Absolute Theatre Company

When Bertolt Brecht presented his adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II in 1924, the issue of sexual freedom was a pressing one in his society. The sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld–socialist, homosexual, Jew–was heading (and providing the intellectual documentation for) a campaign to repeal Germany’s sodomy law, while on the far right the incipient stirrings of fascism were being heard. Indeed, even as Edward was being prepared, Hitler and his followers were marching in the streets, a radical fringe element that seized upon government softness and tolerance of “degeneracy” as major concerns. Brecht saw that the real issue here was not sexual morality but control–the power of the state versus individual free will. Accordingly, his treatment of Edward, the 14th-century English king deposed for his attachment to a young man, centers on that conflict.

In fashioning his very free working of the Marlowe script, Brecht took considerable liberties, trimming, reorganizing, and altering incidents and dialogue. His most important change is summed up in the single word “No!” Brecht’s Edward–unlike Marlowe’s, and unlike the historical figure–refuses to renounce his lover Daniel Gaveston, a butcher’s son who had been banished from the realm by Edward’s father but was recalled when the old king died and Edward assumed the throne. And even after Gaveston has been murdered by the vengeful and jealous lords of Parliament, Edward steadfastly resists their demands that he abdicate the throne. His obstinacy–arrogant, self-indulgent, and yet heroic–sets into motion two decades of civil war, and for all practical purposes wins Edward nothing: he still loses Gaveston, his throne, and his life, all at the hands of the angry barons led by his archenemy Mortimer. But what he preserves is his free will–his humanity. In Brecht’s view of a world without God, a world in which all power is vanity, that is all one can hope for.

Edward and Mortimer are polar opposites–the man of pure feeling and the man of pure reason–who, in Brecht’s version (which considerably expands Mortimer’s role), exchange not only positions but, very nearly, personalities during their fight to the finish. When first enlisted by the barons to lead the campaign against Edward and Gaveston, Mortimer is reluctant: he’s a bookish scholar of the classics who sees the king’s homosexuality as a mere “sport of nature” and who cynically remarks on “the nullity of human things and deeds.” By the end, he’s been swept into a sordid, almost satanic pact of vengeful passion with Edward’s vindictive wife, Queen Anne; they pursue the game long after Gaveston has been done in, refusing to rest till Edward himself is pushed from power. Edward, meanwhile, is the reckless sensualist and romantic who, through a succession of psychological and physical torments, is purged and purified into a Christlike figure. When he is brought to his final captivity, it is in the sewer of London, where he stands covered with human waste–an image transformed by Brecht from one of total debasement to one of nearly godlike primality. Edward is quite simply reborn: “The stench of excrement gives me boundless greatness.” And when death comes, in the figure of the Luciferian murderer Lightborn, he comes with a tender kiss of deliverance.

(Regarding the murder itself–and those who like their gruesome surprises should skip the rest of this paragraph–the Absolute production, inspired by Ian McKellen’s controversial performance of Marlowe’s Edward some years back, has Edward being fatally sodomized by a red-hot poker, rather than being smothered as both Marlowe’s and Brecht’s scripts call for. The disembowelment is historically justified, at least according to the Chronicles of Holinshed, which served as Marlowe’s source; and, of course, it can be seen as a viciously “appropriate” punishment for Edward’s “crime against nature.”)

What Brecht is responding to in Marlowe’s original is the fundamental strength of free will and the fundamental weakness of the controlling impulse. Mortimer is a fascist; he is, indeed, fascism itself, demanding the supremacy of the state over the individual and, inevitably, sinking in his own decadence. And Edward, the “weak” homosexual, is the untrammeled spirit who shakes off the bonds of governmental control (represented in his case by his own governmental responsibilities), becoming free to exalt himself, alone and powerful in an uncaring universe. The erotic drive is one expression of that spirit–“Amid the deafness nothing remains except/Bodily contact between men,” says Edward–but so is asceticism, the apparent contradiction of eroticism.

Absolute Theatre seems to have gone all out to bring this difficult and beautiful script to the stage. Relying primarily on Eric Bentley’s translation of Brecht’s text (though there are important interpolations of text from another translation by William Smith and Ralph Mannheim), director Warner Crocker has wrapped his production in a pageantry that makes the eloquent and jarring rhythms of Brecht’s dialogue sing with a rough and potent lyricism. (Much credit is due to the work of costume designer Shifra Werch, set designer Thomas B. Mitchell, and lighting designer Walter Reinhardt.) There are some failings, the most important being a completely unconvincing portrayal of physical passion between Edward and Gaveston. The one moment of intimate connection between the two is presented in a dimly lit, half-hidden, sentimentalized tableau; this is not what Brecht had in mind, and certainly not what he would have done if he were working in today’s open atmosphere.

But those concerns aside, this is a lively and intelligent production, moving at a vigorous pace on the strength of three fine performances by Dameon Carot as Mortimer, Woodring Stover as Gaveston, and especially Gary Lowery as Edward. They dive into Brecht’s challenging poetry with a full sense of its fierce power and intellectual vitality. Lowery in particular is splendid, conveying Edward’s gradual self-discovery as events push him from indecisive, self-indulgent romantic to defiant warrior to weary passive resister. Backing this trio is a mostly solid ensemble of actor-singer-musicians. Charles Wilding-White’s songs (some set to Brecht lyrics, others completely original) are evocative of the play’s medieval setting and fit well with the mixture of attitudes Brecht brought to this story, his dispassionate objectivity about the folly of political aspiration and his youthful, fiery identification with a hero who refused to capitulate to the powers that be.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.