Posts tagged ‘historical drama’

08/01/2011

The Rebel’s Daughter: A Story Of Love, Politics And War


 
Memorable, too, was the election of 1860 to politicians; even to statesmen. Memorable, because Democracy, triumphant hitherto in the Federal elections, had been hurled from power. Not by the verdict of the people in their original capacity: a majority of them had cast their votes against the man who would be President of the United States by choice of the electoral college. A large majority had been cast against those who would represent the people in the Congress. But Democracy had been dethroned, because a house divided against itself cannot stand…

 

 

 

 

 

 
First, a disclaimer of sorts: I’m a rank amateur when it comes to the Civil War. I’ve seen, and very much enjoyed, Ken Burns’ documentary series, but apart from that my knowledge is confined to viewings of the usual dramas, which use the conflict chiefly as a backdrop for their romance. Although there may be other novels that take this approach, and while I’m quite sure there are any number of non-fiction works on the subject, The Rebel’s Daughter is quite unlike anything I’ve previously come across. Published in 1899, a year before its author’s death, the novel is an acute and profoundly knowledgeable examination of the politics that led to the Civil War: the legality, or otherwise, of slavery and secession; the factionalising of the Democrats that paved the way for the election of Abraham Lincoln; and the bitter and bloody division of the border states, forced not merely to take sides but to do so internally, person by person, neighbour against neighbour. I found this novel fascinating.

We’ve already taken a quick look at the life of John Gabriel Woerner, and from that it is evident that The Rebel’s Daughter is heavily autobiographical. Clearly, many of the places and people in this novel are sketches of the real thing, but I am insufficiently well-informed to recognise most of them. The novel begins with Victor Waldhorst, a young German-American, travelling from St Louis, Missouri, to the town of Brookfield, where he is to take up a position of shopman in a general store. On the way, Victor rescues a girl when her carriage horses bolt. She is Eleonora May – Nellie to her friends. The Mays, former Virginians, are one of the most prominent and wealthy local families. They are gracious, charming and hospitable – and slave-owners.

At first, Victor is profoundly shocked by this realisation, and unable to reconcile the warmth and generosity of the Mays with their involvement in what he considers an abhorrant institution. In his ignorance of local laws and conventions, Victor intrudes one night into one of the poor cottages of the Mays’ slaves, where he finds Nellie May’s own slave, Lucretia, known as Cressie, teaching the other occupants to read out of the Bible. Victor is caught in the cottage by the Mays’ overseer, Jeffreys, who has designs upon Cressie and immediately assumes that Victor is there for the same purpose. An ugly scene follows, in which Colonel May takes Victor’s side, and Jeffreys is dismissed. The overseer conceives a bitter hatred and resentment against the Mays and Victor, which will pursue them for many years. Almost immediately, Victor finds himself under arrest and charged with abolitionist activities, but thanks to a defence guided by Leslie May, the son of the household, who is studying law, he is triumphantly exonerated.

This outcome seals the bonds of affection between Victor and the Mays. He is, in a sense, adopted by the Colonel; becomes Leslie’s bosom friend; and is teased, laughed at and imposed upon by the imperious young Nellie. Under the Colonel’s political tutelage, Victor becomes a passionate adherent of the United States Constitution and all that it stands for…although he does puzzle over why, in a land priding itself on its guaranteed freedoms, including that of freedom of speech, the Colonel should warn him to keep his opinions on slavery to himself, if he knows what’s good for him. However, thanks to the Colonel’s teachings, Victor feelings on this point are somewhat softened, as he comes to accept that slavery is, if not right, at least constitutional.

Over time, Victor’s personal fortunes greatly improve. He moves from the general store to the offices of a successful German-language newspaper, first as a printer, later as its editor. Meanwhile, Colonel May is elected to Congress, and later receives a nomination for the Senate; a success in which Victor plays a significant part. With Leslie May’s encouragement and backing, Victor himself runs for Congress, and is elected. His entry into the legislature of Missouri occurs in 1860, the year also of a Federal election: an election in which the growing schism within the Democratic party allows the triumph of the Republicans and the inaugeration of Abraham Lincoln; events that bring with them the threat of secession of the southern states and even of civil war.

