by Murray Ross
She went to her death around 8:00 a.m. on the morning of February 8, 1587, carrying a crucifix of ivory in one hand, and a Latin prayer book in the other. She walked into the great hall and mounted the two steps on to the wooden stage that had been built beside the blazing fireplace, sitting silently on a low stool as her execution warrant was read aloud. When the Dean of Peterborough began to stumble through his sermon, she cut him off in a clear voice, saying, “Mr. Dean, I will not hear you. You have nothing to do with me, nor I with you.” As the executioners and her gentlewomen helped take off her clothes, she smiled and joked about never having undressed in such company. After her black outer garments were removed, the assembled gathering was startled to see she was wearing a petticoat and bodice the color of dried blood--the liturgical color of the martyrs of the Roman Catholic Church. Her attendants burst into tears, and she told them, “Peace, peace, cry not for me, but rejoice.” She raised her hands and blessed them, then lay her head down on the block, praying, “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum.”
Nothing in Mary Stuart’s vivid and turbulent life became her like the leaving of it. For once she was completely in charge, and she turned in a memorable performance at the moment when her executioners would have preferred her to exit swiftly and simply into that good night. But Mary was like that. Though rarely in control of her kingdom, she was born to the spotlight, and she commanded the great stage of the world even when she was locked up in prison, as she was for the better part of her last two decades. She was beautiful, charming, charismatic, and regal. She was nearly six feet and every inch a queen. Unlike most politicians, and she was very political, she acted often from her heart. She was generous and romantic and intelligent. And none of this did her any good at all. She was a Catholic girl at the head of an intensely Protestant nation dominated by unscrupulous clans with no loyalty to their country. Her passionate impulses often led her into unwise decisions. And she had the very bad luck to be matched against the most potent and skillful ruler in Europe, her cousin Queen Elizabeth. Given her situation, her talents, her weaknesses, her religion, the absence of wise counsel and strong support, her doom seemed almost inevitable.
But do not mourn for her. Mary has lived on in the popular imagination for centuries. Her star power has attracted star actresses like Vanessa Redgrave, Kathryn Hepburn, Geraldine Page, and Janet McTeer; a star biographer (Lady Antonia Fraser); and star playwrights like Friedrich Schiller, Maxwell Anderson, and Robert Bolt. Schiller, the first and best of these playwrights, is not exactly a household name in this part of the world: I wouldn’t be surprised if our forthcoming Mary Stuart wasn’t the first Schiller production in Colorado in a century. And it’s our loss. Schiller is so much more than Germany’s greatest playwright, though that’s not bad for starters. He is the greatest dramatist of politics and power since Shakespeare, and Mary Stuart is one of his three greatest plays. Mary Stuart is not just great, not just a flat out masterpiece. It’s absolutely thrilling drama from the first bang to the last blow. Every scene is full of vivid complex characters playing for the highest possible stakes. No small talk on sleepy Russian estates here, no drawing room wit or languorous musings on plantation porches. There’s a kingdom for a stage, princes to act, and monarchs to behold the swelling scene. Shakespeare wished for a “muse of fire” to tell the story of Henry V, and Schiller found one in writing Mary Stuart. It’s incandescent with passion, intelligence, beauty and power. It’s a play on fire.
Schiller himself was on fire for most of his brief life (he died of tuberculosis when he was 45). Like many of his contemporaries he was first thrilled, then disenchanted by the French revolution: “a great moment has found a little people,” he later wrote. But his idealism lived on through art, which he believed was crucial to human development and progress: “Art is the right hand of Nature. The latter has only given us being, the former has made us men.” For Schiller, nature is elemental and capricious; it does not differentiate between what is noble, what is common, what is significant, and what is not. And history itself is a mere handmaid of nature. In history, Mary’s noble finale was adulterated by its aftermath: it took the executioner several whacks to get the job done, and when he finally lifted her hair to show the crowd, her head plopped on the ground: Mary had been wearing a wig. That’s not the sort of vulgar dénouement our playwright had in mind.
The theatre Schiller created was largely a tragic one, but it is exhilarating tragedy. He believed the purpose of drama was to show human beings behaving in the manner in which they are most human as opposed to being most natural. The truly human being, a rare if exemplary creature, is one who has risen beyond the “savage” animal state of passions and appetites and beyond the “barbarian” state of adherence to rigid and rational principles. Such a person is likely to be tragic because his humanity must be expressed as resistance to the forces of nature and society which oppress him. And while this kind of human being will probably be defeated, he or she may also find dignity and an inner freedom from tyranny.
Schiller’s Mary is indeed such a true human being. In the course of her last days, she finds her freedom as she faces her defeat, while her great and victorious rival, Elizabeth, finds herself defeated by the forces of necessity. And all around these two isolated, potent, and vulnerable women swirl the passions, the demands, and the wills of shrewd and savage men---the relentless grinding forces of nature and society.
In our post-romantic world it is not always easy to recover and share Schiller’s extraordinary idealism and his faith in the power and mission of art. I notice that most theatre companies, our own included, do not sell their shows with the promise of moral improvement. I myself am leery of art that advertises its inspirational character---all too often this masks sentimental clichés, comforting hopes, and self-satisfied delusions. It’s all too easy, too familiar, and too soft. But Schiller’s romantic idealism is not like that. He is fully aware that the freedom he values above all else, the freedom of mind and soul, real independence of spirit, will almost certainly be challenged and defeated by the world. But he also asserts that artists must be free too--they obey their own rules, they invent their worlds. They break with nature, they transform it, so we can educate ourselves into beauty and a greater harmony by freely inventing ourselves. Art supplies the models, and the artist is himself the model, for developing our humanity.
It’s great stuff, and Mary Stuart is a model Schiller play. Schiller does not show Mary’s execution, and he does not dramatize the trial that condemned the Queen of Scots. But he does let us see one woman find and another lose her freedom, and the sight is thrilling and indelible. I strongly suggest you not only see the play, but see it with the strong winds of Schiller filling your sails. He said the stage was “the best means of opening an endless sphere to the spirit thirsting for action, of feeding all the spiritual powers without straining any, and of combing the cultivation of the mind and the emotions with the noblest entertainment.” He said, “In the dreams of this artificial world, we can forget the real one. We find ourselves once more. Our feeling reawakens. Whole passions stir our slumbering nature and the blood begins to circulate in our veins with renewed vigor.”
That’s what I’m talking about. Try our terrific Mary Stuart with these words in mind and see if Schiller is right. I’m guessing he is. Tell your friends. Remind them that “genuine art does not have as its object a mere transitory game. Its serious purpose is not merely to translate the human being into freedom, but actually to make him free.” There you have it. Freedom, real freedom, is not a bumper sticker--and you have to go to the theatre to get it. But there’s nothing better in the universe. Just look at your fellow audience members, alive with wholesome passions and renewed vigor when the curtain falls and you’ll see what I mean. Seriously. Oh yes, and subscribe now!