Last weekend the play advertised to campus and community as “Roger Q. Mason’s *Orange Woman: A Ballad for a Moor*” completed its five-show run at the Berlind Theater. Besides having the distinction of representing Princeton’s Arts to dozens of prefrosh during the ominously renamed Princeton Preview, *Orange Woman* has become the class of ’08’s most famous thesis by virtue of its inspired publicity crusade, fully backed by the Lewis Center, strands of which included a four-day run as the University homepage’s top feature and numerous articles and “discussion” events.
The play is described as “historical fantasia,” which sounds like a genre Shakespeare, one of its characters, might have felt at home in. The titles of the Bard’s Histories ostensibly reveal little beyond their respective heroes, but there is much in the new play’s name. First, “Roger Q. Mason” clearly refers to the playwright, Roger Mason, a senior in the English Department pursuing certificates in Theater & Dance and African American Studies.
Mason’s script reached the stage as all thesis shows do. Each year, the Theater & Dance Program sponsors 6-8 semi-professional productions showcasing the directing, acting, playwriting or design talents of seniors “with exceptionally strong backgrounds and exceptionally compelling proposals,” according to a statement from Program Director Michael Cadden. Juniors are invited to submit proposals “sufficiently challenging to qualify as independent work” early in the spring, and encouraged to “collaborate, collaborate, collaborate: successful projects often involve 3-5 intensely committed senior thesis students.”
Mason, who had written a few initial sketches in his intro playwriting class last year, proposed the project jointly with two other juniors pursuing certificates in acting, who were to star in the show. Mason’s name appears alone in the title, however, because both of his initial collaborators left the project: one before rehearsals began due to irreconcilable differences and the other early in the spring when her character, Anne Hathaway, disappeared from the script.
Directly following his name in the “title” is the apostrophe-S of the genitive case. Besides placing disproportionate emphasis on one individual’s contribution to a project that relied on the sustained commitment of at least twenty other students, faculty and theater professionals, the form invokes a curious convention of the contemporary American professional theater. Because producers are under no legal obligation to feature the playwright’s name in materials advertising a production, some dramatists of unassailable prominence can negotiate contracts which embed their names in the advertised title: “Edward Albee’s *The Goat: or, Who Is Sylvia?*” Lesser playwrights like Tony Kushner usually resign themselves to post-titular acknowledgement.
The next element is polyvalent. “Orange Woman” refers to the so-called “orange-women” who sold refreshments to patrons of the Globe Theater, the “image” Mason credits with inspiring the play.
“Woman” introduces gender.
The colon promises a transition to focus, but instead delivers broader indeterminacy. “Ballad” is a middlebrow term for a lowbrow genre of quainter times. As a descriptor, it is fairly meaningless, designating almost any light musical or verse composition. It does not carry an accepted figurative sense meaning “play” or “story” or “tribute” generally, so while *Orange Woman* comprises musical and poetic interludes, it is not in fact a ballad, except perhaps with the implication of the 17th c. understanding of the genre as one that either exalts or desecrates its subject.
The “Moor” the play is “for” is Lucy Morgan, later known as Lucy Negro, Abbess de Clerkenwell, whose “biography” Mason set out to write. In the play she is a Black teenager, Queen Elizabeth I’s “favorite dancer and adopted daughter” (according to the dramatis personae), who leaves court to become a procuress and inspires Shakespeare’s Sonnets 127-152, the so-called “Dark Lady” sequence. “I wanted to bring history to life through drama,” said Mason, “history is my point of departure.” Asked about his historical sources for Morgan, Mason was quick to affirm their scarcity. “She had to be my own invention.”
The spectator may note without surprise, however, that Lucy never actually becomes an orange-woman: evidently an early idea never followed through, but left stillborn in the spotlight rather than cleared away—a fate pathetically representative of many of this play’s ideas.
Finally, planned or not, we find in “a Moor” a delightful pun on “amor,” unfortunately unequaled by any wit in the script proper, but suggestive of a creative potential so undeveloped that its trace could easily escape the spectator’s notice or be trampled as the eye rolls through the bleak ninety-minute traffic of our stage.
*Orange Woman* fulfills Mason’s thesis requirements for English as well as T&D and AAS, so it should logically hold itself to two standards: succeeding as a play and demonstrating substantial original research and thought. These considerations should not be considered separately—it is to their mutual failure to recognize each other’s importance that the play owes its general failure—but the symptoms of this general failure are easiest to observe in its ramshackle foundation at the basic dramatic level.
