Polemical History in Derek Jarman’s Edward II
Context is the historian’s most treasured word. It can even become a fetish. I believe that we can all avoid such distortions if we remember that context is not a given that can be simply appropriated. Rather, it is a concrete web that allows us to glean an all-sided view of a historical conjuncture. This web is a tool that enmeshes abstract and simple things in a many-leveled structure of other abstract, simple things. Putting them in relation to each other clarifies their similarities and differences, in other words their content. It is these relations, therefore, that matter and need to be clarified. Context is woven from the raw material of a theoretical field, forged finally though the asking of questions. Research questions are the substance of context, and these questions are obviously made rather than simply assumed.
Given all of that, we wonder, what questions is Derek Jarman asking Edward II? They’re not as such historical questions, though the subject of his film is a historical person. And the text he’s interrogating is not strictly historical either, even if it shares that subject. It is, rather, a play written by Christopher Marlowe in the early 1590s. From the outset, the film’s barren stone sets and chiaroscuro lighting, not to mention Isabella’s (Tilda Swinton) lavish and anachronistic wardrobe, alerts the viewer that Jarman is not interested in “period” accuracy. To say so isn’t even scratching the insertion of 1980s gay militants into the role of a loyalist army.
Not so fast, though. He has left the language of the play almost entirely intact. A few lines are transferred to other characters, some figures are melded into groups, and there are omissions. But on the whole the language is kept entirely accurate to the play. We might also argue that the economical mise-en-scêne has a certain affinity with the Elizabethan theatre, which also employed minimal props and sets. So we can’t brand Jarman’s interpretation “inauthentic” through and through. It must be employing a specific approach to the text to produce this division between fidelity to some elements and radical changes to others.
That specific approach can be termed the “context” Jarman chooses to frame the play. As suggested by the appearance of gay rights protestors and the highlighting of Edward’s relationship with his male lover Gaveston, Jarman is using this story in a polemical way. By ignoring the enormous gaps between how an English audience in the late 16th century would see a homosexual male relationship and the way modern audiences would see it, he is infusing the play with a renewed relevance. Take the following example. In the play, the source of tension between Gaveston and the king’s court was the fact that the king was consorting with a French peasant and elevating this nobody to noble titles. Homosexual partnerships were tolerated in the aristocracy of those days, a fact that is noted in the play. Jarman reconfigures this so that the hostility of the king’s court and his generals stems from their homophobia, a very modern and virulent form of it no less. The director retains the old words, perhaps because he was enamored of their beauty, but contextualizes them in the present. He uses the play as polemic, forcing the audience to see modern day bigots, gay men, and police officers where the Elizabethans saw kings, peasants, and tragic heroes.
Unlike in Che, history here is not imagined as a process or procedure that is lucid and continuous. History here appears as fragmentation and anachronism. It parallels Jarman’s disgust with the modern world. Here we have a king and his lover speaking ancient words but showing themselves to be, in some ways, more enlightened than the “modern” forces of reaction. This is not to say that Edward II the film is a hagiography. The king’s diffidence toward his responsibilities is palpable, as is Gaveston’s often wanton cruelty. The latter even appears somewhat feral at times, and yet he is given a positive and privileged position in the narrative. Meanwhile, Mortimer, the tragic hero of the play who restored order to the kingdom, becomes a jackbooted thug and reactionary, conspiring with the Queen to destroy the king and his “deviant” partner. Jarman militarizes the story for his own time, which does two things. First, it produces the shock of juxtaposition. When the heir to the throne is listening to a Walkman and wearing socks on his ears, having put his mother and Mortimer in a cage, we can laugh or scratch our heads at the strangeness of it. On the other hand, Jarman abolishes the hard line between the past and the present that characterizes professional historical practice. Edward’s time is stitched to ours in order to condemn the present and the past.
The result is what I call “polemical history.” It’s taking history out of time and creating a radical continuity. Figures of the past blur into those of the present, sometimes literally. Suffering as he was from AIDS and the organized repression of the British state––not to mention severe funding difficulties––Jarman produces the most appropriate work I can imagine. It’s postmodernism is not the kind that revels in jarring genre mixing or collage for its own sake. It’s rather a deeply moral––even moralistic––kind of history that stems from its creator’s intensely bitter relationship with modern capitalist Britain. It unmasks the pretense of the present. It’s also a partial corrective for what is perhaps Jarman’s greatest flaw as a political artist, that being his nostalgia for the early modern world. Within films like Jubilee and The Tempest, there are moments where he seems to see the Elizabethan age as an Edenic state from which industrial capitalism was a predestined fall. Here, even if his ire is directed at present-day Britain, he shows us the cruelty of the Elizabethans as well, their domineering and scheming. There’s still an element of fetishism going on in Jarman’s depiction of the past, but I can’t fault his politics in this case.
In watching this film, I learned something about the practice of historical study. It’s a matter, as I said in the beginning, of proceeding from questions. The way these questions are formulated has much to do with the results entailed by them. Jarman asks “what does Christopher Marlowe have to say to post-Thatcher England?” That preconditions the answer to a certain extent. Being attentive to context as a conscious, constructed tool of the historian means refusing the gift of a given question, a given attitude. It means a more rigorous and difficult road to truth, but I can’t imagine that an easier road will yield truth in any case.
Bette Talvacchia, “Historical Phallicy: Derek Jarman’s ‘Edward II,'” Oxford Art Journal 16, no. 1 (1993), 112-118. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1360540 .