I Must Learn English: Women’s History Plays

I’d venture that I’m in the same boat as most 20-something Americans when I say that going into Here Lies Love (I saw it at the National Theatre, though it originated at the Public Theater), the only thing I knew about Imelda Marcos was the thing with the shoes. And judging by the people I overheard leaving the show, I was also not alone in the need for some intense post-play Wikipedia searching. When you’re making a 90-minute rock musical that covers over 40 years of history, obviously things and people are going to get left out. But Wikipedia (so, you know, intensive research) revealed an omission that I found very striking, and it got me thinking about how we tell stories about history.

The introduction to Jean Howard and Phyllis Rackin’s book about Shakespeare’s history plays, Engendering a Nation, talks in part about how continued study of Shakespeare’s history plays is worthwhile because he’s the one who taught us, as English-speakers, how to tell our histories. Obviously you can argue about who started the genre and who did it more and who did it best, but when talking about what we’ve come to copy through the ages, I think Shakespeare’s prominence matters more than precedence. There is no such thing as an objective history, and the things we’ve learned to take as such, as ‘correct’ or ‘neutral’ ways of narrating events are really just cultural inheritances. And a lot of them are from Shakespeare, and a moment when England was first learning how to tell its own stories in dramatic form.

So back to Here Lies Love. My favorite character (besides Imelda herself) was Ninoy Aquino, about whom I knew absolutely nothing, so of course afterwards I had to look him up. And in my ignorance, I was shocked to learn that after his death, his leadership of the liberal opposition in the Philippines was taken up by his wife Corazon Aquino, who ran for and became president after Marcos was toppled, making her the first female president in Asia. The contested election between her and Marcos was what sparked the People Power Revolution that Here Lies Love depicts. So it’s not as if we’re dealing with events outside of the musical’s purview. But instead of even mentioning Corazon, Ninoy’s death is followed by a solo from his previously-unseen mother Aurora, who then disappears as the revolution begins. The mourning mother is a perfectly moving and expected theatrical response to an assassination. The politically activated wife, less so.

There are only about four major characters in Here Lies Love, so of course I’m not complaining about the fact that figures and events had to be excised and compressed. But the nature of this omission– removing the figurehead of a revolution and recasting the movement as one that was catalyzed by a male character’s assassination and then given emotional but apolitical voice by a more stereotypically feminine character type– that, I find very interesting. 

The morning after I saw Here Lies Love, I watched a video of Dominic Dromgoole’s Globe Theatre production of Henry V, a play which features what I find to be one of Shakespeare’s strangest scenes. It’s a scene between Princess Katherine of France and her waiting gentlewoman Alice, and it takes place entirely in French. I don’t think there is any comparable scene in Shakespeare. The other French characters speak what we hear as English, even though we understand that they are in theory speaking French to one another, but Katherine and Alice comically labor to name body parts “en Anglois.” It’s the only all-female scene in the entire cycle of history plays depicting the rise of King Henry IV and his son Henry V. Women shout from the sidelines throughout the preceding plays– Lady Percy begs her father-in-law not to go to war, Queen Isabelle tries to go to prison with King Richard II– but Katherine and Alice are the first ones who get the time and space onstage to really speak. But they don’t know the language. 

The scene begins with Katherine asking Alice for an English lesson, because Alice has lived in England and “tu parles bien le langage… il faut que j’apprenne a parler.” It is necessary that I learn to speak [English]. Katherine, apparently, already knows how this war with England will end– at least for her. In his production, Dromgoole underlines the connection between Katherine’s English lessons and her inevitable political role by having the scene periodically interrupted by the sounds of cannon fire, drums, and trumpets. Alice and Katherine can play a game, but Dromgoole makes sure the audience does not forget what Katherine and Alice clearly never lose sight of: that “il faut”– it is necessary— that begins the scene. 

Throughout Henry V (and sort of dramatic history generally), good guys are manly and bad guys are girly. In the case of this play, that means that the manly ones are English, and effeminate ones are French. The English march all night in the mud and close the walls up with their English dead; the French write sonnets to their horses and boast about the shiny stars that decorate their armor. And the most feminine world of all– that of Katherine and Alice– is also the Frenchest, the only place where only French is spoken. If Katherine wants to join the men’s world, to join the winning side, to join history, she has to learn to speak English. And the English she learns is the names of body parts, a list that devolves into bilingual puns about female genitalia. What Katherine has to offer to the course of history is her body, and the sons she will ideally bear. 

