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February 21, 2005

Don Carlos - J. C. F. von Schiller

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

J.C.F. von Schiller's Don Carlos
Gielgud Theatre, London
28th January - 30th April 2005

Schiller's plays are an exercise in disorientation for historians. The personages are famous, yet the characters and milieu they inhabit might come from science fiction for all the connection they have with what historians take to be real events. The famous meeting between Queen Elizabeth and Mary is the least of it: the context is the real casualty of Schiller's historical drama.

For example, Don Carlos, the son of Phillip II notably failed to make his mark on history. Schiller's play however parachutes into sixteenth century Spain an Enlightenment liberal called the Marquis of Posa and plays the game of "if" with him. Posa converts Carlos to a belief not only in freedom but in freedom of conscience, which is not something notably favoured by the local Inquisition. Carlos then transcends his inner turmoil to demand leadership of the army about to set off to deal with trouble in the Netherlands. Carlos thinks that love would be a more successful policy in Flanders than the terror favoured by the King and his general the Duke of Alva. Schiller suggests that had Phillip granted the request, history would have been radically different. The problem is that Carlos exhibits not the least sign of competence in such a task. No ruler in his senses would have considered this flighty child for a serious responsibility.

The first problem is, then, that the play is historically absurd, but the problems don't stop there. Don Carlos is no less absurd in human terms. Some of it is not much above soap-opera level of plausibility. That old expression from the James Dean era "a crazy mixed up kid" might have been invented for Carlos. He has big Oedipal problems, being in love with the woman who is now his stepmother, and when we first meet him, is still engaged in an eight months long sulk with his father Phillip II. Phillip in his turn is emotionally troubled from discovering, apparently for the first time, that being an absolute monarch doesn't allow much scope for sincerity, authenticity and love in human relations. Phillip is starved for love, but can't stand the weepy Carlos. The King does, however, take to Carlos's friend the Marquis of Posa, who is deeply unsound if judged in terms of the king's gloomy Augustinian politics. In a notable scene, the King accepts Posa as the one person in the entire Court who is not "on the make". These two have a high flown conversation to the effect that they are both concerned to make "a better world". I do not know whether any actors could make the roles of Carlos and the Marquis of Posa plausible, but at the Gielgud, they certainly weren't.

That brings us back to the playing of Phillip II, and here in Derek Jacobi we do indeed have a star player in a star performance. Phillip is presented as not much less disturbed than his son, but the character does have some substance, and Jacobi is marvellous as an autocrat tormented by the isolation of his social role. In Phillip, the play manages at times to transcend the familiar abstractions of love versus power on which it is based. It rises at times above the rather soap-operas conception of royal family life. The production also does quite a good job in communicating the claustrophobia of Court life, its secrets and its sycophancies. I particularly liked Una Stubbs in the tiny role of the Duchess of Olivarez who cannot think to do anything for which there is no precedent in Court etiquette. But what above all makes this rather absurd piece worth reviving, apart from its star role, is that the language is lively and poetic. It's a great pageant, and all it needs is Verdi's music to make it unforgettable.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.


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It has been a long time since I read Don Carlos, but it always seemed to me about the dangers of an idealist (Marquis Posa) in the real world for the real damage they cause. Setting up Don Carlos to liberate the Netherlands is at about the level of wiring up some poor mental defective with dynamite.

But maybe Iím giving Schiller too much credit.

Posted by: anonymous coward at February 23, 2005 08:08 PM
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