All Hail the Virgin Queen
Even if you don’t know much about English history, you probably have a vision of Elizabeth I as played by Cate Blanchett in two movies and Dame Judi Dench in an Oscar-winning turn in Shakespeare in Love. Powdered face, dressed to the nines, tall and redheaded, Elizabeth was savvy enough to remain on the throne, unmarried and childless, for 45 years. “Her traits of character were not the feminine qualities of sweetness and gentleness but the masculine ones of pride, strength, aggressiveness, self-confidence and courage,” historian David Harris Willson writes in A History of England.
Elizabeth’s toughness was a product of a difficult, even scary childhood. Born to Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, on September 7, 1533, she was supposed to be the king’s much-hoped-for son and heir—and he was not pleased to be presented another girl. First wife Catherine of Aragon had been cast aside after producing only one child, Elizabeth’s half sister Mary. By the time Elizabeth was three, her mother had been executed. Daddy soon declared her illegitimate, and she proceeded into stepmother hell as he worked his way through four more wives. Imprisoned at 21 in the Tower of London after Half Sis nicknamed Bloody Mary for burning Protestants at the stake took the throne, Elizabeth spent a year living in fear of being beheaded herself.
No wonder, then, that after she became queen at age 25, upon Mary’s death, Elizabeth remained permanently on guard against claims that her reign wasn’t legitimate—including carping from the Catholic followers of a different Mary, her Scottish/French cousin more on her below. Luckily, Elizabeth enjoyed the warm support of the English people and enlisted a small group of smart male advisors, including the ultra-loyal Lord Burleigh, who plays an important role in Mary Stuart.
Why didn’t Elizabeth marry? Nobody really knows, but most experts believe that when an early love, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, proved to be unsuitable he was already married, then his wife died suspiciously, she concluded she was better off alone than wed to a foreigner who might seize power for himself. Thus began the cult of the Virgin Queen and Elizabeth’s ongoing fascination with handsome men. Historian Willson puts it delicately: “Her courtiers had to pretend they were smitten by her charms long after those charms had withered.”
The Many Loves of Mary
Unlike her older cousin, Mary Stuart enjoyed a peaceful, pampered childhood and was groomed from an early age to rule two countries: her native Scotland, the homeland of her father, King James V; and France, the home of her mother, Mary of Guise. The king died when Mary was only six days old, and she was crowned queen of Scotland before her first birthday; at age five, she was swept off to France to grow up in the royal household with the understanding that she would eventually marry the Dauphin. “The little Queen of Scots is the most perfect child I have ever seen,” the king declared, and she was given a first-class education, mastering French, Latin, Greek, Spanish and Italian in addition to her native Scots. Married at 16, she and her husband, Francis II, became king and queen of France a year later, in 1559.
That’s the happy part of Mary’s story. The unhappy part started just a year later, when Francis died of complications following an ear infection. The French nobility booted the young queen back to Scotland, “a lawless, backward and poverty-stricken country torn by feuds of rival clans and by constant deeds of violence,” Willson writes. In other words, the Braveheart types couldn’t care less about their delicate 19-year-old queen—and vice versa, as the young widow turned her eyes beyond Scotland toward the throne her cousin had just assumed.
Mary’s hopes were dashed by the fallout from a pair of disastrous marriages. First she fell in love with a nobleman cousin, Lord Darnley, whose good looks masked a character variously described as vain, weak, insolent, treacherous, debauched and unstable. Darnley arranged to have Mary’s trusted secretary stabbed to death in front of her when she was pregnant; a year later, Darnley himself was killed in a suspicious explosion. Only one good thing came out of this union: Mary’s son, James, who became king of England after Elizabeth’s death—but that’s not part of our story. Within months, Mary had married the man suspected of killing Darnley, causing an uprising of the noblemen who implicated her in the crime, as well. Fearing for her life, she decided to seek the help of Elizabeth. Um…bad idea.
Clash of the Titans
By decamping for England, Mary put Elizabeth in a bind. If Elizabeth sent her cousin back home, Mary would have been killed, which would reflect poorly on England. If, however, Elizabeth offered support, the Queen of Scots and her Catholic followers might press her claim to the English throne. So Elizabeth arranged to have Mary quietly kept under lock and key, moving from prison to prison for 19 years.
As Mary Stuart begins, Elizabeth is hearing conflicting advice from her courtiers, including her old swain, the Earl of Leicester, who urges clemency for Mary. On the other end of the spectrum, the loyal Lord Burleigh believes that Mary should be beheaded as soon as possible—or better yet, murdered on the sly, so that Elizabeth’s royal hands can remain clean. A council of judges has found Mary guilty of treason, but Elizabeth’s followers are wary of allowing her to become a Catholic martyr.
For her part, Mary doesn’t believe her cousin will order her execution. “Could she descend to that?” the character says in Peter Oswald’s page-turner of an adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 historical drama. “See my crowned head dishonoured on the block? It would degrade her status and the status of every monarch.”
Elizabeth isn’t thrilled by the predicament she’s in, either. Though the court pronounced the death sentence on Mary, she’s the one who will have to carry it out. “I will be hated for it until the day I die,” she laments in the play. “No way to hide, it will be my responsibility. That’s the worst of it!”
In real life, Mary and Elizabeth never met face to face—but that would make a pretty dull play, so Schiller brings the two together at Fotheringay Castle on a rainy night in February 1587. The result, as director Phyllida Lloyd tells Broadway.com, is “everything you want from a night at the theater. It’s a gripping thriller; it’s romantic; it’s political; it’s a brilliantly constructed roller coaster. And it’s two great parts for girls!”
God Save the Queens
The Broadway revival of Mary Stuart began life at London’s Donmar Warehouse, following in the footsteps of the company’s hit revival of another Schiller play, Don Carlos. Lloyd, known in America for Mamma Mia! but an internationally famous director of opera and classical theater, tapped a frequent collaborator, Tony winner Janet McTeer, for the title role and stage great Harriet Walter as Elizabeth. The pairing proved to be combustible and now three years later, they’re bringing the production to Broadway with an American supporting cast.
Not surprisingly, both actresses feel that their queen is the sympathetic one. “History is written by the winners,” McTeer tells Broadway.com, “and Mary is often portrayed as this romantic ninny who runs away with the guys and messes it all up. In fact, she was incredibly bright, incredibly clever and a very good politician until it all went horribly wrong. I try to give her all that passion and intelligence and a lot of backbone and strength.”
As for Elizabeth, “I love the woman she was before this play begins,” Walter tells Broadway.com. “She was so courageous, and she used the force of her personality to unite a country that was fed up with war and tired of factions. She recognized that the English people wanted to be English more than they wanted to be Catholic or Protestant. It was the cleverest kind of balancing act, and she managed to stay on the throne by using what she called a male mentality.”
Now Broadway audiences can make their own judgment about these two fascinating women. “You’re seeing two actresses absolutely at the peak of their power, who’ve been playing this kind of language for several decades,” Lloyd notes of her stars. “They’re both fearless, and they’re just wonderful on the stage together. You need what we in England call ‘big hitters’ for this play, and here they are.”