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!"