People behind People

Just last night I joined my wife and her parents in Stratford, ON to see the play “The Last Wife” by Kate Hennig. We had occasion to bump into the playwright, whose parents are friends of ours. She spoke of the surreal experience of hearing words that she had written come to life by actors. I’ve had that experience to a lesser extent in hearing liturgical pieces I have written enlivened by others. I can only imagine what it must have been like for her, but I can tell you a little of what the play was like for me.

The play was really quite incredible; a riff on the life of Kateryn Parr, the last wife of Henry the Eighth. In the production notes Ms. Hennig describes her interest in imagining the character of the too often suppressed voices of women. The play does a nice job of inviting its viewers to envisage history differently. The director nicely signals this in a couple of ways on a sparse but powerful stage. Hanging at centre stage from the ceiling is an upside down castle, and we see the back of a throne, letting us imagine life behind this seat of power, whose front is presented to the kingdom but not the audience, save at the end. These are effective signals which are further funded by images of bedroom exchanges between Hal and Parr, the everyday handles for the royal couple. We witness their day to day struggles as well as historic junctures. Ms. Hennig has done her historical homework but also advertises “viewer beware.” Poetic license is at the heart of art, which aims at something bigger than “just the facts.” So, we were invited into an alternate view of some hard historical data; we were invited to imagine history from the other side of the throne. What did this accomplish?

I was entranced. The use of colloquial language allowed me into the history in a different way; reminding me that bigger-than-life boats float in everyday waters. It invited me to think about events behind “The Event.” It reminded me that historians cannot catch it all, and there are a constellation of forgotten and little known factors that are as important as the known facts. But this decentering experience is also more broadly supported by the experience of being a patron of the theatre. The room darkens, lights ebb and flow, you see stage “hands,” people really who subtly manage the matter that sets the scene. Music comes and goes. It is hard to be “objective” in the sense intended by historians of the 19th century. Your feelings are at the fore as you consider the characters Kateryn and Henry. You begin to think about how you read all texts (the Bible, the paper, the news, emails etc) and the role of the many stage hands play in our everyday world. Someone translates texts; someone delivers the paper; someone secures a connection; someone references a source and writes an introduction. I am dependent on these many, and beholden to their choices.

Of course, Ms. Hennig made choices and we are glad for that. She chose to investigate the life of Katelyn, and she has been working on the lives of the two other Tudor Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I. I look forward to her take on these characters and the experience of entering again the magic of the theatre. This is completely not my world, but it is a world that completes a part of me that is otherwise left undone. So, to her I offer my gratitude, as well as to all the thespians who venture the drama of it all.

10 thoughts on “People behind People

  1. perrymj says:

    I have been intrigued by the idea of othis play since I first heard it was to be performed, and I had hoped to be able to view it. Alas, I do not think that would be possible. As I have been Reading Schleirmeicher, Dithey and Newman and Harnack your comments on history are also appreciated.

    • agjorgenson says:

      Glad to know my little blog aided you in reading such weighty characters! It was a great performance, and I suspect it will who up again somehow, somewhere in your vicinity.

  2. shoreacres says:

    I just read a piece this week about the prior Kathryn. It’s intriguing that of Henry’s six wives, three were named Catherine (or Kathryn, or Katherine) and of those three, he divorced the first, executed the second, and was outlived by the third.

    Your comment about the experience of play-going reminded me of some lines from Eliot:

    “I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
    Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
    The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
    With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
    And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
    And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away…”

    Perhaps this is the power of drama: to roll away the facades from our lives.

    I was caught, too, by these words of yours: “Someone translates texts; someone delivers the paper; someone secures a connection; someone references a source and writes an introduction. I am dependent on these many, and beholden to their choices.”

    Another way to say that is “someone manipulates what is put before us.” We need to be better about recognizing that, I think — among the translators and writers are the manipulators.

    • agjorgenson says:

      Thanks for the Eliot quotation. I love its comparison with the “darkness of God.” Much can be done with that analogy! Regarding translators i am reminded of a colleague of mine who always likes to refer to the idea that translator in Italian (I think?) doubles as traitor. I am also happy that you included “writers” in this, since both are really translating: in one instance a text, in another an experience, worldview, etc.

      • perrymj says:

        I am not sure that you are aware at one time I was an interpreter English/ASL. In the geographic area in which I interreted the sign for “administratr” was the same as the sign for “misunderstander”.

      • agjorgenson says:

        I didn’t know that! So many skills, and it is interesting how words often carry diametrically opposed connotations.

  3. diannegray says:

    I love the idea of this. How do we know what really happened in those days. Basically it’s just what we read and writing it with a different edge is just a larger form of artistic license 🙂

    • agjorgenson says:

      How do we know indeed! We are given a story, and that is our starting point. But it is a good point when we remember that its purpose is to point us to something bigger than the story!

  4. jannatwrites says:

    This does sound like an interesting play. When I see or read things that are largely based on real life history it’s like I get to live a little piece of history.

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