Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Tudors of Perception

With no news to report since yesterday, I've been meaning to put up a post about the Showtime series The Tudors, and this seems as good a time as any to do so (click here for the official Tudors site). I didn't have time to watch the program when the episodes first were coming out earlier this year, but I've watched all 10 through the miracle of Showtime On Demand recently.

And the verdict is, here we have another example of quality programming courtesy of cable television--good going, guys! Not quite up to the level of The Sopranos, but what would be? Definitely in the same league as Rome, maybe better overall, it definitely surpasses Rome's disappointing second season. And like Rome, The Tudors is a historical drama, and while both cinema and broadcasters have been known to take liberties with historical fact, this trend still is cause for celebration, because getting some history in this way is better than getting no history at all. I remember Neil Postman saying that, when he was growing up, kids would get some sense of past events from biographical films of the sort no longer made by Hollywood. If HBO, Showtime, and the rest pick up that slack, well, it may be a drop in the bucket when it comes to amusing ourselves to death, but every little bit helps, even in a losing cause.

So, The Tudors gives us history, although I do wish it were a bit more, well, historical. I didn't recall seeing or hearing any mention of what year any of the events were taking place, although in a recent conversation with family friend Emily Smith, she said that she thought there was a year in the opening titles of the opening episode (although she couldn't remember what the year was). In fact, let me go check right now...

Nope, I just watched the first few scenes of the first episode, and no year is given. Now, there is an element of accuracy in doing this, in that people living in the 16th century rarely noted or even knew what year it was, but as a service to the audience, something more in the way of temporal orientation would be a good thing.

Holding that aside, it is of course odd to watch the series, knowing a little bit about how things may turn out. I think that this Thomas More chap is way too Utopian for his own good, for example, and that Anne Boleyn gal seems to be sticking her neck out much too far, but that's just my opinion. In all honesty, watching this program with some knowledge and many gaps in knowledge makes for a strange experience. I kind of know how things are going to go, but don't quite recall (or never knew in the first place) exactly what's going to happen when, and anyway they are taking some liberties with events--you can see this on the official Tudors site where they provide accurate information on the characters that is at odds with what actually happens on the series.

But these are details, and the point in drama is not detailed accuracy, but providing verisimilitude, a sense that you are there. And that they do. I found the series did hook me, and make want to keep watching to see how it all turns out, even knowing the direction it was all going in anyway. And even though the characters were not all that compelling, in my opinion. Interesting, yes, utterly fascinating in some instances, but curiously, not grabbing me emotionally.

For example, it's repeated over and over again that Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who serves as the king's Lord Chancellor, has many enemies and is hated by most, but we never really see, let alone experience, why this is so, we are just asked to accept this as a fact. Wolsey himself emerges as the most intriguing character of all, portrayed sympathetically by the likable actor Sam Neill. He seems to have some kind of Machiavellian, power behind the throne role, but far from being a Rasputin, he is shown to be quite subservient and loyal to the king--I kept waiting for something sinister to emerge from him, but it never does. We are made to wince, I certainly did, at his fall from grace at the end of the series, where he begs the king to believe that he had always and only served his interests. If the accusations of his corruption have any truth to them, the program does not let on, one way or another. And Wolsey is shown to be eminently reasonable, ahead of his time in trying to work for a treaty of universal peace (a kind of proto-UN or League of Nations), putting his own ambitions of being pope aside to serve his king. We're told his is the sin of pride, but apart from enjoying the accolades and accepting status equivalent to that of a Lord or Duke, he doesn't seem inordinately prideful. What else can be said, but that loyalty and good service may be rewarded, but may result in punishment at the hand of a capricious and easily misled ruler?

I am not denying that Wolsey is a good character, that Neill is a talented actor who does himself credit with this performance, but it could have been so much better if the drama had been framed more distinctly with Wolsey as the one mature adult individual living amongst a group of children, the young, and also the spoiled and childlike older nobles and aristocrats of the court. That would have been very interesting, to imagine an age when most people were ignorant and immature, and what it must be like to be the only or one of the few people actually able to think clearly and logically, but still be subject to the authority and caprices of those higher in rank. A missed opportunity.

