May 14

August 4, 2019

The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare

by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss
directed by Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage
North American Premiere

Performing Herstory

Ira Murfin, Ph.D. introduces SIX, sharing how Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow create an immersive experience of "infectious fun," even as they highlight the continuity of women's experiences across five centuries. You can read Dr. Murfin’s Pre•Amble below, of if you’d like to listen to the Pre•Amble talk, scroll down to the bottom of the page.

Dr. Murfin is a member of our team of guest Pre•Amble scholars, who present free pre-performance lectures for most productions in our subscription season. These half-hour talks examine productions through the lens of the play’s historical context, as well as the interpretive choices made by the director, design team, and acting ensemble. If you are interested in listening online to any of our archived lectures, Pre•Ambles are posted for past productions.


Battle of the Sixes

Depending on your predilections, your experience as an audience member for SIX may turn out to be one of the most purely pleasurable eighty minutes you are likely to spend in a theater. And despite the seriousness of some of what I have to say below, I do hope that it will not take anything away from that pleasure. I actually think it is vital to preserve it in order for SIX to work as intended. But for SIX to work as intended, it is also necessary to ask ourselves how that pleasure is produced and to what end?

The most obvious answer to the latter might be to suppose that the aim is pedagogical and the use of pleasure a familiar teaching strategy. Perhaps, in order to deliver history in a palatable way, the co-creators of this show, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, have disguised an informational tour through the lives of the six women best known as the wives of King Henry VIII as a glossy, fun pop concert. But I actually do not believe that quite explains what is going on here. In fact, I suspect it might be more useful to think about what they are up to the other way around. By employing the veil of respectability granted by the well-established historical importance of their subject matter, Marlow and Moss have managed to sneak a frothy pop concert into a “serious” theater like Chicago Shakespeare, or the Arts Theatre in London’s West End where it is also currently playing.

From this perspective, what SIX offers is less a history lesson than a kind of escape from the received lessons of history. It argues, in essence, that what matters most in looking back might not be discovering what we do not know about these historical narratives, but recognizing that what we do know—not necessarily intellectually, but instinctually and experientially— about gender, power, and reputation, is as broadly and consistently applicable to the sixteenth century as it is to the twenty-first. In fact, the very ways that historical narratives are usually constructed and represented— whether on the page or onstage—has often deliberately prevented a shared recognition of that continuity. By thrusting the audience into the immersive setting of a pop concert, Moss and Marlow largely circumvent expectations of faithful narrative representation or convincing dramatic storytelling in favor of the familiar unifying emotional spectacle that setting provides.

In these terms, I would argue that SIX is actually not a musical in the common theatrical sense at all; that is, it is not about a pop concert, or set at a pop concert, rather it is a pop concert, nearly from beginning to end, albeit a scripted one. Though what pop concert in the twenty-first century isn’t? By foregoing dramatic storytelling in favor of the immediacy of shared experience, SIX manages to tap directly into the long history of female sentiment and subjectivity in male dominated contexts that connects the experiences of these sixteenth-century figures to the realities of the twenty-first century. This is not a superficial cross-historical comparison. With this strategy, SIX is able to immediately, without a great deal of comment or equivocation, identify and isolate the ongoing structural conditions that have been continually shaping the lives of women in the west for the nearly six-hundred years since these six individuals lived, all without missing a dance beat. Moss and Marlow materialize this shared knowledge of the persistence of gender dynamics across history by way of audience familiarity with the similarly persistent tropes and sentiments found in popular music throughout time, from Greensleeves (often misidentified as a song about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn) to Nancy Sinatra’s plans for her boots to Cyndi Lauper’s declaration of female autonomy to “just have fun.”

While it is true that this ahistorical approach may not give us much granular detail on the day-to-day life of a Tudor-era queen, it does offer what might be a more urgent perspective on the past. That is: the actually not-that-radical notion that silencing, shaming, abusing, or killing women has pretty much always been bad, whatever the social and political climate at the time might have allowed. Even if the sort of moral and political adjustments more “accurate” portrayals often ask audiences to make in the name of historical context can help us understand why and how certain past inequities came about, SIX offers a reminder that those inequities were nonetheless felt just as strongly and painfully by those subject to them as they would be today. And the legacy of those inequities is still just as much present and pervasive for us as are the much-celebrated progressive triumphs of modernity during the same period.

This is brought powerfully home at a few key moments, tellingly those that veer closest to dramatic storytelling in particular. But the show’s real contribution may be that it is as much the bubbly pop songs, choreographed dance moves, and recognizable vocal styles as it is those few strikingly dramatic moments, that deliver the show’s most incisive and relevant critiques. Though it might be argued that the layering of pop stardom onto the conditions of sixteenth-century royal wives is actually more insightful than it is ironic. After all, where are the forces that shape our ideas of female identity more completely and complexly on display in the twenty-first century than in the pop performances and personae referenced in the show?

