It would be easy to mistake Scenes From Court Life, or The Whipping Boy And His Prince, Sarah Ruhl’s new play at the Yale Repertory Theater, for heavy-handed political satire. The plot juxtaposes the Bush family with the House of Stuart, Charles I sharing an actor with the elder George, Charles II with the younger, Jeb with the prince’s whipping boy. (Karl Rove, in a lace collar and a starched expression, doubles as the Groom of the Close Stool, an attendant to the Stuart and Tudor kings responsible for — among other duties — determining fiscal policy and wiping excrement from the royal ass.) The commentary on American public life is both obvious and beside the point. Ruhl’s visual wit and careful attention to the nuances of two overlapping sets of relationships makes for a rich and compelling family drama.
The way Ruhl builds character is almost architectural — and architecture, incidentally, is a recurring theme. Both plots progress semi-linearly. The opening scene begins with a fairly typical psychological sketch of the Bush family, engaged in a tennis match at the family home in Kennebunkport, Maine. George Senior is genial and calculating, Jeb decent and somewhat pathetic. W., driven by a Freudian compulsion to win his father’s approval, is egotistical, insecure, petulant and frighteningly vindictive. The play circles around key moments, adding nuances to the family’s dysfunction like a series of watercolor washes.
The Stuarts, with the possible exception of Charles II, are not as psychologically complex as their modern counterparts. While Ruhl resists the temptation to indulge in cheap parallelism, and the two families have their own internal dynamics and major themes, the 17th-century characters are primarily foils for the Bush clan. The English Civil Wars prefigure American involvement in the Middle East — that’s what happens when family conflict is allowed to spill over into the public sphere.
Even so, Charles II’s coronation speech features the most politically relevant line in the play — “You wanted the glamour and certainty of kings,” he declaims. “Democracy — fucking bore, I tell you.” In context, it’s a comment on the Bush’s dynastic politics, but one can’t help but be reminded of another ostentatious would-be autocrat.
The Bush and Stuart plots aren’t exactly interwoven. Rather, one milieu is constantly collapsing into the other. Occasionally, these switches are accompanied by costume changes or set cues; more often, they rely entirely on the extraordinarily talented cast’s ability to adopt different personas from minute to minute. Gradually, the distinction between past and present breaks down. Characters appropriate gestures or turns of phrase across time frames; frequently, a conversation begins in one era and ends in another. At one point, Charles II appoints Dick Cheney to his privy council.
As the boundaries start to dissolve, the plot seems to resolve itself through a series of shared themes. The play is permeated by emotional and thematic leitmotifs — sibling rivalry, corporal punishment, blood and tennis are especially prominent. The structural complexity is admirable. Even more so is Ruhl’s dedication to puns. The title, of course, refers to courts both tennis and royal, and one particularly involved construction manages to incorporate the concept of perspective (in both art and politics), 17th-century stage design and the entire set for Act II. The fact that the opulent “close stool” of the Stuart kings — essentially a portable toilet — might be referred to in modern parlance as a “throne” hardly bears mentioning.
It’s probably a necessary consequence of such an elaborate narrative structure that certain elements don’t entirely cohere. Laura and Barbara Bush, in particular, seem oddly disconnected from the events of the play. In their interactions with other characters, they’re politician’s wives — that is to say, gentle, supportive, unerringly and unnervingly cheerful.
Predictably, their monologues to the audience reveal a hidden inner strength and innate maternal aversion to their husband’s war-mongering. Their speeches are part of a string of associations between women, blood, miscarriages and victims of the Iraq War. All this keeps the war’s impact inside the scope of the play, which is that of a family conflict, but leads to somewhat confused gender politics. The introduction of the war theme creates a necessary imbalance — even if intrafamilial tensions are resolved, the stakes for the Bush family are never going to be as high as they are for everyone else.
This lack of political coherency is not a fatal flaw — because, after all, Scenes From Court Life is not really about politics. Instead, politics is a vehicle for exploring the effects of power on fathers, mothers, sons, and — especially — brothers.