Richard of Bordeaux – 4*
Richard II – 3.5*
A few days ago, I used a long weekend to devote some time to reading more of Josephine Tey’s plays (mostly published under her pen name Gordon Daviot). The most famous of those was a little historical drama called Richard of Bordeaux, which not only propelled John Gielgud into stardom but ran sell-out performances from 2 February 1933 for 14 months – 472 performances.
The play tells the story of King Richard II (6 January 1367 – c. 14 February 1400) from his accession to the throne until his death.
Much like in Tey’s later work The Daughter of Time (1951), Tey’s approach to telling Richard’s story is based on Tey’s love of history and love of questioning into it.
When I read the play, the first time, I read it as the story of a young king – Richard was only ten when acceding to the throne – who was full of ideals and wanted to find his own style of leadership, but was led to make decisions by the influence of people around him, either because he took their counsel or because he was opposed to it and had to act to safeguard against political intrigue.
De la Pole: I can hardly expect Lord Arundel to understand it, but what we are seeking is something new; some way out of the stalemate; out of the everlasting alternation of war and armistice and war again, which is all the history this country has had within living memory. We want a permanent peace in which we may be able to turn to things better worthwhile than the eternal see-saw of conquest and loss. It is in that hope that we are prepared to treat for a peace with France.
Arundel: Then I say that is treason! It is going back on everything we have been taught to believe. It is betraying the country and those who——
[Enter Richard. He walks to his seat rather as a child might who knows that he has behaved badly but is still indignant that anyone should think so. ]
Richard (as they resume their seats): You were saying, Lord Arundel——?
Arundel: I was protesting yet once more, sir, against this monstrous suggestion of— of——
Richard: Of peace.
Arundel (unconscious of irony): Yes, of peace. England is not beaten, sir. She has had reverses, of course, but so has France. The spirit of the people is not broken, sir; the will to win is still there and we have a first-rate army. Once this armistice ends, there is nothing to hinder us from making a new invasion which will result in unqualified victory, a complete vindication of our policy, and a still greater glory for England.
Richard: And more cripples begging in the gutters, and more taxes to cover the cost!
It’s certainly easy to see the appeal that this play would have had to an audience in the inter-war years, and it certainly is uncomfortable to read about a repeat pattern of career politicians dismissing peace in the hope of furthering nationalist agenda.
As the play develops and Richard resigns his throne to Henry Bolingbroke, Tey again picks up on the irony how men are corrupted by power in similar ways, when one of the last scenes sees Richard smirk at the news that King Henry now faces that very same criticisms that were held against Richard.
This was written in 1932, and tho the context is that of Richard II, some of the statements are easily transferable.
Of course, once I finished the play, I was also intrigued to find out how it compares to Shakespeare’s version. While I couldn’t find a recording of Gielgud as Richard of Bordeaux, there is a sound recording of Gielgud’s Richard II (on YouTube).
Shakespeare’s approach is different. His play sets in when Richard has already reigned for a while, has established his rule, and has already dealt with at least one plot to overthrow him.
As a result, Shakespeare present us with a character that has already been formed, and that is – while conflicted within himself, like so many great Shakespearean leads – easier to portray as a hardened statesman, ruthless politician, even. And it is easier to feel sympathetic to Henry, who returns to claim his property and is confronted with a king who is often portrayed through the tales of his wrongdoings.
Here is another difference between Richard II and RIchard of Bordeaux: Tey portrays Richard mostly through his interaction with other characters – his beloved wife, his servants, even his opponents. Tey’s Richard comes across as far more caring about people than Shakespeare’s creation, who seems more inept at building or keeping relationships.
Overall, I much preferred Tey’s play because we get a more complete picture of Richard as a character, while still questioning the same, or very similar, questions about the uses and misuses of power that Shakespeare investigates through his portrayal.
However, Tey was no Shakespeare, and nor did she try to be. It would have been a futile attempt in any case, because how can a playwright possibly compete with some of the best speeches created in literature?
No matter where—of comfort no man speak:
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs,
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills;
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives, and all are Bullingbrook’s,
And nothing can we call our own but death,
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been depos’d, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill’d,
All murthered—for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d, and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable; and humor’d thus,
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores thorough his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence, throw away respect,
Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a king?