A chronicle of the fanciful, extravagant Austrian child-bride, intended to seal the alliance of historical enemies France and Austria, who became symbol both of corrupt oppression and the bloodiness of revolution. The play uses masks, sound, and shadow to portray a society on its dazzling rococo promenade into the abyss.
Written by Conrad Bishop & Elizabeth Fuller
Directed by Conrad Bishop, music by Elizabeth Fuller
Designed by Linda Cunningham & Conrad Bishop
Costumes by Susan Soetaert
Two acts; 1m/2w, 2 mimes; unit set.
Produced by The Independent Eye, premiering April 30, 1987, Eye Theatre Works (Lancaster, PA). Produced by Jean Cocteau Repertory in collaboration with The Independent Eye, premiering June 7, 1994, at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre (New York, NY) and Sept. 28, 1994, at Old City Stage Works (Philadelphia, PA). Total of 44 performances.
From the program:
Two minutes of history. . .
In 1755, the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria bore her fifteenth child, Maria Antoinia Josephia Johanna. In 1770, at the age of 15, this child, as “Marie Antoinette,” was married to the French Dauphin—heir to the throne—to secure a tenuous treaty between traditional enemies, the European super-powers France and Austria.
In 1774, the Dauphin became Louis XVI, and Marie became queen to a young king on whom rested hopes for radical economic reform and for European stability. Instead, they led France—or followed France—into economic disaster, brought on less by Marie Antoinette’s notorious extravagance than by a bloated aristocracy, a regressive tax structure, and Louis’ pricey decision to support the American rabble against George the Third.
By 1780, Marie Antoinette had become the symbol of all injustice and corruption, spawning a virtual cottage industry of rumor, anecdote, and tabloid pornography. In 1785, a scandal centering on a diamond necklace devastated the monarchy’s tarnished dignity. In 1789, the Estates General assembled to deal with the fiscal crisis, and France embarked on Revolution—shifting factions, royal stratagems, riots, the royal family’s removal to Paris, their attempted escape and capture, the Terror—leading to Louis’ execution and, in 1793, to the beheading of his widow.
This is the factual skeleton on which we have constructed our fantasy of reality—history not in textbook structure but through the knothole vision of divine monarchs living the Tuesday mornings and Friday afternoons of History, their eyesight filtered through flunkeys, as if watching shadows on a screen.
Yes, we could have told it in the straight-ahead manner of BBC historical drama, saving us all lots of confusion. But, dammit, we didn’t: fragmentations are, in our view, reflections of the way we see History, whether past or in the making. We see Marie embodied at opposite poles of her life; between, she is split. Louis is a puppet, Marie’s lover a silhouette, her children dolls, her mother a mask, her prosecutor an anachronism, the revolution a flurry of shadows.
Our own rooms swarm with cable channels, proliferating images of a world we barely recognize as ours. As dramatists, we’d like to offer a happy ending, some note of triumph, a tune to hum, but you won’t hear the Marseillaise here tonight because it’d be badly off pitch. We want to lead toward a clear vision, but at this moment in 1994 the best we can offer is shadow-play—shared, at least, among friends. Is there an optometrist in the house?
—Conrad Bishop & Elizabeth Fuller
—Susan Pena, The Reading Eagle
Marie Antoinette is revolutionary theatre . . . above all a beautiful piece of writing, given life by three superb actors. Bishop and Fuller have painted a fully rounded portrait of an enigmatic woman, using direct quotes from letters, memoirs, and other eyewitness accounts, seamlessly combined with poetic monologues. . . .
It is this interplay between teh child (who represents the emotional kernel of the adult later on) and the grown woman which makes the play a haunting, riveting experience.
Both Fuller and [Johanna] Bishop are actresses of the finest caliber, bringing powerful interpretations to their very complicated roles. Bishop, especially, is phenomenal in a part that would be extremely demanding for an actress of any age, but could only be described as a tour de force for a 12-year-old.
As the images on the screen become more menacing and the score more fragmented and frightening, and as the events wind down to their inevitable conclusion, the two Maries fuse. . . .
This is a play that is much more than a play. It is an event that no one who is interested in serious theater should miss.
—Cyndia Jacobsen, The Hershey Chronicle
The Bishops write as they speak, in voices of drama and poetry and illumination. The characters bring history to life on the stage because the script captures the onrushing events of the era as well as the complexities of the historical actors and their interrelationships.
The powerful, multi-media production utilizes slide projections, shadow actors, masks and a musical score by Fuller. The computerized special effects are operated by Bishop with the professionalism one has come to expect from The Eye. . . .
It is the interplay between child and woman that provides the special spark of the play. In the first act, the child is the star and her mother plays all the supporting roles. In the second act, the roles are reversed.
The result is an intermingling of personalities. The audience doesn’t have to be told that the woman springs from the child, it has experienced that transformation. The physical resemblance of the real-life mother and daughter adds to the magic.
—Elizabeth Finkler, Philadelphia Welcomat
The great pleasure I had in Marie Antoinette lay in the close interaction between the real and surreal in the production, with the expressionist always subservient to the human. The result was at once ironic, poetic and passionate. The line “We are too young to rule” is repeated three times: the first desperate, the second ironic, the third sad and comic. The puppet Louis actually becomes quite human, as a genuine love grows between him and his queen. And Fuller’s anguished howl as Marie’s son is taken from her will stay with me a long time.
—Brian Caffall, Philadelphia Gay News
As structured, Marie Antoinette is illuminating without necessarily being enlightening, history told by lightning flashes. Fuller and Bishop presume a certain knowledge of historical facts on the part of their audience, and the straight narrative can be a little bewildering to someone not versed in the politics of Louis XVI’s France. Even so, the reduction of this enormous canvas of intrigue into the miniature of the woman Marie Antoinette is effective—even compelling—and a remarkably involving piece of theatre. . . .
Intelligence and imagination are not the everyday currency of much of what passes for theatre; when a production of the caliber and brilliance of Marie Antoinette comes along, it should be cherished by anyone who loves the idea as much as the reality of powerful drama that courts the mind.