Sunday, November 18, 2007

Christopher Marlowe: Edward II (Shakespeare Theater DC)

The Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington DC has been putting on two Christopher Marlowe plays, Tamburlaine, and Edward II, his last play (1592), which I saw tonight (directed by Gale Edwards) at the Sidney Harman Hall on F Street near Chinatown in Washington DC. The theater seems new and is in a freshly renovated building.

The theater offered two kinds of programming notes, including a larger tabloid style with an essay “Why Marlowe Matters.” Marlowe was one of the first men from a commoner background to become well known as a literary figure; he was the son of a shoemaker who, because of literacy, was able to influence his son go get educated. Marlowe graduated from college at 18 and, as the notes say, postponed “real life” to go to graduate school, but once out on his own, at 23, may have spied for the Queen while starting to write. Marlowe was one of the first playwrights to deal with real social issues, including class distinctions and sexuality. He took real risks, but his plays were quite influential. It appears, however, that his history Edward II, of an apparently gay 14th Century king, may well have contributed to his been framed and murdered (at the age of 29). This was his last play and has been little performed over the years until recently because of the subject matter. Marlowe got into a cultural battle with Shakespeare, not only over writing history, but over presenting “station in life” progression: a high born King like Edward II who falls, or a shepherd (Tamburlaine) who becomes king. The theater flyer indicates that Marlowe set a very important example for Shakespeare. Today, Shakespeare and Marlowe compare the way other contemporary pairs in the arts do, such as Beethoven and Schubert.

There are a lot of accounts of the play on the Internet, but much of the play has to do with Edward’s (played by Wallace Acton) relationship with his male lover, low born Frenchman Gaveston (Vayu O’Donnell). Some of the passages in the early part of the play are quite passionate. (One of Mortimer’s lines reads “Leave now to oppose thyself against the king; Thou seest by nature he is mild and calm,
And seeing his mind so dotes on Gaveston, Let him without controlment have his will. The mightiest kings have had their minions: Great Alexander loved Hephaestion,The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept, And for Patroclus stern Achilles drooped. And not kings only, but the wisest men: The Roman Tully loved Octavius, Grave Socrates, wild Alcibiades.”

Gaveston moves in and out of banishment, generating all the political complications and deaths. Gaveston is killed by the enraged nobles just before the Intermission, and Edward II is dispatched by a fire poker at the end – well and then his son king (he was married to Isabella and did reproduce) gets his vengeance for his father, whom he dearly loved.

The production was cinematic and colorful, with trapdoors in the stage providing popups all evening. There is a cathedral scene near the end with multiple candles that reminds one of the Fatima shrine in Portugal (which I visited in 2001). The play was amplified with music, from Tchaikovsky (the 5th and 6th symphonies in the many romantic scenes between Edward and Gaveston), Shostakovich (the 1st, 4th and 5th symphonies for all the political violence), Britten, Leonard Bernstein (“The Age of Anxiety”) and, at the end, the memorial march by Sir Arthur Sullivan (in honor of his father) that ends the play in triumph. The original music was by Karl Lundeberg. The sound was stunning (like Dolby Digital in a first rate movie theater -- Landmark’s E Street Cinema is a few blocks away) and the presentation made me wonder, wouldn’t this play make great opera?

The costumes were from an odd mixture, with a lot of the sartorial tastes of the early 20th Century evident. I think it would have been more effective to use 14th century dress.

Homosexuality was not viewed as an orientation in Elizabethan times; it was viewed as conduct in which some men engaged, often viewed as sinful (as today). Yet, homosexuality does occur in English literature, with this play one of the most important example. It would be hard to teach the topic honestly (even in public school, where some parents pressure schools not to) without acknowledging that. Many sources indicate that it is likely that Marlowe was homosexual, and Shakespeare may have had a homosexual affair, even though he married Anne Hathaway and produced children.

There is a film “Edward II” directed by (deceased in 1994) Derek Jarman from Fine Line Features (1992) with Steven Waddington and Andrew Tiernan. The film is a bit compressed (90 minutes) but uses a mixed modern setting and seems like a filmed play with closeups. The idea that old-fashioned notions of sexual morality and lineage can justify inherited privilege and political power does come through the film version even more than in the play.

Note: As far as I know, no stages in the DC area are affected by the stangehands stike on Broadway. It's obvious to anyone who attends this production how hard the stagehands work, and how hard the actors work, every show. (The two lead characters here get abused and roughed up a bit; it looks like Gaveston's actor gets painted.) Let's hope the strike in NYC is settled promptly.

Update: Nov. 29, 2007

According to news reports, the stagehands' strike is settled. CNN story.

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