The only other place we might logically look, in fact, is exactly where we find these characters—at the height of state power. Think, for example, of the various performances and projections of femininity and female empowerment that have been deployed by and attached to the public personas of contemporary political spouses from Princess Diana to Hillary Clinton to Michelle Obama. Though even these figures are as much in dialogue with mainstream conceptions of female identity as they are sources of it, often drawing on pop music, fashion, and other aspects of celebrity culture to shape and define their public image. It is female pop stardom in particular, SIX argues, that largely defines the contemporary public square where gender politics and representation are concerned.

The play indexes a full range of contemporary female pop superstar “types”—from the righteous empowerment of Beyoncé to Adele’s soulful self-excavations to the liberated carousing of Rihanna to Ariana Grande’s deceptively lightweight style and image. While not intended as a one-to-one match with the queens, these established pop diva roles orient the audience to each queen’s backstory and historical reputation, and inform our reception of each figure. These self-presentations are not built as a dramatic character might be, but rather shaped at the convergence of lyrical content, vocal interpretation, costuming, choreography, and shared knowledge—actual or otherwise—of personal history and life circumstances. The resulting personae are both simplified and abstracted representations of individual personalities, and they are recognizable, socially determined tropes that might be associated with one public figure or another at various stages of history, but which transcend individual identity and historical moment to reveal something about the ongoing and entrenched patterns that have long defined the personalities and reputations of women in public.

We meet the six wives already onstage as a singing group giving a concert, and just as in most of our contact with celebrity in the real world, this is the only context in which we encounter them. Early in the show we are presented with a mild dramatic conflict of a sort—in order to determine who will lead the group, and by implication lead the pack of wives in our historical memory in terms of individual importance, they will each recount their experiences as Queen in song, and the one judged to have been dealt the worst hand by her marriage to Henry will be declared the winner. This premise is not without its pitfalls, which the show ultimately acknowledges, the long-established tendency to determine the historical importance of those who are either not white or not male or neither by playing the victimhood Olympics chief among them. To Moss and Marlow’s credit, though, the show makes a decisive valedictory turn toward imagining the unrealized utopian possibilities for these women’s lives as they might have been lived outside the historical constraints to which they were subject. This turn not only transforms the world the characters occupy at the last minute, it also underlines the show’s relative indifference to the narrative imperatives of traditional dramatic structure by sidestepping the arc established at its start.

Drawing on the variety of pop music structures and the taxonomy of female pop stardom, the wives each reference a certain pop style, and an accompanying set of tropes about femininity, through song. Their well-established stories, some familiar, some less so, include that of Henry’s first and longest-tenured wife, Catherine of Aragon, who is presented as a noble, long-suffering partner, fed up with her husband’s BS, but out of options, who finds herself just trying to preserve her dignity in the face of tremendous loss. Anne Boleyn, meanwhile, is played as a sassy, scheming airhead, whose plan to keep the king’s interest backfires in a horrible way that is probably familiar to even those of us who know nothing else about this history. And Jane Seymour, who gave Henry his only legitimate male heir but died in the process, is portrayed as a victim of her romantic ideals who has subjugated her personality to her husband’s desires out of a misguided conception of love.

While the first three, better known, wives more or less align with their historical reputations, the life stories of the latter three, arguably more obscure, wives offer insight into the range of possibilities available to women beyond marriage. Though hardly universally happy, taken together their portrayals stand in marked contrast to the more fatalistic narratives of the first three. Most notably, Anna of Cleves, whose marriage to Henry was unconsummated and quickly annulled, is portrayed as a liberated and empowered independent woman enjoying life on her own terms, who is actually able to gain a measure of respect from male society for it. And while Katherine Howard, who Henry married when she was just 17, is presented initially as a flirtatious party girl known for attracting and being unable to resist the attention of men, an idea long promulgated by historical accounts, the show smartly manages to subvert that overly simplistic version of her reputation, which has lead to her too-easy dismissal in some historical understandings.

But it is Henry’s sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr, who suggests both by biographical example and in the literal scripted dialogue that none of their stories ultimately has to begin and end with Henry. The king was only the third of Parr’s four marriages, all four of which preceded her most significant accomplishments, including writing the first book by a woman to be published under her own name in England, and her advocacy for reforms that allowed women more access to education. Not to mention her lasting impact on England’s rule through her mentorship of her former step-daughter, Queen Elizabeth I (notwithstanding some historical ambiguity around Parr’s complicity and borderline victim-blaming in response to her last husband molesting the adolescent Elizabeth while she was in their charge, an incident not dealt with in the show, but which I feel compelled to mention here nonetheless). It is through the wisdom and insight of Parr’s experience that the possibility of forming a self-definition not contingent on their status as the wives of Henry VIII presents itself, and opens the way for all present to collectively imagine a more modern and female-centric resolution than the one that history has provided.

