“[I]f I were turned out of the realm in my petticoat I were able to live in any place in Christendom,” said the legendary Elizabeth I: wit, scholar, great Queen, and poet. There is no doubt that this remark is quite accurate, just one of the many sources of her fascination.
Texts and beheadings/Elizabeth R is produced by the Folger Theatre in conjunction with the international theater collective Compania de’ Columbari. Elizabeth’s poems, prayers, letters, and speeches, including material from the Folger collection, illuminate her courage, love of life, and undying spirit. This theater piece, created and directed by international theater artist Karin Coonrod, employs movement, song, and several different languages (English, Latin and Italian). It is presented as part of the city-wide Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Following the limited engagement at the Folger, the production has a sold-out run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave festival.
Among her many talents, Elizabeth I was a gifted writer. Texts and beheadings/Elizabeth R offers the opportunity to acquaint the audience with the unmistakable voice of an unforgettable Queen. Fans of Elizabeth I (I am one) will be looking forward to seeing her writings on stage. Director Karin Coonrod has a strikingly original approach to this complicated and historically important subject. To capture the many sides of Elizabeth in one hour of theater is an ambitious and intriguing goal.
First, it is worthwhile to think about who Elizabeth was and what she endured. Her mother was Anne Boleyn, the sloe-eyed femme fatale who lured Henry VIII away from the pious Catherine of Aragon. Anne Boleyn’s reign as queen was short, for she had many enemies and failed to produce a son. Her greatest ally was Henry, always a dangerous position to be in. Towards the end of their relationship Henry had become interested in Jane Seymour.
At this time rivalries between Catholic and Protestant were complex and profound, and sometimes resulted in mass murder. Elizabeth’s sister, Queen Mary, known as “Bloody Mary” burned over 200 Protestants at the stake in the fires of Smithfield. In France the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, in which thousands of French Huguenots were killed, shocked the world.
The Pope delayed Henry’s hoped-for annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon for seven years. Ultimately Henry passed an Act of Supremacy declaring himself the head of the English church. He made Thomas Cranmer Archbishop of Canterbury, and as Archbishop Cranmer approved the annulment. Henry and Anne had a secret wedding in 1533, when Anne was already pregnant. Anne, a Protestant, gave birth to Elizabeth instead of the longed-for boy, and three years later was accused, probably falsely, of adultery and incest and beheaded.
Elizabeth was two and a half when Anne, her mother (Wife #2), was executed. When Elizabeth was nine, Catherine Howard (Wife #5) was also beheaded, for committing adultery while married to the aging and obese Henry. Some say the ghost of Catherine Howard still walks the halls of the haunted gallery at Hampton Court, uttering terrifying shrieks.
After the birth of the long-anticipated son, who became the Protestant Edward VI, Elizabeth and her sister Mary were declared bastards. In 1547, Henry VIII died, and the 13-year-old princess went to live with Henry’s last wife, the attractive and intelligent Catherine Parr. Unfortunately, shortly after Henry’s death, Parr married the dashing but untrustworthy Thomas Seymour, 1st Baron Seymour of Sudeley, whose improper advances to Elizabeth included early-morning visits to her bedroom. At Catherine Parr’s instigation, Elizabeth was sent away. Her reputation at stake, she wrote immediately to Sudeley’s older brother Edward, the Lord Protector, asserting her innocence. Matters worsened when Seymour became involved in a treasonous bid for power. Sudeley was beheaded, and Elizabeth’s possibly apocryphal line after his death, “This day died a man of much wit and very little judgement,” is an early example of her talent for wordplay.
Elizabeth’s cousin, the Protestant Lady Jane Grey, reigned for only 10 days and was also beheaded, along with her husband Guildford Dudley, when the Catholic Mary, Elizabeth’s older sister, ascended to the throne. Shortly after Mary’s accession, Elizabeth was accused of complicity in the Wyatt rebellion to overthrow the Queen. She was thrown into the Tower of London, and feared for her life.
Today it is hard to imagine such a childhood, and its impact on a young girl’s psyche. Some historians have said that Henry’s disastrous marriages were the reason Elizabeth never married; then too, marriage at that time was a dangerous enterprise, since many women died in childbirth. Elizabeth once remarked “I am bound unto a husband, which is the kingdom of England.”
