Shakespeare in Politics: Ustinov’s Romanoff and Juliet
On the 2nd of April 1956, German-Russian born director Peter Ustinov’s screenplay Romanoff and Juliet premiered as a theatrical performance in Manchester, England. A Broadway production followed and a Hollywood film adaptation, all starring and directed by Ustinov himself. An impressive cultural figurehead worldwide, Ustinov holds multiple awards for this work, such as the Tony, a Golden Bear nomination at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures.
Ustinov’s life was entwined with politics from an early age. He was the son of an MI5 spy father, whom he recalled hosting secret meetings of senior British and German officials at their London home during the world wars. Ustinov became a respected intellectual and diplomat himself who, in addition to his various academic posts, served as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF and President of the World Federalist Movement, which promoted the concept of global democratic institutions and lobbied those in powerful positions to establish a unified human government based on democracy and civil society. The idea they were working on was that the United Nations and other world agencies would become the institutions of a World Federation, with the UN as its federal government and the nation states as its so-called provinces.
In Romanoff and Juliet, perhaps more than in any of his other works, Ustinov’s personal belief in political mediation, diplomacy and global harmony, come to the fore. This perhaps explains his great input in both the play and the film that followed. “Peter Ustinov went the auteur route as writer, director, producer, and star of this Cold War farce, based on his play and very similar to the equally well-regarded The Mouse That Roared (1959). Ustinov is “the general,” leader of the tiny European nation Concordia, which is so small that it does not appear on any maps” (Karl Williams, Rovi, N.Y. Times). The actor in the role of the President of this small imaginary mid-European country is accosted by a battery of reporters as he leaves U.N. headquarters in New York City. “Where is Concordia?” a reporter inquires. “Why should I tell you?” Ustinov replies. “Maybe the reason it still survives is because no one can find it. (…) In an atomic age, it’s wiser to re-main a small target.” (Romanoff and Juliet,1961).
The gags are strategically placed within the fabric of the play and there is a lot of good situational comedy too, for instance “each government employee holds two positions (the general’s chauffeur is also ambassador to the U.S.). Despite its diminutive size, Concordia is a full-fledged member of the United Nations. A vote on an important measure is split evenly, with Concordia getting the deciding vote, so the general abstains and goes home, giving fits to the U.S. and U.S.S.R., Cold War rivals which are on opposing sides of the issue. A campaign of persuasion is launched to sway Concordia to one side or another, but the canny general wants to keep his country neutral, so he schemes to introduce the Russian ambassador’s son Igor Romanoff (John Gavin) to Juliet Moulsworth (Sandra Dee), the daughter of the U.S. representative. Shakespearean-style romance between the two attractive young people inevitably ensues, much to the chagrin of their home countries and the general’s delight.” (Karl Williams, Rovi, N.Y. Times). The drama, of course, increases when the General has the casting vote at the UN…In this comic spoof of the Cold War, the two opposing families, one communist, the other capitalist, represent the warring Capulets and Montagues from Shakespeare’s play and the only thing that could build a diplomatic bridge between them is the young couple’s love affair. All is well if it is managed well on the surface in world politics. In a tongue-in-cheek observation, the general, played by Ustinov, says: “The important thing in diplomacy is to have a door that will lock – even if there is nothing behind it.”
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