Was 'Dream Song 29' Jesse Armstrong's
Ultimate Succession Double Cross?
In the run up to the Succession finale, fans and media speculated that clues in John Berryman’s poem ‘Dream Song 29’ might prophesize the series’ end. It had been noted for some time that the name of each of Succession’s season closers had taken their title from different lines in the poem: Season 1 had ended with ‘Nobody is Ever Missing’, Season 2 with ‘This is Not For Tears’, Season 3 with ‘All the Bells Say’. The final episode whose title was revealed week’s before the followed the same theme with an episode titled ‘With Open Eyes’.
The fact that there was such fixation on small details was unsurprising given the level of craft and detail that had gone into the show’s creation. Succession aired with obvious associations and allusions to Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ - that late Shakespearean tragedy that dealt with the politics of succession involving Lear’s three children. The fact that show was about a family whose surname was ‘Roy’ - with Roy having etymologically associations with the word ‘King’ was clearly no accident.
Whilst Shakespearean drama was an obvious connection there was more modern influence at play in the subject matter too. Jesse Armstrong, Succession’s creator, had previously written an unproduced Rupert Murdoch-related drama dealing with many of the same themes that Succession would explore. Given the similarities there have been claims that the Murdoch family – a billionaire brood with a media empire - where the real-life version of the Roys. Modern TV relies on highly considered production details such as these – giving cause for fans and the media to study at length in turn causing the show to thrive as much through discussions that persist off-screen as the content on-screen itself. Succession, in its often insightful recognition of the powerful forces at play in society, has taken this more seriously than most. No detail it seems is too small to be overlooked. Writer Caroline Reilly noticed back in Season 2, that lead-character Kendall Roy’s tie knot - once a Windsor knot - had changed to a four in hand, and therefore suggested quite correctly that this was a sign that Kendall’s intentions had changed and a double cross was afoot. If something as simple as a tie knot might have implications for the show’s plot one can assume, looking back at Berryman’s poem then that such an overt and obvious presence in full view meant that this was by design and not some happy accident.
Even a considered reading of ‘Dream Song 29’ in isolation however doesn’t obviously reveal much at all. Whilst the work is hauntingly portentous it is, like all great poetry, beautifully ambiguous. This did not however of course stop the media reporting on the connection, FOX News – the Murdoch’s own news outlet - even reported on the fact. Some major outlets and writers even when further, surmising what their own interpretations of lines in the poem meant for the show (all incorrectly I might add). There is no bloody dagger in the last line that says anything as obvious as “And Shiv will be crowned at Rome’s expense.” Beyond the naming of the four episodes what does become clear for readers of the poem, and more so, the whole collection of 77 Dream Songs however, is that there are obvious connections to the series. Dream Song 29 itself seems to tonally, emotionally, and stylistically echo the series and character’s issues in a way that seems familiar to viewer and related. A wider reading of the Dream Songs in full reveals that it is both intellectual and colloquial; mixing references from high and classical literature with modern day news events and minstrel acts in a way that Succession with its combination of King Lear and Shakespeare, Murdoch and modern culture had reached for too. At times Berryman adopts the tone of a minstrel act in the way that seems as just as clumsy and awkward as poetic as billionaire nepo-baby and wannabe-CEO Kendall Roy attempting to rap. What other show might reference the legend of Nero and Sporus in a conversation about corporate realpolitik with a character who had been called ‘Greg the Egg’. It becomes obvious that Berryman’s work has clearly been read and taken to heart by Jesse Armstrong the show’s creator – a deeper look at Berryman however reveals why this is unsurprising.
Was Kendall rapping an echo of Berryman's Minstrelsy?
As well as the fact that he was a renowned poet, John Berryman was a noted Shakespeare scholar. Given the link to Succession most revelatory however (as revealed by John Haffenden’s book ‘Berryman’s Shakespeare’) Berryman had at times hoped to produce the conclusive emendation of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’. To clarify this for those as unfamiliar with the term ‘emendation’ as the word ‘dramaturgically’ (which went viral after Jeremy Strong – the actor who plays Kendall Roy used it in an interview). An emendation is a revision or correction of a text. King Lear, even in its relative infancy, had been published in several forms, each with tiny differences in its text. As fans from Succession know already small details matter. In simple terms then Berryman had hoped to produce the conclusive modern version of ‘King Lear’ - an achievement that Succession writer Jesse Armstrong obviously aimed to do to.
Whilst the link itself is poetic and perfectly befitting the level of detail and depth of craft of the Succession writing and production team it gets better still. One of Berryman’s chief focusses when it came to Lear related to the Line 4.1.10. This line was considered by Berryman to be perhaps the weakest in Shakespeare and was spoken by Edgar to (appropriately perhaps) his father the Earl of Gloucester, who (even more appropriately too – given the Succession finale’s Berryman-derived title) had been blinded. Of course Lear itself is often noted for its portrayals of blindness, both metaphorical and literal. The subject of Berryman’s thoughts about this line was covered by a 2014 article in the Shakespeare Survey periodical which is available online and which opened with the same Berryman line used by Succession – here however it is repeated in full as written in the poem “Ghastly / with open eyes, he attends, blind.”
It’s easy to see then that through all of this there was a very clear reason that Jesse Armstrong selected elements from a John Berryman poem for Succession’s most dramatic episodes titles. This is a perfect reflection of the level of detail that the show was famed for.
Looking at the original supposition that the Berryman poem may have someone prophesised the ending of the show does it however get even more interesting? Whilst an interpretation of the poem itself doesn’t provide a clear suggestion of Successions final outcome does it however hint at something even more clever. We’ve already established that the link between ‘Dream Song 29’ and ‘Succession’ is King Lear. Looking at Lear’s ending however none of Lear’s children take on the mantle of ruling in the place of their father in the end. Instead it is Albany, husband of Lear’s daughter Goneril – a man who had despised by his own wife – who is left effectively ruling the kingdom – or at least half of it - at the play’s close. Is this not something which echoes the final scenes of the Succession closer too? Here, in a show that had those in power toying and plotting and playing with those underlings beneath them, did Jesse Armstrong pull of one the biggest, cleverest double cross he ever wrote. Did the audience watch a show forever compared to ‘King Lear’, and study a poem written by a ‘King Lear’ scholar for clues that might suggest the outcome of an episode that took it’s title from the line “with open eyes, he attends, blind” all whilst then watching a show that concluded with the very masterpiece of theatre that it referenced. If so, that was masterful.