Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Secret Theatre

When I was in London last month, I got a chance to see Anders Lustgarten's play The Secret Theatre at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

I bought a copy of the script, and recently read it. The Secret Theatre benefited greatly from a candlelit staging directed by Matthew Dunster, but the script very much stands on its own.

The play follows Elizabeth I's spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, who is introduced in Scene Two as trying to catch Mary Queen of Scots in a conspiracy with Spain. His daughter, Frances, is married to the poet Sir Philip Sidney, who is the closest thing Walsingham has to a son.

In the play, Walsingham stokes the Babington Plot to overthrow Elizabeth in favor of Mary, simply so he can use the exposure of the plan to have Mary executed. As soon as she is dead, though, he makes sure England gets involved with the war in the Netherlands as a way to distract Spain and delay a possible invasion.

This is playing around a bit with history. The war in the Netherlands began before Mary died, and by the time she was executed it had already claimed the life of Walsingham's son-in-law, Sidney. Lustgarten has Sidney beg Walsingham not to use his imminent death in battle to "invent some loathsomely heroic epitaph" that will "stir men's cheap passions."

Of course, that's exactly what Walsingham does, hiring seven hundred paid mourners to attend Sidney's funeral, and (according to the play) inventing the story that the brave warrior-poet had handed his own water bottle to an infantryman, claiming that man's need was greater than his own. (All this is well and good, but couldn't we at least have gotten a cameo from one of Walsingham's most famous spies--Christopher Marlowe?)

Other historical figures who appear in the play include the Jesuit priest Robert Southwell and the notorious torturer Richard Topcliffe, who placed him on the rack. Lustgarten includes a fascinating and gory scene where Southwell confronts Walsingham. "Don't you know you're our finest recruiter?" the Jesuit asks. Indeed, Walsingham's martyring of Catholics did seem to generate more converts to the Catholic faith.

Here, and elsewhere, Lustgarten draws parallels between the paranoid period at the end of the reign of Elizabeth I and the War on Terror happening under the reign of a different Queen Elizabeth. At once point, the monarch rails at Walsingham: "You claim your kind of knowledge makes us safer, but it doesn't. All it serves is to make us more afraid, and so drive us further into your arms."

This is the heart of The Secret Theatre. The game of espionage benefits no one so much as the apparatus created to carry it out in the first place.