Let’s forget that by setting himself the vainglorious task of writing dialogue for William Shakespeare, who has no life outside of his language, and Queen Elizabeth, who has no life outside of history, the play demands a sophisticated internal justification and, if not a factual, at least an interesting treatment of history and language. Even if the script were allowed to draw exclusively on the resources of its author’s imagination, its approach to plot and characterization would remain essentially undramatic.
The play follows Lucy’s history, whose three basic points are her beginning at Elizabeth’s court, her middle in Southwark, where she meets Shakespeare, and her end in a brothel in Clerkenwell. Because the characters have never been conceived as characters, void of psychologies or motivations, the mere task of getting poor Lucy from lady in waiting to lady-of-ill-repute exhausts Mason’s structural ingenuity. The plot moves purely on the undramatic, external necessity of pushing Lucy out of one place and into another, towards an ending. Thus Lucy storms out of the Queen’s bedroom crying, to no one, “Master Shakespeare! I’m coming to Southwark. I’m on my way!” after notifying Elizabeth, “Thou art dead to me. Thou cans’t not rule over me.” (The somewhat unusual resolution to an argument over whether Lucy should be allowed to have a crush on Shakespeare—whom she meets that evening, apparently the only man she’s ever seen.)
The escape from secluded royal splendor to pestilential slum is not jarring, for within three fourteen-point font pages of her arrival, she meets the Irish madam Minnie, who immediately becomes her new patroness, protectress and BFF. But the only reason Mason brought Lucy to Southwark was to see Shakespeare, so within moments of their strange romance’s conclusion, Minnie announces, a propos nothing, the next plot point/location: “You’ve had enough of Southwark for a long while… You need to be in Clerkenwell… On the other side of the bridge. You can’t miss it.”
All plays need to get their protagonists from one place to another in order to end, but a good play gets them to do the work themselves, making choices for human reasons. The characters of *Orange Woman* each live as dramatized clichés rather than persons or personalities. Lucy is “wild and free.” Minnie is canny. Shakespeare is a sleaze. Elizabeth is deranged and sexually frustrated. It is unclear how a woman who commands so little authority that Palace staff strolls around her quarters loudly referring to her as a “wench” (meaning “prostitute”) is expected to have remained Queen through forty of Britain’s most turbulent years.
Whenever possible, we see lengthy expositional monologues substituted for characterization. Elizabeth introduces herself by interrupting a jolly party-planning scene because it’s time for an anecdote: as a teenager, she was molested, with oranges, by Thomas Seymour. This is why she detests both men and exotic fruits. So also Minnie explains the source of her supposed stoic shrewdness with her own abuse story: after discovering he’d impregnated her, Shakespeare performed an unbidden abortion (“he wrote [“my girl Jennie’s”] ending before she ever began”).
Poor Shakespeare isn’t given the chance to vindicate his character by a story of sexual trauma. The rest of the cast assumes the burden of his characterization for him, telling us he’s not only an abortionist, but also a fetishist, pedophile, misogynist, rapist, racist and even a plagiarist (“Stealin words from other chaps [sic] lips to make em into gold of his own”). By writing a play about the Lady of the Sonnets, Mason implicitly promises some insight into Shakespeare’s poetry. And that’s it.
Lucy’s character is the most developed—not in that she has a personality, but at least she has a character arc. She starts the play as a helpless sixteen year-old who loves to dance (her specialty is a sort of Macrena pantomime), and supposedly enraptures anyone lucky enough to behold her. Other characters refer throughout to a side of her personality that is fierce and irresistible: her “orange” streak. For instance, Minnie, the play’s shrewdest mind, deduces that Elizabeth must have been threatened by her strength of character (“You was tryin’ to run Golriana’s show”). But as she is written, we see no evidence of this in Lucy beyond her sporadic shrieking bouts and her compulsive dance breaks.
The choice to equate this invisible verve with color risks construal as an unconsidered stereotype, and indeed the script’s naive, hasty and facile treatment of race would be vulgar if we could take it seriously. Lucy’s blackness goes unregistered, except when people call her “a precious little blackamoor” behind her back. Great. Lucy herself never even has occasion to refer to her race. Even better. It’s true that the ugliness of systematized nineteenth century racism whose shadow we still haven’t escaped had not materialized as a culture of organized contempt at the turn of the seventeenth century.
But Lucy does confront her race—suddenly, inanely, and in a way that masquerades as dramatic climax. Despite Minnie’s very sage dissuasions, Lucy has sex with Shakespeare. It is a good experience until the morning after, when she finds him writing Sonnet 130. She learns that Will believes “coral” to be “far more red than her lips” and that “if hairs be wires,” then (logically) her hairs are “black wires,” and unleashes a diatribe accusing him of racism, not finding her body desirable, and desiring her only for her body. In a plot-twist inspired by Legally Blonde, she storms out before he has a chance to write the couplet: “I think my love as rare/ As any she belied with false compare.”
