Stage Beauty

I watched an interesting movie last night: Stage Beauty. It’s set in 17th century England, and although the commentaries on the DVD admit openly that they weren’t all that concerned with historical accuracy, it felt old and archaic, which is all that mattered to a forgiving viewer like me.

The plot line concerns a successful Shakespearean actor (Ned Kensington) and an aspiring actress (Mariah “Mrs.” Hughes). Kensington was an orphan trained from childhood to act the parts of the ladies of Shakespeare because at the time it was illegal for women to act, as it was considered immoral. Mariah wants desperately to act, and, as his “dresser” – apparently a personal servant, valet, and makeup artist – she memorizes his performance and apes his every move on stage.

It could have been a silly romantic chick flick about the loyal dresser and the star actor… eek! I can’t even bring myself to type what might have been. Bleach!

The good news is that the movie was bigger than that. I’ll admit that Mariah silently worships Kensington – but it is hero worship made of her ambition to act more than any reality of the relationship. Quickly you realize that Kensington is a shallow cad only interested in his own aggrandizement – or is he?

The plot begins to diverge from expectation as you find that while Kensington is willing to pleasure himself in any convenient way that presents itself, his “relationship” is with another male actor in the play. Then Mariah is participating illegally in a theatre in a tavern that uses female actresses to play women’s roles. And now, the King decides to change the law and make it so that only women can play women, and suddenly the tables are turned.

You can imagine the affect all of this has on Mariah – but surprisingly, it is her hero worship and not her “love” that reacts. Her hero has fallen off his pedestal, and, after an argument with him, she is willing to compete with him for his own part, and to take what had been his undisputed place once he is no longer around to fight for it.

The bottom drops out for Kensington, who finds his fans helping to lure him to a deserted place to be mugged, his lover rejecting him not only for the future but retroactively into the past, by saying it was never him that he thought of himself as being with, but the mythical characters Kensington played on stage, and his career and share in the theatre gone, apparently forever. His entire identity was wrapped up in playing women, and now he cannot, because women play women. “Where is the artifice in playing a man? Where is the artistry?” he asks, bemoaning his fate.

Handed the opportunity on a silver platter to examine his life and discover his separate identity, Kensington instead surrenders to seeming fate and is next seen drunkenly exposing himself to a tavern crowd while wearing a dress and makeup.

Meanwhile, Mariah has found no bed of roses. She who would be an actress cannot hold a crowd. She acts Kensington’s part – Desdemona, from Othello – with the lines, the blocking, the inflection, every part of the performance that brought down the house night after night for Kensington, but to no avail. What worked for a man playing a woman does not work for a woman playing a woman. Or is it that Mariah simply cannot act?

Mariah goes to find Kensington – finding him in the same tavern she used to defy the law by acting in, a slightly over the top bit of irony – and takes him to a hotel to dry out. Her motivations are not clear, but it would seem that she simply wants to see that he’s okay. It’s not a mushy scene exactly – Mariah is too strong a character for that.

Mariah and Kensington have this incredible conversation in the hotel. Mariah finally asks Kensington why he refuses to act men’s parts, and he gives a surprising (to me, the 20th century mostly brainwashed TV viewer) response: men are too emotional. “Beauty is everything. Men are too emotional to be beautiful; it clouds everything they do. That’s why I could never get the death scene right; I couldn’t let the beauty die.” He goes on more, but that was the astounding gist of it.

Since when are men allowed to be emotional on TV? Mariah responds with passion: “I always hated your Desdemona. A woman wouldn’t die like that. She wouldn’t let him kill her, no matter how much she loved him. A woman would fight.” [in Othello, Othello strangles Desdemona because he believes she’s having an affair with Cassio. Kensington was prone to act the scene in a very melodramatic, theatrical way that involved wilting gently onto the bed and languidly waving one arm while Othello pressed a pillow – gently – to his face. As the applause for the scene went on and on, Kensington/Desdemona would raise his supposedly dead hand for one still wave and let it drop again to show he wasn’t really dead, thus the “I couldn’t let the beauty die.”]

The movie goes on, with Kensington and Mariah exploring different roles in their private relationship and their public rivalry and their separate careers, but basically the movie is about gender identity and gender confusion, as well as the more basic question of what makes us who we are. I won’t give away the end, but what I found most satisfying about the movie is that the lead characters could have an on-again, off-again friendship/relationship/rivalry that depended on how the person each really was conflicted with how each of them felt and wanted out of life. I felt like I was watching real people interact.

But more than just enjoying a movie that allowed a strong and passionate woman to be pursuing her own dream and finding good and bad along the way; more than both characters reconsidering themselves and their belief about who they are and both characters growing and changing as the movie progresses, I found the discourse about beauty fascinating.

Beauty, says Kensington, is the absence of emotion. Men are too emotional, he says – thinking, probably of Othello who kills Desdemona for perceived unfaithfulness that is not even real – to portray beauty. Where is the artistry in portraying men?

I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in Kensington’s argument, except that I see his viewpoint in the treatment women characters have had in that period of history. We have been talking on the forum about the Lord of the Rings and similar works of literature, where the women seem to be an ethereal ideal sitting on a shelf, like a china doll that never gets played with but is the reward (or victim) of the male hero (or anti-hero).

It would seem that although today’s TV doesn’t pursue beauty at all (rather, money), the literature of centuries past worshiped at the shrine of an idealized Beauty that never existed. As Mariah says, a woman would fight. In fact, it is the passion within a woman’s nature that makes her beautiful, is it not?

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but there are some things it is not, no matter who’s looking: beauty is not cutting off pieces of our own souls in order to fit a mold, whether that mold is emotionless or an emotional roller coaster. Beauty is not about fitting a pattern; who ever thought a paint-by-number was comparable to classic art? Who ever thought that a player piano could equal the Moonlight Sonata or Beethoven’s Fifth performed by the artist personally?

No, beauty is about making something of the totality of who each of us is as a person that is new and unique and creative. Beauty is about being real and yet finding a way to make that work, making it something that is true and effective, new and yet old, traditional but compelling. Beauty is about the marriage of necessity and origination.

In this way, each of us is beautiful when we succeed in making something real and true and good out of what we are, and what we are given.


  1. Jennifer Kesler says

    I actually think that men are far more emotional creatures than society leads us to believe, and this is the very reason society forces constructions of bluster and bravado onto them. Whether they’re actually more emotional than women or not… well, I think society forces more pragmatism and accountability onto women than men. If a man rushes into something foolish and screws up – at least he had the guts to try. If a woman does the same thing – she should have known better.

    With all of us being trained from birth to expect those reactions, it makes sense that women would learn to more discipline over their feelings – it’s a matter of survival. Men, conversely, learn to curb the _expression of feelings_, but the feelings are still in there, repressed and often underdeveloped.

    These are, of course, gross generalizations. But we live in societies of gross stereotypes, and we’re under enormous pressure to conform. So please understand I’m not talking about the potential of individuals, but rather what happens when the majority of us cave in and do what’s expected of us.

  2. firebird says

    It seems to me that men and women in general feel things differently (just as individuals in particular feel things differently), but no less or more than each other. In my experience, men are as varied as women, and just as emotional – but often about different things.

    That’s a good point about the difference that men and women experience when they try something and fail. It’s true – but I never thought about it before. :-)


  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    Is Kensington’s point that men are more *ruled* by emotion than women? Is that what he means by “too emotional”?

  4. firebird says

    No, he seems to think men are by nature emotional and women are by nature beautiful, or unemotional. It often appears that our society thinks that men do not *feel* emotion and women do, and Kensington’s monologue seemed to me to be a complete reversal of that truism.

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