together, these qualities create a warm relationship between the author and the reader that is almost personal; it’s as though we are discussing history together, over coffee. It is the very antithesis of so many dry, intellectual and academic histories that I have read.
I also thought the author’s story of her play from its conception to the first night’s performance was enthralling. The gestation was a long one since originally she had intended to write a stage version of Josephine Tey’s ‘The Daughter of Time’. That proved to be impossible as the rights were not readily available and anyhow, she concluded, a play built around a policeman confined to his hospital bed lacked dramatic impact. It was the fortuitous discovery of a mystery surrounding the eventual fate of Francis Lovell that provided the mechanism to bring King’s games to the stage; he could become ‘Alan Grant’ for the purpose of guiding us through the action.
Ultimately King’s Games is a lively and entertaining example of Ricardian literature and a breath of fresh air.