’55 Days’ is the sold-out play by Howard Brenton that addresses the tumultuous two months that climaxed with the regicide of 1649. The play is based around the historical narrative which is well known. Charles I has lost two civil wars and is held captive by parliament; but the king is still the king and popular support for him is at an all time high, so the army has to purge the House of Commons of MPs who are sympathetic to the crown before parliament can then vote to put Charles on trial as a war criminal. The king refuses to recognise the authority of the court but is found guilty anyway and then beheaded. There is a wealth of primary and secondary materials connected to this breathtaking episode in British history, the only military coup d’etat to have happened in the last five hundred years. My expectations of the play were high. I was very disappointed.
Discussing the play afterwards over a pint with my friend Danny McCosh, we agreed that such a drama could have succeeded had it taken one of two forms. It could have aimed to be as historically accurate as possible, filling in the gaps in a way that was sensitive to period and character, thus transporting the audience back into the mid-seventeenth century or at least somewhere close to it. This would be both educational and entertaining, while also allowing the audience to draw its own comparisons with other historical periods or the modern world. Of course it would be tedious to argue that all historical drama should consist of precise re-enactments and so an acceptable alternative to this would have been for the play to have taken a thematic approach that foregrounded analogies. Thus, for example, the play could have spoken to us about the current state of American politics whereby although the Democrats have been re-elected the country is experiencing a groundswell of popular conservatism in the form of the loathsome Tea Party. The big problem with ’55 Days’ is that it wants to be historically truthful but in fact is riddled with inaccuracies, and it makes no serious attempt at any thematic comparisons.
The two characters most central to the drama, Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, are both presented as one dimensional walking, talking, superficial ideologies rather than individuals wrestling with their extremely difficult circumstances. The king is reduced to a haughty, effete figure in a cheap blonde wig who never tires of telling his jailors to their face that as soon as he is restored to power they will all be hanged. He says that his sovereign powers are his by grace of God, but neither divine right monarchy nor absolutism are explored, meaning that it is impossible to understand why anyone would support the king. Indeed, the play does not contain a single character who articulates any royalist ideology in a vaguely meaningful way, even the king’s companion the duke ofRichmondis silent on this important subject. Cromwell is just as unconvincing as the king, lacking any charisma, presence or authority; when he speaks either it is in the tone of a Sunday school teacher or he shouts. He is constantly waiting for God to show him what to do next, the irony being that all too often the hand of providence is only apparent in Charles I’s blunders. Surely we should see Cromwell and God communicating in a less dysfunctional manner?
Turning to the scenography and wardrobe, one of the two good things about this play is the municipal setting within which much of the drama happens — the other is the lack of unity amongst the king’s opponents. Seeing politicians in small offices trying to keep abreast of events, or scurrying along corridors trying to arrange meetings with people they want to influence or at least keep a watchful eye on, implies something constant about the nature of government. Charles I is the only character to appear in contemporary costume, the rest of the cast being dressed in the generic type of clothes that middle class people wore to work during the mid-twentieth century. The king also speaks with a strong Scottish accent which is strange given that he leftScotlandat the age of four to take up permanent residence inEngland. Presumably both dress and voice serve to separate Charles from everybody else, the idea being to juxtapose Stuart decadence with the Englishness of Foyle’s War. But it is just too crass and reductionist.
In a play that seeks historical verisimilitude certain inaccuracies within it are jarring and weaken the drama because opportunities to create tension or reveal character are squandered. Two examples will explain what I mean. It would have been good to hear the pessimistic earl of Manchester sum up the frustrating political reality that faced the king’s opponents with the astute comment that “If we beat the King ninety and nine times yet he is king still, and so will his posterity be after him; but if the King beat us once, we shall be all hanged, and our posterity be made slaves.” Instead, Charles says in an understated way that it does not matter how often he loses wars because he only needs one victory which will allow him to execute his opponents. The second example is that in reality Charles wore two shirts on the day of his execution in case he shivered on the scaffold in the extremely cold January weather, so great was his determination not to look afraid at the moment of his death and thus give his enemies the upper hand. In the play he wears three shirts during the trial so as not to shiver – even though the trial is held inside? — with no mention of the extra shirt on the scaffold.
In terms of its narrative, most of the play is concerned with the problems related to putting the king on trial, and some of the dialogue connected to this is interesting; but the courtroom proceedings themselves are dealt with relatively quickly which is disappointing because trials make for good drama, especially this one. A thematic play could have addressed the trial and execution of a modern tyrant such as Nicolae Ceausescu or Saddam Hussein; a more historically-minded one would have shown Charles’ development from a politically defeated king who had never been a good public speaker to a confident and eloquent defendant because in reality the trial was the king’s finest hour. This is indicative of another of the play’s problems, namely that it lacks any character development.
The production ends in the most clichéd way possible: Charles kneels at the block, the executioner raises his axe, at which the theatre is plunged into darkness. Presumably the royalists in the audience were meant to be aghast at this, the republicans satisfied that early modern justice was meted out. I did not care one way or the other because I had never suspended disbelief. Aside from finishing with a chestnut, the ending is unsatisfactory because there had been almost no mention of how the nascent republic will be governed — the play finished and we were left in limbo. The events of December 1648 and January 1649 are still crying out for a good dramatic treatment, as are those of the civil wars and Interregnum.