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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Edward II

Shakespeare Theatre, Washington

Through January 6, 2008

There are ambitious decisions, and then there are cocky ones. Washington's Shakespeare Theatre chose to open its new theater space with productions of two plays by Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine and Edward II--thus challenging both the theater and the audience.

It's daring, first off, to make a case for the Shakespeare Theatre based not on the Bard but on his less-staged precursor and rival. In implicit argument that Marlowe is worth the attention lavished on him here, the theater expanded its usual para-theatrical programs to include not only lectures and tie-in film screenings, but also a daylong symposium on Marlowe's life and work, a partnership with the Rorschach Theatre Company's production of a biopic called Kit Marlowe, and a reading of The Jew of Malta. (No points for guessing why that one is rarely performed today.)

Then, too, Tamburlaine was chosen in part because its script spans three continents, allowing the theater to go all-out with the elaborate costumes and exotic trappings. The show's program, as the lady behind me noted with faint horror, includes not only a synopsis but a map. Opera-style supertitles inform us that we're in Bithynia, Larissa, and similar Rough Guide to the Ancient World locales.

Staging the two plays together really works. This Tamburlaine, on its own, might come across as three hours of colorfully dressed people hitting each other with sticks; this Edward II is not quite strong enough to stand on its own. But played against one another, they strikingly contrast different stripes of bad kingship, anti-sympathetic tragedy, and directorial styles. They should both be seen, and seen on consecutive or near-consecutive nights if possible.

The plays have a few minor similarities: They won't change the mind of anyone who thinks Marlowe can't write women, for example. Both the demi-tragic Zenocrate and the girlishly demonic Isabella don't quite work as characters. Zenocrate is an attempt to turn "girls like violence" into tragic queenship, and Isabella seems to veer back and forth from self-deluder who just wants her king back to furious dictatress who commits her own adultery in revenge.

Both plays include powerful scenes of humiliation of captives. Tamburlaine walks on his defeated kings, cages them in rags, harnesses them to pull his carriage. Edward is subjected to even more thorough humiliation. These scenes are in a way more disturbing than the scenes of battlefield carnage because they show how imaginative humans are at dehumanizing one another. In Tamburlaine the captives' humiliation is often not even the focus of the scene: The play itself enacts their marginalization, keeping the spotlight on their laughing, exuberant tormentors.

The plays have also an intriguing difference: Allah acts directly in Tamburlaine, whereas the Christian God is treated as a projection of societal power in Edward II. Every time an actor in Tamburlaine declaims about "great Mahomet!" you expect to hear thunderclaps. When Tamburlaine burns the Koran, he immediately falls ill, and begins his final decline. It's impossible to interpret this as coincidence.

By contrast, although churchmen like the ones Edward and Piers Gaveston mocked do play various roles in Edward's downfall--some hastening it, others allowing him sanctuary in a monastery--if God works at all in Edward II he works only through men acting in conflicting, ordinary ways. This makes Tamburlaine a more primary-colors, unsubtle play, but both approaches have their satisfactions.

(Refreshingly, both productions reject opportunities to turn every old play into a Maureen Dowd column. To the extent that there are contemporary resonances in the productions, it's because the cruelty of power, the actions or absence of God, and the tragedies of eros will find resonance in any age.)

The most striking similarity, however, is that both productions feature stars whose personal charisma can sell a deeply unsympathetic character: Tamburlaine is a sociopath and Edward a wastrel.

Avery Brooks's Tamburlaine is transparently having so much fun in the first half of the production that his audience can't help but find him sickly fascinating. Tamburlaine's laughter and his ironic blocking (playing intimidation scenes while lounging on the floor, for example) show an almost inhuman confidence, marking Tamburlaine as a man who can woo any woman and intimidate any foe--except God.