Shakespeare has at least one woman who takes a more active view of her own historical role, but she appears in his first group of history plays, depicting the reigns of King Henry VI and Richard III. Like Imelda Marcos, she’s initially a trophy wife who soon realizes that her husband is too weak to handle affairs, and so takes matters into her own hands. For Queen Margaret, this includes personally leading soldiers to battle and getting her hands quite literally dirty in seeing to the death of a political rival. She is fabulous and fascinating and irresistible, but Shakespeare tends to make it quite clear that what she is doing is, at its heart, wrong. Both sets of Shakespeare’s history plays are very concerned with the legitimacy of power, especially when it is power wrested from an anointed king. But, as Howard and Rackin write, power in a woman is always illegitimate in early modern plays. For Shakespeare, debating Margaret’s right or lack of right to seize power as queen consort isn’t the point. She’s a woman. She shouldn’t be in charge. Though her claims are rooted in her roles as wife and mother, Margaret’s actual gestures of power are very pointedly masculine: she leads armies, she commands lords, she stabs somebody. She very forcefully invades the masculine sphere, and is universally loathed (at least by other characters) for it. 

So on one side, we have a woman who grabs power with both hands, who is compelling and intoxicating and ultimately vicious… that is, Imelda Marcos. And on the other, we’ve got the woman who lives in a different world, who speaks a different language, and who recognizes that while she will have a role to play, it is one that will be predicated not on violence or politics, but on her place as a woman and mother… so, Aurora Aquino. And Corazon Aquino falls somewhere in between. 

It would be nice to dismiss this female in power=bad/female as mother=good dichotomy as a remnant of a backwards, pre-feminist culture, of which Here Lies Love is only an accidental echo… but the more I thought about it, I realized that these poles of depicting female power are everywhere, in history and fiction. Look at Game of Thrones: Cersei Lannister basically is Queen Margaret, Danaerys Targaryen’s reckless conquests crumble; Margaery Tyrell, Catlyn and Sansa Stark, and Talisa Maegyr know that their best bet is to stay safely within the boundaries of wife, daughter, mother. In what seems to be an obvious and major exception to this dichotomy, everyone loves Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth (myself included!), who both very pointedly adopt masculine clothes and lifestyles. But they are also nowhere near positions of power. In fact, only one woman in the book series comes close to legitimately seizing what seems to be well-deserved rulership, and that storyline is showing all signs of being excised from the television show (plus, she doesn’t actually succeed).

Look at another large-scale HBO drama, Rome: when major female characters Atia and Servilia (the lovers of Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, respectively) face brutal downfalls, it is not because of their casual cruelty or their sexual promiscuity or their relentless manipulation of their own children: they are crushed when they attempt to actively intervene in politics. 

Heck, look at The Lord of the Rings. The evil, titular ring seduces elf-queen Galadriel with the promise of power; she wins and “remains Galadriel” when she accepts the idea of retreating to the lands beyond the sea and fading away. When Eowyn (who previously yearned for a glorious death in battle and disguised herself as a man to achieve this) finds peace and happiness, she must first, in her own words, “no longer desire to be a Queen.” 

(Those were all rather nerdy examples. But I struggled to think of recent examples of films or shows based on history that included women in or near power in the first place.) 

The model of depicting history that we’ve inherited from Shakespeare makes it very difficult to accommodate legitimate power in a woman. It’s one of the things that’s so interesting about Rona Munro’s recent Scottish history play James III: its depiction of a woman legitimately, peacefully taking control, to universal acceptance and even acclaim– though, of course, we don’t actually see her doing any ruling. 

The idea that women are tangential to history is one that seems to make perfect sense. After all, women were subjugated and excluded from participating in the sort of decision-making and empire-building that we recognize as the narrative of history, at least in our western European tradition. In Henry V this is made very literal: the women actually cannot speak or understand the words that the men use to shape events (this is even basically true of Mistress Quickly, the only English-speaking woman in the play, who speaks mostly in malapropisms and never understands her fellow clowns’ sexual jokes). But it’s easy to forget that even in the most ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ histories, we choose which stories to tell, and how to tell them. History is not inherently defined as ‘war and treaties and things that men do.’ But we have a lot less practice learning to value women’s contributions. They’re off to the side– in French, because we don’t understand their relevance, or quietly replaced with a model of woman that’s more emotional, more maternal, more ordinary. 

My point is not to say what David Byrne and the creative team of Here Lies Love should have done, but only to take notice of something that none of the reviews I’ve read or word-of-mouth that I’ve heard seems to talk about. Maybe because it fits so neatly into the kinds of histories we’ve learned to tell. 

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