History on stage: Queen Anne
For the first ten minutes of Helen Edmundson’s Queen Anne at the RSC’s Swan Theatre, I have to confess I was sceptical. The complex political intrigue of the reign of this little-known monarch (1702-1714) is fascinating, but impossible, I thought, to convey on stage in a mere two hours and thirty-five minutes. I was wrong. In a play hooked around the relationship between Queen Anne and her favourite, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, the audience were immersed in the world of eighteenth-century high politics.
The play’s emphasis on the power and ruthlessness of print in the early eighteenth century was highly convincing. The opening scene, with contemporary satirists Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe drunkenly performing a bawdy satire at the Inns of Court, though jarringly crass to a modern audience, was a highly effective introduction to the idea that this was a period when print took no prisoners. This theme was maintained throughout, the set featuring an enormous pile of rotting pamphlets at the back of the stage.
The stress on the role of print was laudable enough, but the real value of this play for me was in its storytelling. Edmundson’s narrative and characterisation (not to mention some impressive performances by the players, notably Emma Cunniffe as Queen Anne and Jonathan Broadbent as Robert Harley) gave clarity to the complex machinations of high politics in this period in a way that even the best written accounts of this period have not achieved. Loath as I am to admit it, under three hours spent at the theatre enabled me to think differently about a period which I have spent hundreds of hours reading about.
Before I abandon books altogether, however, it is worth reflecting on why the events played out on stage hit home with such lucidity. As a form of history writing, a play is entirely uncompromising. The playwright and the actors have no choice but to make definite choices about the personalities, opinion, and relationships of their characters. Where an academic book can equivocate, suggest, and hypothesise, a play can give little in the way of ambiguity about the historical narrative. This has merit in that it makes historical explanation somewhat easier (and perhaps more entertaining), but it also has the potential to mislead.
Take, for example, the running theme of hypocrisy, pragmatism, and cynicism in high politics. The accusation of self-interest and false motives among politicians was a matter of considerable contemporary anxiety, and in many ways the fickle nature of the politicians in Edmundson’s characterisation reflects this. The presentation of early eighteenth-century politics as entirely corrupt was a theme which, judging by the sniggering audience, rang true in the context of modern-day concerns. But it also risked obscuring an important motivating element to political action in the early eighteenth century: a genuine and deeply-held belief about the way both state and Church should operate. Audience members would have been forgiven for thinking that the only politician of integrity in this period was Queen Anne herself. Such an interpretation belies crucial ideological issues that drove politics and culture.
I won’t, then, throw out traditional academic narratives in favour of spending my time at the theatre, although at £5 for a standing ticket I could go more often. Historical narrative on stage has to give a very particular and uncompromising view of history that has the potential to obscure debate. But it was exciting to see this period, long neglected outside the academy, presented so clearly in a plot that made perhaps ostensibly mundane themes such as occasional conformity, financial corruption, and legislative manipulation genuinely riveting. Long live eighteenth-century history.
For more information visit https://www.rsc.org.uk/queen-anne/.
Kevin Sharpe, Rebranding rule : the Restoration and revolution monarchy, 1660-1714 (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2013).
Julian Hoppit, A land of liberty? England 1688-1727 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000).
Geoffrey Holmes, British Politics in the age of Anne (1st edn 1967; revised edition London: The Hambledon Press, 1987)
Image: “Queen Anne” by Unknown – Atlas Royal (Royal Atlas) Amsterdam, 1707. Vol. 1 http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/dres/images/dre108.jpg via http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/dres/dres1.html#obj108. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Queen_Anne.jpg#/media/File:Queen_Anne.jpg.