In 2004, Richard Eyre directed the movie, “Stage Beauty,” written by Jeffrey Hatcher and starring Billy Cudrup and Claire Danes. Recently I watched this amazingly beautiful and haunting movie for the third time. A good friend who’d never seen it wanted to and I found myself getting increasingly excited as the day came for us to watch it. The movie is based on a true story about Edward Kynaston, one of the last beautiful young male actors to play major female parts on the English stage. We see him at the beginning as the dying Desdemona in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello. When her hand stops twitching as Othello holds the gorgeous pillow over her face, its fingers unfold ever so slowly, falling finally into a heart-breaking torpor. The huge London theater erupts into shouts and stomps and bravos, as the English upper classes rise to their feet to honor Kynaston’s flawless performance. What we’ve seen from on the sidelines is a very young woman, mouthing Desdemona’s lines until she is called to her job as dresser for Kynaston whom she adores both as an actor and as a man, never mind that he’s clearly gay so disinterested in her.
The plot thickens when we see the young woman quickly gather the magic pillow and a few other props before dashing from the regal theater to a run-down space probably on the East Side of London where lower class men and women act in plays and where she is Desdemona, speaking and moving just as her idol does for the royals. To make a long story short, it comes out that she is acting because Samuel Pepys has spoken about her and her ragtag group in his diary. When Kynaston realizes that his lowly dresser whom he barely even notices is pretending to “act,” he at first laughs it off. But Nell Gwynn, notorious mistress of King Charles II, gets the very campy king, who himself often cross-dresses, first to allow for women to portray female parts, along with the likes of Kynaston. Eventually, however, because Nell develops anger at Kynaston, she convinces Charles II to decree that ONLY women may portray female parts, thus bringing to an abrupt and catastrophic end the careers of many beautiful young men who’ve made their way as cross-dressing female characters.
Perhaps because of all the attention to gender fluidity and a rejection of conventional binary explanations of who we all are, I saw in this third viewing something I’d never noted before. A royal ruling that opened up huge possibilities for women contributed to a stiffening of gender roles prescribed both for men and women in western culture. And it its that precise stiffening that is being currently resisted and rejected by increasing numbers of human beings from all walks of life and cultures. So Hatcher and Eyre were ahead of the curve when they produced this movie early in the 21st century. What lingers for me now is the complicated reality that a change in the rules can be received entirely differently by various segments of a society, setting up a paradox or at least a webbed conundrum.
And it’s certainly true that their movie shows Kynaston agreeing to teach his dresser-turned-stage star (now known as Mrs. Huges who is in demand to act all sorts of roles) how to be Desdemona as he plays Othello. But along the way, she upbraids him in a long and powerful speech in which she points out that no woman would die without fighting as Othello puts that gorgeous pillow over her face in order to kill her. She says he is expert at gestures and postures that appeal to the audience with their already set ideas of how females are supposed to comport ourselves. But he can’t tell us anything about how it feels on the inside of any of the female characters he portrays. So he is “playing” at being a woman, where she IS a woman. What she has to drop, then, is mimicking her idol and, ironically it is the pretend woman who coaxes that self inside the biological woman onto the stage.
The two of them explore each other’s bodies in a couple of amazing scenes of intimacy. The dialogue is fascinating to me because she keeps asking him if she’s the “woman” or is he, and also when is she or he the “man.” The first time they are intimate in this way, he is very sure, answering her immediately to both their delights because it’s an intimate game like that played by Antony and Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s play on the night when Cleopatra wears Anthony’s armor and sword while he wears her silken gowns. But the second time Kynaston and Mrs. are together, after they’ve performed am amazing scene of Desdemona’s heroic attempts to escape Othello’s mad desire to kill her, and after they kiss longer than the first time she asks him if he’s the woman or the man. He pauses before saying lines that are so moving to me: “I don’t know.” On that note, the movie ends and I find myself haunted by all sorts of ambiguities about self-presentation and personhood.
I suspect I’ll decide to watch “Stage Beauty” again in a couple of years to see what it can teach me or how it can challenge me to enlarge my own ideas about how to be in the world.