I recently watched the 2003 movie “Stage Beauty” for the third time. It is about theater in mid-to-late seventeenth century England when women were not allowed to act on stage. Female parts were played by young male performers called “boy actors.” One of the most famous of these men was Edward (Ned) Kynaston who played many of Shakespeare’s female characters, most especially Desdemona from “Othello.” His dresser was a young woman named Margaret (Peg) Hughes. In the movie he is played by Billy Crudup and she is played by Clare Danes. Peg had a huge crush on Ned, sometimes watching his acting from the curtain while mouthing what he was saying to the spellbound audience. Other nights, she ran as fast as she could as soon as Kynaston was on stage, going to a scruffy playhouse where aspiring actors staged Shakespeare and where she played Desdemona. Then she dashed back to the big theater in time to help Kynaston take off his gown and put on his men’s clothes before going out to find his lover who was also a boy actor.
The movie is about what happens when King Charles II, egged on by his mistress, Nell Gwynn, issued a giant proclamation saying women could play female parts and abolishing boy acting as a career choice. Needless to say, Kynaston is devastated since he does not know how to perform maleness. Eventually, Margaret Hughes finds him acting in a seedy vaudevillian playhouse where he had to raise his skirt to show the gawking audience that he really was a man in drag. She takes him away and helps nurse him back to health.
In a pivotal scene, she tells him she will just lie down beside him while he sleeps. Once they are under the same blanket, she asks him “What do men do?” when they are lovers. Kynaston, played to perfection but Crudup, tells her a little before she begins touching him and asking first “who are you now” and eventually also acting “who a I now” as she assumes various postures in relationship to his body. I find this scene amazing for its radical bravery in staging it and in what it asks me to feel and think about. They each become both “male” and “female” as their sexual palates are enlarged by how they touch and interact physically, and how they talk about which gender they occupy at any given moment in their embrace. As I watched this scene, I thought what a template this movie is for our current understanding of nom-binary and trans approaches to gender and sexuality. But mostly I just reveled in the tenderness between the two actors and the bravery of the director, Richard Eyre.
As the movie comes to its as they rehearse the scene in which Othello suffocates Desdemona, shouts at Kynaston that no woman would die as passively as he has portrayed that moment in his performances. Sensing that she is right, Kynaston says he will play Othello with her and I watch spellbound as they wrestle and scream/grunt before Othello throws Desdemona on her bed and viciously attacks her with his pillow. The audience in the film is as frightened as am, so we all breathe a sigh of relief when Hughes reminds us that she is not dead and we have one more scene in which Emilia laments the loss off her Lady and excoriates her vile husband for ruining two splendid people.
If I ever teach this play again, I will assign “Stage Beauty” because Eyre’s production and Crudup’s and Danes’ performances have altered my understanding of what Shakespeare was trying to tell and show us about a third way of understanding gender and sexual performance.