While SIX draws on pop stardom to explicate ways that women were received in the past, it also locates in the reputations of these historical figures a source of the socially determined limits and possibilities that have contributed to shaping the cultural role of female pop star, as we know it today. This reciprocal understanding of female representation in the public sphere across five centuries is articulated to the side of so-called “accuracy.” The performers are not trying to realistically embody historical figures as they were or might have been, but to connect the dots between the structural forces that women faced then and now. It is specifically because SIX does not feel obligated to tell an ostensibly “real” story in an apparently “authentic” way, and instead engages the wives as outgrowths of persistent cultural attitudes toward women in the public eye, which still obtain, that the show resonates meaningfully.

Rather than intellectual conceits and historical analysis, though, we in the audience are granted immediate access to the inherited practices that continue to turn women’s self-presentation into spectacle through our collective role as a pop concert audience. With the bright lights, gold confetti, up-tempo jams and power ballads, high energy choreography, and constant signaling of the real, actual audience and location by anachronistically posing for selfies and riling up the crowd with repeated shout-outs to “Chicago”—a place which did not even exist when any of these characters were actually alive—it is entirely excusable, maybe even recommended, to get swept up in the infectious fun of this immersive experience. In some ways, analysis after the fact may not even be necessary. This is a show that fully wears its heart—and its agenda—on its sleeve. If you can go with it, you will probably get it, because ultimately it tells us exactly and specifically what it means to do, no footnotes required. Though the individual life stories of these six women beyond their marriage stats may in fact be so historically under-attended to that we all probably learn quite a bit of history just by watching the show, its primary aim is not to give us a summary of the past, but to identify a continuity in the perception of women’s role in Western culture across five centuries in all its numbingly repetitive sameness.

As a specialist in contemporary theatre who spends time thinking and talking about the season of a theater that often produces work from or oriented toward the early modern past, I sometimes find myself trying to make sense of contemporary plays that engage in what I call ahistorical world-making. That is, plays set in or addressed to the past, which in some way attempt to incarnate onstage through sheer will the worldview and conditions of possibility we take for granted as moderns or post-moderns in the Western world, particularly by putting progressive attitudes about gender, sexuality, and race into the mouths of characters to whom those attitudes would not have been available.

I sometimes feel torn about this strategy. (And to be clear, I am talking about the worldview of the plays themselves, not a production’s casting choices.) It can be satisfying, to say the least, to see those who have been marginalized by history recognized for their abilities, even their humanity, and restoratively given center stage. And it is tempting to imagine that the attitudes and institutions of that romanticized past would have been capable of becoming more inclusive and responding to challenges to its fundamental power structures and belief systems in increasingly progressive ways had those opportunities presented themselves at the time. But I also wonder if there are times when too credible a representation of an anachronistically enlightened past might serve to obscure some of history’s more entrenched inequities and to let us off the hook for holding our potentially misplaced nostalgia dearer than the need for clarity about the forces that have shaped history. In other words, is the project of this type of revisionism to lay bare the mistakes of history? Or is it to allow certain audiences to go on loving a deeply problematic past, untroubled by the ways in which they might be implicated in its inequities?

The challenge seems to be to do the work of recuperating lost histories of resistance and alterity where those possibilities can be found, and even of generating out of whole cloth new utopian worlds that can point the way forward, while still remembering that the narratives and institutions we have inherited nonetheless depend upon the lived realities of structural inequality and the benefits that have accrued to the powerful and privileged as a direct result of those inequities, benefits some of us in the audience have likely inherited. This is where the experiential lightness of SIX offers something that even some rigidly historical works cannot: a sense of curiosity about historical fact that can coexist with its commitment to transformative world-making by way of deliberate, even accentuated, disregard for representational coherence through absolute transparency about what is happening onstage and why.

In this regard SIX, and I present this as a deliberately provocative comparison, might be ahead of even its most obvious predecessor, Hamilton, to which it clearly owes an enormous debt both conceptually and aesthetically. Both shows use tropes and references from contemporary popular music to narrate the well-researched lives of important historical figures. Both tell their stories using actors whose physical appearances and vocal signaling challenge the importance of accurate representation of the material circumstances of history. And both also emphasize the necessity of including those who have otherwise been caricatured, forgotten, or written out of history in the way we choose to tell those stories, though not necessarily in the stories we choose to tell.

