Adventures in Dramaturgy: Patterns in History

Having completed this year’s Study Guides, I am now neck-deep in dramaturgical work — and happy as the proverbial clam about it. Dramaturgy is particularly important when the play is itself a historical one, not only for the context of the history depicted, but also for the early modern context in which the author was writing. The actors need to know how their characters relate to each other, what the story of the play covers, and what conflations, adjustments, or flat-out errors there might be in the playwright’s version of events, but it may also be helpful to know what societal and cultural conditions the playwright might have been reacting to — or contributing to. Knowing what broader conversation the play might have been a part of in its own day can help actors to tell the story most effectively to a modern audience.

The past two weeks, I have been working simultaneously on the packets for the upcoming Actors’ Renaissance Season’s Julius Caesar and for the Staged Reading of Edmund Ironside. Though these both involve similar kinds of research pertaining to historical events, primary documents, and chains of cause-and-effect, they’ve been quite different experiences for me based on my level of familiarity with the periods involved. As I am half a classicist, researching Julius Caesar has been a dream — going back to Plutarch, Appian, and Suetonius is like visiting old friends, and since I mostly have the storyline set in my memory, compiling the packet has been more a task of confirming my sources and pulling juicy quotes out of them.

Researching Edmund Ironside, however, drew me into a period of history I did not previously know that much about: the late-10th and early-11th century, in the decades leading up to the arrival of William the Conqueror. Even in my medieval history courses in undergrad, it’s something that tends to get skipped over between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Plantagenets. We get a brief nod to the various invading tribes, a mention of Alfred the Great “unifying” England (though it had an appalling tendency to fall right back apart again), and then we skip merrily on to the Norman Conquest. The Danelaw was something I had seen on maps but never really understood, and the transmission of the crown remained incredibly murky. I had a lot further to go on my own knowledge of the background to this play before I could convey any of it usefully to actors.

Primary sources from this period are few and far between, so I couldn’t jump to those as readily as I could for Julius Caesar, and even secondary sources are less easy to get one’s hands on. I found I was able to rely on two excellent podcasts: The History of England and Rex Factor (both of which I can highly recommend to any English history enthusiasts). Leaning on their guidance, I was able to sort out this series of events leading up to the events of Edmund Ironside:

  • Edgar the Peaceful of the House of Wessex reigns over the Kingdom of England for sixteen years. He re-conquers the Danelaw, a section of England long held by the Danish, and manages to unite England under Anglo-Saxon rule. 
  • Upon his death, his nobles quarrel over which of his sons, Edward or Aethelred, should succeed. Though Edward was older, he was possibly illegitimate and Aethelred’s mother was perceived as Edgar’s “true wife”. 
  • Edward manages to seize power and is crowned by two archbishops. His reign is marked by famine and “manifold disturbances”. 
  • Edward gets himself murdered in 978, for reasons that are unclear. It is possible that Queen Aelfthryth, Aethelred’s mother, helped in the plot. 
  • Younger brother Aethelred takes over, possibly only about 12 years old at the time. 
  • In 980, Danish raiders start raiding the English coast. 
  • Over the next decade, they win more territory and crush the English armies at the Battle of Maldon in 991. Aethelred then begins paying Denmark tribute. 
  • Aethelred marries Aelgifu, daughter of the Earl of Northumbria. They have ten children; the most important son will be Edmund, later called Ironside, third-born. 
  • Peace lasts for a few years, but in 997, the raiding starts up again, and in 1001, a large Danish fleet lands in southeastern England.
  • In 1002, Aethelred orders a massacre of all Danes in England – despite not having control of nearly a third of the country at that time. The King of Denmark at this time was Sweyn Forkbeard, and his sister was killed during the massacre, prompting his full-scale invasion of England. 
  • Aethelred marries Emma of Normandy (linking the English throne for the first time to the Dukes of Normandy). They have three children: Edward, Aelfred, and Goda. 
  • Over the next several years, the Danes re-establish the Danelaw, and in 1013, they overwhelm the English entirely, forcing Aethelred into exile in Normandy. 
  • Sweyn dies suddenly in 1014. 
  • Danish lords immediately swear allegiance to his son Canute (though only in England; his older brother Harald became King of Denmark), but the English noblemen begin work to restore Aethelred. 
  • Aethelred launches a counter-offensive against Canute and his allies, and within two months of his father’s death, Canute withdraws from England to avoid open war. 
  • In 1015, Aethelred’s son Edmund Ironside rebels against his father and sets himself up in control of the former Danelaw – where the people had come to hate both Aethelred and Canute equally. 
  • Canute goes on to conquer most of the rest of England. 
  • Edmund rejoins his father to defend London shortly before Aethelred dies in 1016. 
  • Edmund and Canute declare open war.

