John Arden. Left-Handed Liberty: A Play about Magna Carta. First performed June 14, 1965, at the Mermaid Theater in London. 111 pages.
One of the great benefits of having Robert Peters stand in as a guest columnist while I was on vacation is that as we talked over ideas for his column, I got to add several books to my “write about these for The Freeman” pile. One of those books was John Arden’s play Left-Handed Liberty.
Commissioned in 1965 by the Corporation of the City of London to mark the 750th anniversary of Magna Carta, Left-Handed Liberty is a play that seems to have somewhat displeased its maker. Arden notes in his introduction to the play that he never felt he really lived up to the commission. The problem, as he sees it, “was sheer lack of time; and it shows. The essential difficulty [was] to lay out the history so that a comparatively ignorant modern audience would understand it, and at the same time to present it so that it actually meant something.” The challenge, he says, “proved insoluble.” So we are dealing, in Left-Handed Liberty, with a dramatic work that is, in many ways, not quite satisfying. And yet, there is a thread of debate in the play about the difference between laws as they are written as laws as they are practiced that cannot help but fascinate.
Arden’s purpose, in Left-Handed Liberty, was to show the flimsiness of the promises of Magna Carta and the ways in which those promises were violated on all sides almost as soon as the charter was signed. He focuses, then, on the standing army kept by the Barons in the City of London and the opposing troops maintained by the king. Arden highlights the ways in which the Barons and the King try to strong arm one another and gives us this compelling argument between King John and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Archbishop: Surely it is obvious that a promise of liberty is worth nothing to the liberated unless it can be enforced?
John: Archbishop, it is a promise that has been given by your King!
Archbishop: As the Marshal has just reminded us, you are not the first King to have been compelled to give it.
John: Indeed sir, I am, the very first indeed, to have been compelled.
Archbishop: Which only makes it worse. History demonstrates and you have admitted that kings have broken faith. It is sheer minstrelcraft and rhetoric to pretend otherwise, and I for one am not impressed by it.
Without good institutions underlying it, Magna Carta is just a piece of paper.
We see similar accusations leveled at the reliability of the charter when Lady de Vesci attempts to interpret its clause that “no free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or deprived of his freehold … except by the lawful judgment of his peers” as implying that her husband is not allowed to beat her and imprison her for adultery unless she is condemned by a jury of her peers. De Vesci notes, as she departs, “The words of the Charter—it has occurred to me suddenly that they are liable to misconstruction.”
The unstable interactions between the written law of the Charter and way law is actually practiced come to the fore again when King John serves as judge in a case about the adulterous wife of a goldsmith. After the King fines everyone involved, sends the wife to live with her lover, and gives the goldsmith a job as Craftsman to the Royal Household, his Marshal notes, “From my limited experience of the Law, sire, I would have through that your handling of this case was not quite in accordance with precedent.” King John responds, “O yes, I daresay—but was it not just? In fact, a new precedent has now been established…. I have left all three of them satisfied. What more could they want?”
Is King John’s version of justice preferable to the real law? It just might be.
But my favorite scene in the play takes no part in this lofty debate over the nature of law and of justice. Instead, it gives us the view of the London commoners on all this talk among their rulers. A young woman takes center stage with her friend and sings a song that begins:
Good people of London
Come listen to me
And I’ll sing you a song
Of our free liberty—
Liberty liberty sign it and seal it
Liberty liberty who dare repeal it?
It was wrote out on paper
What can we want more?
Who cares for the Frenchman,
Who cares for the war?
Hearing them, the Mayor notes, “I can’t say that I blame then; they’ve heard enough pious pronouncements about liberty over the last twelve months to make the Fleetditch mudlarks vomit. But what have we got—in practical terms—to shew to the people?”
In the same way that the voices from the Eastcheap taverns skewer the political and military pretensions of the nobles in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, this young woman’s song puts paid to the rhetoric of justice and liberty and a better, freer England. As she asks, “What fairer companion/Will dance to your grave?” Pretty words about liberty may not be worth all that much when there are soldiers in the streets and no food on the table.
Arden has said that “If this play has any direct message … I suppose it is that an agreement on paper is worth nothing to anybody unless it has taken place in their minds as well: and that if we want liberty we have to make quite sure that
a) We know what sort of liberty we are fighting for
b) Our methods of fighting are not such as to render that liberty invalid before we even attain it
c) We understand that we are in more danger of losing it once we have attained it than if we had never had it.”
Whether the play is a wholly successful work of art or not, that seems to be a message well worth considering.