But, it's not just Wolsey, all of the characters seem less than completely engaging to me. Fascinating, yes, but somehow distanced, and not just historically. Maybe it's that British thing, that cool reserve, although there is plenty of passion, especially sex. But the Anglo-Saxon style rightly dominates here. In a previous post about the Fantastic Four movie, I criticized the unwillingness of contemporary filmmakers to use traditional White Anglo-Saxon Protestant characters where they would be appropriate, as a result of the backlash against their dominance of our popular culture for most of our past, and our current emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism. Now, here we are with a series where most of the characters are WASPs, or more accurately, WASCs, as the white Anglo-Saxons still belong to the Roman Catholic church at this point in history, although there are a few infected with the Lutheran heresy. But this, of course, is all about how England broke with the Church of Rome, although technically the Church of England is not considered Protestant, but rather a breakaway form of Catholicism. Not that the true Protestants are completely absent, as we have Thomas Cromwell as one of the characters, a champion of the English Reformation.

I should note that it's not all English all the time, you do have the French, the Spaniards, the Portugese, and the Italians, but mostly its the English. And how refreshing to see England at a time before it became an imperial power, although they do occupy part of France. But mostly they are a secondary power, with Spain being preeminent. Its great when you can root for the Brits as the underdog, when you can get some of the Churchill-like stiff upper lip in the face of adversity. They are so good in that role.

But the main attraction is King Henry the Eighth. And, thinking about it, I realize that of all the countless kings and queens of England (well, yeah, they did keep count of them, didn't they, that's why they all have numbers after their names, but the point is that there's a whole lot of them and I really couldn't say how many altogether), Henry VIII looms large as one of the very few that I really have heard of outside of historical reading, that is one of the few who are part of American popular culture, and whom I have known of since childhood. Known of, I should emphasize, not really knowing much about--Postman liked to point out the difference between knowing about, which comes from book learning and schooling, and knowing of, which seems to be all that television can deliver, and sure enough, what stands out from childhood is just an image, not facts or narrative, just the picture of that old, or middle-aged, overweight monarch holding an enormous hunk of meat (was it a lamb's leg?) and eating heartily. It is therefore refreshing to find that this Henry 8 in The Tudors is youthful, athletic, albeit continually overestimating his abilities and taking unnecessary chances, a bit of a mook, really, kind of a jerky boy, all about stunts and sex. He's also spoiled, demanding, but also commanding, and not without half a brain.

But what I remember, from my childhood was that other image, and it is hard to reconcile the two, although I am looking forward to seeing the transformation. I should add that, as a lad, I also knew about Henry the Eighth through the popular song, which actually had nothing to do with the king, and was performed with a cockney accent by Herman's Hermits--good old British invasion rock and roll! I just found this unusual site that let's me add the lyrics in a fancy-shmancy way, so here goes:





HERMITS HERMAN'S lyrics

Well, that's amusing, maybe even weirdly cool, but it doesn't quite get across the lyrics properly, so let me present them in a more traditional format:

I'm Henry the eighth I am
Henry the eighth I am, I am
I got married to the widow next door
She's been married seven times before
And every one was an Henry (Henry)
She wouldn't have a Willy or a Sam (no Sam)
I'm her eighth old man, I'm Henry
Henry the eighth I am

Second verse same as the first

I'm Henry the eighth I am
Henry the eighth I am, I am
I got married to the widow next door
She's been married seven times before
And every one was an Henry (Henry)
She wouldn't have a Willy or a Sam (no Sam)
I'm her eighth old man, I'm Henry
Henry the eighth I am

I'm Henry the eighth I am
Henry the eighth I am, I am
I got married to the widow next door
She's been married seven times before
And every one was an Henry (Henry)
She wouldn't have a Willy or a Sam (no Sam)
I'm her eighth old man, I'm Henry
Henry the eighth I am

H-E-N-R-Y
Henry (Henry)
Henry (Henry)
Henry the eighth I am, I am
Henry the eighth I am

Yeah


That's better, but of course to get the full effect of what is, after all, a rather annoying song, you need to hear it sung. But from the lyrics alone, it's clear that the song is a rite of reversal of sorts, in which it is the wife who has multiple marriage partners, not the husband. Also, as a kid, it did leave me confused and thinking that the old king must have had eight wives himself, instead of the infinitely more reasonable six. Six? That's still a lot, who doe she think he is, Zsa Zsa Gabor (for the younger reader, a celebrity perhaps best known for marrying numerous times and guest appearances on TV), or maybe even Elizabeth Taylor? Well, the similarity between royalty and movie stars was noted well before I was born, for example by Marshall McLuhan in The Mechanical Bride.

