There will be a staged reading of James Shirley's play, The Politician, at the Smock Alley Theatre at 4pm on April 4th, which is free and open to all. Shirley's play was almost certainly written and first performed in Dublin in the late 1630s (probably 1639), but this is, as far as we know, the first time that it will have been seen on the Irish stage since then.
The play is a work of political and moral intrigue, much like House of Cards or The West Wing, or even Game of Thrones, and, therefore, captures more than a little of the nature of current politics. More specifically, the play is of particular interest in its Irish context, revealing the susceptibility of flawed rulers to the machinations, ambitions and ideological agendas of their administration.
In doing so it had more than a glancing relevance to the condition of Ireland under Charles I, and more pertinently, his Lord Deputy Strafford, links a contemporary audience surely would have made without too much effort. Shirley shows us a court ruled by a feeble king, dominated by his devious wife, Marpisa, whose true alliance is to an unscrupulous conspirator, Gotharus. His ever more elaborate and desperate plots spiral further and further out of control with inevitable consequences.
Set in medieval Norway, The Politician tells the story of Gotharus, a sly and ambitious politician. His mistress, the formidable Marpisa, marries the king and the two conspirators plan to have her son Haraldus made heir to the throne. Gotharus tries to set the king against his son, the successful soldier, Turgesius, and convince the nervous Haraldus that he is made for great things. To calm Haraldus down Gotharus gets him drunk, which, unfortunately, causes his death.
His plan to assassinate Turgesius leaks out, and the people are furious to learn that their champion is under threat from within the court. Marpisa, blaming Gotharus for her son’s death, turns against him and, with the furious army and the people at the gates, Gotharus in desperation hides in a coffin which he has had prepared for Turgesius. The people carry it off for burial, believing it to contain the body of the prince. They encounter the still living prince and, breaking it open, they discover the dead Gotharus.
Marpisa reveals that she poisoned her ex-lover with a cordial, which she then takes herself. The king, realising how wrong he has been about everything, offers to abdicate and let Turgesius rule, but he is persuaded not to by his son, who explains the need for an ordered monarchy and succession. Turgesius reveals that he is planning to marry Albina, the virtuous widow of Gotharus, demonstrating that, at last, order has returned to Norway.
An ambitious and self-confident writer, Shirley saw himself as the heir to the great Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists. The coming man of the Caroline stage, he went to Ireland in 1636, tasked with establishing a theatre in Werburgh Street, Dublin, by Thomas Wentworth, earl of Strafford, the Lord Deputy of Ireland. Wentworth was very keen on drama and seems to have thought that a good theatrical tradition would help him establish his rule in Ireland and would cement the often uneasy alliance of New English officials and Old English Dubliners.
However, Shirley did not have things all his own way and the final play he staged in Dublin, St Patrick for Ireland (published 1640), which has St Patrick as an obviously British cleric sent over to convert the heathen Irish, acknowledges the lukewarm and hostile reception his work sometimes – hardly surprisingly – received.
Not only that, but the Irish playwright, Henry Burnell, clearly took exception to The Politician and he staged his play Landgartha (1640) as a response. Also set in the long cycle of conflict between the Scandinavian countries, Burnell’s work includes an Irish Amazonian warrior, Marfisa, a conspicuously virtuous character designed to counteract Shirley’s devious and conniving female protagonist. Whereas The Politician represented a court hopelessly divided, weakly led and ripe for domination by those prepared to do anything to climb the greasy pole, Burnell showed his audience noble warriors and loyal, independent servants of the crown.
The Werburgh Street Theatre was right in the centre of 17th-century Dublin, next to the castle and Christ Church Cathedral. Shirley was thus writing work to be produced at the heart of English power in Ireland. He appears to have been something of a skilful politician himself, serving both the royalist and parliamentary regimes and seems not to have been damaged by Wentworth’s fall from grace and execution on May 12th, 1641. In fact, the play was not published until 1655, adding an extra layer of intrigue: is what we have the original text? Or did Shirley transform what he first wrote to make his ideas seem more palatable to the Cromwellian regime and more critical of that of Charles and Wentworth?
In The Politician, a play which mingles tragedy and farce, the audience sees a court spiralling out of control as a result of self-serving machinations and ambition – a situation that could be mapped onto events in these islands in the late 1630s. We observe a weak-minded but autocratically inclined king who cedes political power to his chief adviser, rather as Charles I relied on Strafford in Ireland. We witness a nation lapse into civil war through the weakness and lack of foresight of a feeble monarch and the cunning plotting of a ruthless, over-mighty courtier, who must surely, one way or another, have reminded playgoers of Strafford.
The reading is staged as part of a collaboration between UCD School of English, Drama and Film and Sussex University, the performance directed by Kellie Hughes, based on the text prepared by Duncan Fraser and myself. James Shirley is an unfairly neglected figure, the most significant dramatist writing in English of the mid-s17th century. His works are being edited by a large team under the general editorship of Eugene Giddens, Tess Grant and Barbara Ravelhofer. Andrew Hadfield is Professor of English at the University of Sussex, UK, and Visiting Professor at The University of Grenada