Back home, Lucy weeps to Minnie: “He doesn’t fancy me. He thinks I’m an animal. The poem he wrote was beastly. My hairs like wires, my breast like a dun [sic]. He tupped me and now I’m not a woman to him; I’m a body, a black, stenching body.” But she is quickly propelled into self-assurance (“A stronger Lucy”) by the white woman’s dispensation to be black and beautiful: “Ain’t nothing ugly about you, dearie. Don’t you go round this land thinking that ever again. You got a lot of beauty in you… Black Lucy, beautiful Black Lucy.” Lest there be any question about her empowerment, Minnie also gives her a new name: Lucy Negro. We conclude with the slogan “black is the new fair,” Mason’s original portmanteau of “black is beautiful” and “ruffles are the new pleats.”
For all these reasons, *Orange Woman* failed to sustain an audience’s interest, but even without major rewrites, thoughtful direction could have saved many individual moments. So the blame for the ponderous pacing and general gloominess lies neither with the script nor with the talented cast, but with a production process concerned with matters unrelated to the script’s development.
T&D provides generously for all senior thesis shows it produces, almost always hiring professional lighting, costume and set designers, but its patronage of *Orange Woman* was exceptional. In addition to professional lighting, design and construction of a set that included a 12-foot tall archway and a fly system used to sweep panels, mirrors, walls, etc. in from the ceiling and the wings, and a professional costume design whose realization called for gowns rented from the Metropolitan Opera, Princeton hired professional director Kemati Porter from Chicago, and, in addition to her salary, supplied housing in Princeton for the duration of casting and rehearsals. Apart from production costs, T&D and English awarded Mason research funds to travel to England last summer for a Shakespeare course at Oxford, and to Ireland, because Minnie is Irish. “I needed to get the spirit of that place and that people and that sensibility,” he said. Asked the approximate cost of production, Mason confessed he has no idea. The Lewis Center does not release its budget for theater theses.
But somehow the production choices consistently failed to serve, let alone to ameliorate anything. The direction seldom produced beats or moments of compelling interaction, so did little to combat the internal deadweight of already poorly structured scenes. Unusually long and frequent transitions also did nothing to help. Even the many dance sequences, which could so easily have picked the dragging thing up, were treated more like tableaux. When there was music, it seemed incidental.
While photogenic, the visual world of the play was puzzling. Why did Minnie, a madam from a slum, appear throughout in an outfit of red velvet with gold trimming? Why did the whorehouse look and feel the same as the Palace except that a horse soundtrack was occasionally audible and the furniture was now unvarnished? Why did the destitute girls applying for brothel work appear in gold corsets? Why didn’t Lucy, now living penniless on a madam’s charity in a slum, ever change out of her Palace ball gown? How did she manage to keep it on through her night of sexual awakening?
*Orange Woman* is not a bad play. As it was produced, it doesn’t deserve to be held to the standards of a play at all. It remains an underdeveloped concept, unready to be dramatized. Nevertheless, the fledgling script, so defective that it failed even to maintain the participation of two of the three students who had proposed it, was forced into a fast-paced professional-scale production process that could not be concerned with the wholesale reconceptualization the script desperately needed. Productions are useful for new plays because they’re naturally attuned to details. But details were not *Orange Woman*’s problem; it was crippled by the same basal disorders that would abort an academic argument: uncritical thinking and poor research.
The concept itself is problematic and unoriginal: it sets out to join hundreds of years of generally futile speculation about Shakespeare’s poorly documented life, but it doesn’t even know why it’s interested in Shakespeare. That it’s forced to impose a clumsy and irrelevant etiology on the poems shows that the interest does not grow from text, the only place it can. The interest is in the Dark Lady. Shakespeare wasn’t the only one to love her. Donne and Herbert and songsters stretching back to Solomon have sung their “black, but comely” muses.
There are as many accounts of the Dark Lady as there are sonnets, and it would be easy to fabricate another, but instead Mason committed to the candidate first proposed (tentatively, in a footnote) by George Bagshawe Harrison in 1933 and popularized by “Shakespeare sleuth” Leslie Hotson, who was quick to add that “Black Luce was of course no more an Ethiop than the Black Prince” (which makes it hard to listen to him at all).
