When asked by Axios on HBO how he would respond to critics who claimed he was “too gay to be Commander-in-Chief,” Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg struck just the right tone of bitch, please in replying, “I would imagine we’ve probably had excellent presidents who were gay. We just didn’t know which ones.” We do know about lifelong bachelor James Buchanan, who installed niece “Hal” Lane in the White House to serve as First Lady, but Mayor Pete is correct: no American president has ever led the nation with a male romantic partner openly at his side.
Buttigieg might have grown impatient with questions about whether this country is ready for a gay leader, but history and literature teach that it’s been a valid question for centuries. England’s medieval King Edward II famously flaunted his devotion to male favorite Piers Gaveston, and wound up deprived of both his man and his kingdom. Edward and Gaveston’s true story might not have been a romantic one, but they’ll be forever remembered as lovers, thanks to Christopher Marlowe’s Renaissance-era tragedy Edward II, which portrays a leader accused of being “too young, too liberal, too gay” to be trusted with power.
“If Edward and Gaveston had just been fucking and kept it on the quiet, no one would have cared,” says Bob Bartlett, who took Marlowe’s play and reimagined it as E2, a modern parable of queer love and persecution opening this week at REP Stage. “No one would have cared, but when they started to make it public, when they started to flaunt their love in front of [Edward’s queen] Isabella, in front of the children, in front of the country…. That he’s now taking Gaveston out in public instead of his wife would have pissed people off royally.”
Fascinated by Edward and Gaveston’s story since he studied the Marlowe play at Catholic University, Bartlett didn’t get around to writing his spin until relatively recently. In those ensuing years, while teaching playwriting and screenwriting at Maryland’s Bowie State University, Bartlett has seen several of his other plays produced, including Bareback Ink, a sensual adaptation of Greek myth, the 2017 O’Neill finalist The Orbit of Mercury, and the six-time 2019 Helen Hayes Award-nominated comedy Swimming with Whales.
Along the way, Bartlett found a fellow fan of Edward II in Joseph Ritsch, artistic director of REP Stage. “We met…years ago in Baltimore at a small queer company called Iron Crow Theater,” Bartlett recalls. “[Bareback Ink] was being produced there, a queer reimagining of the Zeus and Ganymede myth. I knew that we shared an artistic sensibility, so he was somebody that I wanted to work with.”
The feeling was mutual, as Ritsch more or less commissioned E2 over a conversation. “I’ve always really loved the Marlowe play,” says Ritsch. “And when Bob approached me and said, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about this adaptation of Marlowe’s Edward II, what do you think?’ I was like, ‘I think it could be really exciting to do a modern reimagining/adaptation.’ So in essence, I commissioned a piece for the season, because he had nothing on paper at that point. It was just an idea.”
As the idea evolved to become a Millennial update of the classic play, the collaborators “set the rules up at the top of the piece that this is not the Marlowe,” Ritsch says. “It’s inspired by the Marlowe, and also inspired by history. Because Edward actually existed. So I think Bob has done a wonderful job at speaking to both the Marlowe, as well as the history.”
Bartlett and Ritsch also acknowledge the myriad ways E2 speaks to the current cultural moment — as it relates to Mayor Pete’s candidacy, and the general treatment, or mistreatment, of LGBTQ people in nations and kingdoms worldwide.
“As we started to dive into the project, I was saddened by how current so many of the themes of the Marlowe feel for our community today,” says Ritsch, citing the violent state-sanctioned persecution of queer people in countries like Chechnya and Uganda, and the frightening number of trans women of color being murdered in the U.S. “Those are the things that have risen to the surface for me with the piece.”
After more than a year and a half spent deconstructing and reinterpreting the historic and political themes that resonate within E2, Barlett is ready to see the show break the surface.
“We’re in tech this weekend, so everything is costume, sound, light, projection all coming in, and the design is just beautiful,” the playwright says. “It couldn’t be better. And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to work at REP Stage, because I’ve been a fan for so long. I don’t live that far from the theater, so I’ve been going there for 10, 15 years, and I’ve always been blown away by their production aesthetic. So [this] has gone beyond my high expectations.”
METRO WEEKLY: It’s less than a week before E2 opens. Is the playwriting side of things finished, or are you still fine-tuning?