For Victor, the situation is one fraught with horror in a personal, as well as a political, sense. The incumbent Senator for Missouri, General Hart, is like Victor himself an upholder of the Constitution and sternly opposed to Missouri’s secession. In opposing Hart in his run for the Senate, Colonel May, the man who infused Victor with his own belief in the Constitution, begins a pragmatic drift towards the secessionist faction. Leslie and Nellie, unshakably devoted to their father and fiercely protective of their state’s rights, go with him – and expect Victor to do likewise.

But Victor, in conscience, cannot. In spite of his profound feelings of affection and gratitude for the Mays, in spite of his standing promise to support the Colonel, and above all in spite of the fact that he is desperately in love with Nellie, now grown from a sprite of a girl into the reigning belle of Missouri, he casts his lot with General Hart and the Constitutionalists, knowing that in doing so he has at a stroke severed himself from everything in life that he holds most dear – except his principles. When war comes, it finds Leslie May in southern grey, and Victor in the blue of the Missourian militia…

As a Civil War novel, The Rebel’s Daughter is rather unusual, inasmuch as the war itself remains at all times tangential to the main story. We get a description of the firing of Fort Sumter, and an account of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek (here called Winslo’s Creek), which marked Missouri’s entry into the war proper; but otherwise, the story remains solidly within the personal and political boundaries it has drawn for itself. I didn’t mind that at all. On the contrary, I found the careful, logical descriptions of the step-by-political-step journey towards war absolutely rivetting: an answer, at least to an extent, to the eternal, post-war cry of dismay, How can these things happen? This novel also makes very clear the profound reluctance of the Lincoln administration to move against the rebelling states, and the misinterpretation of this reluctance by the South, which grew bolder and increasingly provocative upon the tragic misapprehension that, “The North would not fight.”

And if a Civil War novel in which the war itself barely appears seems unusual, what are we to make of a Civil War novel that does not deal in any significant way with slavery? This is an aspect of the story that possibly strikes readers today more forcibly than it did its contemporary audience, given the modern tendency to view slavery rather simply as what the Civil War was “about”.

(I’m reminded here of the episode of The Simpsons in which Apu gets his citizenship: “What was the cause of the Civil War?” “Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter—” “Just say ‘slavery’.”)

According to the biography written by his son, William, J.G. Woerner was strongly opposed to slavery. That may be so, but if it was so, you wouldn’t know it from reading this novel. Possibly this was a deliberate choice, in keeping with the overarching political framework of the story. From J.G. Woerner’s own strictly legalistic point of view, and with Victor Waldhorst acting as his alter-ego, there is a definite implication throughout the novel that since slavery is constitutional, that is all there is to be said upon the subject. Various characters do debate the issue, but again, almost invariably from a legal standpoint: arguments that highlight the inherently self-defeating nature of the course of action pursued by the South, and the pragmatic view of the situation of many in the North:

Reverence for the constitution is, to this day, so deeply rooted in the hearts of the people, both North and South, that they will tolerate no tampering with it, either by Northern or Southern fanatics. Break it, as secession must do, and slavery is doomed. For it has no hold on the majority of the people, save as it is guaranteed by the constitution. In the war that must follow secession, the forcible emancipation of slaves will be too powerful a weapon against the South to be neglected by the Federal government. There will be nothing, then, to save this fated institution from annihilation; and when once extinct, it will be no more forever, on the North American continent at least. I am thoroughly sure, Colonel, that the immediate abolition of slavery is impossible in this country, unless the way be paved for it by the attempt to destroy the national government…”

As for Victor, his moral qualms never quite go away, but after his first naive forays, he makes no further attempt to argue the point. Only one character, Victor’s cousin, Woldemar Auf den Busch, ever really opposes the institution on the grounds of morality – yet there is no sense that we are supposed to admire him for it. Far from it: his stance is tainted by the echo of the word, fanatic. Not only are we not encouraged to like Woldemar as a person – although he does grow and improve over the course of the novel – but whenever he tries to raise a moral objection to slavery, he is immediately and sharply slapped down. Furthermore, there is an implicit comparison in this plot-thread of actual slavery to life under monarchy that, personally, I found both disingenuous and distasteful.

