The Magazine

Marlowe's Anti-Heroes

Two novel versions of Elizabethan history plays.

Dec 31, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 16 • By EVE TUSHNET
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Wallace Acton's Edward II isn't nearly as intimidating. He's childish--like his queen, he seems unable to guess the consequences of his actions--and self-centered. But Acton and director Gale Edwards give us an Edward all but created by his clothes, by his social role. Acton wears his kingly robes like a second skin. His Edward never appears without his crown until he abdicates. There's a terrifically unsympathetic moment in which Edward pleads to be allowed to see his crown again, in almost the same terms he used earlier to plead for a glimpse of his doomed favorite Gaveston. The crown was so much a part of Acton's physical presence that his abdication is felt as an amputation, and his pleas seem the result of phantom pains in the lost limb. When Edward is stripped first of his robes and then of most of his clothing, Acton's physicality makes the humiliation all the more wrenching.

At the Shakespeare Theatre's symposium, Gale Edwards said that different audiences tended to empathize with different characters: On some nights Edward and Gaveston's first kiss drew applause, while on others it brought gasps of dismay. At times, her direction seemed to play up these shifts and ambiguities of sympathy: For example, Isabella, Edward, and Gaveston wear costumes that echo one another, all three in white at the beginning when they're most childlike, then Edward in black and Isabella in Mortimer's green once they begin to battle, then all three back to white for their helpless conclusions. But toward the end of the play Edward's perspective dominates to an extent that insightful costuming choices can't balance.

In the earlier parts of the play, we get lines indicating that Edward's frivolity may be draining the state coffers used to pay soldiers; we see his thoughtlessness; we get to stand outside him, even if only briefly. Yet once Edward's defeats begin, the production burrows so deep inside his own self-indulgent consciousness that it begins to feel like the audience is being bullied into sympathy with this deeply awful king.

In perhaps the most egregious example, Edwards chooses to set the refugee king in front of a stained-glass window depicting Jesus holding a little fluffy lamb--and then pose him so that he mirrors first the lamb, and then Jesus himself. Edward's dead lover appears as a white-winged angel; his assassin, the Luciferian-named Lightborn, gets not only the terrifically scary lines Marlowe wrote (delivered in perfect horror-movie cadences by James Konicek) but also an unnecessarily camp Mephistophelean cloud of acrid smoke to herald his arrival.

This doesn't work because it isn't necessary. Edward's humiliations toward the end are already intense enough. He's taunted, stripped, kicked; he dies by being raped with a poker in a sewer. But he is not a Jesus figure, and presenting him as one is either a tacky form of special pleading, or a misguided decision to trap the audience inside the mind of the king rather than allowing for a competing perspective.

It's possible to direct Edward II so that Edward is basically sympathetic. Derek Jarman did it in 1991 in his unsettling movie, and he did it by being very angry. Outrage, as Harold Bloom has pointed out, is one of the most sympathetic of human emotions. Jarman's obvious fury at church and state give the movie an edge that this more lugubrious production doesn't quite attain.

"Lugubrious" is the last word anyone would associate with this Tamburlaine--or second-to-last, after "self-reflective." One of the difficulties of staging Marlowe is that when we hear that rangy, earthy, secretive Elizabethan language, we start expecting Shakespeare: troubled and divided consciousnesses, men and women who don't know their roles or their genres, characters who catch themselves in their own nets of words.

Neither Edward nor Tamburlaine fits this pattern. Neither of them gets even the weird, halting fit of self-recognition that Richard III gets in his almost goofily unwieldy "Richard is Richard; that is, I am I" speech. They get defeated, and that makes them grieve; but it doesn't, fundamentally, make them change.

Eve Tushnet, a writer in Washington, blogs at eve-tushnet.blogspot.com.