You hold your breath. You wait, like Maria, for Elisabet to grant her freedom or to decree her execution. You know what’s coming, yet yearn for the Queen of England, and her prisoner, the Queen of Scots, to change the course of history.
That instant of irrational, fervent hope flashes to life only briefly before the dream of reconciliation between the rival queens is dashed. But it’s the most tense and perfect moment to have radiated from a New York stage since—well, since Ingmar Bergman and the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden were last here.
This season, for a stingy five performances that ended June 16, the Brooklyn Academy of Music brought in the company’s riveting production of Friedrich von Schiller’s Maria Stuart (performed in Swedish with simultaneous translation by Voice critic Michael Feingold). Working from a range of historical accounts of Maria’s imprisonment and execution for conspiring to seize Elisabet’s throne (to use the play’s Swedish names), Schiller invented the encounter between the two queens and positioned it as the five-act play’s scenic, temporal, and thematic fulcrum.
Bergman builds to this focal point with a quick, relentless tempo in the first two acts, then lets its consequences unwind powerfully in a measured legato in acts IV and V. The scenes in these four acts alternate between palace and prison. In Elisabet’s realm, pageantry and pomposity reign; the queen and her paternalistic advisers are clad in deep and vibrant reds, while the envoys of her royal French suitor are beruffled in foppish, froggish green. Maria inhabits an austere space of black-and-gray, where she is attended by her nurse and perpetually observed by a silent, seated guard.
The two women, though, hover on the edges of each other’s consciousness at every moment, and Bergman stages their mutual obsession by having them remain in view almost all the time: Maria embroiders in a downstage chair while Elisabet confers with her counselors; Elisabet sits with Zen-warrior stillness in an upstage perch, while Maria receives a plotting protector.
When the two come together, in decisive Act III, the meeting takes place on neutral ground: the vast outdoors, where puffy clouds breeze across an ominous rose-tinged sky. Schiller engineers the encounter through another invention: the contest between the two queens for the affections of the Machiavellian Lord Leicester, who brings them face to face.
Does Maria lose her resolve—or gain it—in that condensed moment when her supplications turn to insult? Failing to have won reprieve from her Tudor cousin, she unleashes invective, and calls England’s queen a bastard usurper of the throne. Maria seals her fate in that outburst, yet celebrates it as the key to her liberation with gleeful laughs and a lusty roll on the ground. Elisabet, for her part, is left to sign Maria’s death warrant, a duty that disturbs both her confidence in public support (even monarchs must keep an eye on the polls) and her conscience: As Maria’s death is assured and Elisabet’s power solidified, the English queen feels increasingly restricted.
These ironies, of course, move Schiller’s heroines past the particulars of a personal clash, and even beyond the public contest between their religious, familial, and political claims, to the domain of the spiritual. Schiller was interested in what he called the “tragic sublime”—the human capacity to achieve freedom even when physically constrained.
This concern is frequently lost by less probing directors in an abiding tendency to regard Elisabet and Maria as utter opposites—the virgin ice-queen who forsakes passion for power, and the French-educated plaything who sacrifices her station for love. These simple extremes match all too well the range typically offered to American actresses, and one shudders to imagine how any one of our regional theaters might present Mary Stuart as a showdown between a repressed prude and a victimized ingenue. Bergman, as is well-known, has a far more expansive and complicated approach to representing women’s passions and ideals, and, more important, actors Pernilla August (Maria) and Lena Endre (Elisabet) are too solid and sure for such defeating limitations. When Bergman spells out some of the erotic undercurrents in the text—Elisabet enjoys a quickie with Leicester while they strategize, Maria plants a kiss on him as she is led away to the executioner—the women’s sexual self-sovereignty is a sign of their strength.
Writing in the wake of his disappointments with the tyranny that emerged out of the French Revolution, Schiller was exploring a deeper question of honor. Just as he was drawn to a story a couple of centuries old to examine the political conundrums of his day, the play has disturbing resonance now, a time when, like Elisabet’s adviser, powerful men insist that “only armed might can bring security/We cannot sign treaties with snakes.”
This is not to draw clumsy correspondences nor to reach for simpleminded relevance; it would go against the unshakeable principle for precision that guides Bergman’s work to make any such slapdash gestures. Still, Schiller’s play and Bergman’s revelatory staging of it help focus our emotions and thinking on one place they desperately need to be: the terrible meaning of moral failure.