Only about half a dozen slaves in total appear in this novel, all of them owned by the Mays, and only one who can rightly be called a character. This is Cressie, Nellie May’s own slave, who is referred to throughout as “the Octoroon”, on account of skin so pale, she is often mistaken for white; who is so beautiful, so graceful in her behaviour, so proper in her speech, that she is sometimes taken for a guest in the Mays’ house. When, in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Mays’ other slaves depart in an instant, Cressie stays behind: the thought of leaving her former owners never crosses her mind.

This, then is the face of slavery in The Rebel’s Daughter; and we remember, too, that J.G. Woerner once wrote an anti-slavery play called Amanda, The Slave, in which the title character is white. How do we interpret this pattern? Perhaps Woerner believed that many white people could only understand the horrors of slavery if they saw them being inflicted on other white people; or perhaps, consciously or unconsciously, he felt that slavery became more wrong as the people enslaved were more white. It is impossible to say. While the oblique, to-one-side treatment of slavery in this novel is never less than intriguing, and quite in keeping with its political focus, I have to admit that the handling of this aspect of the story made me rather uncomfortable.

On the other hand, the relationship between Victor and Nellie is entirely conventional Civil War drama stuff, their romance acting as usual as a symbol of the relationship between North and South. Ever noticed how it nearly always is a Northern man and a Southern woman in these things? – or that when it is Southern man / Northern woman, it’s more likely to end unhappily? All sorts of implications in that, of course, including the North being coded “masculine” and the South “feminine”; the ensuing romance involving her being brought to the “right” way of looking at things, and her “rebellion” inevitably ending in “submission” – and absorption. I suppose, too, it’s a consequence of the convention that a proper woman adopts her man’s beliefs, and to have it the other way around would either mean her adopting beliefs that were wrong, or holding opinions different from her husband’s – and we couldn’t have that, now, could we?

The almost-not-quite romance of Victor and Nellie, which begins when they are little more than children, with his calf-love and her blithe acceptance of his homage, winds itself around the novel’s political content. Nellie is passionate in all her feelings: in her devotion to her father, to her state, and to the southern cause; so that Victor’s adherence to his constitutional principles, and his necessary separation from Colonel May, strikes her as an act of vile dishonour and betrayal. Victor himself is introverted and often self-doubting, though equally passionate when roused; and ironically, it is only in the face of Victor’s agonised renunciation of her that Nellie comes truly to understand and appreciate his character. By then it is too late, of course: the next time they see each other, Victor is wearing a blue uniform.

Back when I reviewed Philip And Philippa I asked the question, When did it stop being okay for a man to write like this? Well, The Rebel’s Daughter was published two years earlier, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find J.G. Woerner using extravagant and deeply sentimental language to tell his love story. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have no objection to a love story, or even to happy-ever-after; but while I don’t for an instant doubt Woerner’s sincerity, I have to admit that I found his verbal torrents rather hard to swallow. Here, for example, is Victor saying goodbye to Nellie. Can you actually imagine a man under extreme emotional duress making a speech like this?—

“My glorious paradise, like some resplendent, sun-painted image in the clouds, has vanished into somber gloom. The bright ideal, that but now refulgently lit up my pathway, is intercepted by destiny’s mighty arm, snatching from me my soul’s crowning desire. Should ever, in the future, your thoughts recur to me, then, Nellie May, think of me as one, whose love for you, was so unbounded and unselfish, that he elected rather to be worthy of you, than to possess you unworthily…”

Too rich for my blood, I’m afraid. I prefer Woerner’s cool, reasoned politicking. Not very “feminine” of me, I suppose, but there we are. And truly, in the end it is the politicking that makes The Rebel’s Daughter such an interesting novel; one which deserves to be a great deal better known than it is.

