- Playing Kings, Ultimatums, and AbdicationsThe Apple Cart and To Play The King
The first word of my title has two meanings: competing against, as in playing cards, and enacting a role—in life, not onstage. In The Apple Cart and To Play the King a prime minister opposes a king who has difficulty performing the role of king in a constitutional monarchy, and in these works ultimatums and abdications figure prominently. Bernard Shaw’s The Apple Cart was written in 1928 and first produced in 1929.1 Michael Dobbs published the novel House of Cards in 1989. In 1990 BBC-TV broadcast Andrew Davies’s adaptation of it. Both were so successful that Dobbs wrote two sequels, To Play the King (1992) and The Final Cut (1995), which Davies adapted for BBC-TV (1993 and 1995)—also successful. Together, the TV movies constitute the House of Cards Trilogy.2
This essay compares and contrasts The Apple Cart and To Play the King, both novel and TV movie, exploring chiefly how To Play the King illuminates aspects of The Apple Cart, but also how The Apple Cart enlightens facets of To Play the King. Because the antagonists of each are a right-wing Prime Minister and a left-wing King who has difficulty enacting the role of fangless sovereign and whose abdication becomes an issue, some resemblances are inevitable, whether or not Dobbs or Davies knew Shaw’s play.3 Despite resemblances, all three works differ substantially from one another.
Among obvious dissimilarities to The Apple Cart, both King and Prime Minister in To Play the King are new to their jobs. In the novel the unnamed King has reigned less than four months; the TV movie starts with his coronation. The Conservative Party, which like the opposition Labour Party is not named, has just elected Francis Urquhart Prime Minister. Their Shavian counterparts have been in office so long they are familiar with each other’s tactics. Shaw makes a joke of King Magnus’s incumbency. When a new Cabinet member warns he will say things never before been said to a king, the monarch urbanely responds, “I thought I had already heard everything that could be said to a king. I shall be grateful for the smallest novelty” (VI 289).
Shaw wrote The Apple Cart—set in a nonspecific future after 1962, when the father of one of the King’s secretaries died—while Stanley Baldwin led the Conservative Government (Labour’s Ramsay MacDonald did not return to power [End Page 267] until June 1929), which was well before Great Britain became a welfare state (after World War II). He does not treat party politics. To Play the King is about such politics, which Dobbs wrote with an insider’s knowledge. He was an advisor to Margaret Thatcher when she led the Opposition. When she became Prime Minister in 1979 he was a Conservative Party speechwriter, later Chief of Staff. His novels and Davies’s adaptations have an air of authenticity. The actions of its unscrupulous politicians are, one feels, what behind-the-scenes politics are like. Dobbs does not sugarcoat his party’s views and the King of the anti-Royalist Davies may be the movie’s most sympathetic character.
Although realism and fair play to opponents of the author’s views usually characterize Shavian plays (for instance, Sartorius in Widowers’ Houses and the Inquisitor in Saint Joan), they do not do so in The Apple Cart. His Preface (1930) complains that some critics considered it “a struggle between a hero and a roomful of guys”—that is, fools, clowns, and oafs (VI 254). Actually, these critics had a point. Most of the Cabinet members—at the time Shaw wrote The Apple Cart Cabinet members were more powerful in making decisions than they were when Dobbs and Davies wrote To Play the King, when the Prime Minister had become the dominant figure—are comic dolts. They boast of manufacturing such trifles as Christmas crackers and squabble about who bungled what, hereby evading the Cabinet’s serious business; and when Magnus announces he will abdicate the men sing “For he’s a jolly good fellow” (VI...