In his invigorating new play, King Charles III, Mike Bartlett imagines a not-too-distant alternate reality in which Queen Elizabeth II has died and Charles, Prince of Wales, accedes to the British throne. The play, now enjoying a boffo run at the Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End, envisions the heir apparent to the House of Windsor as a boundary-shattering monarch who dissolves Parliament over a row with the Prime Minister, and wrecks the U.K.’s three-century-old constitutional foundation in the process. Written in blank verse and containing clever theatrical allusions to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Henry IV and King Lear, Bartlett’s script not only reveals a prodigious theatrical imagination but prescience: Last week, Prince Charles revealed that he would be inclined toward “heartfelt interventions” as king, and as an “activist” monarch would loom perhaps a bit too large over the British Isles (and its elected Parliament, thank you very much). Such a pose could conceivably compel the political establishment to redefine the alternately venerated and fraught thousand-year-old English monarchy, should its eventual king not do it for them.
Great Britain has grown accustomed to a highly visible, if silent, sovereign in Queen Elizabeth, who ascended to the throne at 25, just seven years after end of World War II. From the start, she embodied the political reticence and decorum of her Edwardian upbringing. The great-great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria grew up at a time when women still retired to drawing rooms and bedrooms so that men could discuss “important’ things. Victoria, who reigned nearly 64 years, is synonymous not simply with austere social mores, but the cultural, economic and sociological fabric of most of the 19th century. Certainly Elizabeth, who remains an indefatigable force at 88, may well eclipse the longevity of her great-great-grandmother’s reign. (She will become Great Britain’s longest-ever reigning monarch on Sept. 9, 2015.)
In the realm of politics, meanwhile, the Queen has been at least outwardly apolitical; her deadpan mug has been as inscrutable as a fusty Oxford examiner. As a constitutional monarch, she has indeed maintained a time-honored deference to Parliament and to the prime minister for whom she hosts a weekly and confidential “audience.” (This political tradition has been captivatingly dramatized in Peter Morgan’s The Audience, which earned plaudits for Helen Mirren and opens on Broadway next year following a sold-out London engagement.) Like her father before her, King George VI, and his father before him, King George V, Elizabeth has hewn to this posture of diffidence on public matters. By contrast, the only monarch during the last 100 years to refuse to reconcile with this practice was King Edward VIII, who loosened the U.K. from its constitutional moorings by his proposed (and eventual) marriage to Wallis Simpson, a move that cost him his throne. Edward’s inability or perhaps unwillingness to be self-effacing had him itching for abdication, and not simply because he aimed to wed an American divorcee. He preferred to be vocal on foreign policy at a time when Naziism and Fascism were rising across Europe, which made him royal chalk to the other foreign ministers’ cheese.
Enter Charles, whose long-standing commitments to agriculture, the environment and architecture have him speaking up. Or at least writing things down — this week, the British supreme court will take up the issue of whether Charles’ “black spider memos,” revealing his political opinions on various matters, should be made public. In stark contrast to his resolutely taciturn mum, Charles’ views, encapsulated in missives to various government ministers, represent an aberration in the history of the modern British monarchy. The great and ironic genius of the British constitutional monarchy has always been that the enthroned exists as an unelected head of state, the most elevated politician who eschews politics. Despite the power of the House of Commons and, to a lesser extent, the House of Lords to pass legislation, the Crown’s ability to select a prime minister or refuse a government’s request to dissolve a parliament (as in King Charles III) is so undemocratic that it’s a testament to the trust and durability of English society that it hasn’t been surrendered to insurrectionist mobs.
Unlike America, whose constitutionally mandated system of checks and balances has thrust the government into a perpetual give and take since the Federalists and anti-Federalists went mano a mano, the U.K. has long endured absent a written constitution. Which makes Charles’ intentions — whether in Bartlett’s play or one day in real life — appear a breach (or potential breach) of the public trust. Sure, let the royals have their power, the conventional wisdom insists, so long as they don’t use it. It’s a tenuous precept, the idea that England is a parliamentary democracy so long as the term “parliamentary” is not some innocuous modifier. Should Charles recall his ancestor, King Charles I, whose defiance of Parliament led to his beheading in 1649? Should he recall the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which proved another significant check on Parliament’s power, or the Act of Settlement of 1701? How does Charles reconstitute the role of the modern monarchy without upending it? And, if as monarch he makes his views public with the hope of swaying policy, will he make the mistake of winking at monarchical tyranny? Would the inevitable King Charles III, via chutzpah and unleashed ambition, attempt to rewrite the unwritten British constitution?
Despite their pesky war for independence from a maddening King George III and his dysfunctional House of Hanover, many Americans remain unquestionably enthralled by the British royals. While England does, or prepares to do, a pas de deux with its age-old and uneasy political identity, celebrity-obsessed Americans ravenously feast on the pageantry and internal psychodrama perpetually underway at Buckingham Palace. Prince Charles has never boasted the haloed, rock-star popularity of his late wife, Diana, Princess of Wales, or dared to rankle the royal family’s antediluvian formalities like his modern and magnetic son Prince Harry. William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, may be the most famous American power couple to have ever emerged from Great Britain. Apparently the once-mighty British empire’s colonial power grab over stamps and tea has long been forgiven.
King Charles III imagines a restive and rebellious British populace in proud defiance of the overstepping king. As Americans relish the ceremonial brio of England’s most famous aristocrats, many Brits seem hardly persuaded that royalism is tantamount to democratic rule. Winston Churchill was evidently not kidding when he observed that “The Monarchy is so extraordinarily useful. When Britain wins a battle, she shouts, ‘God save the Queen’; when she loses, she votes down the prime minister.” What happens, one wonders, when the monarchy isn’t quite so useful?