(And our Word Of The Week, people? Refulgently. RE-FUL-GENT-LY. Try to use it in a sentence!)

 

04/09/2010

Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (Part 2)

Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (2004)  Director:  Gillies MacKinnon  Screenplay:  James McGovern  Starring: Robert Carlyle, Clémence Poésy, Tim McInnerny, Kevin McKidd, Paul Nicholls, Sira Stampe, Catherine McCormack, Tadeusz Pasternak, Steven Duffy, Richard Harrington, Emilia Fox, Sam Troughton, Richard Coyle, Michael Fassbender

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Doing a little reading about the reign of James I prior to the Gunpowder Plot to support this review, I discovered that he became king of Scotland (as James VI) at the age of 13 months when his mother was forced to abdicate; that he spent some time imprisoned; that all four of his regents (including his half-uncle, James Stewart) died violently; that James and his wife, Anne of Denmark, created a court where literature, drama, art and music flourished; that he wrote two scholarly works himself; that he presided over a witchcraft trial; and that the Gunpowder Plot took shape only in the wake of two other failed plots to remove or kill him.

You’d know none of this from watching Gunpowder, Treason & Plot, however.  With all this fascinating and unfamiliar material at their disposal, one does wonder why the makers of this historical drama instead fell back on giving us yet another re-hash of Elizabeth vs Mary. Perhaps it was because the real story of James’s reign didn’t lend itself to a simplistic Protestant/Catholic schema. Or perhaps the choice was dictated by the same mindset that seems to have mandated the production of a new version of Jane Eyre every eighteen months. God forbid they should give us something we haven’t all seen before.

Even more contentious that this production’s selective use of facts, however, is its presentation of James himself, who is depicted as a weak, snivelling, easily manipulated, self-loathing homosexual. There was and still is debate over James’s sexuality, of course, but Gunpowder, Treason & Plot puts a particularly nasty spin upon it, with James only able to work himself up to sex with his wife after betraying or murdering someone, or watching executions, and fleeing his own brief and brutal wedding-night for the arms of his young male lover. (Screenwriter James McGovern seems unpleasantly addicted to scenes of violent defloration.) The story’s low point is reached when Sir Thomas Percy, sent to the Scottish court to plead tolerance for Catholics once James succeeds to the English throne, gets the desired promise only in exchange for performing forced oral sex on James. Apart from subsequently sinking into alcoholism, Percy is driven by this incident to involve himself in the Gunpowder Plot after James reneges on his promise. He does so declaring that, “It’s better to die than to live on one’s knees.”

So to speak.

Robert Carlyle does what he can with the character as written, but ends up relying more than he should upon James’s clubfoot (did James have a clubfoot?), until with his limping and tics and mannerisms, he begins to suggest Richard Dreyfuss doing Richard III in The Goodbye Girl – only that’s meant to be funny.

Both unable and unwilling to show us the royal marriage as it was (Anne was only fourteen when she and James married), this version ignores the real affection that existed between James and Anne during the early years of their joint reign, and instead makes Anne disgusted and repulsed by her weakling husband, even aside from his sexual orientation, only learning to respect (and even desire) him when he learns to be even more amoral, vicious, false and manipulative than the politicians who surround him. It also has her supporting and, indeed, insisting upon James’s betrayal of his promise of tolerance for the Catholics, over which he feels some guilt, even though there is good evidence that Anne herself converted to Catholicism late in her life.

Gunpowder, Treason & Plot has Anne arriving in England in the hours before the execution of James’s mother. This pretty much sets the tone of the historical accuracy of this production, as James and Anne were married in Denmark two years after Mary went to the block. Here, James is depicted as entering into a conspiracy with Elizabeth I’s chief minister, Sir Robert Cecil, who promises him the throne of England in exchange for keeping Scotland passive in the wake of Mary’s execution. In order to achieve this, James must confront his own ministers, who are all for war. First he dissuades them from an immediate attack, on the grounds of needing a little time to grieve for his mother before he can join them, and then he has them all murdered the moment they turn their backs on him.

