The Tragedy of Guenevere

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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.

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