John Waddington-Feather?s plays often show his fascination with the lives of those in high places, and his subjects range from the Renaissance martyr William Tyndale to corrupt modern-day politicians. In his latest play, Edward, Waddington-Feather trains his eye on a scandal that shook the foundations of mid-twentieth-century British society: that of the Prince of Wales?s dalliance with an American divorcee he later renounced the throne for and married.
Edward deals with the clash between one?s private life and public role, chiefly as those in the royal family experience it. Although, to many (including the main character?s mistress and later wife), a king?s ?divine right? means his freedom to do as he likes, Waddington-Feather emphasizes the heavy burden of obligation that those of royal birth hold to their subjects. His George V says it best when the heir apparent insists on his right to say what he wants.
That?s a privilege no monarch is allowed?leastways in public. What we think about in private, we keep to ourselves and those we can trust, and we go public on nothing. We cannot escape the destiny of birth any more than those born to poverty whom it is our duty to help. Our minds, like all else, are for the good of the kingdom we rule, not to promote ourselves in the eyes of others. We?re not celebrities.
Kingship, then, as George V and the author see it, is not a privilege but a duty (to use that grim Victorian word); it is also a destiny into which the free-spirited Edward has been born, and which he finally rejects in favor of love?not the love of his kingdom but that of a woman who holds no sense of the concept of noblesse oblige but who is, instead, merely glibly and idly entranced with thoughts of her own and future husband?s glamor:?Queen Wallis! It kinda rolls smoothly off the tongue. King Edward and Queen Wallis?they go well together.? The whole notion of regal lineage and responsibility is alien to her:
In America we brushed that attitude out of our hair long ago when we had our revolution. We don?t have any class system. We?re individuals, and we take a person for what he or she is, not for which family they were born into and where they were educated.
Still, Americans do have a pecking order, she says; and it is based on the size of your wallet. The richer you are, the more you?re thought of; but the difference is, in America you can start with nothing and go right to the top, not by who you know or where you went to school but by sheer hard work.
Mrs. Simpson thus stands at one extreme in this play?the rugged individualist?s right to live as he or she likes, unhindered by the restraints of tradition. It is her view of the world that seduces the romantic Edward, and her view that has largely triumphed since then, in Britain as well as America. Yet the more old-fashioned sense of noblesse oblige has, perhaps more than anything else, enabled the British monarchy to survive on into the 21st century; and as such, Edward resonates with a relevance for today. For the royal family embodies, in miniature, the human family as a whole; its ideal state is the harmony and sense of abundance that we would wish for all of our little domestic domains, and in fact, for the entire earth; yet when it is fraught with the tensions between public and private desires that trouble the world at large, the conflicts that vex it remind us of certain inescapable facts about the fragility of the human condition. John Waddington-Feather?s Edward is keenly aware of these facts, and it is this awareness that gives his play a poignant gravitas. For its message is sobering. Questioning, as it does, the way that those in the public eye should conduct their lives, its answer is that to be true to one?s own personal feelings and inclinations is not always a path that a ruler can take. This is not a popular idea in our day, but in light of the cynical view many hold of those in important positions now?and all too often as a consequence of indiscretions committed in moments of passionate feeling (even if that feeling, at least at the time, was sincere)?it is an answer that we might do well to heed.
For, if the figure of Edward in this drama is seen accurately, we leave with no doubt that the man was indeed sincere and was faced with a terrible dilemma: between deeply-felt personal conviction and public duty. And this is the problem that elevates this play, and the events leading up to the abdication?to a tragic stature. The characters realize that they are caught up in events and historical forces that in many respects are beyond their control. Edward has, as his father has told him, been born to fulfill a destiny. Yes, he can act of his own free will and marry the woman he loves, but the price he pays is a great one?that of a man rejecting his ordained role in life. Yet were he to choose to renounce his love, the cost would be just as great. So his fate is as fixed as that of Oedipus, and try as he might, he cannot escape it.
Like Sophocles? drama, like Robert Bolt?s A Man for All Seasons, and like Waddington-Feather?s own Tyndale, this play concerns important events in human history, and it is rich with profound significance. Still, those who expect sensationalism or melodrama may be disappointed, for Edward moves at a stately pace, building, with sure but decorous steps, toward its inevitable conclusion. What we feel most is anxiety?the tension produced when rational, decent people find themselves powerless, caught off guard, and faced with what, from their more traditional outlooks, seems irrational, indecent behavior. For George V and Queen Mary, Alec Baldwin, Anthony Eden, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, are all depicted here as reasonable, fair-minded figures in a reasonable society who are reluctant to rein in a wayward Edward, and they yield him his freedom as long as they?and Britain?can bear it. And although, in hindsight, it is easy to blame the dangerously na?ve Edward for his infatuation with Hitler, the fact was that many noble, high-minded, and decent Britons of the time (as well as Americans) saw in fascism?s efficiency an answer to capitalism?s ills. Indeed, Waddington-Feather gives us an Edward who is genuinely concerned?at least in the abstract?about the plight of the masses in his country, although, in his conversations with his butler, we see how truly out of touch he is with their actual lives. And in the butler?s exchanges with the chauffeur, we see how Edward?s determination to live on his own terms affects not only him but his subjects, imperiling their sense of security and well-being. ?Never alone did the king sigh, but with a general groan,? says Rosencrantz in Hamlet; and Edward, set in a period when shrewd and capable leadership in the free world was desperately needed, suggests how ominous that ?groan? can be.
How heartbreaking?even frightening?it must have been to have listened to that fateful broadcast on the wireless that day! To renounce the crown for a mere ?commoner?! To forsake the love of a people for eros! What Briton could not help feeling heartbroken, betrayed? Yet we hear the heartache in Edward?s words, too. For to make a life choice of such magnitude?and one as profound as the Judgment of Paris?is to leave one marked for good, one feels: haunted by inescapable remorse and debt toward those whom one has rejected. A mood of intense regret thus marks the end of this play, a sense of terrible loss as, in effect, John Waddington-Feather echoes John Donne: ?No man is an island,? he seems to remind us?especially a king. By the end of Edward, we are left with the awful awareness that, although we are free to ?rough-hew? our fates, as Hamlet says, alas, they are not entirely our own.
Edward, a play by John Waddington-Feather.
Published by Feather Books, PO Box 438, Shrewsbury SY3 0WN, UK.
ISBN: 978-1-84175 314 0.
Price: ?5 U.K., $10 U.S.