Guenevere: A Tragedy

A long time ago, before Netflix or Google, almost before the Internet, when I was a young man, and people read books and used typewriters, I set myself an exercise. I was on the cusp between university and the real world, steeped in Classical and Medieval Literature, wanting to write something that might last. I set myself the task of writing an Aeschylean Drama. And I chose as my subject the last days of Camelot. Yes, a Medieval Classic Greek Tragedy. Sort of like attempting to write an Elizabethan Tragedy featuring Vladimir Putin (my current work-in-progress).

So, I sat down and wrote a thing called Guenevere. Some bits had been around for a while — a nostalgic bit of a lament addressed by Lancelot to Guenevere is the earliest kernel. All of it came out in verse, some of it, the odes of the Chorus, with an elaborate rhyme scheme emphasizing the strophic structure. It all came out quickly, a function of a few intense years of learning ancient languages by studying ancient poetry. Punctuation was inconsistent, like old manuscripts. Speeches were not always attributed to specific characters, again like old manuscripts. Stage directions were entirely absent, like — you see the pattern. I figured Guenevere would never see a stage, certainly not in my lifetime, and if it did, it would be interpreted as whatever group of thespians might perform it might wish.

Well, this August, at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival, my little exercise will be performed and interpreted. I would be very pleased if you went to see Guenevere. My play is deeply rooted in some very old traditions, is deeply conventional, is at once both very unfamiliar and extremely accessible, and is, I think, not quite like anything you have likely seen before.

Camelot is an empty shell. King Arthur and his knights have long been at war in a grey and fading landscape. Arthur’s greatest knight, Lancelot, is a monk. Guenevere, with all the ladies of Camelot, has gone to a nunnery. The Holy Grail has been found, but, is it too late? Golden memories of youth and dreams of happiness stand against a reality of war, decay, incestuous betrayal, and inevitable death. Guenevere, the woman, and Guenevere, the play, resolve to Myth, to human meaning in the face of universal meaninglessness, to the Life that lives in memory in the face of the endless Death of forgetting.

Just a little something I tossed off as a young man back in those mythic times of typewriters, fountain pens, and real books. I’d love it if you would give it an hour of your Fringe time. I guess I’m blowing my own horn, but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Times and tickets will be available at the Edmonton Fringe webpage.

For those who remember real books, a limited number of printed copies of the play will be available for purchase.

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I guess that’s a wrap.

I guess that’s a wrap for my little “Guenevere.”

I never imagined my bare words would or even  could be presented so powerfully!

Thank you, Director Eric Smith, Captain, my Captain, for being so ingenious, industrious, focused, silly, serious, distracted, and for so totally getting what Guenevere is!
Thank you Miranda Broumas, Erin Forwick-Whalley, Jesse Harlton, Derek Kaye, Austin Kumar, Kohl Littlechilds, Brooklyn Melnyk, Sarah Spicer, and Catherin Wenschlag for bringing a dying world to life. Each one of you gave “the best performance of the night” in the opinion of various people I spoke to,  which probably means you all made each other better.
Thank you to Karlie Christie for the exquisite lighting and to Nicholas Juba for the gobsmackingly evocative sound design!  And Jaimie Lievers! The costumes!  And to all the crew, thank you!
Thanks to Vlady Peychoff for midwifeing two such very different plays into being.
To Payem Saeedi Varnousfaderani a special thank you for reminding me that not everyone grew up with the tales of Camelot.
And to Brian Dooley and the Citadel Young Acting Company a terribly profound bow for that moment back at the beginning when you showed me in a flash what this thing I’d made so long ago could actually be. Thank you.
And, to the young fellow on Wednesday evening who told us we blew Guy Ritchie out of the water, and to the lady the same evening who mentioned “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (the greatest poem of Winter ever) and thereby spurred me to speak a bunch of West Midlands Middle English verse . . .
Thank you! I wrote “Guenevere” for the two of you.
Little did I know there were so many just like you!

