THE SCHOOL OF NIGHT
By Peter Whelan
Directed By: Bill Alexander
Mark Taper Forum
October 30 - December 17, 2008
Gregory Woodell . Photo: Craig Schwartz.
When you were in college if you did your homework in 16th century English literature ... and can recall it ... you may enjoy The School Of Night, more than the rest us mere mortals. Otherwise you will need to do more than just brush up on your Shakespeare to get what is going on.
A quick primer: The setting: Elizabethan England, lots of palace intrigue extending into the hinterlands, the plague was a cloud hanging over England (London in particular). It was never clear exactly who was spying on whom; conspiracy theory apparently did not begin with the Kennedy shootings. Catholicism, atheism, and scientific inquiry were all highly suspect and likely to land one in a dungeon with a large dose of torture thrown in; the goal was to extract the names of others also engaged in such blasphemy so they could be prosecuted. I suppose we are to say to ourselves, 'the more things change, the more they are the same.' And so it goes from McCarthyism through Guantanamo.
A group of cheeky young intellectuals, including Christopher Marlowe, met together in a loose secret society, The School of the Night, where, if one is to believe Peter Whelan's script, in addition to the exchange of the above blasphemies they engaged freely in bawdy jests of homosexuality. Marlowe was the shining star. He was brash and provocative. He and others lived under the patronage of the Walsinghams, who enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of the group, and on the side were engaged in active spying (for the queen, for her antagonists, etc.). At the same time, young Marlowe (if we are to believe Whelan) indulged himself in such heresies as chasing pretty boys and praying to "dog" ... this was before dyslexia was a glimmer on the horizon. His plays enjoyed great success while Shakespeare was but a minor character on the London theater scene.
Shakespeare's prodigious output has been credited to many of his contemporaries, Marlowe being high on the list. At the time of The school of Night, it is not clear that the two had even met, however Whelan has Shakespeare, in the guise of Tom Stone, an actor, becoming part of the group (never mind how) and Marlowe being consumed with Will's prodigious output.
All this is just the start of Act I. Great sonnets and passages from well known Shakespearean drama are tossed about in rapid succession which must be solace to the English majors Garrison Keeler keeps referring to, but less so to most audience members who are still trying to figure out who is who and why. Whelan does not help by writing in a style that seems much more of the current era than of Elizabethan times, but he establishes Marlowe as a high spirited, unrestrained free thinker with little heed to possible consequences, and Shakespeare as one who absorbs the ideas of others to fuel the engine of his prodigious output.
Act II mercifully starts with a charming (though unnecessarily long) piece of commedia dell' arte whose sole purpose seems to be to establish 1) that a black actress who is part of the group is actually from Italy, and 2) that both patrons and members of the School, are sophisticated and worldly. Having accomplished that, the rest of the act is devoted to Marlowe's undoing, culminating in his being stabbed to death over his eye by Ingram who is a servant of the Walsinghams and a spy in his own right. There is lots more intrigue, but relating would be of no great benefit.
This is the American premier of Whelan's 1992 work. It is directed by Bill Alexander who directed the first production at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Perhaps this is a history that is more accessible to those with an English public school education. As in all historical fiction we are left wondering where fact leaves off and fiction begins. The effort of including so much made for very slow going and at intermission audience members were asking one another questions such as, 'who was Stone? and was that really an alias for Shakespeare?' etc.
I wanted to like The School of The Night; the set by Simon Higlett, in contrast to the play, established the context simply and elegantly, and the English accents were not overdone. Gregory Wooddell's Marlowe was infused with youthful irreverence and energy. But the content was bogged down with detail that sucked the true drama away. There must be a better way to tell the story.