What is history if not a series of contingencies? For every thing that happens, an infinite number of other possibilities are extinguished. But what if things had been different? Although writing history certainly involves a good dose of imagination, academic historians have generally tended to be nervous of counterfactuals and their capacity to re-imagine the past. Historical fiction, by contrast, has built a thriving industry on the question of ‘what if?’ What if Germany had won the Second World War? What if John F. Kennedy’s assassin had failed? What if there had been no Protestant Reformation?
In Friedrich Schiller’s play, ‘Mary Stuart’, first performed in 1800, the ‘what if’ is a fictional meeting between the titular Mary, also known as Mary, Queen of Scots, and her great rival Elizabeth I. Elizabeth kept Mary prisoner for nineteen years, fearful of the threat that, as a Catholic, she posed to the English succession. We might expect Elizabeth to have the upper hand in any meeting between the two but in Robert Icke’s adaptation the fundamental likeness of the two queens is the central conceit.
The two leads, Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams, share the roles of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I, with parts determined at the beginning of each performance by the toss of a coin. Sporting identical black velvet trouser suits and cropped haircuts, they could be each other’s reflection – until the coin falls, that is. On the night I saw the play, Stevenson won the toss and the assembled cast immediately bowed to her Elizabeth. Williams, meanwhile, was swiftly divested of her shoes and jacket and dragged away to Mary’s imprisonment in Fotheringay Castle. The modern dress is an anachronism, of course, but it heightens the sense that these women are two sides of the same coin.
Much of the action revolves (quite literally) around the endless circular argument about whether Mary should be executed, played out atop a rotating stage which serves almost magnetically to pull the two queens together. When they finally meet, things do not go well – but although Elizabeth storms away, she is continually drawn back to Mary. History tells us that in 1587, in the context of heightened anti-Catholic fervour and after the realisation that Elizabeth would never produce an heir, Mary was finally put to death. It is testament to both the skill of this adaptation and the strength of the central performances, however, that for much of the play it is difficult to be certain about which queen is going to keep her head. ‘Remember’, Mary beseeches Elizabeth in their fictional meeting, ‘things can change’.
This is a tale of two queens in which one is incarcerated in a physical prison and the other imprisoned in the role of Gloriana. The crown is a ‘prison cell with jewels’. Elizabeth’s counsellors are her gaolers, as well as Mary’s, as we see only too clearly in the final act. Her fate sealed, Mary is surrounded by her female servants, who replace her suit with a simple shift. On the other side of the stage – still spinning – the men of the Privy Council construct an almost grotesque version of the image of Elizabeth that endures in the popular imagination today: starkly white face, red lips, an elaborate red wig, and the restrictive farthingale and corset of a Tudor gown.
Only with the fall of the axe, then, does the play arrive at certainty, finally extinguishing the possibility that Mary might live. This, of course, is not a counterfactual but an historical reality. The power of both Schiller’s play and Icke’s adaptation of ‘Mary Stuart’ is that it reminds us of all that is concealed by hindsight; it reminds us that the events we study are the result simply of a series of contingencies: decisions, actions, accidents. At the same time, Schiller’s decision to retain an historically accurate ending might also be an important lesson for writers of fiction. As Hilary Mantel argued in her recent Reith Lectures, ‘the reason you must stick by the truth, is that it is better, stranger, stronger than anything you can make up’. ‘Mary Stuart’ shows us both the power of holding to the truth of these two remarkable sixteenth-century queens and the insight that can be gained from asking ‘what if?’
‘Mary Stuart’ (adapted and directed by Robert Icke) premiered at London’s Almeida Theatre in 2016. It transferred to the Duke of York Theatre in the West End in 2018, before touring to Bath, Salford, and Cambridge. The tour ended on 28 April 2018. https://marystuartplay.com
Images: Featured image: Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587), after François Clouet, c.1559 (via wikimedia commons); Image in text: Queen Elizabeth I of England in her coronation robes, artist unknown, c.1600 (via wikimedia commons)