When preparing for attending a Shakespeare play at the Blackfriar theatre, I head to the bookshelf for my reference books. DK’s Essential Shakespeare Handbook outlines the plot and familiarize me with the characters and key speeches. Harold Bloom’s, The Invention of the Human provides essays on each play. Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare text is like reading footnotes on all those obscure details embedded in the lines. Thus, when we decided to see Edward II, I began my search… let’s see, History plays… King John, Edward III. What happened to Edward II? Did I get the title wrong. Oh, it’s not by Shakespeare, but by Christopher Marlowe.
Marlowe was a contemporary playwright to Shakespeare. He died young (29 years old), leaving only 7 scripts. He pre-dated many of themes and styles that we associate with Shakespeare: gory tragedies, biting satire, and iambic pentameter blank verse. He wrote Edward II, in 1592 before Shakespeare tried his hand at his series of histories of the English monarchy. Edward II came between King John (1596) and Edward III (1594). No wonder Shakespeare did not write the play.
Edward II revolves around the conflict of poor governance. Edward II, having ascended to the throne, is less interested in protecting his lands, gentry and subjects. He is most interested in pursuing his passions and fancies with his Favorite. This extends to granting position and possesses willy-nilly. He even neglects affairs at home in order to spend evenings at plays and other frolicking frivolities with his Favorite.
Royalty having Favorites was common. The question was how discrete one could be about these liaisons. Usually the king had his mistress(es) behind the curtains. Queens had their lords on the side. Edward’s (Rene Thornton, Jr.) indiscretion appeared to be that he enjoyed the companionship and other benefits of men. For this play, his Favorite was Gaveston (Patrick Midgley). The Queen (Sarah Fallon) appears distressed by this breach of his loyalty to her for the first half of the play. But, when the king’s eye continues to be attracted to men after Gaveston is killed, she forms an alliance with one of the Nobles, Mortimer (Gregory Joh Phelps).
We thought that Marlowe had pretty well killed off most of the key players by the end of the first half of the show. He found ways to kill off nearly everyone else in the second half, except for Edward’s son, Eddy III.
I was struck with how modern the homo-erotic themes were in the way the cast performed Edward II. Of course, this is partially in the way that the director (Jim Warren) chooses to have the cast act out the suggested encounter between Edward and Gaveston. Warren avoided orgies on stage, while allowing plenty of welcoming embraces, and on occasional pat on the tush. While these displays of affection were overt, evoking disdain from the Nobles, I could envision a different production creating more tension by keeping their affairs concealed in glances and restraint of action.
Performing period plays in modern form is a way of bridging the era of the play and contemporary audiences. Why would we care about the type of king Edward II was in the 13th century otherwise? We have seen Measure for Measure set in WWI, Merry Wive’s of Windsor in a Catskills resort with Jackie Gleason-styled comedians, and Love’s Labor Lost in a psychedelic 60’s ashram. The modern dress with the Elizabethan lines mixed well in each production. For Edward II, the cast wears modern dress, some time post-WWII. Suits with vests and ties for the men. Fitted dresses for the Queen. Gaveston stretched the era to the Sex-Revolution 70’s with his Key West pink beachcombers with the cuff rolled up, muscle shirt, and Italian waiter’s jacket.
The object that seemed out-of-place with this modern dress was the swords sticking out from behind the suit jackets. But, there are lots of lines about swords. There are lots of sword fights as Marlowe gets on with killing characters, high and low. So, what do you do?
I saw a production of Richard III in a Fringe Pub in London a dozen years ago. They set it in early 1960’s East London. They turned in their swords for switch-blades, black-jacks, baseball bats, and pistols. bludgeoning each other and assassination with small arms worked effectively. I could have seen the Mortimer gesturing to his side-arm in a holster as well as a sword.
Another modern solution, given that the Nobles were the ones with the swords sheathed at their waists, would have been to have each Nobleman have a body-guard. In essence, their hired gun would have symbolically been their “sword”. This would require a large cast, to have at least one body-guard for each Noble, but those guys in dark suits with dark glasses, earwigs, and automatic weapons are staple of today’s politics.
Another means of modernizing classic scripts is how the actors use the words. If we were transported back to Elizabethan times (or even a hundred years ago), we would probably hardly understand the spoken language because of our enunciation and inflection of words and phrases. Even commonplace slang, such as “Whatever!”, have meaning to us that did not exist until someone used them in a movie, or comedy routine, that became widely viewed. With one simple word, Rene modernized Edward.
While the Nobles and Queen are standing about the stage expressing their distaste for his behavior with Gaveston, Edward and Gaveston skip into the room from behind the throne. They appear to be in a cat-and-mouse chase game. Gaveston grabs onto the arm rest of the throne, laughing and bending over. Edward embraces him from behind, suggesting a sexual act. They look up and see the room filled with angry faces looking at them. Edward steps back, picks up a chair and places it next to the throne. He gestures for Gaveston to sit. Edward then sits, askew, in the throne and takes hold of Galveston’s hand. The line in the script is something like “What, do you question who sits next to me?”. Rene, looks up and proclaims, “What?”, sounding like a modern teen who has just been caught deleting porn website links from his computer. After an uncomfortable pause, he finishes the line.
Again, we must ask why contemporary audiences would be interested in modernization of events from centuries ago. While we might like to think that our politics is about ideas, often when conflicts arise between factions, name calling and scandals focus not on policy but on personality. We need not look further than Prince Charles, the late-Princess Diana, and Camilla triangle, to find the named royalty ignored for the Favorite. If British royalty seems too distant for USA politics, do we need to mention President Clinton and “that woman” to find recent lust triangles? Or, Neut Gingrinch divorcing his wife while having an affair with an office assistant?
What I find more telling about the modernity of Edward II is the question of how we will respond to openly gay politicians. The recent election of a female senator from West Virginia was hardly an issue, as both the Republican and Democratic candidates were women. The prospect of a female president seems less of a concern, than who that woman might be. Now with more states accepting same-sex marriages, how soon will the gender of the First Family not be a concern?