These early scenes also present us with this production’s most irritating aspect, as it has James addressing the camera directly. This “breaking of the wall” can work – the recent adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right used it to some effect – but it’s jarring here. For one thing, it is used spasmodically instead of with any consistency; and rather than serve a specific purpose, it seems to indicate only that James McGovern couldn’t think of a better way to convey his characters’ motives to the viewer. And really, we can only wince during the scene that introduces us to the man who will be the prime mover in the Gunpowder Plot, Sir Robert Catesby, who not only speaks to the camera, but in doing so denounces Protestantism as a faith, “Invented to help a king dump a wife.” I wasn’t aware that in 1601, women, let alone queens, got dumped.

While James and Anne are twiddling their thumbs in Scotland, waiting for Elizabeth to die, Sir Robert Cecil, is leading a violent campaign against the Catholics, breaking up masses, hanging the priests, and arresting the leaders of the Catholic community. It is at this time that Thomas Percy sees James to plead for tolerance – with what dual outcomes, we already know. However, when James becomes king of England, his first impulse is to keep his dubiously elicited promise, freeing the Catholic prisoners and stopping the persecution – until he learns that England’s coffers are almost bare, and that fines levied against recusant Catholics are all that’s keeping things afloat. So much for tolerance.

In the wake of this, the plot begins to come together. The main conspirators, Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, Sir Francis Tresham and Thomas Wintour, having tried and failed to secure Spanish backing for a Catholic rebellion, recruit Guy Fawkes, first seen fighting for the Spanish against the English in Holland. Here, the Catholic’s plan is to blow up both parliament and the entire royal family, then to cease control in the anarchy that follows. In fact, the plotters intended to install James and Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, who for some reason was living apart from her family at the time, as a figurehead but legitimate Catholic queen.

I must say, one of the most successful aspects of this production is its quite subtle handling of the three children, who are simply always there, poor things: at executions, while their mother is in labour, while plots and double-crosses are in motion. We note, too, the camera’s habit of resting on the boy who will grow up to be Charles I. They are also the centre of one of the drama’s few gentle moments, when James finds himself strangely moved by the sight of Anne and the children lying on a bed together, her arms about them tenderly as she tells them stories of Denmark. I think we’re supposed to infer “mother issues”…understandably, I guess.

We will never know for certain the whole truth about the Gunpowder Plot and its discovery – confessions under torture notwithstanding. Here, as I complained about in Part 1 of this review, the failure of the conspiracy is due predominantly to the stupidity of those involved. First we have a major role in the plot assigned to Thomas Wintour, who has just embarked upon his first serious love-affair – with a girl who turns out to be one of Robert Cecil’s spies. Loose lips don’t only sink ships, it seems. Wintour also tries to recruit his brother, John, into the conspiracy in a public place, giving the man whose been following him plenty of chance to see their discord, overhear their quarrel – and mark the hitherto innocent John as one of the plotters.  Meanwhile, the responsibility for the purchasing of the gunpowder and the hiring of the room under the Parliament is given to Thomas Percy, despite his alcoholism – and he proceeds to fulfil both tasks using his own name.

Finally, although he has already been revealed as vacillating and likely to betray them during the debate on warning the Catholic parliamentarians, Sir Francis Tresham is given an opportunity to warn his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, of the plot, who immediately threatens to reveal all to the king. To cover himself, Tresham has his wife, Anne, write an “anonymous” letter, so that Monteagle need not reveal the actual source of his information. The true author of this famously ambiguous letter, which the real Monteagle received and promptly showed to Robert Cecil, has never been identified, although Francis Tresham was indeed the main suspect.

(Strangely, in the midst of all this self-destructive behaviour, omitted is the notorious true incident in which Robert Catesby and several of his fellow conspirators managed to set themselves on fire while trying to dry some gunpowder. Here, they go out instead like Butch and Sundance in Bolivia.)

