Mary Stuart in Performance

Mary Stuart in Performance

As Dennis F. Mahoney once explained in an essay on twentieth- and twenty-first-century adaptations of Mary Stuart, “Parodies occur when a text has become so (seemingly) well-known that individual lines or scenes begin to take on a life of their own, independent of their original context.”[1] Completed in 1800, Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart has since acquired this degree of notoriety. It has been performed to varying degrees of critical success all over the world—especially the western world—and has inspired Donizetti’s Italian opera, Maria Stuarda. As a poet, playwright, historian, and philosopher, Schiller’s works quickly became an integral part of the German canon.

Though widely read by his own countrymen, his texts were quickly translated and soon enjoyed by many other Europeans—and those of European descent, like Americans. In fact, an English translation of Mary Stuart appeared as early as 1801. Being the first and, for a short while, the only translation, Joseph Mellish’s text was used in early English productions of the play. Working from a pre-published copy of Schiller’s play, Mellish took some liberties with his translation. But considering that he and Schiller were friends, Mellish would have communicated with the playwright enough to understand Schiller’s vision. And it seems likely that, despite various changes, Mellish stayed relatively true to the original story—a story that was well received in Germany. This did not, however, guarantee success for the translation’s staged productions.

An 1819 production at Covent Garden failed, largely because it followed Mellish’s text so closely. “There were two problems: the audience did not want to sit through a four-hour performance, and they did not approve the revision of British history.”[2] Anyone familiar with Wagner’s seventeen-hour-long opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelungs, will know that Schiller was only one among the ranks of German artists who crafted long performance pieces. But that was just the problem: Schiller’s play was German. It did not suit British tastes of the time. Schiller’s manipulation of history, too, proved jarring to an audience of Englishmen and women who had “felt a vested interest in a narration of events known to them since childhood”[3]—including an idealized image of their Virgin Queen.

Though translations, performances, and critical reception improved over the course of the nineteenth century, Mary Stuart, along with Schiller’s other plays, held relatively little appeal for Britons. And indeed, the play’s marginal success during this period likely had more to do with its line-up of famous cast members than its script. “Performances of this play which had been a star vehicle for internationally celebrated actresses . . . throughout the nineteenth century, no longer were included in the repertory of their successors.”[4] Indeed, the play fell out of vogue in America during the following century—without stars like Helena Modjeska, who played the titular character, Mary Stuart became a grand exhibition not worth staging.

Back across the Atlantic, the same was true. Historically, the play had been more popular in America, France, and Germany than elsewhere (read Britain). But even in Germany the “high pathos of Mary Stuart” was beginning to wane in public approbation.[5] The consequence was a new approach to Schiller in the early-twentieth century. Theatergoers’ familiarity with the play coupled with changing attitudes towards its heightened emotion made Mary Stuart less popular; but it also primed the play to be parodied. In 1911 Curt Goetz wrote Der Lampenschirm: Kein Stück in drei Akten (The Lampshade: A Non-Play in Three Acts). In Goetz’s play, the scene in which Mary is attacked by a lustful Mortimer was transformed into “slapstick theater.”[6] Other adaptions of Mary Stuart constituted less biting rejections of Schiller. Less ridiculous was Bertolt Brecht’s Der Streit der Fischweiber (The Quarrel of the Fishwives), which diminished the critical nature of Mary and Elizabeth’s conflict by lowering the characters’ status and easing the stakes: the conflict in his play—between fishwives, remember—is not so dangerous that it will end with death.[7] 

In the latter half of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries, interest in Schiller’s play was restored. New, and better, translations of Mary Stuart emerged. Moreover, the fact that Mary Stuart had fallen out of favor in previous decades meant that the play offered a newness that could stimulate directors’ fascination. Unfortunately, this was not the case for many German directors who, because of Schiller’s position in the German canon, had to shoulder the “burden of tradition” when producing his plays.[8] Contrastingly, in England in 2005, the Derby Playhouse produced a Mary Stuart in which Mary, Queen of Scots, was portrayed as a Muslim rather than a Catholic. With the rest of the play essentially unchanged, the production demonstrated the play’s relevance to the twenty-first century, as it became emblematic of the new approach to Mary Stuart. Recent adaptations have highlighted the applicability of the issues and lessons in Schiller’s play, often to wide acclaim. Among those praised is Peter Oswald’s 2005 version of Mary Stuart. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, Oswald’s new adaptation premiered at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2005. It was so successful that it continued its run at the Apollo Theatre for another fourteen weeks before making its transatlantic journey in 2009. At New York’s Broadhurst Theater, again, the production was well received, and Oswald’s text has been performed by other theaters numerous times since. So long as contemporary audiences see such relevance to their own lives in its script, Mary Stuart is here to stay.

—Brooke Sutter, a graduate of Loyola University, researched and wrote teaching resources for Mary Stuart as an intern with CST’s Education Department.


Works Cited

Göbels, Bettina and John Guthrie. “Schiller’s ‘Killer Queen’ on the Streets of London: Recent Productions of Mary Stuart in England. Contemporary Theatre Review 16 (2006): 439-456.

Burwick, Frederick, “Schiller’s Plays on the British Stage, 1797-1825.” In Who Is This Schiller Now?: Essays on His Reception and Significance, edited by Jeffrey L. High, Nicholas Martin, and Norbert Oellers, 302-320. Rochester: Camden House, 2011.

Mahoney, Dennis R., “Maria Stuart Adaptions in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries: From ‘Classical’ Parodies to Contemporary Politics.” In Who Is This Schiller Now?: Essays on His Reception and Significance, edited by Jeffrey L. High, Nicholas Martin, and Norbert Oellers, 403-424. Rochester: Camden House, 2011.


[1] Dennis R. Mahoney, “Maria Stuart Adaptions in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries: From ‘Classical’ Parodies to Contemporary Politics,” in Who Is This Schiller Now?: Essays on His Reception and Significance, ed. Jeffrey L. High et al. (Rochester: Camden House, 2011), 403.

[2] Frederick Burwick, “Shiller’s Plays on the British Stage, 1797-1825,” in Who Is This Schiller Now?: Essays on His Reception and Significance, ed. Jeffrey L. High et al. (Rochester: Camden House, 2011), 310.

[3] Ibid., 312.

[4] Mahoney, “Maria Stuart Adaptions in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries,” 404.

[5] Ibid., 404.

[6] Ibid., 405-406.

[7] Ibid., 406-407.

[8] Bettina Göbels and John Guthrie, “Schiller’s ‘Killer Queen’ on the Streets of London: Recent Productions of Mary Stuart in England,” Contemporary Theatre Review16 (2006): 440.



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