Grandma Liza was the first in her street in Hampton to get a TV. Then when she lost her husband in the fifties, she had the solace of In Melbourne Tonight. You never knew when Graeme Kennedy might go off script and with overt cheek say something mildly blue – risqué, even. A generation that had survived the depression and a war, and for all I know had been blighted by the same Methodists who had put the fear of God into my mother, were ready for some relief. The seduction was of course all harmless – unlike those people who follow Trump or who fall for Farage because they give expression to the evil angels of their followers. (To describe that conduct as harmless would be like calling Mein Kampf picaresque.)
What, then, do we say when a born killer sucks us in? Richard III is deformed in both body and soul – dogs bark at his deformity, and we get reminded of evil omens at his birth. He smiles while he murders – as a proclaimed act of policy. Yet we do get sucked in – and not just to smile, but to laugh at his naked affront to the whole basis of any moral code. In the end, he is unrepentant and content to accept the chance of the dice. In the McKellen film, he laughs in our face as he makes what we take to be his descent.
In a note comparing Richard to Hitler, I referred to Ian Kershaw on Hitler.
The histrionics of the prima donna were part and parcel of Hitler’s make-up – and would remain so. It would always be the same: he only knew all-or-nothing arguments; there was nothing in between, no possibility of reaching a compromise. Always from a maximalist position, with no other way out, he would go for broke. And if he could not get his way, he would throw a temper-tantrum and threaten to quit. In power, in years to come, he would sometimes deliberately orchestrate an outburst of rage as a bullying tactic. But usually his tantrums were a sign of frustration, even desperation, not strength.
You see a lot of that in the Mozart opera Don Giovanni, which for me is about the most compelling drama on our stage. The story, or legend, of Don Juan is as well-known as that of Casanova. The utterly unrepentant seducer is also a cold-blooded killer. Put differently, you can add rape to the charge sheet of murder. In the Pushkin version, The Stone Guest, the hero’s first port of call is a convent, but his short play leans heavily on Richard III – for example, Don Juan tells Dona Anna ‘I killed your husband and have no regrets for that.’
The high drama of the libretto of Don Giovanni is perfectly matched by the music of a genius in its fullest flowering. It is worth setting out the comments of the Rough Guide in full.
One of the true monsters, the Don is more terrible for being an irresistible monster; the seductive beauty of his serenade to Elvira’s maid, the superhuman energy of his ‘champagne aria’, and the ambiguous ambitions he inspires in the women he encounters, all prompt the suspicion that Mozart was a covert member of the devil’s party. Though chillingly adept at playing on the weaknesses of his prey, whether she be a coquettish country girl like Zerlina, or a wary aristocrat like Donna Elvira, the Don explodes into animalistic violence when thwarted – by the opera’s close he has committed (or at least attempted) two rapes, murdered one man and badly wounded another. Yet for all his barbarity, the balance of sympathy is never tipped conclusively against the Don (the opera would fall apart if it did), and in his final moments he achieves something of the dark nobility of the fallen Lucifer: ignoring the terror-struck interjections of Leporello, the Don defies the Commendatore’s implacable demands for repentance, even as the voices of the damned rise to summon him to hell. There is still no scene in all opera that is more intense and shocking.
The reference to the awful power of the finale is in my view spot on. The thunderous chords of the stone guest take us back to the start of the overture – and the equally thunderous defiance at the end of Act I. And our guilty fascination with the impossible feats of the hero – one thousand and three is ridiculous anywhere, and not least in Spain – still holds when he faces the judgment of God, and somehow we get a kind of comfort from his refusal to bend the knee – to use a phrase that Satan was fond of.
And that reference to Satan, in Paradise Lost, reminds me of a film version of the opera I saw at Oxford where Sir Thomas Allen was not just Satanic, but the face of evil itself – and we were left wondering what we had all been left smiling about. The New Grove Dictionary of Opera talks of the attraction of the ‘daemonic in Giovanni, and …the impossibility of penetrating a character so mercurial, whose music says so little about his motivation.’
Well, at least with Richard, we get chapter and verse on what drives his evil. And Tony Tanner spoke of how the ‘demonic humour and uncontrollable energies’ of Richard reduced the solemnity of history to farce. It is a kind of ‘comic history’.
Now I just wish to offer some comments of what two of the great geniuses of the past may have to say about two serial pests of the present, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. They are two spoiled children who never grew up, who never knew restraint, and who could not therefore be trusted with power.
These two current pests have one thing in common with the two stage villains – they miss the part that we call conscience – that monkey on the shoulder that put Hamlet on the road to perdition.
The first comment does not apply to Don Giovanni, because he never sought political power – or any lasting tie with anyone. (People only do business with Trump once.) Richard enjoyed rising to power and the brutality of obtaining it, but he was hopeless as a king. It is a pattern we have seen here with combative politicians who crave power and then fail when they get it. But Richard III, Trump and Johnson did not just fail – they trashed the joint. They put in peril the state whose crown they had won. And they could not have cared less.
The second point is that the English king and the Spanish noble were great risk takers – in large part because they paid no heed to the sufferings of others caused by their gambles. This goes for Trump and Johnson. Possibly the worst in history was Napoleon. About five million died because of his quest for la gloire.
The third comment is related. It is that Richard and the Don had no friends or supporters they could rely on. Their focus was so intense on themselves that others hardly came into their heads – except that they might be duped into serving the purposes of the self-proclaimed heroes. Tony Tanner offered this illuminating insight.
From any point of view, Richard’s behaviour is profoundly irrational, and is finally both horrifying and incomprehensible even to his closest accomplices (in fact no one is close to him at all; simply, some accompany him further into his evils than others.)
That is so true of both Trump and Johnson. Tanner referred to the remark of another scholar (Robert Ornstein): ‘When he gains the pinnacle of power, he stands alone, isolated from other men by his criminality, and hated by those whose allegiance he nominally commands.’
If you inquire after loyalty to Trump, just watch the pirouettes of his daughter in her new found role of Snow White, or a flip with full pike and twist from Odile back to Odette – the black swan to white. If you inquire after loyalty to Johnson, just look at Michael Gove – as I remarked elsewhere, at least Judas threw away the thirty pieces of silver, and was decent enough to hang himself.
And Richard III? We have the stony lines of Henry VI, Part III, 5.6.79-83:
I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word ‘love’, which graybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another,
And not in me. I am myself alone.
There you have the chilling modernity of the age of TikTok.
PS. For Don Giovanni, the Giulini version has Sutherland and Schwarzkopf, but for high drama you cannot go past the 1954 mono version of Furtwangler. For Richard III, I gave away my cassette version with Peggy Ashcroft growling up from the earth as Queen Margaret like Erda (another rape victim). There is nothing else like it.
Shakespeare – Richard III – Don Giovanni – Johnson – Trump – evil.