Of course, given their failure to discover the truth on their own in spite of all this blundering, Robert Cecil and his people don’t exactly emerge looking like masterminds, either. Thomas Percy’s largely unconcealed activities come to light only when he is betrayed, while Cecil’s other main source of information is cut off, literally, when upon discovering the truth about his mistress, Thomas Wintour strangles her to death in the middle of sex. (Oh, goody – a third horribly violent sex scene!)

While the details of the uncovering of the plot, the discovery of the gunpowder and the arrest of Guy Fawkes do remain somewhat uncertain, it certainly didn’t happen as it happens here. Gunpowder, Treason & Plot has James seeing his opportunity, and taking credit not only for interpreting the letter correctly (which he may in fact have done: given the circumstances of his father’s death, a well-developed paranoia in James over the potential uses of gunpowder wouldn’t have been unlikely), but also for personally leading the search and arresting Fawkes. This version of events also has him delivering a climactic speech in which he reveals and denounces the conspirators, truly seizes power, and puts his unruly parliment in its place…before, for the first time, being invited to his wife’s bed. Of course, it was actually Sir Edward Coke who led the investigation into the conspiracy and who described to parliament the gruesome fate in store for the guilty parties – but why let facts get in the way of a good dramatic scene?

21/08/2010

Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (Part 1)

Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (2004)  Director:  Gillies MacKinnon  Screenplay:  James McGovern  Starring: Robert Carlyle, Clémence Poésy, Tim McInnerny, Kevin McKidd, Paul Nicholls, Sira Stampe, Catherine McCormack, Tadeusz Pasternak, Steven Duffy, Richard Harrington, Emilia Fox, Sam Troughton, Richard Coyle, Michael Fassbender

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History, as I have already mentioned, is not my strong suit (I was a science/geography girl). So when an historical drama tampers with the facts to such a degree that even I can spot it easily, it’s cause for concern.

Sometimes, of course, there are very good reasons for screenwriters to take historical liberties – particularly when the facts are in dispute and we don’t know for sure what happened anyway: such speculation is understandable and, dramatically speaking, essential. Sometimes, in adapting a true story, it is necessary to compress events just on practical grounds. And then there are the times when history is re-written for no good reason you can think of, which is the case with Gunpowder, Treason & Plot.

It’s hard to know what James McGovern was trying to do here. His extensive alterations suggests he had some particular agenda in mind, but the end product hardly supports this view. The story is built on a simple schema of Catholic vs Protestant. The Protestants are, one and all, depicted as lying, scheming murderers, which might suggest we’re supposed to side with, or at least sympathise with, the Catholics – except that counterbalancing this we have the fact that everything, and I mean everything, the Catholics do fails due to their own stupidity. Possibly we’re just supposed to curl our lips contemptuously at both factions.

For its DVD release, Gunpowder, Treason & Plot has been compressed into two uneven chapters, the first, shorter part dealing with the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the second part with that of her son, James VI of Scotland and I of England, leading up of course to the infamous failed plot of November 1605.

First the good news: this production is very well cast. Kevin McKidd gives us a romantic Bothwell (no wife-abandoning, possible rapist here), devoted to Mary, but ultimately too violently impulsive for his or anyone else’s good. Paul Nicholls as Darnley moves from superficially charming suitor to drunken, abusive husband with frightening conviction; and Catherine McCormack is a rather splendid Elizabeth I, although her appearances are disappointingly brief.

The French actress Clémence Poésy is not at all my idea of Mary, but she gives an interesting performance, although one somewhat hampered by the script’s desire to have Mary all things to all people. Essentially, what James McGovern does is declare Mary guilty of almost everything she’s ever been accused of, while providing her with excuses for her actions. I say “almost” because she is exonerated on the charge of an adulterous affair with her Italian advisor, David Rizzio…but then “wee David” is (rightly or wrongly) coded gay here, presumably by way of explanation of Mary’s failure to transgress.

Gunpowder, Treason & Plot begins with the death of Mary of Guise, and the return of her daughter to Scotland to claim her throne. Curiously, the script ignores the fact that she had been “Mary, Queen of Scots” since the ripe old age of 6 days. It also ignores her first marriage, and her time as Queen Consort of France, partly so that it can show her development/corruption from her beginnings as “a wee girl, a silly young thing”, and partly so that she can be given an horrendous wedding night after her marriage to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.