Certainly Elizabeth must have felt under constant threat. The one secure mother figure she had, apart from her governess Kat Ashley, was Catherine Parr. Sadly, Parr had to send Elizabeth away because of her husband’s indiscretions. Elizabeth’s tremendous pride in her heritage must have been shaken when she was declared a bastard. During Mary’s time as Queen, Protestants were executed with exceptional cruelty. What must it have been like to be a Protestant, with a Catholic sister like that ruling your country?
Above all, Elizabeth was a survivor. She had a superb education, translated ancient works into Latin and back again for recreation, and managed to defeat the Spanish Armada. She handed her country over to a plausible heir, James VI (son of Mary Queen of Scots), and presided over the magnificent artistic achievements of Shakespeare and Marlowe, as well as the founding of colonies in the United States. She maintained stability at a desperately unstable time, and earned the loyalty and love of her subjects despite her many travails and often ruthless responses to them. Her execution of Mary Queen of Scots outraged Catholics throughout Europe, although Mary had been involved in several plots on Elizabeth’s life. At times, she ordered subjects to be tortured. Known for her parsimony, she famously did not pay the soldiers who helped her rout the Armada, and they were struck by poverty and disease. Many died.
One of her greatest policy decisions was in selecting and retaining the extremely capable William Cecil (later Lord Burghley) as her principal advisor. His instincts, like hers, were cautious, and like Elizabeth he had a talent for avoiding danger. Sir Francis Walsingham, her spymaster, also made an important contribution. It was his scheme that eventually entrapped Mary Queen of Scots.
Robert Dudley, who died shortly after the Armada victory, was her great love. She called him her “Eyes.” Called “the Gypsy” because of his dark good looks, Dudley, whom Elizabeth created the Earl of Leicester, was originally her Master of Horse. Their early affair, which most believe was not consummated, was passionate and caused Dudley to become one of the most hated men at Court. However, when his wife Amy Robsart was found dead of a broken neck at the bottom of a shallow staircase, Dudley was suspected at once. He would never marry Elizabeth, although he continued to woo her for years. He secretly married court beauty Lettice Knollys, infuriating Elizabeth. But the fact that Elizabeth wrote “his last letter” on the letter she received just before his unexpected death, is a poignant testimony to how much he meant to her.
The only person she ever came close to marrying was an unlikely suitor. Monsieur, the Duke of Alencon and later Anjou, was a small individual, whose smallpox scars made him less than a romantic figure. Elizabeth insisted on meeting all her marriage prospects, possibly keeping in mind Henry VIII’s calamitous marriage to Anne of Cleves. Henry found her much less appealing than her picture, and she gamely accepted a swift annulment and the role of his “dear sister,” therefore removing herself from the line of fire.
Alencon, a Catholic, came to visit England twice, but the age difference (he was 24 and she 46) and religious disparity led to objections. and Elizabeth, well known for her indecisiveness and unpredictability, said yes, no, yes, no so many times that the poor fellow must have become dizzy. She called him her “Frog” She even went so far as to promise to marry him and give him a ring, but the engagement, sadly, was doomed. She wrote a letter to his mother, Catherine de Medici, after his early death, mourning him as her true soul mate.
Elizabeth had a difficult relationship with Mary Queen of Scots which resulted in Mary’s death. Mary was an inveterate plotter, and in the end Elizabeth felt she had no choice. It was her life or Mary’s. It is intriguing to imagine her rage regarding the strange murder of Mary’s secretary David Rizzio, her husband Lord Darnley, and Mary’s subsequent marriage to the Earl of Bothwell, who was implicated in Darnley’s death. You can almost see her sputtering with horror as she remonstrates with her dear sister and attempts to talk some sense into her. Still, Elizabeth was tormented with guilt, to the extent that she claimed the whole thing was a mistake. Burghley was in disgrace for some time, as was William Davison, who obtained Elizabeth’s signature on the warrant for Mary’s execution. Although Burghley was forgiven, Davison never got his job back, although he was given a pension.
James VI, who at the time of Mary’s death had a cordial relationship with Elizabeth, never saw his mother again after she visited him in April 1567, when he was ten months old. Consequently he was not attached to her, and accepted Elizabeth’s explanation. Elizabeth referred to it as an accident.