Not to spoil something that happened nearly a thousand years ago, but Canute eventually prevails. Twenty years later, however, control of the English crown ended up reverting back to the Saxon descendants of old Aethelred, simply because they ran out of qualified Danes. The dynastic victory was short-lived, however; Edward the Confessor (an overly pious and weak-willed king who would set the form for Richard II and Henry VI) did not have issue of his own and failed to specify an heir. The Saxon Earls of Wessex seized control based off of an ambiguous gesture the dying king may or may not have made, supposedly indicating Harold Godwinson as his heir. Edward had feared that family’s power, however, and had not liked Earl Godwin personally, and so had spent much time cultivating relationships in Normandy, where he had grown up in exile. Duke William felt sure that Edward had intended the crown for him — and thus began the invasion which marks the start of English history as most of us know it.

At the heart of all of this is a succession problem — something that plagued the English time and again. We tend to look back at history through a filter, and what several centuries of more-or-less unchallenged succession have taught us is that the oldest son of the king gets to be king when Dad dies — and if there’s no son, then it’s the oldest daughter. Simple and straightforward. But this wasn’t always the case, and the English had to spend a few hundred years sorting out how their succession would work. The Germanic tradition, which caught on in much of Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire, was to divide property more or less equally between all of one’s sons, and to dower daughters accordingly, so that they would take property with them to their husbands. This splitting, recombining, and sub-splitting of property is how the Holy Roman Empire ended up its hundreds of kingdoms and fiefdoms, and how the prolific French kings were frequently ending up with more Ducs-royales than they knew what to do with.

In English succession, well into the 15th century, might tended to make right. The tradition capped off by Henry Tudor had its roots here, centuries earlier. English law’s ambiguity on this matter had led to trouble again and again: Aethelred and Edward the Confessor created similar problems to those of Henry I (when his male heir died unexpectedly and he tried to leave the kingdom to his daughter Matilda, his nobles rebelled and chose his nephew Stephen instead, leading to a decades-long civil war), Henry II (you can see his troubles on-stage in The Lion in Winter), Edward III (his male heir died, and no one quite seemed certain if it should pass to his young grandson or to an adult, capable son), Henry V (died young, leaving his 9-month-old son King, with a host of bickering uncles ready to fight for control), and Henry VIII (had trouble conceiving a male heir, had to change the entire course of English religion in order to get one). The cycles repeat themselves in almost alarmingly similar patterns.

As Elizabeth Tudor entered her dotage with no direct heir-apparent, the future of England was again uncertain, as it had been so many times in the past. The English populace was restless, and not without cause, particularly for those who knew their history. During this period, a spate of plays crop up dealing with previous iterations of the succession crisis, perhaps reflective of London’s mood towards the end of the 1590s. Edmund Ironside fits in nicely to the set, focusing not only on the importance of designating a clear heir, but with the added bonus of using patriotic themes to emphasize the need to pick one without too many troublesome continental entanglements. It’s interesting to me to be looking at these plays and these historical cycles now as an American. We may not have issues of primogeniture or hereditary succession to worry about, but we’re definitely currently concerned with the succession of control of our government.

This Sunday, October the 28th, you can see two succession-oriented plays on stage at the Blackfriars Playhouse: come for the 2pm matinee of King John and stay for the 7:30pm Staged Reading of Edmund Ironside. The Staged Reading is Pay-What-You-Will and open to the public, so we hope to see you there!