A Historical Drama of Here and Now
Director’s notes by Antoni Cimolino
Here is a story about religious extremism, fanatics willing to die for their God, gender politics and a society struggling to find its way to democracy. I’m referring, of course, to Schiller’s Mary Stuart, but I could be describing events in any number of countries in our world today.
Mary Stuart is a bridge that connects the England of 1587 with the German states of 1800 and with any monotheistic nation in 2013. It was written in the shadow of the French Revolution. France, the cultural and intellectual superpower of its day, had overthrown its king and shed its chains to the cheers of liberals – like Schiller – across Europe. But instead of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” there was bloodshed, terror and eventually dictatorship. It might seem odd, then, that in 1800 Schiller would have written Mary Stuart, a play that takes place not after a revolution but before one, that is set not in France or Germany but in relatively backward England, and that concerns not personal freedom but religious freedom. But in telling a story from another country’s history, Mary Stuart poses questions that strike home here and now: Is true liberty possible? Can we behave morally in an immoral world? At what price comes security?
Schiller was a philosopher, preoccupied in his last years before his death in 1805 with the idea of Bildung, or self-development – in particular, the kind needed to prepare individuals for democracy. He believed that art plays a unique role in this process: his last play, William Tell, used the Swiss hero’s story to illustrate how citizens must acquire courage, self-restraint and compassion to govern themselves.
He was also a historian and dramatist, seized by the tragic potential of a story in which the protagonists are not men, as in his other works, but two queens. Here was an insoluble situation: Elizabeth had imprisoned her cousin Mary, whose claim to the throne exposed the flaw in her own. The stakes were life and death. The two women never met, despite Mary’s many letters imploring Elizabeth to speak to her personally. Schiller’s inspiration was to envision and write the meeting that never happened, and place it at a critical moment between Mary’s sentence and her execution – a time of maximum stress and dramatic potential.
The gender politics of the time made the situation even more excruciating for the two women. The idea that there could be a successful female monarch – an idea that would gain credibility only from Elizabeth’s long reign – was then unthinkable. Henry VIII’s execution of Anne Boleyn and his declaration that Elizabeth was a bastard had been driven by his need for a male heir to the throne. For both these queens, a husband – so longed for by their subjects –would bring an end to their independence. Perhaps, as it had for Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, it might also mean an end to their lives.
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