Linguist, scholar, diplomat, celebrated queen; there are so many aspects to Elizabeth it is hard to imagine how to encompass them in one production. Elizabeth had one more favorite, whose fate was possibly the most tragic of all. The handsome Earl of Essex, stepson of Robert Dudley, came into power after Dudley’s death. Essex had a significant military victory against Spain at Cadiz, and became a national hero. Essex spent much time with the Queen, although probably more as a “son” than a lover. The courtly game of love which Elizabeth enjoyed could not extinguish all realities. Sir Christopher Hatton, Walter Raleigh, and others—some of the most able men of the age—all had their turn as Elizabeth’s chosen ones.
Essex was sent to Ireland, where he made a truce with the Earl of Tyrone instead of putting down Tyrone’s rebellion as Elizabeth had requested. She was furious when he appeared in her room before she had applied her makeup and wig, and although she was polite their relationship never recovered, not so much from that incident as from his tendency to disobey orders and attempt rash and foolish projects. When Elizabeth discontinued the patent on sweet wines which formed most of his income, Essex became a desperate man. He seemed to lose his mind temporarily, as he planned an ill-starred rebellion. He marched with a gang of his followers down the streets of London crying, “For the Queen! For the Queen!” He contended that Elizabeth was being misled by poor advisers, but for his pains he too was accused of treason. In 1601, he was beheaded. Some have said that after this incident Elizabeth was never the same.
The actresses in texts and beheadings/ElizabethR, each turn in excellent performances. Monique Barbee, Ayeja Feamster, Juliana Francis-Kelly, and Cristina Spina, are particularly delightful when they dance into our hearts as the various suitors of Elizabeth. They sing some of Elizabeth’s poetry (“When I was Young and Fair” is one selection), and look lovely in the many stunning stage pictures their director has composed.
The selection of material from Elizabeth’s works, some of it from letters in the Folger collection, is also first-rate. Elizabeth’s famous Speech to the Troops at Tilbury (1588) naturally comes at the beginning. It is worth noting that as she was proclaiming, “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too” she was expecting the Duke of Parma to sail up the Thames and take London. There are glimpses of Elizabeth’s tender moments, “Rob, I am afraid you will suppose by my wandering writings that a midsummer moon hath taken large possession of my brains this month” (to Leicester, of course), which add color to the portrait of the Queen.
A few caveats are in order. For me, the switch from Elizabeth’s words to modern slang is sometimes jarring. Because the actresses are essentially reciting, it is hard occasionally to get emotionally involved with Elizabeth. The use of sound (Music Composition is by Gina Leishman) is effective; the sound of beheading, the music, the twittering of birds. The lighting, by Peter Ksander, is perfectly suited to the piece.
The costumes (Oana Botez), black and grey gowns, each slightly different, are flattering, and the use of chairs, roses, and in one case black fabric, is notably inventive. Visually and aurally, the production is a treat. John Conklin’s scenic design is spare and stylish.
Elizabeth was far less bloodthirsty than her sister Mary, and in fact fairly merciful in some ways by the standards of her time. Her policy of moderation, though not always successful, led to a stability in England’s politics which is still celebrated today. Her defeat of the Armada, her preference for peace rather than war, and her ability to see both sides of a question all contributed to England’s Golden Age.
The “Golden Speech,” one of Elizabeth’s later speeches, is featured, naturally towards the end. In this speech she remarks that her greatest achievement is “that I have reigned with your loves.”
The truth is of course more complicated than that. The English by the end were rather tired of their old Queen. According to several biographers, her body was not treated with respect after her death. A new generation was taking charge, and her insistence on romance and attempts to appear youthful began to seem slightly ridiculous.
As a tribute to a great queen, texts and beheadings/ElizabethR succeeds superbly.
Running Time: 60 minutes, with no intermission.
Texts&beheadings/ElizabethR plays through October 4, 2015 at The Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library—201 East Capitol Street, SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 544-7077, or purchase them online.
The Women’s Voices Theater Festival: ‘texts&beheadings/ElizabethR’ at The Folger Theatre reviewed by David Siegel.