The description of Mary as “a silly young thing” issues from her illegimitate half-brother, James Stewart, here depicted as conspiring against Mary with Elizabeth from the outset, rather than turning against her after her marriage to an Englishman. Mary has already upset both religious factions by declaring her intention of allowing Scotland to remain Protestant, while continuing to practise her own faith, despite violent opposition to this from John Knox and his followers. James stirs the pot still further by goading the young Catholic Sir John Huntly into the murder of another prominent Protestant, Lord Gunn. Mary’s refusal to stay his execution turns the Catholics against her, too.

The Huntly episode is a fabrication. In fact, all the major events of Mary’s reign are jumbled and misordered here. We have Bothwell declaring his love for Mary and being rejected because of his “inferior” position, which is nonsense. There is, nevertheless, an odd attempt to depict Mary and Bothwell as star-crossed lovers,  their desires thwarted by Mary’s determination to bear a son who will be heir to the English throne. This possibility motivates her marriage to Darnley, whose conduct subsequent to the wedding justifies, in script terms, everything else that happens. Darnley soon degenerates into drunken violence, as Bothwell glowers from the sidelines.

James takes the opportunity to arrange, and involve Darnley in, the murder of David Rizzio, attempting to seize power in the wake of it. However, Bothwell manages to smuggle Mary out of the castle. The two of them raise an army, and drive James and his followers from Scotland. Bothwell again declares his feelings for Mary, who returns them, but rejects his advances on the grounds of her pregnancy. Bothwell is sent into a sort of exile after this, during which he works off his feelings by slaughtering the English, and by sending Elizabeth news of Mary’s pregnancy. The little detail of his own marriage, at which Mary was a guest, is never mentioned.

As with many such productions, Gunpowder, Treason & Plot does very well in its interior scenes, but fails in its exteriors due to a paucity of extras. This hurts the story at several points, but never so much as in the scene of “Mary’s army” and “James’s army”, in which there are rarely more than eight people in shot. Besides that, of course, there’s the fact that James had been driven out of Scotland a year before Rizzio’s murder, after leading a failed rebellion in the wake of Mary’s marriage. Darnley did arrange and participate in the murder, at which time Mary – in whose presence it was committed – was already seven months’ pregnant with the future King James.

In this storyline, a temporarily sober Darnley reappears from wherever after the birth of his son, and in his one decent action declares the child legitimate. Anything resembling reconciliation evaporates the next moment, however, as Mary tells Darnley bluntly that it is only for this that she has spared his life.

We get a rare bit of historical accuracy next, as Bothwell is seriously injured (an attempt on his life by James), and Mary rides to his camp to see him. The two become lovers (so much for “seriously injured”), and they continue their not-very-discreet affair after Bothwell’s resummons to Edinburgh. This is the last straw for Darnley, who has returned to his violent, drunken ways. Barred from Mary’s bedroom, one night he breaks in and tries to rape her. It is this that provokes Bothwell to propose his murder, to which Mary does not agree until Darnley threatens the baby – his reasoning being that if the child is dead, Mary will have to return to his bed to conceive another.

We make no bones here about Bothwell’s guilt, which I suppose is fair enough; but the depiction of the murder is fairly ridiculous. Having failed to kill Darnley by blowing him up with gunpowder (Subtle Foreshadowing!), Bothwell tracks him down and strangles him in front of witnesses. Friendly witnesses, but still… After this, it is not Bothwell’s mock-trial, acquittal, divorce and rapid marriage to Mary that turns Scotland against them – bad enough, you might have thought – but the fact that the two of them are openly living together! However, some time into the conflict (there’s never any sense here of the amount of time passed), Mary decides that enough men have died for her, and she turns herself over to the English, where she is imprisoned and her baby, literally torn from her arms, last seen in the ominous grasp of James…

[To be continued…]