Monday, December 17, 2018

Queen Anne on Stage and Screen

Yesterday, I saw the new film The Favourite, which fantasizes about what personal and romantic entanglements might have led to the rise and fall of governments and decisions of war and peace during the reign of Queen Anne. Interestingly enough, the same characters show up in different configurations, but still scheming for love and power, in the nineteenth-century French comedy The Glass of Water by Eugène Scribe.

Here's what we know of history: Queen Anne became sovereign of both England and Scotland in 1702 after the death of her cousin William III. She presided over the Acts of Union, which brought both countries into a United Kingdom in 1707, and reigned until her death in 1714. She was the last of the Stuart monarchs in Britain. This was despite going through 17 pregnancies by her husband, Prince George of Denmark, which resulted in seven miscarriages, five stillbirths, and five short-lived children, the heartiest of whom only made it to eleven years of age, while others lived only a few minutes.

For many years, Anne was quite close with Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough. In The Favourite their relationship is depicted as romantic and sexual, though in Scribe's play that is not the case at all. What both versions of the story agree upon, is that the duchess used her influence over the queen to prolong the War of Spanish Succession in order to keep her husband, the Duke of Marlborough, as commander-in-chief of the army. The duchess also had a cousin at court, Abigail, who ended up marrying Samuel Masham (who is named Arthur for some reason in Scribe's play). Whatever the truth about Abigail was, she has inspired quite a bit of literary speculation.

Scribe places Abigail in the midst of a love triangle involving Masham and the queen. The heart strings of all three are manipulated in the play by Viscount Bolingbroke, a Tory politician who was out of favor for a while under Queen Anne. Historically, Bolingbroke eventually replaced Robert Harley as the leader of his party, with the assistance of Abigail, who (spoiler alert) had become the queen's favorite. The Tories were attempting to end the disastrous war. Scribe portrays Bolingbroke as the key figure in bringing about an end to war with France, while the film The Favourite assigns that role to Harley.

That's certainly not the only difference in the two fictionalizations of history. While Scribe shows Queen Anne infatuated with Masham, The Favourite makes Abigail the object of her affection. Both versions portray the Duchess of Marlborough as a bit of an unscrupulous schemer, though. In addition to continually advocating for war in spite of a great loss of blood and treasure, the duchess historically wrote very unflattering things about the queen. Her spiteful gossip about Queen Anne even included hints that the monarch might be carrying on a lesbian relationship with Abigail, a possibility that The Favourite explores at length.

Both A Glass of Water and The Favourite are great fun, though it's anyone's guess what historically happened at court as various factions vied for power. As Scribe remarked in his play:

Il ne faut pas mépriser les petites choses, c'est par elles qu'on arrive aux grandes!

"Do not despise small things, for it is by them that we achieve greatness!"

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Southern Indiana Review

I am pleased to announce that my short play The Sign in the Scarlet Prison has been published in the latest issue of Southern Indiana Review.

The Evansville-based literary magazine has long expressed a desire to publish drama, but prior to this issue published poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and art, but not plays.

All that changed with Volume 25, Number 2. SIR launched its foray into drama by publishing three new plays. In addition to The Sign in the Scarlet Prison, they also printed the text for Dave Harris's The Birth of Toby and Wynne Hungerford's Parasailing.

The Sign in the Scarlet Prison was originally performed at the Lady Cavaliers’ Women-at-Arms Festival way back in 2002. Ten years later, Mortal Folly Theatre produced the play as a part of their Broadside! event, along with my other plays The True Author... Revealed, When Ladies Go A-Thieving, and First to Draw Blood.

I hope that publication in SIR will bring the play to a wider audience. If you by chance would like to produce the work, please contact me.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Luna Park

I had the good fortune of seeing a reading of Hyeyoung Kim's new musical Luna Park earlier today. The reading was part of a fundraiser for the Astoria Performing Arts Center (APAC), but the piece deserves to get a full staging somewhere.

Michael Cooper wrote the lyrics for the musical, and Daniel F. Levin supplied the book. Some parts of the play are inspired by Maxim Gorky's reaction to seeing Luna Park opening at Coney Island for the first time in 1903, and the artists have included some of Gorky's original text.

The heart of the show, however, follows a trio who made the amusement park possible. Frederick Thompson was the creative force behind the park, while Elmer "Skip" Dundy provided the business sense, and the park itself was named for Dundy's sister, Luna. All three appear in the show, as does Thompson's wife Mabel, an actress he made famous by producing the Broadway show Polly of the Circus, starring her.