BOB BARTLETT: It’s funny you should ask that, because there’s one scene I still have not been able to crack, and the cast and the director and the team have been so generous. They understand what a world premiere means, and I don’t think they pay it lip service, because you hear companies and directors say, “We’re not afraid to make changes in previews,” and those sorts of things. Sometimes they mean it. So we’re going to be making changes to this really important scene. Otherwise, I’d just be sitting in the back of the room enjoying the process and sneaking out to watch the Nats game.
MW: Without saying exactly what that scene is, what are you looking for in order to recognize “We’ve got it”? What is that feeling or knowledge going to be for you?
BARTLETT: That’s a good question, because sometimes it can be a little elusive. The scene has to serve the play and the moment where it happens. So really it’s about examining the scene’s function. Let me just say, it’s not only me who recognizes the deficiency in the moment. All of us are kind of scratching our heads as to why this particular moment might not be what it needs to be, but we’re all confident that it will be.
MW: The confidence that it will be — that’s like every night of theater, right?
BARTLETT: It is theater. And I know what I’m about to say is true. With a first production, sometimes you just want to put it out there and see how audiences respond. Certainly we are thinking about just leaving the scene the way that it is and seeing how audiences respond to it. But a writer, and especially one who’s kind of neurotic — are all writers neurotic? I don’t know — but if you can always have one more edit, I think you will take it.
Obviously with live theater, we’re dealing with a team and really smart actors and really smart designers and a brilliant director, with all of us coming together to break apart, to rip apart, to build back together, and then to put something up on its feet for an audience who are also part of the process.
MW: What was the process behind E2 being commissioned by REP Stage?
BARTLETT: It was an informal commission. I had been pitching plays to Joseph Ritsch for a few years. He did a reading of a couple of my plays at REP Stage, but we didn’t quite find the right fit. A year and a half ago I texted him out of the blue and said, “I’ve wanted to write an adaptation of Edward II for a long, long time. Have you ever thought of a contemporary adaptation of Edward II?” Because I had read a review of Coriolanus at the Stratford that, while it wasn’t a contemporary reimagining of Coriolanus, they’d brought in contemporary technologies like cell phones and texting and text bubbles and all of that. I’m like, “I want to do that!” I revisited Edward II with him, and by text I pitched the shape of the play, which relationships and which characters I was interested in working with, because Marlowe’s play is huge. It’s 43 characters and lots of doubling. I really wanted to focus on three relationships, and primarily Edward and Gaveston. We’ve taken Marlowe’s really big play and gotten it down to 90 minutes, and from 43 characters to five characters.
One of the things, as a gay man, that always sort of bothered me about the play was that Edward falls deeply, madly in love with Gaveston and then, spoiler alert, Gaveston gets murdered brutally. Then Edward finds another guy pretty quickly in Marlowe’s play, and he falls in love with that guy, and then that guy is murdered brutally. For me, the heart of Marlowe’s play ended for me when Gaveston dies. So that was the part of Marlowe’s play that I wanted to put on stage, just focusing on their love, and then the love triangle — or quadrangle if that’s a word. That whole foursome of Edward, Isabella, Gaveston, and Mortimer. You’ve got three really rich relationships there.
MW: Do you view Edward and Gaveston’s story as more of a tragic romance, or a treatise on the historic persecution of gays in general?
BARTLETT: I think it’s both. When I started writing the play, we were in year two of the Trump administration. I don’t have to go into all of that, but the play has a contemporary resonance, I think. I’ve said this in other interviews, and I really believe this, I felt safer walking the streets five years ago than I do today, and that shouldn’t be the case. Something has changed, something is changing. Not just here in America, but all over the world. A few years back, I wrote a play about America’s exporting of violent homophobia to Uganda. Now we see Uganda back in the news again, and Chechnya. So I consider it both.
I had one central question in mind as I was writing the play, and this was before Mayor Pete. It was, “Are we ready for a gay king? Is England ready for a gay king today? Is America ready for a gay president?” And up until the last couple of weeks, people didn’t seem too pissed off that an openly married gay man was running for president. Now, maybe that’s because we live in the Washington, D.C. area. But you didn’t really see conservative voices out railing about a gay married man running for president. In the last week there have been some. I’m sure you’ve seen them.
