A New Tradition

T.H. White’s The Once and Future King was published in 1958 and supplanted Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur as the standard English-language text on the story of King Arthur.  It is the source material for the 1963 Disney movie The Sword in the Stone as well as Lerner and Loewe’s 1960 musical Camelot, which is currently being revived by Lincoln Center Theater.

Despite its mythic setting, White is interested in postwar politics and makes explicit references to Hitler and the Raj and the Troubles.  In old age, Arthur concludes that conflict is inevitable as long as we continue to create borders: he realizes the “imaginary lines on the earth’s surface only needed to be unimagined.”  The question of how to use power for good—to make Might work for Right—is the animating concern of The Once and Future King.

Of course, it also tells the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, and this is what Lerner and Lowe emphasize in Camelot.  Here a boyish Arthur (Andrew Burnap) watches as his wife Jenny (Phillipa Soo) and his best friend Lance (Jordan Donica) fall in love.  Politics and leadership dominate his time, and he refrains from intervening when he sees he is losing them both.  Camelot is a love story, about romantic and platonic love, and I think the musical could succeed if it remained focused on this subject.

But the book, written by Lerner and revised by Aaron Sorkin, makes occasional and half-hearted gestures toward politics.  We are never given a clear articulation of Arthur’s political vision.  What is he trying to accomplish?  When his men become restless—the result is the great number “Fie on Goodness”—it comes as a bit of a surprise, since we have never seen what made them angry.  The chorus complains about “two years of philanthropic labor,” but we have not witnessed the cost they have paid for this labor.  As tensions reach a breaking point, a knight (Danny Wolohan) argues, “One cannot legislate goodness.”  What does it look like when they try?  It’s anyone’s guess.  There’s lots of talk and little drama.

This distracted approach hampers the love stories, too, since, as a result, they fail to get adequate time and attention.  Late in the musical, Arthur confesses to Jenny that he’s always been in love with her.  It’s not just a political marriage, a partnership.  Jenny responds, “I’ve loved you from the moment I saw you.”  News to me.

Camelot runs through September 3rd at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.  150 W. 65th Street  New York, NY.  2 hours 55 minutes.  One intermission.


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