It’s a tortuous reading, based on “scattered evidence,” as Harrison admits. We know that a Lucy Morgan was employed at Whitehall in the area of 1579-81. The same person appears to resurface in the 1590s as a madam in a district of London distant from Shakespeare’s, convicted of pimping in 1596. The only evidence that they might ever have been in the same place is an odd manuscript, the Gesta Grayorum, which recount a law students’ Christmas party at Gray’s Inn in 1594 and, along with dozens of others, mentions both “Lucy Morgan” and members of the cast of The Comedy of Errors.
By accepting Harrison’s account without considering its sources, Mason became convinced of his heroine’s historicity and understood her rehabilitation to be his charge. “History has erased her and I had to bring her back to life,” he said. This would be a fine starting point if by “her” he meant the Black presence in Shakespeare’s oeuvre or in the early modern imagination, but he means Lucy Morgan, as he’s dreamed her.
This approach is not foredoomed, but by setting personal fancy as the bottom line, it risks perverting the texts and the history it’s committed to in the service of an unfalsifiable fantasy. At worst, it means inventing and misattributing a set of concerns irrelevant except in his fantasyland. The initial hope of shining the light of imagination through the relics of the past to reflect it more brightly upon the present is smothered.
And indeed *Orange Woman* is made up of careless, mystifying perversions. Harrison’s very claim requires Lucy and Shakespeare to have met in the early ’90s, but Mason starts the play with a 16 year-old Lucy in 1599, when Morgan would have been nearly forty and probably dead. Perhaps the reason for this shift is that the Globe wasn’t constructed until then, but Minnie’s claim that Shakespeare employed her as an orange-woman while having sex with her “bout twenty years ago” seems to belie this: Shakespeare would have been fifteen and a schoolboy in Stratford.
The language of the play is a dialect of the same incorrigible negligence. Three or four overused British-sounding expressions are blithely flaunted as if sufficient to historical verisimilitude. Characters “fancy” things over forty times during the play, and in six special cases “fancy” them “madly.” Prostitutes are in the business of “tupping,” a verb naming a ram’s copulation with a ewe and rarely used figuratively.
Meanwhile, everyone forgets approximately every two pages whether they know one second-person pronoun or two, even as Elizabeth makes a point of remonstrating Lucy for using the familiar “thou” with her. The incessant shifts in and out of “thou,” often misused or ungrammatical, are almost as dizzying as the blatant refusal to look to Shakespeare’s own rich corpus for slang and gutter talk. Instead, we hear “fuck” forty-four times; and while “fuck” is a very old word indeed, its only historically accurate sense is the one Mason consistently preferred “tup” for (as an adverb or adjectival intensifier, “fuck” is not attested before the 1860s—and “feck” not until a century later).
There are times the play tries to say things. Mason seems to want to explore issues of sexual renunciation, but this interest evidently emerged late, and the characters he’d chosen weren’t there to tell that story, at least not before Elizabeth and Shakespeare had reason to be in the script, one appropriate to their legacies, and had earned the right to ask real questions.
Mason dismisses what he considers myopic factual quibbles and sees *Orange Woman* as the first of many successful plays. He repeats that the play, and playwriting in general, are really about his “love of language,” his interest in “the storytelling mechanisms of the theater” and his “need to bring to life a story of Africans in the diaspora.” That’s lovely, but *Orange Woman* raises the question whether he’s ever been made to consider that an artist needs to earn his public’s attention, that an audience has no reason to listen to an artist who treats the material he’s chosen to bear his story with flagrant negligence. Mason’s impenitent enthusiasm makes him an ideal thesis student in many respects, but one wonders if any advisor ever sat down and discussed with him that just as a paper needs to have thought itself into a thesis before it can begin a coherent argument, so a work of art must adhere by some principle more rigorous than “language,” “storytelling” and “need” for politicizing platitude.
The more serious problem is not the production, but the now incontestable fact that, for all its munificence, Princeton has failed to make good on its only true promise to Mason: to make him write a play. Instead of forcing him to address the same basic problems as other thesis-writing seniors, the Theater Program placed the script in a grueling production situation whose values were not pedagogical: it had to salvage what it could and make whatever cosmetic adjustments possible for the sake of coherence. That the product was then dressed up in costumes from the Met and thrown triumphantly on stage and homepage does grave damage to the University’s argument that it needs $300 million to teach the arts. Princeton has funded Mason’s research trips to Europe, but has not equipped him with rudimentary information retrieval and verification skills (indispensable to any informed citizen, to say nothing of the creative writer who must draw upon readings to imagine whole worlds). Worse still, Princeton has failed to convince him of their value.