And if you know anything beyond that image of him munchin' on mutton, you know that he had many wives, that bit makes it into popular culture. And maybe even that he executed one or two of them. Actually, checking with the font of all knowledge on the subject, Wikipedia, I found the following mnemonic rhyme: "King Henry the Eighth, to six wives he was wedded: One died, one survived, two divorced, two beheaded."

But for me, the point was driven home when I was in high school, in 1973, when Rick Wakeman, the keyboards player for my favorite rock group, Yes, released his first solo album, The Six Wives of Henry VIII. The liner notes tried to explain the relationship between the different women's personalities and histories and the music he composed for them, but no one I knew could see, or hear the connection (must be a British thing). But the music was very much in the style of Yes, and the progressive rock band had reached the peak of its popularity and creativity with the albums Fragile and Close to the Edge, so Wakeman's solo album sold pretty well, and made many of us American fans became more familiar with old Henry's cast of characters, or should I say revolving door of leading ladies. Click here to go to the Amazon page for The Six Wives of Henry VIII and order it if you care to, but you can also read the editorial and customer reviews, and listen to samples just to get a sense of what each of the six pieces sounds like (I recommend the Amazon music sampler option that lets you listen to all 6 30-second samples in succession).

So, anyway, the Showtime series is much better at getting across what the wives, or at least the first two, Catherine or Aragon and Anne Boleyn were like, so it has that going for it.

But more than that, what the series brings home is the fact that Henry VIII is remembered because he was such a pivotal figure. He is the one who makes the break with Rome, and in doing so sets England on the course of Empire, although it fell to his daughter Elizabeth to see that little island transformed into the England of Shakespeare and suns that never set.

But, as a drama, the question remains, what's the point they're trying to get across in The Tudors, what's all this history have to teach us today? Much of what goes on seems so very distant from our own contemporary concerns. For one, there's the idea that geopolitics hinges on the idiosyncrasies of personalities and personal relationships. Of course, there is that thing about Bush bearing a grudge against Hussein for trying to take out his father, and looking into Putin's soul, and whatnot, so maybe there is some small relevance there. But then there's the fact that major political events revolve around the king's loves and lusts. Of course, there was that whole thing with Clinton and the intern. So maybe there is something to learn here about the elites that govern our affairs?

Maybe, but no effort is made to make that sort of connection, and anyway, this series is an English effort, so it would not necessarily reflect American concerns, values, or myths. On the
official Tudors site one of the creators, Michael Hirst, explains that he decided not to begin with the beginning of the Tudor dynasty, with Henry VIII's the father, Henry VII, because #8's story was so much more dramatic and relevant to contemporary life. He writes:

The more I read and thought about the Tudors, the more I came to realize that the story of the young Henry VIII presented a rich and so-far untapped vein. For one thing, he presided over the change from the medieval to the modern world. He also engineered the change, in England, from Catholicism to Protestantism, a change so profound that nobody had ever tackled it dramatically before, even though it underscored not only the history of the British Isles, but also the history of America! And on top of that — for God's sake — was the fact that, as a man, he was caught in an erotic triangle between his older wife, and younger mistress. Granted, the stakes were a great deal higher than in most modern examples, but the reality was totally familiar, almost commonplace. Kings and Queens act out, on a vast and public stage, the dramas which fill and define our own private lives.
So, it's about sex and love, and power. As he went on to explain:

I pitched Henry as a young, glamorous, athletic, sexy... etc. King because I was fed up with his English iconic version as a fat, bearded monster with a vast ego and even vaster sexual appetite, and very little brain. Holbein's tyrant! He had in fact a keen intelligence — and for me there was nothing more fascinating or more sexy than getting him involved in the big political and religious issues of his day. To tell you the truth, I grew to love this guy: he had everything! He was devastatingly handsome, and he was always the best at all the physical activities — like jousting and wrestling — that he did. He could also speak five languages. He could play chess. He could write philosophical pamphlets. And he had absolute power. That God had given him! What a great premise for a show! For if Henry was you — what would you do?
And, he continues:

