Jealousy and Truth

By Poison Ivy,

Friedrich Schiller was a German playwright of the 18th century who delighted in making up behavior by historical figures that simply never happened. And he did it so well that even today, other dramatists prefer his false version of events to the truth. And so does the audience, whether it be for a play, a movie, or as I recently saw, an opera.

Take, for instance, the dramatic meeting between Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth Tudor, her cousin and Queen of England in the 16th century. Schiller wrote a scene in which they met privately and talked. But it never happened. The two women never met face-to-face even though Elizabeth had Mary as her prisoner under house arrest for 18 years.

Why write a scene about historical figures that never happened? Because Mary Queen of Scots was a tragic beauty, whose story still fascinates centuries after her life ended. Because Elizabeth Tudor was an amazing monarch, a woman who managed not to be ruled by men despite the times in which she lived. Because we want to get close to the essence of these far-off figures. And because it’s dramatic to see a person hurl her true thoughts directly at the head of another person who is standing before her. Much more dramatic than culling the random, carefully written words of contemporary diarists and observers and then drawing a painstakingly hedged and historically accurate conclusion about Mary Queen of Scots’ opinion of her cousin.

This entirely made-up scene became pivotal in Donizetti’s opera, “Maria Stuarda,” in which the two queens jealously attack each other, supposedly over the Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth’s rumored lover. In the opera (not in real life), Leicester is more personally interested in Mary than in Elizabeth, and that makes Elizabeth jealous. And sparks the dramatic confrontation scene.

But Leicester is a convenient stand-in for a complex group of jealousies: Elizabeth was famously personally vain. But Mary was famously beautiful. Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, had been convicted of adultery (probably falsely) and beheaded. Elizabeth lived in the shadow of her mother’s harlot status her whole life. And Elizabeth herself had been declared a bastard at age three, disinherited, and treated badly. She very nearly lost her head under her sister’s reign because she was the sort of threat to her throne that Mary Queen of Scots later became to her own. Meanwhile, Mary’s mother was of good repute, and a staunch fighter for her crown. And Mary herself was raised in the luxury of the French court, a petted future queen of France who casually claimed Elizabeth’s throne as the only legitimate heir and Roman Catholic claimant. But Elizabeth later successfully ruled her country, whereas Mary had been unable to, and had in fact fled it after her nobles ousted her from power.

Jealousy is an emotion common to most people, and thus it’s easy to grasp in a mere few seconds of theater. When Donizetti used jealousy over a man as the way to couch the rivalry between Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor, he was perhaps cheapening the complexity of their conflict. But he was also making it fully human and pulling it back from the realm of religious differences and political games. And when I watched Mary lash out at Elizabeth and call her a harlot to her face, I had an epiphany. This is what Mary really believed about her cousin. And this is what Elizabeth knew everyone thought. It’s the heart of their conflict, the reason why Elizabeth had to execute Mary. The scene is theatrical genius.

At our writers are not writing operas or historical plays, but we try to do the same thing dramatically with our stories. We choose a few words between a hero and heroine to stand for many. We look for the essential conflict, and ignore trivial details. In real life, arguments between people often can continue for days and weeks, with flare-ups now and again, and lots of passive aggressive acting out. People just don’t say what they are feeling or thinking. But there isn’t space in a novella-length story for this kind of extended dance, for the pouting and sulking in which people so commonly indulge. Our heroes and heroines have to get to the meat of what is bothering them, and quickly. So in our stories, we show people confronting their issues head on. Just as Mary Queen of Scots confronts Elizabeth Tudor with her bastardy in Schiller’s play and in Donizetti’s opera.

Schiller’s imagined scenes and Donizetti’s imagined jealousy over a man work dramatically to tell a story with underlying truth. So do our pithy bits of dialogue and carefully selected confrontations. Every word moves the story along, reveals the nature of a conflict, or confronts it. (With the exception being, usually, lovemaking.) It’s not that our characters have little to say to each other. It’s that they have to say it as effectively and as dramatically as possible. Donizetti uses jealousy over a man to incite the insecurities of both queens. In our novellas, we try not to use the jealousy card, which has been overused in romances. We go straight to the truth card instead.