Elizabeth Rex

November 29, 2011

January 22, 2012

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by Timothy Findley
directed by Barbara Gaines

Playwright's Notes: Elizabeth Rex and the Search for Self

by Timothy Findley

This play was born in answer to a conundrum that has fascinated me for years; because women were not allowed to appear on stage in Elizabethan theater, the female roles were played by male actors. These were the so-called "boy actors"—but who was it who played the woman of a maturity and depth far beyond the range of any boy? Who played Cleopatra—Lady Macbeth—Mad Margaret? It seemed to me that there must have been actors in Shakespeare’s time who had passed well beyond boyhood, and who therefore could undertake the portrayal of such strong and demanding female roles. Without such men, would Shakespeare have written such women? And so I invented a mature leading actor of female roles—Ned Lowenscroft.

Pondering the whole question of a contradiction of genders, I remembered that Elizabeth I often referred to herself as "a Prince of Europe" and even declared that in order to maintain her grasp on the British monarchy and to rule her England, she was called upon to be more man than woman. Suddenly, a phrase drifted into my mind. Elizabeth Rex; King Elizabeth.

Here, then, was the possibility of a glorious, theatrical confrontation—between the woman who throughout her reign had played the role of a man, and the man who in his theatrical career had always played the role of a woman. To make the most of the confrontation, I decided it must take place at some moment when the monarch felt it necessary to recapture her womanhood, just as the actor finally required—for whatever reason—the full strength of his manhood. History provided such a moment. Two years before her death, the Queen’s lover, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, raised a rebellion against her. If Elizabeth, the monarch, had to condemn him to death; where did this leave Elizabeth, the woman? Fiction was then able to step in and give the actor a disease that in those days was often fatal—syphilis. Was he man enough to face his own imminent death?

History offered further help. Essex, imprisoned in the Tower of London, was to be beheaded in the early morning hours of Ash Wednesday, 1601. On the eve of his execution, Shrove Tuesday, it is known that Elizabeth called Shakespeare and his actors—the Lord Chamberlain’s Men—to perform in one of her palaces. She sought distraction from the torment of what her royal duty had forced her to do. It is not recorded which play was presented on that occasion, and so I was free to have it be Much Ado About Nothing. To me, Elizabeth would have loved the character of Beatrice, one of the strongest and most independent women in the Shakespeare canon. This way, I was also able to have the Queen become intrigued by the actor who brought this woman to life. History provided the play with one more fascinating twist. The nobleman who was imprisoned with Essex for taking part in the rebellion was Harry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton—the playwright’s wealthy patron and, according to some, the true love of Shakespeare's life.

(By the way, if Harry’s name baffles you, it can be pronounced either of two ways: "Risely" or "Rosely." We have chosen "Rosely" for the play.)

Shakespeare, who was actually writing Hamlet in this period, is shown to be in the early stages of creating Antony and Cleopatra—a play that was not performed until after the death of Elizabeth. Many scholars believe this was because it told a story too close for comfort to that of Elizabeth and Essex.

What emerged, for me, from this barn filled with contradictions and emotional conflicts, was a sense that neither gender nor sexuality, politics not ambition were as important as integrity. As Polonius will say in Hamlet: "This above all, to thine own self be true." Or as Glenn Gould was to declare to me a year before his death: "All that matters is that you become yourself."

Reprinted courtesy of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where the inaugural production was staged in 2000.

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