The situation of Mary Stuart is that Elizabeth I, the Protestant daughter of Henry VIII (see this post for reference), is Queen of England and Mary, formerly Queen of the Scots, a devout Catholic, is in prison in London for murdering her husband and plotting against the English throne. Egged on by various plotters and courtly connivers, the two engage in contest of wills: Mary seeks to be freed, while Elizabeth hesitates to execute her for ethical reasons and to avoid turning her into a martyr for the Catholic cause. Mary is finally executed, Elizabeth claiming it was done without her specific bidding.
How then does Friedrich Schiller turn this into a play in which the beheaded Mary is seen as victorious and Elizabeth, who in fact goes on to reign as a great Queen, as vanquished? Good writing, professional production and excellent acting mask the fundamental nonsense.
Mary has quite a resume. She has murdered her husband, married his murderer, been thrown out by the Scots as their Queen and engaged in several murderous plots. Yet Schiller, and Oswald, envision her as spiritually superior to ElizabethI, a beloved Queen who strengthened the arts, crafts and commerce of her nation, prepared it militarily to ward off threats from powerful enemies, and fostered the great flowering of Elizabethan England.
This play has been called “revisionist” but it’s just biased.
The two go hair to hair. At the end Mary, who is purged of all her sins in a lengthy confession while bathed in a heavenly light, goes toward the execution block calmly, gorgeously dressed and magnificently coiffed with a gold hair net. Elizabeth, on the contrary, comes onstage irascible, then isolated and forlorn, and without her elaborately braided costume wig — her short underneath hair looks as if it had been chopped with a hedge shears. How interesting, a purposeful twisting of fact by the playwrights to shaft Elizabeth, since Mary’s lost wig was the one that really figured in this execution. According to the accounts, when the executioner held up Mary’s severed head, her glamorous auburn wig fell off, revealing her gray hair. That’s not my idea of how to come out a-head. 🙂
Mary Stuart was first produced in Germany in 1800. Schiller, in this revolutionary period, fired by romantic aspirations, was inspired to write an anti-monarchical account of Elizabeth … but Mary Queen of Scots is no standard bearer for liberation.
Mary Stuart plays at the Broadhurst Theatre in NYC through August 16th.