The 750th anniversary of Magna Carta was arguably the first milestone anniversary that could be celebrated properly in the 20th century as 1915 fell during the First World War. In many respects there it is also possible to suggest that this was the first milestone anniversary where the anniversary was a public affair. The Magna Carta Trust (the same body coordinating the 800th anniversary) was still relatively new having been established in 195 – again leading to very public facing anniversary year.
One specific event that took place during 1965 was the performance of Left Handed Liberty at the Mermaid Theatre during the anniversary week. The play had been written by the young English playwright John Arden specifically for the anniversary at the request of the City of London Corporation. John Arden, whilst being a very promising and rising playwright during the 1960s, his political leanings were hardly in line with that of the City of London Corporation.
Interesting aims of the committee
From the very outset of the planning committee there was a desire for the play to assist with schoolchildren’s learning of the charter’s history. It was hoped then that the play would be a vehicle for learning. There was also a desire for schools to have the ability to put the play on themselves without having to acquire copyright. This was something that was written into the contractual agreements between the corporation and Arden. Another quirky feature of the play is the fact that the City of London Corporation ensured that the costumes were made of hardwearing fabric to enable school children to use the exact costumes when they put their own versions on.
Despite his political leanings and some reservations from the City’s organising committee, Arden’s play was relatively uncontroversial. One of the things that struck Arden as he was researching the history of the charter was its relative immediate failure.
Arden does not really use the play to advance his own politics and instead stays mainly within the realms of the historical chronicles. There is only one small section in which he seems to change the history by trying to argue that Magna Carta defends the liberties of women. It’s true that some clauses do relate to women, however, none go as far as to validate their rights.
One of the key things within the play is that Arden presents King John as being a victim of historical circumstance. Whilst Arden admits that King John was probably a bad king, he felt that he was probably no worse than other medieval kings who have been remembered fondly through history. As such, Arden’s King John is in equal measure both mischievous and a victim. One specific quote that captures this is:
“If I were the tyrannical Tiberius my loyal barons would have you believe, I would have put her eyes out. Instead, I went to bed with my wife.”
Throughout the play Arden continually challenges the audience to make there own judgement on both John and the Charter as a whole and decide whether both the aforementioned relative victims and victors of history?
Over the course of the week over 50% of the performances were in front of school students – all of whom had been given free tickets to attend. Given the aims of the committee to ensure this was play was a vehicle for learning, this gesture is very much in line with this.
Reaction to the play was mixed. The City of London Corporation were pleased with Arden’s efforts, however, that could have been a sign of relief as the play wasn’t controversial. That said, Arden delivered a play that fulfilled their criteria. Unfortunately, the play was not as well received within the newspapers, The Times for instance described the play as follows: ‘less of a patriotic flourish than a study of the Great Charter’s failure in its own time.’ The play admittedly is not all action and instead relies on character interaction to power it through, however, in many respects the episode of the sealing of Magna Carta is not the most exciting event to have happened in British history.
The legacy of the play is probably not as impressive as those who commissioned it would have liked. Arden, shortly after 1965 vanished into the theatrical wilderness after falling out with the theatre establishment. As a result of this both he and his play have fallen into relative obscurity.