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‘Edward II’: The back story

by Timothy Harris

Special To The Japan Times

Atheist, blasphemer, sodomite, spy, counterfeiter, lover of boys and tobacco — playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe has never been easily accepted into the comfortable canon of English literature.

Born in 1564, the same year as William Shakespeare, in 1593 Marlowe was stabbed to death in an arms-dealer’s office in the south London riverside district of Deptford — seemingly after a quarrel over money. He was only 29.

And as his life was violent, so were his plays. The two-part “Tamburlaine the Great” celebrates with savage humor a man who calls himself “the Scourge of God” and declares that an earthly crown is better than anything laid up in heaven. “The Jew of Malta,” whose protagonist gleefully poisons a whole nunnery, among other crimes, is filled with anti-Christian jokes and the Turks are the only (half-way) decent people in the play. In his “Doctor Faustus,” the protagonist sells his soul to the devil and, after sealing his damnation by having sex (offstage) with a succubus in the form of Helen of Troy — though the kissing of the boy-actor playing Helen happens stage center — he is torn to pieces by devils. In “Edward II,” the king is finally murdered by having a red-hot spit thrust up his fundament — the English essayist and poet Charles Lamb (1775-1834) declared of this that, “it moves with pity and terror beyond any scene ancient or modern that I am acquainted with.”

You wonder how Marlowe got away with all this in an age when you could be burned alive for heresy and hanged for sodomy. Well, of course he didn’t get away with it in the end.

Because of the violence of the plays and his liking for larger-than-life characters who glory in destructiveness, Marlowe is often compared unfavorably with Shakespeare. But “Tamburlaine” clearly had what the U.S. scholar Stephen Greenblatt calls “an intense, visceral, indeed life-transforming impact” on the young Bard of Avon.

The two men almost certainly knew each other, and may even have collaborated in writing plays since they definitely admired each other and were stimulated by each other’s work. “Tamburlaine,” for instance, resonates through “Richard III,” while Shakespeare’s early history plays stand behind “Edward II” — and his later “Richard II” is modeled on “Edward II.”

In fact Marlowe haunts Shakespeare’s plays, and in “As You Like It” the latter pays a lovely and famous tribute to his rival: “Dead Shepherd, now I find thy saw of might,/ ‘Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?’ ” Here, the second line is from Marlowe’s wonderfully erotic narrative poem, “Hero and Leander” — the work that encouraged Shakespeare to write his erotic narrative poem, “Venus and Adonis.”

“Edward II” is the first play in the post-classical Western world to deal with “gay love,” and it opens with a brilliantly erotic speech by Edward’s lover, Piers Gaveston, who has just been recalled to England after the death of Edward I, who banished him to France. However, in the play’s first revival after 300 years, by the amateur Elizabethan Stage Society in 1903 in Oxford, the most obviously homoerotic lines had to be cut.

In fact, until the decriminalization of homosexual acts in Britain in 1967, and the lifting of theatrical censorship there in 1968, it was impossible to present the play in full in its country of origin — just as it was impossible to deal frankly with homosexuality on stage at all. Gay playwrights such as Oscar Wilde, Terence Rattigan and Noel Coward had to disguise the themes of some of their plays — or resort to “camp.”

So the Prospect Theatre Company’s 1969 stagings of “Edward II” at the Edinburgh Festival and the Mermaid and Piccadilly theaters in London, with (now Sir) Ian McKellen in the title role, were landmark events. And when it was followed by a BBC screening in 1970, there was no doubt that things had irrevocably changed in Britain.

Because of Shakespeare’s justified fame, the works of contemporaries such as Marlowe, Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton — all of whom wrote plays that are great by any standards — are very seldom staged, while the Bard’s are put on again and again.

Unsurprisingly, the situation has been worse in Japan (“unsurprisingly” because these are, after all, English playwrights, and Shakespeare’s cultural fame is so great as to drown out his contemporaries abroad).

So the current production of “Edward II” at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, in a translation by Shoichiro Kawai, is immensely welcome. I hope it will lead to further explorations.

Timothy Harris has put on a number of Shakespeare productions in Japan, and is a member of Black Stripe Theater. He lectures at Japan’s University of the Air and has worked as (English) diction coach for opera and oratorio at the New National Theatre, Tokyo.