But some—most recently the post-modern literary satirist Ishmael Reed, who is African American and often engages histories of racism, enslavement, and colonialism in his work—have cautioned that the convincingly coherent, if quasI-fantastical, theatrical world Lin-Manuel Miranda has created may be too masterfully rendered. This critique wonders if, despite our intellectual knowledge about the realities of early America, Hamilton might be in danger of helping its often affluent, majority white, mainstream audiences to forget that the logics of white supremacy are actually inseparable from the story of our nation’s founding. And further, that it may be just this sort of narrative and aesthetic erasure that can unconsciously help to remove the burden of history from the shoulders of those longing for a way to be let off the hook by a rendering of history more in line with the values we would prefer to find there.

At least in its principle thrust, which I take to be to center the histories, experiences, and unrealized potentials of its heroines, SIX does not seem susceptible to those same pitfalls. In some ways it is the very silliness and lightness of the premise that does the important work of preventing the recuperative fantasy from eclipsing historical fact. We are never lulled into believing we are watching history being played out, even temporarily, we understand that what we are seeing is not a play in which the wives of Henry VIII appear at all, but a theatrical concert offering both a historical summary of their lives and a critical take on their reputations through performance.

Key to this is the absence of any attempt to represent, even in a very stylized way, the political and cultural environment in which they lived, and especially a refusal to even conceptually manifest King Henry onstage.  Even as an unseen presence, any relationship between the wives and the king that could have been represented would have been in danger of offering up the refuge of psychological realism, with its focus on personal history rather than historical circumstance. Moss and Marlow want to ensure that we do not convince ourselves that this play is using the individual experiences of the six queens to talk about the universality of marital challenges, or any such reductive notion. Rather, by sparing us the domestic drama and stranding us in the conceptually audacious, and relentlessly enjoyable, wonderland of a highly produced pop concert, they force us to examine the only logical link between our reality and that of the six wives. That is, the persistent structural undercurrents of history that create and define categories like Queen and pop star, which at once set idealized aspirational limits for women and constrain their horizons of possibility based on gender.

Through the figure of the female pop star, Moss and Marlow are able to articulate the tension between the vulnerable human presence of these much-examined women, their carefully managed public personae, built on sanctioned and unsanctioned public performances, and their enduring reputations, constructed from public perception of their personal lives and behavior, both factual and invented, which circulate and persist apart from them, even long after the end of their lives. By putting the queens “live” onstage, the creators symbolically allow them to reclaim and reshape—sometimes through knowing reinforcement, often by winking subversion, and ultimately via transparency and reinvention, voluntary or otherwise—the roles in which the wives, like contemporary female celebrities, have been cast by history and the public eye. And just as in the celebrity narratives we are familiar with today, here it is often when a public presentation of self fails, or the performer resists or rejects the persona that has been constructed for them, and from which they might have initially benefitted, that we can see through to the human toll of living subject to such expectations and limitations, whatever benefits may have also accrued.

The impact of maintaining a playful or provocative performance of femininity on the individual who feels compelled to do so is brought sharply into focus at a key point late in the show with Katherine Howard’s song “All You Wanna Do,” which I would call the moment when the concert shifts most decidedly into the realm of drama. While the other songs in SIX mostly find the women representing themselves through a sustained onstage persona, supported by lyrics that affirm and reinforce their desires and identity, this one in particular is built around watching Howard’s persona slipping, then crumbling, as the character finds it increasingly difficult to maintain the flirtatious veneer of the song, gradually revealing the crushing impact that being perceived as perennially sexually available has taken. This requires the actress not just to perform her song, but to perform its failure, and her character’s growing distance from it. It is, in other words, a moment of dramatic tension that tells us something about the interior life of the character, and so the moment when the show most meaningfully sets aside the guise of pop concert in favor of the kind of work that dramatic theatre is best equipped to do.

This moment becomes the emotional and ideological heart of the play, making way for Catherine Parr’s repudiation of the show’s ostensible premise, that the wife who has suffered the most matters the most and therefore, somehow, wins. By introducing a moment much more rooted in the logics of theatrical representation and storytelling than any other in the show, Marlow and Moss subtly call all of us present out for our too-willing participation in the easy assumptions that surround certain types of female self-presentation, which have been formulated for the male gaze. The choice to position this dramatic break with Howard, who we are initially encouraged to see as the most frivolous of the six wives, is a reminder that even when we believe we are attuned to injustice we are often still willing to uncritically dismiss the suffering associated with certain kinds of self-presentation that we may see as merely titillating or unserious, despite what we know to be the deeply felt lived experience of the women in question. By implanting this moment of dramatic self-reflection for the wives and the audience, both, Moss and Marlow open the way to the restorative possibilities newly imagined in the show’s final moments for female self-determination in the public sphere.


Pre•Amble: Ira Murfin, June 23, 2019



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