Queen始sMen Editions

About this text

  • Title: Performance Introduction
  • Author: Peter Cockett
  • General editors: Andrew Griffin, Helen Ostovich
  • Coordinating editor: Janelle Jenstad

  • Copyright Peter Cockett. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Peter Cockett
    Not Peer Reviewed

    Performance Introduction

    Sexual Politics in Performance and the Fair Maid of Fressingfield

    Like Hopkins, Julian DeZotti (Margaret) played a line of women始s roles in the SQM repertory productions: Cordella in King Leir, Princess Katherine in Famous Victories. Unlike Hopkins, however, DeZotti resisted the creative implications of the type-casting system and looked for ways to individuate each of the female roles he played. Initially, he also felt confined by the patriarchal stereotyping I established as a framework for the company, finding ways that his characters were not defined as either virtuous virgins (Cordella/Margaret), seductive objects of desire (Kate), or shrews (Cobbler始s Wife). DeZotti始s creative process is discussed at some length on the Performing the Queen始s Men website, in the Performing Gender module [LINK] featuring video commentary from the actor himself. In developing the character of Margaret, DeZotti discovered a playfulness in the text that subverted conservative attitudes and liberated him to perform women who on some levels defied patriarchal norms. This freedom then fed back into his performance of Cordella, bringing out her mischievous engagement with Mumford and with her husband始s disguisings. So, while he was driven by a twenty-first century desire to individuate his characters, he also found stronger connections between them, or at least between the two more substantial roles. The rehearsal process thus had equipped DeZotti to play Margaret始s multifaceted character. He knew how to play a commitment to virtue from his work on Cordella, and he knew how to be more playful and flirtatious through his work on French Kate. As Matusiak establishes, Margaret operates in two linguistic modes that critics have struggled to reconcile [link]: sophisticated rhetoric full of classical references, and homespun colloquialisms that eroticize her rural life. In the SQM performance, DeZotti achieved a consistency by committing to both modes wholeheartedly and playing the social attitudes they inscribe with conviction: the complexity of his performance developed from a commitment to the contradictory and the integration of different character types.

    The dialectical tension between the two Margarets, -- the virtuous and articulate woman of scene 7, and the homespun milkmaid of scene 3 -- threatened to break the seams of the theatrical illusion at the climax of the love test (scene 13). Margaret begins this scene committed to life in a convent and determined to dedicate herself to God but when she discovers Lacy told her he was abandoning her only to test her virtue, she rejects the convent and agrees to marry him. Asserting a conservative patriarchal ideology, I asked the company not to parody the scene but play it as a testament to Margaret始s virtue rather than as a critique of patriarchy. Robert Cushman始s review of the play singles out this moment and his commentary is revealing:

    [Margaret] is all set to get her to a nunnery, when her betrothed appears and says, with no appearance of remorse, that it was all meant as a jovial test of her fidelity. She swallows it. Now I wouldn't claim that this is charming, though the original audience probably took it in their stride.

    What is notable is how Julian De Zotti, a young actor with a knack for playing virtuous and spirited maidens (he's Cordella in the same team's King Leir) manages to play both the hurt and the acceptance without fuss and with the slightest hint of a twinkle. I doubt that many contemporary actresses would bring that off, or would want to try. De-sexualizing these plays, though I wouldn't want to see it become the rule, certainly solves some problems.

    Cushman始s term “[d]e-sexualizing these plays” refers to the fact that the SQM company was all male. This choice had a major influence on the sexual politics of the production. I would have been very uncomfortable asking a female actor to passively accept Lord Lacy始s explanation. Reading Cushman始s review makes me uncomfortable today, since the “problems” solved were examples of the ongoing challenges of performing plays today in which sexist attitudes are treated as normal. As Cushman acknowledges, a woman playing Margaret would have important questions to ask about the representation of female agency in this play and would likely want to find a performance solution that satisfied her own politics, and rightly so. To my knowledge, the male SQM actors were all liberal-minded individuals with progressive attitudes towards sexuality, supporters of feminism and women始s equality. I would include myself under these descriptors. However, it cannot be denied that the exclusively male company of actors produced an atmosphere that was more permissive than it would have been had there been women in the company. Matthew Krist, who played female roles in the productions, had to ask the company to refrain from pinching and slapping his backside [link to PQM]. This behavior was meant in fun, and I am sure it was not something these actors would have done to a female actor, but it was unsettling enough for Krist to make a complaint. Looking back at this production from the perspective of 2017, I feel the sexual politics of the company and our production of Friar Bacon deserve interrogation. The underlying current of sexual aggression in the text that Matusiak始s notes highlight so well was normalized by the playful way the male characters始 desires were treated in performance. In bringing attention to this issue, I am not trying to point fingers at the cast, or absolve myself from my role in the politics of the production; it is just particularly striking to me, looking at it from the perspective of only 11 years, how many patriarchal assumptions contained in the play were treated as normal, even while I was trying to emphasize the historical distance between the Queen始s Men and ourselves, or perhaps because I was doing so.

    In all the SQM productions, the acknowledged reality that maintaining historical distance was an impossible task from the outset became openly apparent through the act of performance itself. While I pushed the company to make choices that I felt aligned the production with the politics of the Queen始s Men, in the moment of live performance the audience would often pull them in other directions. The love test is an excellent example of the way the audience affected the performance as it developed. Through repeated performances, the conservative, ideological perspective witnessed by Cushman proved impossible to maintain. The audience response let us know that they found the patriarchal assumptions of the love test to be ridiculous and it proved impossible for DeZotti to play the moment of reversal without an acknowledgment of the distance between the politics of Margaret始s decision and his own. DeZotti始s “slightest hint of a twinkle” turned into a more open acknowledgment of the problematic politics of Margaret始s willing submission to Lacy始s will.


    As witnessed in the video, at the climactic moment DeZotti pauses and turns his head, an action that acknowledges and encourages the audience始s reaction to Lacy始s revelation and Warren始s suggestion she needs to choose between God or Lord Lacy. Even Lacy始s gesture with his hand has a hint of knowing irony behind it. For a moment, it appears DeZotti steps out of character and when he steps back in to say, “The flesh is frail,” his delivery is heavy with an irony that creates a Brechtian double vision in which we can see Margaret始s choice inscribed by the play and by the actor始s opinion of that choice in the moment of performance. It is impossible for us to know how Greene intended this moment to be performed or received. Cushman始s assumption that it was meant to be played straight may be inaccurate, or the irony arising in our performance may have been part of his original conception. It is also possible, however, that the target of Greene始s humor may have been the frailty of women rather than the ridiculousness of the love test. Either way this moment in the SQM performance is a telling example of the power the audience has over interpretation. In all our performances, despite the company始s efforts to maintain commitment to the cultural politics of the Queen始s Men as we saw them, the performances would inevitably be changed by the response of the audience. The patriotism of Famous Victories became semi-ironic [LINK], in the same way that Margaret始s submission to Lacy did here. The formation of the Queen始s Men as a tool for national propaganda presupposes a nation where political loyalties could not be assumed. It seems likely that the skilled and experience set of performers that constituted the company would have also been sensitive to the performative demands of the heterogeneous audiences they encountered on their travels.