Showtime liked the pilot. But they wanted to push it further. I was not to feel under any constraints to show the beauty and the violence of the period. They also liked the idea that Henry was surrounded by a group of young and handsome bucks who had no titles, but who aspired to everything they could lay their hands on: titles, women, fortune and honor. Brandon, Compton and Knivert were the brat pack of their day, heartily disliked by the older generation of aristocrats, like Norfolk, but constantly indulged and elevated by the young King. With Cardinal Wolsey as a safe pair of hands, craftily and carefully guiding the ship of state, Henry lived a hedonistic lifestyle in the early years of his reign — a fact he guiltily admitted to later. Even so, he remained anxious to win fame and honor — if he could — on the battlefield (preferably fighting the French!) and he wanted to be a good ruler in a humanist tradition he shared with his good friend Thomas More (whose head he later cut off).
So, it's the royalty as Hollywood celebrities, only with the power of life and death. But the thing that I think we Americans constantly miss is how much the English grapple with, are conflicted over, have a love-hate relationship with, resent and are enchanted by their monarchy, nobility, and aristocracy. We have long ago lost our bitterness over the royalty and imperial character of the English, and enjoy the royal family for the celebrity spectacle they provide. But the English pay for it, in real tax dollars, and in having to be a part of a culture where certain doors are absolutely closed to most people. Sure, it's almost impossible for almost all natural born Americans to become president, but the point is that it is theoretically possible, and such ideals are powerful. Across the pond, there is something humiliating, degrading, to at least a significant number of English citizens about the existence of royalty and titled aristocrats. For example, in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review (7/8/07), Chrisopher Hitchens reviews On Royalty: A Very Polite Inquiry Into Some Strangely Related Families, by Jeremy Paxman. But it is not so much the book itself, but Hitchens's essay about it that is of interest, as he is a self-described republican (in other words, against the monarchy), explaining that

Paxman’s fascinating and amusing book is an inquiry into the continuing potency of an anachronism, and also into the largely voluntary thralldom it continues to exert on its “subjects.”

Clear enough for you? Well, let me also include his final paragraph, which is of special relevance given the fact that Henry VIII, in breaking with the Pope, made himself and his royal successors the head of the Church of England:

There is, finally, another point that an axiomatic secularist like Paxman is reluctant to tackle. Queen Elizabeth is the nominal head of the church as well as of the state (and the armed forces). On her expiration date, her eldest son — a sad and foolish man with a half-baked interest in Islam — will become the head of the Church of England. The family values of Henry VIII have left the British with an absurdity at the very apex of their system. The belief in monarchy is deeply related to the supernatural and the irrational and was founded on the wicked idea of “the divine right of kings.” All supposed glamour to one side, the institution still bears the ineffaceable and lowly stamp of this origin, for which the words “fairy tale” might have been designed. In a short time, after a long reign, this will become uncomfortably and indeed unpleasantly clear. The mad principle of heredity will give us, not just a charmless and chinless dauphin, but a brooding, resentful, religious creep. At this point, the “very polite inquiry” might have to become fractionally less deferential.

Marshall McLuhan suggested that when a medium becomes obsolete, it doesn't disappear, but often come to be seen as an art form. There is no question that the British monarchy has been obsolescent for a long, long time now, and has been in many ways reduced to an art form. Could it be that this is the essential message of The Tudors, and more so, that the significance of this series is that it actually presages the full and final abolition of English royalty and nobility? We in the US would regret it, the same way we regret the cancellation of a favorite television show, but it might actually be a healthy development for our cousins over in the UK.

2 comments:

Luanne said...

I got a kick out of reading this post Lance, as I do yes, with pretty much all, and as with all of them, I have a hundred things to add or clarify or ask or interject and sometimes I even think you might just be stirrin' the pot. Chuckle. Thank you for all of it! Now, and to wit - relative to my two cents on all topics covered here, I would simply offer, "There's nothing new under the sun...." And that a blog is a frustrating medium!

Lance Strate said...

Ah, vanity, all is vanity, turn, turn, turn. But what makes one medium more frustrating than another?