Elizabethan prodigal prodigy Christopher Marlowe, whose tantalizingly brief life ended in political assassination, wrote a history play, in the mid-1590s, about the 1327 political assassinations of England’s Edward II and his lover and boyhood friend, Piers Gaveston. Rarely performed, Edward II remains notorious for its disclosure that Edward’s state-sanctioned murder came in the form of his impalement on a red-hot poker—a willing sodomite in life, hence a hell-bound sodomite in death.
Decades after Brecht seized on Edward II, and 400 years after Marlowe (and while, far from his London studio, the Gulf War plodded on), Derek Jarman decided to make Edward II his own property. He decided, that is, to make the play his own (Jarman being nothing if not proprietary about the often tarnished or misvalued treasures of his English patrimony), and to make his own the historical figure of the martyred king, a gesture perfectly in accord with Jarman’s agenda of reclaiming figures from the past and embracing them as embattled precursors of the modern gay sensibility (Saint Sebastian, Caravaggio, the Shakespeare of the Sonnets, and most recently, Ludwig Wittgenstein). In this respect, Marlowe’s Edward II is, for Jarman, an uncannily snug match. Yet even given that, it’s Jarman’s prerogative—and his provocation—to subtitle the film’s published script, Queer Edward, with the notation, Edward II, Improved by Derek Jarman. Like George Bernard Shaw, Jarman figures he might as well say it himself before someone else has to.
Alert to the needs of both cinema and of the political moment, Jarman announces his own formula in the preface to the script: “How to make a film of a gay love affair and get it commissioned? Find a dusty old play and violate it . . . Marlowe outs the past—why don’t we out the present? That’s really the only message the play has. Fuck poetry. The best lines in Marlowe sound like pop songs, and the worst, well, we’ve tried to spare you . . .” Least of all does Jarman’s Edward II spare the central characters, nearly all of whom, at one point or another, surrender to (and thereby become instruments of) power, here understood as the will to render another human being into less than a human being. The exception—which is so striking as to recommend him rather than his sibling as the text’s genuinely tragic figure—is Edward’s brother, Kent, whose fate results from an ethical adherence to the absolutes of sovereignty; for that reason, he becomes everyone’s nuisance. Still, Jarman’s version of Marlowe’s play jettisons a lot, principally Edward’s death, an event Jarman refuses to cede to history: “It was the one moment in my life when I decided to go for a positive ending because of the homophobia that was around when we were filming.”
In other words, Marlowe’s and England’s Edward does die; Jarman’s Edward, eternally Gaveston’s longtime companion, escapes, if obliquely, leaving his gender-bent son to reign as Edward III. Here, Jarman’s variations intelligently elaborate upon Marlowe’s knotted inquiries into the three-headed monster of sex, power, and politics, regarded frankly from a position favoring homosexuality and distrusting heterosexuality; or rather, it distrusts any legislated heterosexuality posited as the exclusive universal norm.
Jarman’s expression of this is far from programmatic, since that would involve an analytical disinterest he himself would admit he lacks—a disinterest that under his circumstances would amount to something of a grotesque luxury. Having been working while periodically ill with AIDS since the late 1980s, Jarman has grown increasingly passionate about the non-negotiable necessity of gay rights (England’s version of ACT UP, the group called OutRage, appear as themselves in two crucial sequences of Edward II), and the genius of a film like Edward II ultimately stems from its astonishing success in reimagining a classic text by using the archaic constraints essential to that work to speak in an altogether contemporary idiom about life and death circumstances.
Jarman the gay director, Jarman the director with AIDS. Well, yes—it’s as he would have it, and all deference to that. But let’s hear at least two cheers for Jarman the artist who has, more than any other English-speaking contemporary of the last 25 years, managed to alter how history can be rendered on film, and to alter our sense of how history and its texts can be made to matter, and made into matter. Edward II has as its fierce motor-force the passion to summon the voices of history’s dead, and to greet their desires with joy, and to harness their power to scorch bare the putrid ground of the present. The living call on the awakened dead to sanctify the purifying ritual, and then life, mortified, moves on to its happy end.