The Economist’s Christmas Issue one-act, “Gordon Rex,” might be funny or—in that uniquely English, Economist-y way—slightly self-consciously aloof, but it makes us long for more. More Brown in verse. More ghost of Tony Blair. More Chrous of Labor MPs. More plays of politicians, generally. We’ve longed for more since David Hare’s brilliant Stuff Happens, in which we saw leaders of the Bush Administration sing along to Amazing Grace over Camp David card games. Your politics are irrelevant; what matters is what the writing can reveal.
There is a long, strong tradition of playwrights taking on kings as their heroes, or anti-heroes, in works of historical biography. Or, more broadly, of writers taking on leaders in moments of crisis as fine dramatic subjects. From Shakespeare’s Henry Plays to Oliver Stone’s W, the tone may shift (adoration having lost its value several centuries ago) but some trends hold: a desire on the part of the playwright/screenwriter to teach the audience; the trick of mocking political decadence while making it somewhat still seductive (this heightens in the case of leaders brought down by scandal); and, almost always, a desire to know the man.
So many world leaders are seen by their public as opaque, complex, dark-hearted, if only as their power maks them necessary targets of opposition. Consider Nixon, so reviled, and then so thoroughly and thoughtfully portrayed in Frost/Nixon. What happened? We saw him in private.
It is the scenes behind/out of view of the public that we remember, and for which we are grateful to the writers who either imagined them or had the unique access to produce them. These are the scenes where we might see love, sadness, and fear, emotions otherwise inappropriate for press rooms. It is in bed, after all, that King Henry IV, concerned about succession, among other things, gives us literature’s most memorable lines about leadership, and power:
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
— Henry IV, Part 2, Act 3, scene 1, 26-31
There is nothing quite like this in Gordon Rex, alas, but there are two stage directions near the end which may achieve another kind of notoriety.
Enter the ghost of Blair, with a tan.
Exeunt BALLS and GORDON, head bowed, to a visiting professorship at MIT.
Light, happy, sad—and inconclusive. The rest will be history. Sean Connery as Brown?