The Tragedy of “Guenevere”

cradle to stage advert

A number of months ago I had another of my surprising little career changes.  On a whim, I had submitted an old manuscript I had kicking around to the Walterdale Theatre’s Cradle to Stage Festival. To my surprise, my play, Guenevere, was selected for development alongside Tessa Simpson’s Portrait of a Family Dinner.  It seems I’d become a playwright.

My Guenevere is a play of an old-fashioned sort. Its structure is that of a Greek Tragedy.  It’s story is the story of the last moments of Camelot seen through the eyes of its Queen, Guenevere. This is her tragedy. Not Arthur’s. Not Camelot’s. This is not a manly, gritty, bloody King Arthur. This play is at the hearth, where the warming fire of home is about to flicker out once more.

Guenevere’s tragedy arises from the inevitably accumulated baggage of social responsibility that in the end prevents us from following our heart’s desire.  And Guenevere’s redemption comes in her willing embrace of her transformation into myth. Guenevere’s story is the story of every human who ages as a social animal. Only the solitary hermit or anchoress can escape the ever increasing calls for us to discharge our social duties at the expense of our dreams of simply following our bliss.

But the hermit and anchoress long ago gave up on worldly bliss.

As Guenevere has progressed through the Walterdale’s Cradle to Stage process, I have often referred to the play as an “artifact”.  I wrote this play three decades ago with little expectation of ever seeing it performed.  I thought that maybe, long after my death, if might be discovered in a drawer or old box and staged as a curiosity.  For me, as I wrote it, it was an exercise in poetic structure, an attempt to squeeze the English language and a traditional British theme into the form and structure of an Aeschylean drama.

Guenevere developed at a time I was steeped in Arthurian stories, in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and in the Classics.  Ovid’s Metamorphoses were much on my mind.  Guenevere also grew out of my reading of Robert Graves’ odd book of poetic theory, The White Goddess.  And my study of the theories of Milman Parry and his students had at some point instilled in me a desire to develop a personal technique of extemporaneous verse composition. That desire resulted in a form based in part on the traditional ballad stanza of four lines alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter but with some deeper roots in the rhythm of the Old Germanic hemistiched alliterative line. The verse of Guenevere is one result of this practice. There’s even a bit of Old English toward the end.

The play was written quickly – days and weeks rather than months and years – and the words you hear on stage are almost entirely as they were first written down.  Guenevere emerged fully formed, the perhaps inevitable product of a long conscious and unconscious gestation.

At the suggestion of Brian Dooley, Guenevere’s Cradle to Stage dramaturge, I made a few hesitant cuts to a few passages for the Walterdale production, but far fewer than he had suggested. When the Citadel Theatre’s Young Acting Company put Guenevere on its feet in a dramaturgical workshop, it was clear to me, and I think to Brian, that while cuts may make the action move along a little more quickly, there might still be some reasons to linger in Camelot.

I wrote Guenevere without stage directions.  I left no indication of how many made up the Chorus. Throughout the Cradle to Stage process, I have tried – and it took very little effort — to step aside and leave this artifact of my youth in the capable hands of Director Eric Smith and the dedicated group of actors assembled around him.  They have found so much in my text that I never knew was there and they have my great gratitude.
When I see Guenevere on the stage today, half a lifetime removed from its composition, I am startled by the ideas and emotions my younger self’s pen captured, and flabbergasted by the way art and life mirror – not imitate – each other. The youngster, twenty-something in the 80s, reading Aeschylus and Ovid, digging Roman dirt and waiting on Italian train platforms, planning future paintings and composing Guenevere — that youngster has been, to crib Wordsworth, a remarkable, wise, and sensitive father to the aging man I have become, a man able now to just manage that accumulated baggage of responsibility, and maybe, just maybe, allowed to spend a moment in Camelot with his heart’s desire, before taking ship to Avalon.

Guenevere and Portrait of a Family Dinner will be on the stage at the Walterdale playhouse May 15th to 20th, 2017. After the performance on the 17th there will be a talkback session in which I will be included.