The women waiting on the Queen of Spain yearn desperately to return to the city from the dull countryside in the first act of Schiller’s Don Carlos. “There will soon be such excitement in Madrid,” one exclaims. “The Plaza Mayor is already being prepared for burnings, and a grand auto-da-fé is promised us.”
Schiller depicts a terrifying world of easy tyranny in this transitional tragic history play. The Hamlet-like prince, Don Carlos, complains that he was already six years old when he first met his father, King Philip, and recalls that on the occasion the king was signing death warrants “with no sign of hesitation.” And in an argument over how to quell a rebellion brewing in the Netherlands, the King tells Carlos— with the nonchalant clarity of a dad teaching his son how to tie a fishing line—”The only weapon against revolt is terror.”
In upper-level drama history courses—usually the only place this play gets much attention—Don Carlos is typically presented as a specimen of early German classicism, the work in which Schiller crosses over from Sturm und Drang’s labile rejection of rationalism to grand poetic tragedies that take on the big questions of humanity—in iambic pentameter.
The great gift of the RSC’s rare and energetic production is its revelation of how visceral Schiller’s famous idealism could be. True, Sturm-und-Drang-y intrigues still fuel the plot: Carlos is desperately in love with the woman his father has married; his friend Posa wins the king’s heart through an apparent betrayal of Carlos, only to divulge his true, self-sacrificing plans to put the kingdom in Carlos’s hands; the king’s inner circle of gossip-mongering clergy and conniving dukes plan their own conspiracies; and all are aided by incriminating letters that are intercepted, misinterpreted, brandished as evidence, or withheld.
But it’s the ideas—and their expression in the gorgeous language of Robert David McDonald’s nimble translation, passionately handed over by a first-rate cast—that give this play its startling charge. What are the limits of loyalty? What wins in the clash between duty and desire? Is power preferable to love? Is freedom possible?
Under Gale Edwards’s beautifully modulated direction, the actors throw themselves thoroughly into these issues and the big speeches that convey them, Rupert Penry-Jones quite literally: As Carlos, he caroms from ecstatic glee to tantrummy despair by flinging his body upward or collapsing onto the floor. As King Philip, John Woodvine crumbles gradually before our eyes, starting out as a tightly buttoned, self-assured tyrant and decaying into a growling, self-questioning, disheveled state of—well, further tyranny.
Posa (ably played by Ray Fearon), the only character Schiller invented in this story, is the one who infuses the play with its driving philosophical dilemmas; indeed, he announces himself “a deputy for all humanity” and to some degree stands in for Schiller’s near worship of civil liberties. The tragic horror, then, is not only that Posa dies in an ultimately meaningless, grandiose gesture, but that the machinery of ecclesiastical and political authoritarianism grinds on as if he’d never existed, as if the demand for free thought made no impression at all.
Indeed, the final scene—in which King Philip appeals to the aged but still crushing Grand Inquisitor and shuts down any glimmer of redemption the young heroes might have promised—is one of the most frightening images of power I’ve ever experienced. In an early exchange, Posa tells the king, “I am a citizen of times to come.” The RSC production not only shows us the catastrophic failure of that promise, but makes us question whether those times have, in fact, arrived.