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All the World's a (Political) Stage

Just cant get enough of cutthroat politics? Find yourself on YouTube, replaying the meaner jabs from the Republican primary debates? You might want to add the 1990s BBC miniseries House of Cards to your Netflix queue. Based on a novel by a onetime Chief of Staff to Britains Conservative Party, House of Cardstracks the legal and illegal intrigues of Francis Urquhart, a Machiavellian party operative who wrangles his way up the rungs of power in post-Thatcher Great Britain. Urquhart (Ian Richardson) uses the press and the ambitions and paranoia of statesmen to his own advantage, but he hides his ruthlessness beneath a polite and even grandfatherly exterior. You might very well think that: I couldnt possibly comment, he primly responds, whenever he has cunningly planted an idea in the mind of a reporter or colleague.Manipulating journalists, tangling with the monarchy, destroying lives and careers with relish, Urquhart is a charming and seductive antihero, and his schemes and deceptions make for an engrossing soap opera. But its the theatrical trappings that really distinguish House of Cards and its sequels, To Play the King and The Final Cut. The scheming Urquhart is a Shakespearean figurepart Richard III, part Iago and a very large part Macbeth, and the scriptwriters highlight these resonances with Shakespearean quotes and allusions. The spirit of Macbeth, in particular, haunts the story: Egged on by his equally ambitious and amoral wife (Diane Fletcher), Urquhart eventually racks up so many misdeeds that he might easily say, with Shakespeares thane-turned-king, I am in blood/Stepped in so far that should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go oer.Even more striking are the impishly self-satisfied remarks that Urquhart periodically delivers straight to us, the audience: In the middle of a scene, he will turn his head, look straight into the camera and share an unnervingly honest confession or observation, while the folks around him carry on, oblivious. These break-the-fourth-wall moments are like miniature Shakespearean monologues, and they underscore an all-too-familiar truth: that politics is, to a large extent, theatrics.It will be interesting to see whether a forthcoming remake of House of Cardsmanages to be as interesting and sly: Director David Fincher (Fight Club, the Hollywood adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) is an executive producer of the forthcoming remake, which will be a Netflix original series and will star Kevin Spacey.

About the Author

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.



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Thanks - never heard of it. Will have a look. Sounds a little heavy-handed and arty-pretentious for my taste, though. I thought Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister were perfect. I think most people realize that professional politics is a sleazy business. Little point in hammering home something so obvious and unpleasant.I wonder who the audience for this show might be - maybe mostly Conservative haters. Can't imagine a show doing the same thing to Labor or the Democratic party.

Hard to imagine "House of Cards" without Ian Richardson, the ultimate FU!I have watched the original series several times, and I felt that, while it tweaks the Conservative Party, the overarching study of political ambition and hubris could apply to any number of political animals of all party affiliations. John Edwards' debacle comes to mind.

Richardson's portrayal of Urquhart was indeed masterful. Yes, an Iago, but at the same time there was a deep sadness about the character. Makes you realize that such figures are all in the end failures as human beings and as much tragedies as those who end up without power.

I take television as entertainment, escapism, not reality. Nothing that happens on television or in the movies - or, for that matter, in novels - "makes me think" anything. It can prod me to think, but I never take any "facts" from it. It's different, though, apparently, for many people, who find all this serious enough to devote lots of time and thought and conversation to. Puzzling.I loved Yes, Minister because it made fun of everyone, not just one side, and in making fun - in not making serious - it relieved the viewer of any momentary obligation to sympathize with or against anyone in particular. One could see oneself in everyone. British humor, at its best, is wonderful that way - sharp, penetrating, clear, broad-minded, and intelligent. On the other hand, the English have an unfortunate weakness for nastiness and cruelty that can come to the fore when they're intent on driving home a narrow point. That's probably useful in debate, and I can see that it can be entertaining if it's not your ox they're goring, but it's not nice. I prefer nice over nasty. To each his own.

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