A kingdom in conflict: Marlowe’s “Edward II” to be staged at RIC

While the English Renaissance, covering the years 1558 to 1642, is considered a golden age of drama, 21st-century theatre offerings seem to indicate only one reason for that reputation: Shakespeare.

Christopher Marlowe
Works by Marlowe, Webster, Jonson, Ford and others of that time are rarely staged, though Shakespeare tends to see one or more regional productions in any given year. This fall, for instance, the Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket put on “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Romeo and Juliet,” and Trinity is currently running “Twelfth Night.”

So audiences are in for a rare treat when Rhode Island College’s Mainstage Theatre presents Christopher Marlowe’s “Edward II,” from Feb. 17–21 in the Nazarian Center’s Forman Theatre. Performances are at 8 p.m., Feb. 17–20, and at 2 p.m., Feb. 20 and 21.

Marlowe, who is the second most famous Elizabethan playwright, was born in 1564 about two months before Shakespeare and was an admired but controversial figure. Marlowe earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Cambridge, and it is believed that he worked as government spy, most likely against Catholic seditionists.

He was also suspected of atheism, at a time when it was dangerous to hold such a belief, and most famously, was killed in a drunken fight after being stabbed above the right eye. Some versions of the story hold there was an argument over a bar tab, but others suggest that it was a political assassination resulting from his intelligence work. Marlowe was 29.

'Edward II' cast members practice their lines in a non-dress rehearsal.
The RIC production of “Edward II” is being directed by Frank Toti, a 1998 graduate of the college and a third-year directing student in the MFA in theatre program.

Toti had some interesting speculations on the Marlowe-Shakespeare relationship. “Marlowe unfortunately died at a young age, so I think Shakespeare lost out on a fierce competitor,” he said.

“Early on you can see where they took stock of each other and responded to each other. So they were engaging in their own professional dialogue. It’s one of those wonderful ‘what ifs’ that if Marlowe had survived, how much richer would the canon be,” added Toti.

Marlowe’s “Edward II” was written around 1592. Set in the 14th century, it is one of the first mature history plays in English theatre.

The play opens with the king’s returning Piers Gaveston, his male lover, from exile. The act angers the nobles of the kingdom who soon pressure Edward to again exile Gaveston.

As things develop, Isabella, Edward’s queen, persuades Mortimer, who is Edward’s chief rival and who later becomes Isabella’s lover, to have Gaveston recalled, not out of mercy but in order to have him more easily murdered.

Director Frank Toti helps Kristina Drager practice her role.
Soon after Gaveston’s return, the nobles capture and execute him. As revenge Edward executes two of the nobles who persecuted Gaveston, and the country is plunged into civil war, with Queen Isabella traveling to France in a futile attempt to win allies.

Still, Edward, whose real-life incarnation was a notoriously poor general, loses the fight and flees to Neath Abbey where he is betrayed, imprisoned and murdered.

His son, Edward III, takes over the throne, has Mortimer put to death and his mother imprisoned.

Although “Edward II” is more than 400 years old, Toti sees a number of themes that he believes will resonate with modern audiences, and one of the most prominent is the conflict between the public and the private in Edward’s life, between the personal and the political.

Toti notes, “Edward is a man who is in love with another man. However, the rules, structures, strictures of his society at the time prevent that. He marries Isabella; he fathers a child. He knows what he must do as a king, which is to marry to ensure that there is an heir, that there is a succession, that things are well ordered.

“Edward is trying to find a middle way, maybe a new way, to be with the man he loves and to be king. But what he discovers is that the pillars of society – the state, the nobility, the military and the religious authorities – refuse. It’s either their way or no way,” Toti said.

'Edward II' actors Kevin Killavey, left, Valerie Westgate and Ryan Hanley.
How Edward’s homosexual love for Gaveston is portrayed on stage has had an interesting manifestation in modern performance history. At the end of the 19th century, the theme was avoided in the wake of the controversy surrounding the affair between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, for which Wilde underwent imprisonment that probably hastened his death.

Toward the end of the 20th century, however, things shifted radically and gay issues were highlighted to criticize the homophobic elements of society. A 1989 British production, for instance, placed Edward and Gaveston in the gay nightclub scene and had Mortimer costumed with a moustache and haircut like Hitler’s.

This split, in a way, figures into Toti’s concept for staging the play. The production is being done in the round with minimal sets – in fact, the director quipped that the floor is the scenery – so that the time of the action is primarily being conveyed though costumes, and that time is the later half of the 19th century in order to bring echoes of the Wilde affair, as well as other issues.

Toti went on, “I chose the time period because that was when the modern concept of an identity of homosexuality came about, with psychoanalysis, so it wasn’t just a physical act. It’s actually an identity.”

In addition, to foreground the relationship between Edward and Gaveston, Toti is including a movement piece at the top of the play so that the audience can see the romance between the two men and that it was deep and sincere.

Toti finds a lot of resonances from “Edward II” surfacing in today’s society, with such incidents as the Matthew Shepard murder, the gay marriage controversy and the split in the Anglican church over gay clergy. He recognizes something in the nobles’ intolerance of Gaveston and Edward in these, and plans to set up an exhibition with articles and artwork on such contemporary topics to provide a modern context for the audience.

Jeff Church plays Edward II.
But there is more to “Edward II” than social concerns for the director. Toti “loves working in verse,” and like most plays of the Elizabethan era, “Edward” is written in that form.

Interestingly enough, that preference developed while Toti was an undergraduate at RIC. Encouraged by Elaine Perry, associate professor emerita of theatre, he applied for a Shinn Study Abroad Scholarship and found himself studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in England, where his love for verse “intensified.”

He also pointed out some important technical innovations that Marlowe built into “Edward II.” Since the play is constructed mostly in dialogue, with few soliloquies that have a single figure standing in thought, it has a brisker pace.

Marlowe also radically telescopes time, compressing some 20 years into 27 scenes.

“It’s like seeing the baby and then the adult,” Toti remarked.

Perhaps “Edward II” redefines time in another way, too. It raises the question: Is 400 years really all that long ago?

Tickets for “Edward II” are $15 and are available through the Roberts Hall Box Office. For more information, call (401) 456-8144.