Parliament has always been part of English drama. Intriguingly, the N-Town Plays – a collection of mystery plays performed in the second half of the 15th century – include The Parliament in Heaven and The Parliament in Hell. The parliaments in question are celestial fora in which allegorical figures such as Truth, Justice and Mercy debate the fate of humankind.
The idea of Parliament as a corporeal political institution is discernible in William Shakespeare’s History Plays (1590s) but only partly so. Perhaps the most parliamentary of these plays is Henry VI, Part 2 (1591), which includes references to the 21 parliaments summoned during this monarch’s reign. Although Shakespeare is sometimes seen as anti-democratic, there is a curious tension in this play between Parliament’s role as an institution of government and its potential as a voice for the people. ‘Away, burn all the records of the realm: my mouth shall be the parliament of England’, says Jack Cade, the leader of an unsuccessful peasants’ revolt (Act IV.iii).
By the early 18th century, Parliament and parliamentarians had moved centre stage in English drama. John Gay’s Beggar Opera (1728) is a veiled critique of MP Robert Walpole’s handling of the South Sea Bubble, the global financial crisis of its day. The most notorious work of Augustan drama is The Golden Rump, a biting satire of George II and Walpole. Whether the play existed is a moot point, but Walpole performed a version of it from the floor of the House of Commons to make the case for censorship. The result was the Theatrical Licensing Act (1737), which put the power to prohibit theatrical performances on a statutory footing under the control of the Lord Chamberlain.
The Theatres Act (1843) narrowed the grounds on which the Lord Chamberlain could ban plays and so created a (somewhat) less restrictive environment in which to stage plays about Parliament. A case in point is Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (1895) in which Sir Robert Chiltern, Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, is blackmailed by Mrs. Cheveley over his shady role in the construction of the Suez Canal. The play shows Wilde’s keen understanding of politics and also his low regard for it. ‘I wish you would go into Parliament’ The Earl of Caversham tells his son, who responds ‘My dear father, only people who look dull ever get into the House of Commons, and only people who are dull ever succeed there’ (Fourth Act).
Harley Granville Barker’s Waste (1906/1927) offers an altogether darker depiction of Parliament. Although Westminster remains off stage throughout, this play explores the political ideals and personal shortcomings that drive people to elected office. ‘I went into the House quite hopefully’, says Henry Trebell, the play’s protagonist, ‘But my only choice there came to be between gibing at the fools and becoming one of them’ (Act Two). A progressive politician with a plan to disestablish the Church of England, Trebell resigns after his pregnant mistress dies following an abortion. The play was banned by the Lord Chamberlain because of this subject matter but, as Steven Fielding notes in A State in Play (Bloomsbury, 2014), the real reason may have more to do with its portrayal of MPs as morally bankrupt individuals engaged in a parliamentary game.
Contemporary playwrights’ are more absorbed by Parliament than ever. David Hare, perhaps the most important political playwright of the last three decades, wrote about turmoil in the Parliamentary Labour Party in The Absence of War (1993), while his masterpiece of verbatim theatre, Stuff Happens (2004), includes direct quotations from Robin Cook’s resignation speech over the Iraq War.
No play deals with Parliament more directly than James Graham’s This House (2012), which tells the story of Labour’s precarious hold on Parliament from 1974 to 1979. Told from the perspective of the Whip’s Office, the play is an ode to arcane parliamentary procedures and the power of parliamentary sovereignty. The set for its run in the National Theatre included a replica House of Commons in which audience members unwittingly played MPs. For one performance, former MPs took the place of the audience, taking the representation of Parliament on stage to impressive new levels of realism.
Dr Dermot Hodson is Reader in Political Economy at Birkbeck. He will be talking about Harley Granville Barker’s Waste as part of the SPACE/Guilt Working Group Event Parliament on the Stage on 9 February 2016.