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  • King Magnus and King Minus:A Play and a Playlet
  • Stanley Weintraub (bio)

Early in December 1936, Britain was shaken by the breakdown of press self-censorship about the affair of the king and the American divorcée Wallis Warfield Simpson, and Winston Churchill saw in the crisis his way out of the political wilderness. He could become leader of a "King's Party" to back Edward VIII against the Conservative diehards led by the prime minister. Stanley Baldwin insisted that the king disavow Mrs. Simpson—or his throne. "England promptly went mad," Hesketh Pearson recalls:

Archbishops, bishops, peers, cabinet ministers, debated the matter behind closed doors. Could an English king contract a morganatic marriage? Could British peeresses and royal highnesses walk behind an American commoner? Why could not this English king do as many previous English kings had done? The questions were endless. Nothing else was discussed. . . . Nearly everyone treated it as a matter of life and death. Nearly everyone suddenly became conscious of the Church of England, the British Constitution, Duty, Virtue, and the Ten Commandments. Even football was temporarily forgotten.1

Resisting the Establishment threatened to compromise the political neutrality of the sovereign, essential to constitutional monarchy. Yet he could relinquish the throne to a legitimate successor and might then, so recent fantasy suggested, campaign for elective power as leader of a parliamentary party. Taking his cue from Bernard Shaw's satire The Apple Cart (1929), John Grigg, the king's close friend, who would surrender his title as Second Baron Altringham to remain in the Commons, proposed to Edward that if he adopted, at the polls, the domestic politics of Lloyd George and the foreign policies of Churchill, he could become "a well-nigh irresistible force." [End Page 11]

That never-employed electoral alternative is the tipping point of the futuristic The Apple Cart, Shaw's hit comedy set in remote 1960s England.2 The first London production ran for 258 performances, a long-running success for its time. In Shaw's political whimsy, King Magnus is warned by his "official mistress," the witty and voluptuous Orinthia, as they tussle playfully, that she wants her horizontal position formally recognized. Should he placate her? Can he do so? He has a lawful, homebody queen and a public to reckon with. The king is also beset by the constitutional limits on his freedom of action laid out by Prime Minister Proteus. "If you flourish your thunderbolts," the king rejoins, "why may I not shoulder my little popgun . . . ?"

"What we say," Foreign Secretary Nicobar explains sweepingly, "is that the king has no right to remind his subjects of anything constitutional except by the advice of his Prime Minister, and in words which he has read and approved."

Not given to dithering, Magnus announces after a brief recess with Orinthia that he will resolve all disagreements with his Cabinet by abdicating in favor of his son, Robert, the Prince of Wales, although, the king concedes, "I have never been able to induce him to take any interest in parliamentary politics."

Relieved, Proteus agrees that abdication would be the "intellectually honest solution of our difficulty." And his colleague, Pliny, the chancellor of the Exchequer, reflects, "One king is no worse than another, is he?"

"I suppose the King must do as he thinks right," concedes Boanerges, the president of the Board of Trade, happily, and the tame Cabinet impulsively choruses, "For he's a jolly good fellow," assuming Magnus's public farewell.

But King Magnus asserts, contrarily, "I have no intention of withdrawing from an active part in politics." Before stepping down, he plans to dissolve Parliament and call for a general election: "I shall be in a better position as a commoner than as a peer. . . . It is my intention to offer myself to the Royal Borough of Windsor as a candidate at the forthcoming General Election."

"He'll be at the top of the poll," Pliny predicts.

"There are several possibilities," Magnus goes on blandly. "I shall endeavor to form a party. My son King Robert will have to call on some Party leader who can depend upon the support of the House of Commons to form a Government...


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pp. 11-27
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