Critical Overview

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Edward II first opened in 1594, played by the Earl of Pembroke's Men. The next record of its performance indicates that it was played at the Red Bull in 1617 by Queen Elizabeth's acting troupe. The innovative blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) of Edward II led Marlowe's contemporary George Peele to dub Marlowe the "Muse's darling.'' When Puritanism closed the theaters in 1642, Marlowe's plays were all but forgotten, although his reputation as a poet (for Hero and Leander) survived. Not even Marlowe's Dr. Faustus earned the attention of dramatists for two centuries. Marlowe the man, however, captured the interest of the nineteenth-century Romantics, who saw him as the unfettered genius of the Renaissance, partly because of the perpetuated myth that he had died in a brawl. It would not be until an American discovered the identity of Marlowe's murderer (Ingram Frizer) and the account of the crime, that Marlowe's reputation would be even partially restored. Nowhere near as popular as the Shakespeare histories, Edward II has appeared sporadically at theaters in England and the United States throughout the early twentieth century. Bertold Brecht produced his own inimitable Marxist interpretation of the play in 1924, soon to be followed by other reinterpretations of Western canonical plays with the typical Brechtian spin. Brecht's Edward II features a pared-down text, which focuses on the conflict between selfish interests and political obligations, and several ballads, a Brecht dramatic signature; a 1987 restaging of Brecht's version in Chicago was appreciated for its social commentary, with its emphasis on "the common suffering," and its sparse staging. An especially brilliant performance in the summer of 1958 in London brought wide acclaim and a rekindled interest in the play. It reached American theaters the same year, when it played at the Theatre de Lys in New York, directed by Toby Robertson. Then, in 1969, Ian McKellan' s Edward in a production at the Edinburgh International Festival elicited rave reviews for his portrayal of "this weakest of kings'' because, according to Clive Barnes's New York Times review, Mr. McKellan "induces pity and understanding . . . even though he never once plays for our sympathy.'' The play lay dormant in America for some time, even though director John Houseman recognized that the relaxation of sexual mores of the 1970s would enable him to de-emphasize the play's moral implications and focus on its intense portrayal of psychological deterioration. In 1974 Houseman said that "With the fading of sexual inhibitions of our contemporary stage, it has become possible to realize a production [of Edward II] that I have been dreaming of for more than a dozen years." Although Houseman never realized this dream, a 1992 production at the Yale Repertory Theatre did create a play that focuses not on "Edward's sexual orientation, but his lack of political and social discrimination in choosing the distinctly foreign and unworthy Gaveston." The success of the production led the New Yorker reviewer, Randall Louis Anderson, to predict that "the decade of Edward II is now upon us." Perhaps this play about intense and selfish personal gratification at the expense of probity in the affairs of state, with its depiction of the brutal consequences that await a leader when he or she tries to evade the demands of an indignant group of officials, will soon find an audience in the United States, where in 1998 the president was impeached for lying under oath to avoid the legal consequences of covering up his illicit liaisons.

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Critical Evaluation


Essays and Criticism