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Patrick Wang

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Love, Monarchy and Private Lives, Circa 1308 or 1592

Posted: 08/20/2013 6:27 pm

Edward Ii

The headlines cross: a royal baby, DOMA, exiles, violence, words from the Holy See, and suddenly I am thinking about Edward II.

I directed the Marlowe play 13 years ago and have not thought about it much since. Now, in the midst of what feels like a whirlwind of social and political shifts, I find some footing by fixing my thoughts on this history play.

It begins in England in 1307. Edward Longshanks has just died, and his son is crowned Edward II. One of the new monarch's first acts is to undo his father's exile of the younger Edward's childhood companion and love, Piers Gaveston. But the joys of reunion are short-lived as the nobles and the church unite to force Edward to once again banish Gaveston. The two men must say goodbye. And although blood, betrayal and tragedy are to follow, this very short farewell scene is the most devastating moment in the play for me. Perhaps that's because they are finally alone, and the world is still for a moment. It reminds me of another tender moment, this one from Argonautica, when the noisy adventure retreats, and love moves into the foreground:

So they two stood face to face without a word, without a sound, like oaks or lofty pines, which stand quietly side by side on the mountains when the wind is still; then again, when stirred by the breath of the wind, they murmur ceaselessly.

I've seen about a dozen productions of Edward II, and every one has rushed through Edward and Gaveston's farewell. Without the space and the silence, the scene can quickly become laughable. This is also true for the play at large. There are complex psychological and political spaces that can quickly collapse in the dash to make a point.

Says Edward, "How fast they run to banish him I love; They would not stir, were it to do me good." The observation is wisely finite. It pinpoints a behavior, but beyond this behavior, the why of it is a muddle.

Well, for the church it is pretty clear: It is about goods and title. Edward, in an act of revenge against the Bishop of Coventry for having helped his father exile Gaveston, has him imprisoned. The bishop's home and goods are given to Gaveston, whom Edward names the new Bishop of Coventry. The Archbishop of Canterbury is not pleased.

But what exactly are the nobles reacting to? Is it this same action against the church? Is it the love the two men have for each other; the titles bestowed upon Gaveston; the fact that he was not born an earl; that he is a foreigner; how the men extravagantly spend money in a time of state insolvency; how Gaveston distracts the monarch from affairs of state? Or are these moves by the nobles to control a young monarch? Or to support (or subvert) the monarchy, itself a youth at this point in English history?

Who knows for certain. The mindscape of each character at each point in time is a changing, slippery thing. The differences between the reasons that characters publicly state to justify their actions and what they privately feel, the differences between what characters believe of themselves and what may lie deeper, hidden from even themselves, are what make for a very compelling and modern psychological drama.

These rationales for the characters' actions, weighing heavily to the political, mixed with the emotional forces of love, jealousy, ambition and revenge, dominated my thinking about the play in the past. Now I see something new.

When Edward and Gaveston must part, what moves me more than their love for each other is the opportunity that they have to express it (on a stage in 16th-century England, no less). In this moment, their most private pain is made known to each other, shared with each other, then shared publicly through the performance of the play. It is not unlike wedding vows, where the height of our inner emotional life finds personal and public expression. Edward and Gaveston even exchange pictures in this scene. The likenesses hang from chains, large rings circling their necks, grand and foreboding. Says Edward, "O might I keep thee here as I do this."

Fred Rogers once explained that as children, we expect our parents to know everything about us. As we grow older, we come to learn that we have private lives that are known only to ourselves. What a way to think about the loss of childhood innocence. I suspect a good deal of the inward hurt and outward harm in the world originates from the burden of our inexpressible private lives. I sometimes wish there were some public figure who cared for our interior lives as adults as well as Fred Rogers did for us as children. This used to be the domain of the great dramatists.

Edward, when he is with Gaveston, appears like a child without the weight of a hidden private life. All is expressible to his love. Battles come, and Edward wins some and loses some. But even as he loses power, this is not where his suffering begins. On the run and hiding out in a monastery, he says to the abbot, "Father, this life contemplative is heaven -- O that I might this life in quiet lead!" Misfortune has arrived, but Edward is still surrounded by friends. With them, he can still imagine a satisfying life. His great suffering will come when the last sympathetic ear is gone, and his pain must remain private.

The historical Gaveston was banished in 1308. Marlowe wrote of it in 1592. Today, in our own tangle of political and personal forces, I feel fortunate to have observed some of this tale play out in reverse. Growing up in Texas, in an environment where I experienced love more commonly than hostility, I nevertheless could not imagine that my wish for a life with a man as my most intimate companion could ever be anything but the most private thought. But now I can express it. I can broadcast it, even. I can broadcast it casually. And so now my headline goes out. It goes out to join the mix of headlines that cross and breed, that always cross and breed, that ever meet the same recycling fate of all desires, stories and stars.

 
 
 

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