Luna Park sometimes plays loosely with history. Sadly, the Park's namesake passed away three years after it opened, but the musical has her live on and play a major role in its ups and downs, including the electrocution of the elephant Topsy, an event caught on camera by Thomas Edison's motion picture company.

I'm not sure what the next step for this musical will be, but I hope to see it again someday.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Fabulation

Last night, I saw Lynn Nottage's play Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine at the Signature Theatre. This exciting production keeps the audience guessing throughout the first act, and finds emotional resonance in the second. You'll want to see it.

Fabulation originally premiered at Playwrights Horizons in 2004. Since then, Nottage has become known for extremely heavy dramas like Ruined and Sweat. This revival at the Signature reminds audiences that it was Nottage's flair for comedy that originally attracted the theatre world's attention.

And that comedy can be wild. In Fabulation, we see a ridiculously successful publicity maven named Undine (played by Cherise Boothe) treat other people abominably, though she is rewarded for it with money, fame, and power. We also learn that Undine is not her real name, but an identity she assumed later in life, even telling people her family had died in a fire so she could break all ties to the past. The name is fitting, since in mythology an undine is a soul-less water spirit that like water is capable of infinite change.

Undine does not get the change she bargained for, though. In the opening scene she finds out that her husband left her and absconded with everything she owned. A visit to the hospital reveals more unpleasant surprises, and soon Undine finds herself living back with the family that supposedly perished in a fire. Her brother's a frustrated poet, her grandmother's a smack addict, but worst of all her parents are so aggressively normal that she doesn't know what to do. An unfortunate encounter with the police then turns her from the apex of success to just another slob trying to navigate the Kafka-esque inanity of "the system."

Boothe does a wonderful job as Undine, but the success of the piece is largely reliant on the strength of the supporting cast. While they are all excellent, I have to single out Mayaa Boateng, who among other roles plays Undine's wacky assistant Stephie, and Dashiell Eaves, who we meet as Undine's accountant, but shines brightest as a drug-addled professor in the second act.

Fabulation has been extended through January 6th, but it's selling out fast, so get your tickets now.


Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Defense of Poesy

I've always admired the poetry of Sir Philip Sidney, though his great work of literary and dramatic criticism, The Defense of Poesy, still makes him sound to me like a bit of a wet blanket.

Sidney wrote the essay around 1579, so it was before most of the great works of the Elizabethan era had been composed. Shakespeare's plays were still a good ten years off at the time, and even Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd hadn't begun to pen dramas.

The one English play Sidney singles out as worthy is Gorboduc by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville. That play, which was first performed in 1561 and later published in 1565, bears remarkable resemblances to the later King Lear by Shakespeare. Both involve the division of the Kingdom of Britain by an elderly monarch amongst his children, and both feature a Duke of Albany and a Duke of Cornwall.

What Norton and Sackville did that was truly innovative was introduce the use of blank verse to English drama. By writing the play in unrhymed iambic pentameter, they set a precedent used by most later Elizabethan dramas. Sidney called Gorboduc "full of stately speeches and well-sounding phrases, climbing to the height of Seneca's style." Still, he claimed it was "faulty both in place and time" since "the stage should always represent but one place" and "but one day" at the most.

Sidney's railings against improbability seem to be answered with a Bronx cheer from Shakespeare's play The Winter's Tale. Sidney objects to plays "where you shall have Asia of the one side, and Afric of the other, and so many other under-kingdoms, that the player, when he cometh in, must ever begin with telling where he is." The Winter's Tale begins with two lords discussing the kingdoms of Bohemia and Sicilia, and when the action moves from Sicilia to the sea coast of (the notoriously landlocked) Bohemia, Antigonus declares "Thou art perfect, then, our ship hath touched upon / The deserts of Bohemia?"

Offending against the unity of time is an even worse offense for Sidney. He complains how in English plays "ordinary it is that two young princes fall in love; after many traverses she is got with child, delivered of a fair boy, he is lost, groweth a man, falleth in love, and is ready to get another child,--and all this in two hours' space." Well, yes, that sounds like The Winter's Tale, too! The child born in Act II is shown getting engaged to be married in Act IV. As if to thumb his nose at critics like Sidney, Shakespeare has the character of Time come forth as a chorus at the beginning of Act IV to beg, "Impute it not a crime / To me or my swift passage that I slide / O'er sixteen years."

Sidney did consider that a crime, but fortunately Shakespeare did not. And if you want to see how his very un-Sidneyan play turned out, you're in luck. Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey will be performing The Winter's Tale beginning next week!