MW: They coincided with news that his polling is up.
BARTLETT: Exactly. About six or eight months ago I said to Joseph, “You know, if Mayor Pete is still in the race in November” — because I kind of thought he might not be — “that’s a really interesting backstory to the story that we’re telling.” Because ultimately, in my play, and again not to give away spoilers, but Edward is certainly persecuted more and more as his orientation and as his love for Gaveston becomes more public. I wondered as I was writing, if England suddenly had a gay king today, how would that go over? We like to think it would be okay, but I don’t know.
MW: Talk for a second about how you contemporized the story — adding cell phones, video games, social media. How did you measure what to update and what to leave alone?
BARTLETT: It ended up being situational for the most part. Marlowe opens his play with a long letter between Gaveston and Edward, where Edward is calling Gaveston home. I take that really medium-sized letter and reduce it to a text that opens the play, where Edward texts, “My dad died. Come home. E2.” I really use technology as a dramatic device and tool to make the play and this Elizabethan love story relevant to contemporary audiences. I think the use of video games in the play is really quite compelling. I don’t play video games. I used to play video games, but when I really started to take writing seriously, they had to go because I was spending too much time on NBA 2K and whatever. But I love the fact that Edward and Gaveston play video games, and that Edward’s son plays video games.
The scene late in the play where Edward and his son play Mario Kart together has turned into one of the most beautiful and human and touching moments of the play, because how many parents and their children have connected while playing video games. Here they are playing this video game and having this incredibly urgent dialogue about what it means to be a king and what it means to be a king who’s in love. So that’s how I use technology in the play. I think it’s really effective and it’s a part of their lives. The use of technology in the play mirrors the use of technology in our own lives. Ten years ago I couldn’t have imagined picking up my cell phone and shooting a live video of myself for the whole world to see. When you’re the king of England, and a young king of England, and a young, sexy, beautiful king of England — as this family is very young — they would have been on the news every day, like Edward says. If Edward livestreamed something, it would be major, major, major breathtaking news.
MW: The script specifies that Gaveston is a person of color. Are we to read that race is another reason that certain people in the kingdom would not be able to support their relationship, in addition to the issues of sexuality and class?
BARTLETT: Right. The way race came into play is, Edward and Mortimer are white and Gaveston and Isabella are people of color, and then Edward III is mixed. I am a writer who writes diversely, so I can’t even imagine writing a play with an all-white cast. That’s not the world that I live in. It’s not the community that I live in — I teach at a historically black college. So whenever I look at a story, I look at it through a lens of the America that I live in and that I love.
When I started to crack open the story, historical Edward II and then Marlowe’s Edward II, Isabella and Gaveston are French, so they’re foreigners. That became a focus in the early drafts of my play, and up until this summer in our last workshop, there was a theme of immigration and foreigners in the play that sort of was echoing the times that we’re living in. Now, slowly I backed off of that, but I did not back off the fact that Isabella and Gaveston were “the other” and what that meant to them to be in positions of power — even Gaveston, whose position is tenuous, but Isabella’s too, she’s the queen consort. And what that meant, to have two people of color in positions of power like that, and confronting, in one case Mortimer, who’s sort of the embodiment of toxic masculinity in some ways, and Edward, who’s just the opposite. It becomes another layer for the play altogether, and I think the play leaves us in a hopeful situation with Edward III, who’s not only racially mixed, but who’s also politically mixed of all of these people who’ve been a part of his life, and it’s beautiful. I think we cannot ignore race in America. I didn’t want to do that in this play, even though this play is not set in America.
MW: Your play Bareback Ink is described as unapologetically queer, which I guess might also apply to E2. Does it always suit you as an artist to be considered unapologetically queer, or does it ever feel limiting?
BARTLETT: No. I would say, five or ten years ago you would probably have heard me say, “I’m not a very good gay writer,” and I’m really not sure that I was. In E2, their sexuality does not feel radical to me at all. It feels just everyday normal. In Bareback Ink, it was a bit radical. But right now I’m in a place where I’m just really interested in writing about the LGBTQ+ experience. The last year, I’ve really been writing history plays and plays inspired by historical figures. I just had a reading of a new play that’s not at all queer at Mosaic Theatre, called Anacostia Flats, which is about the Bonus Army’s march on Washington, and I’m about to have a reading of a play about Walt Whitman’s queer years living in D.C.
