The School of Night
Mark Taper Forum
In 1593, playwright Christopher Marlowe was murdered in a bar brawl that might have been a 16th-century version of a contracted hit. Only 29-years-old at the time, the prolific author of The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, Edward II and The Jew of Malta was brutally stabbed through the eye, most probably because he was an outspoken proponent of atheism and therefore considered a traitor to the realm, not to mention his being a confessed homosexual and possibly a spy or even a double-agent.
Even more likely, Marlowe’s untimely death might have been a result of his purported membership in a secret society of freethinkers known as The School of Night, a select group of scientists, writers and philosophers whose union was only whispered about during the repressive era in which they lived and created. Marlowe’s refusal under “questioning” to divulge the whereabouts of notes he’d supposedly taken during the group’s fiercely clandestine meetings, documents that would name more names than Robert Taylor at a HUAC session, clearly could have led to his early demise.
In Peter Whelan’s fascinating The School of Night, a fictionalized chronicle of how events leading up to Marlowe’s death might be explained, just about everyone is a suspect and no character is without some hidden agenda all their own. Whelan’s incredibly complex and intellectually fearless play, now making its U.S. premiere at the Taper, is a welcome and most timely addition to the Los Angeles cultural landscape as rallies against the passage of Prop. 8 once again point out the dangers of letting the treacherous self-entitlement of organized religion—an entity some of us consider the most insidious enemy of civilized culture—once again stealthily creep into the realm of politics and lead us into yet another era of church-sanctioned injustice and intolerance.
“Here is a place,” Marlowe believes of the world around him, “where the gold of human aspirations is turned into lead.” That such a sentiment is still so easily reflected in our world still today is enough to make this play of utmost significance is a society where over the centuries, as the otherwise questionably conservative Ayn Rand once noted, faith and force have proven to be the “destroyers of mankind.”
Whelan’s The School of Night is a modern title attached somewhere along the way to the group, which detractors at the time instead called “The School of Atheism.” Rumored to have once included DaVinci and Michelangelo as participants, the cabal is said to have centered around Sir Walter Raleigh and others involved were George Chapman, Thomas Harriot, Richard Barnes, and one of Marlowe’s killers, Ingram Frizer. There is no firm evidence that any these men attended such meetings or even knew one another, but speculation about their connections features prominently in many accounts of the restrictive Elizabethan era.
As the organization’s reputation grew, members were controversially said to be satanists who worshipped pagan gods at night and performed illegal rituals. Atheism at that time was a charge nearly the equivalent of treason since Queen Elizabeth herself was the head of the church and to be against the church was to be against the monarchy. However, it was also a name for anarchy, a charge frequently brought against the politically troublesome.
“There are no names, no list,” Whelan’s Marlowe insists. “All I did after each meeting was write down from memory every opinion, statement, dispute, idea that I could hold in my mind. For the first time in my life I'd walked into a place where people were discussing the truth, the truth as forbidden by God, like knowledge in the Garden of Eden. And it tasted so sweet. Not the posturing and logic chopping of the university, not the craven self-censorship that passes for truth in public life. You stood naked to each other, each able to betray his fellow, but no one did. And that, too, was truth.
“So I kept no names. None. Just what was said. But I’m not going to let them have it. They’d destroy it all, names or not. They fear the idea more than they fear the thinker. I want to take those thoughts and turn them into something you could never put your name to.
“When civilization looks back they’ll see the crevasse we made across Europe and the world, this crack that runs through the remotest town and village: Two gods, two credos, two sets of lies, the purists and the zealots coming into their own on both sides, oppressors clothed in the robes of divine authority, the state herding its people by law into the churches and forcing them to kneel before an altar that conceals the rack. I want them to know that there were some who spoke—and some who continue to believe that the only sin is ignorance.”
Whelan has created an Equus for the millennium as the mysteries leading up to “Kit” Marlowe’s death are explored, including his friendship and possible crush on the writer for whom he is often said to have ghostwritten some major works: William Shakespeare. In Whelan’s version, the Bard is asked to present the works of Marlowe as his own or the plays of the already vilified doomed playwright would never see the light of day.
This sparkling and elegant production is brilliantly directed by Bill Alexander, former associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company where he first staged it, who tells Whelan’s tale of The School of Night without compromise, allowing some of the more densely constructed plot twists to unfold without—well, sorry—pandering to the usual limited attention spans of American audiences.
On Simon Higlett’s impressively grand yet mobile set and featuring absolutely exquisite costuming by Robert Perdziola, Gregory Wooddell is absolutely outstanding in his demanding tour-de-force performance as Marlowe, with Sloan a perfect foil as Shakespeare. Gratefully, together and under the guidance of Alexander, the pair treats the subject of their characters’ romantic leanings with straightforwardness and respect.
The ensemble cast is exceptional throughout, with particular nods to Henri Lubatti as Raleigh, Michael Bakkensen as Thomas Kyd, Ian Bedford as the brooding Frizer, and LA treasure Rob Nagle as Nicholas Skeres, a guy equal parts comfortably convivial friend and covert hired assassin. Happily for us all, Act Two also begins with a glorious and too-short bit of Commedia dell’Arte performance under the supervision of David Bridel, itself worth the price of admission—particularly featuring the stellar Harlequin of Jon Monastero which really shows what it must have been several centuries back to experience seeing such a classic presentation firsthand.
How wonderful it is to have a smart and timeless play like The School of Night treading the boards in LA right about now, one that reminds us in Whelen’s always ineffaceable text that “poets must always stand against the powerful or the truth will die.” The Taper, under the auspices of Center Theatre Group, has always been a place to make such a stand regardless if anyone in our town and the critical community gets it or not. For that, we should all be most grateful.
The School of Night plays through Dec. 17 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Av. in the LA Music Center; for tickets, call 213.628.2772 or visit www.centertheatregroup.org