‘King’ Kennedy: Theatre group merges political histories through Shakespeare

He’s remembered as a charming figure and formidable leader, but now, John F. Kennedy will be reimagined as a king.

Senior Maria Seidel has restructured Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII” to draw parallels between the 16th-century historical figure king and the beloved 1960s American president, a week before the 50th anniversary of his assassination.

The show, presented by GW’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, depicts Kennedy as Henry VIII, Jackie Kennedy as Catherine of Aragon and Marilyn Monroe as Anne Boleyn, while also stressing similarities between the United States’ civil rights movement and the English Reformation, as well as the Vietnam War and wars in France.

“Henry VIII’s story is removed for us. It’s British history, it’s several hundred years ago, but for Shakespeare’s audience, that story was only a few decades beforehand. So for us, JFK was only 50 years ago,” Seidel said. “We’re almost transplanting the story so we’re having the same experience that Shakespeare’s audience would have had, only in an American sense.”

The script has not been altered, with actors delivering Shakespearean lines verbatim. But the costumes and sets will reflect 1960s modernity, with Boleyn in Monroe’s classic white dress, Catherine donning a pillbox hat and Henry VIII in a suit.

“The audience will hear the Tudors, but see the Kennedys,” Seidel said.

The show’s timing was a “complete coincidence,” Seidel said, but arrives as other D.C. institutions are honoring and dissecting Kennedy’s life and presidency.

Both The Newseum and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History will hold exhibits chronicling Kennedy’s life this month.

The Newseum’s manager of media relations Jonathan Thompson said over 300,000 people have visited the Kennedy-themed exhibits, and the museum will also host a series of events on Nov. 20 and Nov. 22 around the anniversary of his death.

“The public should get a better grasp of the Kennedy aura and the importance the media played in helping to get him elected and, after the assassination, to continue the Kennedy legacy,” Thompson said. “When you think ‘Kennedy,’ you think ‘America.’”

But Kennedy’s revered status was challenged by allegations of an affair with Monroe – giving him a similar playboy reputation as King Henry VIII. The king was known as charismatic and attractive, but also lustful, boasting six marriages and a relationship with second-wife Boleyn that led to the annulment of his marriage to Catherine.

Kennedy was also a leader “whose rhetoric outshines his actions,” noted professor Chris Klemek of the history department.

Kennedy had “memorable speeches exhorting public service or space exploration,” Klemek said, adding that his policies “were often less sweeping.”

The parallels force the actors to understand the characteristics and motivations of both figures they represent. Sophomore Chris Hartnett, who plays Henry VIII, said keeping two people and eras in mind can be challenging.

“[One character] is supposed to be Teddy Kennedy, my brother, [but] I’m saying ‘Oh, Lord of you know, Suffix or Canterbury, what do you think about this?’” Hartnett said. “That’s just really the toughest thing, transitioning between the times. It’s less the character. The characters are kind of similar … they’re both men in power.”

Seidel said the play’s themes and fitting timing will engage a critical modern examination of political leaders.

“I think it’s a great way to commemorate him, but also a good way to analyze the role of a president or a king,” Seidel said. “It’s just always good to take a step back and think about these people in context rather than kind of fantasize them, idealize them.”

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