Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off an annointed king.

She said it proudly, fiercely, her head thrown back, daunting for a moment the rebellious courtiers, who believed it as much as she did. And as much as we did, the tiny audience in a tiny theater. Disaster was coming to England if they pulled down this sacred king.

It was a performance (still running, see it, if you get a chance!) of Richard II with an all-female cast. Paige Jones was playing Richard, playing him with verve and passion. It took all of thirty seconds to forget the fact that the players were the wrong gender, and to sink straight into the play. They weren't playing in drag: they weren't pretending to be male actors doing Shakespeare. They were female actors doing Shakespeare, and doing an incredible job of it.

They made nothing of their femaleness, but it informed everything about the play. Strange sidelights and illuminations. Of course, Aumerle was in love with Richard II: why had I never understood that before? And Bolingbroke's relentless masculine insensibility, which everyone was so anxious to put on the throne, was going to drag England to ruin as surely as Richard's capriciousness.

Richard II (Paige Jones) consoling Aumerle (Brooke Fletcher). Photo by Rio of the NWCTC.

It made me think of all the great poetry that has been written by men in the voices of women. All the female parts in Shakespeare, of course, were written by a man to be spoken by a male actor -- women weren't permitted on the boards in those days. Which made the reversal of the genders in the NWCTC performance exact. Chaucer wrote much of his best poetry in women's voices: The Wife of Bath, of course, but also the Legend of Good Women, which is what he was famous for in his own time. When men wanted to explore pathos, they had to give the mask of conventional manhood the slip, and speak in a female voice. It's no accident that the great exception to that is Chaucer himself, who wrote the greatest narrative love poem in English, about Prince Troilus being abandoned by his lover Criseide. He found the voice for that in his early poetry, spoken by women.

We still turn to women's voices for our great popular songs of betrayal in love, of desertion and loneliness. Men still don't get to talk about that much in their own voices. A gruff allusion in a Johnny Cash growl is as much as we get.

So I resolved to write my next poems in a female voice. Not to think of any particular subject matter, or to try to make any particular point: just to walk into the role, as Paige Jones walks into Richard II, and to see what happens when I open my mouth.

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