January 14, 1998: Whitemore, A Letter of Resignation
We went to see this play about Harold Macmillan on the strength of Whitemore’s earlier play Breaking the Code, and were disappointed. As my companion observed, it’s a play set in a transition period in which the politics of personality are being replaced by the politics of impersonal power, but the subject is not very well articulated. The play wavers from being about this painful transition to a play about a grand old man in decline. There is an attempt to structure the play along the lines of an ironic parallel contrasting adultery in the old days — MacMillan’s wife’s affair with the MP Robert Boothby, which MacMillan handles in a very personal way by accepting the child Boothby fathers and refusing to divorce his wife, thus hushing up the matter completely — and adultery new style: the Profumo affair, which breaks wide open, causing the submission by Profumo of the letter of resignation that gives title to the play. Profumo’s affair with the “tart” (MacMillan’s word) Christine Keeler is obviously something that happens in a new and much less personal world, into which MacMillan has survived but in which he seems to be ineffective. Aside from MacMillan, stylishly played by Edward Fox as a physically stiff and doddering but mentally still acute and wise (according to his lights) old man, the two key characters are MacMillan’s private secretary Oliver Widdower and the man from MI5, Ian Ritchie, representative respectively of the old, traditional politics of personality and the new, sleazy, cynical way of doing things. The problem with having the main idea of the play represented in these two lesser characters is that there is no character of the stature of MacMillan himself for him to confront. All he can do is give the Teflon-coated Ian Ritchie a thorough tongue-lashing, to be passed on to his superior, for failing to keep him in the loop.
And so the play comes across as rather slight — a paean to the old days and men of the stature of Harold MacMillan, for whom history is not much more than a series of anecdotal narratives, of DeGaulle, of Kennedy, of the others who keep things going, but whose time is now — in 1998 — more than a generation long gone. The question remains, why this subject, and this treatment of it, now? There seemed strong whiffs of nostalgia in the air of the Comedy Theatre. In any case, the air was not invigorating.