Magazine article History Today

Playing the King: George Bernard Shaw Influenced the Abdication Crisis with a Short Play That Has Been Forgotten in the Last Seventy Years. Stanley Weintraub Remembers It, and We Reproduce It on Our Website

Magazine article History Today

Playing the King: George Bernard Shaw Influenced the Abdication Crisis with a Short Play That Has Been Forgotten in the Last Seventy Years. Stanley Weintraub Remembers It, and We Reproduce It on Our Website

Article excerpt

IN EARLY DECEMBER 1936, Britain was shaken by newspaper reports of Edward VIII's affair with the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. 'England promptly went mad,' writer Hesketh Pearson recalled. '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.'

As Establishment diehards demanded that the King disavow Mrs Simpson or the throne, among the friends who rallied around him was Edward Grigg, a Times journalist, now a Conservative MP. Taking his cue from George Bernard Shaw's play The Apple Cart (1929), Grigg proposed to Edward that he should relinquish Windsor Castle to a legitimate successor and then campaign for elective power as leader of a parliamentary party. If he adopted the domestic politics of Lloyd George and the foreign policies of Churchill, Grigg suggested, he could become 'a well-nigh irresistible force at the polls'.

Shaw's hit comedy was a political whimsy set in remote 1960s England. In it 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 ...?'

Not given to dithering, Magnus announces, after a brief recess with Orinthia, that he will resolve all disagreements with his Cabinet by abdicating in favour 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'. But 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 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.' Should his coalition succeed at the polls, he goes on blandly, '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 ... He may even call on me.'

Consternation follows. The King is popular with the people, and with the press. The risk is too great. 'There is not going to be any general election,' Proteus concedes. 'We go on as before. The crisis is a washout.' Magnus gets his way.

In December 1936, the future threatened to turn into the here and now. Magnus and Orinthia had not materialized, but an abdication loomed and a royal mistress, long kept out of the papers, had come to the surface. But rather than a Platonic philosopher-king in the Magnus mould, Edward seemed an empty Savile Row suit.

When, on October 27th, Wallis Simpson had been granted an uncontested divorce decree nisi from her second husband, Ernest, her long affair with the King turned into a crisis for the government. Only the legal waiting period for the divorce to become valid remained before she would be free to marry again. A loyal cabal of press barons had kept most of the scandal out of the newspapers, except for the 'muck and slime' slipped in from abroad, but on December 2nd this self-imposed censorship collapsed after Claud Cockburn's radical The Week broke the story of the divorce. …

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