People forget that Walt Whitman lived in D.C. But he lived here for 11 years and he wrote two editions of Leaves of Grass while he was here, and he worked for the federal government, and he served as a nurse, or a one-man USO in the Civil War hospital camps. But he also cruised Pennsylvania Avenue here. He also picked up boys here. He also fell in love here with a young Irishman, a horse-drawn street car operator who drove from Georgetown to the Treasury Building every day. I dove into that history and that play, I think, is pretty radical. You see Walt Whitman giving a guy a blow job on the 6th Street dock. I’m really excited about that play. And first of all, I love Walt Whitman. I’ve been reading Walt Whitman since I was in middle school. I think history and academe have stripped him of some of his sexuality. My play is called Union because it’s set in the spring of 1865, at the end of the Civil War and during Lincoln’s assassination. Lincoln’s assassination changed Whitman radically, but it’s also the time where he met Pete Doyle and fell in love with Pete. His relationship with Pete lasted ten years or longer. In my play, we just deal with the spring of 1865. I think people don’t know that about Whitman’s life, so I’m excited about that.
And then I’m working on a fantasy about J. Edgar Hoover’s love life, which I’m really having a lot of fun with, because he was a monster, but by all accounts he was deeply in love with this guy, Clyde Tolson. But I’m just getting started on that one. And I’m working on a gay horror screenplay, because when is the last time we saw a horror film with openly gay characters when it wasn’t Walking Dead? This is an actual relationship story about two men who are caught up in a ghost story. So, yeah, I think I am getting to be a better gay writer.
MW: I was going to ask you about Union, actually, because I’m very curious about it. I have Leaves of Grass sitting right over my shoulder.
BARTLETT: I’m blown away by this love affair that he had. Whitman was 45 in the spring of 1865 in my play, and Pete Doyle by all accounts was 21. They didn’t cohabitate, but did cohabitate. They were kind of inseparable. They spent every night at the Willard Hotel sitting in the lobby. They couldn’t afford to stay at the Willard, but they hung out in the lobby. Whitman had a literary circle here in the city. If he had not had a stroke, by all accounts he would never have left D.C. But when he had his first stroke, Pete tried to take care of him and it didn’t go so well. And then he had a second stroke, so he ended up heading to Camden to live with his brother, and that was sort of the de facto end of his relationship with Pete.
Again, here I have another play that really focuses on this love affair between him and Pete. Of course, there’s a second plot line that I absolutely love, which is Whitman going into the Civil War hospitals, and taking care of soldiers, visiting soldiers. The play’s having a reading at the D.C. Queer Theater Festival on December 7, and it’s a fundraiser for the D.C. Center. It’s a three-hander, so it’s very producible.
MW: Segueing to another Pete, we were talking about whether or not the world is ready for a gay leader. Are you ready for a gay leader?
BARTLETT: Wow. That’s not a fair question. I am. I obviously am. I don’t think there needs to be a distinction. I don’t think who we love and who we marry should have anything to do with whether we’re fit for leadership, political office, to be CEO of a major company, or president of a university, a professor, or whatever. It just shouldn’t matter at all.
But the reality is that it does. Obviously, I’ve just spent a year and a half fantasizing about gay leadership and what it means and the unique challenges that a gay leader faces, but they’re not unlike the ones that President Obama faced. I think as we came out of Obama’s eight years, and even during those years, thinking racism is dead in America, we found out that it was insidiously growing, and we didn’t necessarily know it at the time. Certainly we found out quickly afterwards.
In previous drafts of my play, there was an undercurrent of that in the population as Edward was being outed more and more. It ended up getting in the way of the story that I was telling, so I backed off of it. But I think a good part of the population, if Mayor Pete is president, will just not give a shit. They just won’t care. They’d be like, “Are you doing a good job? Okay, great.”
E2 runs through November 17 at REP Stage, The Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center’s Studio Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, Maryland (near Merriweather Post Pavilion). Tickets are $15 to $40. Call 443-518-1500, or visit www.repstage.org.