December 14, 2010
As you may or may not know, I am currently working on a stage adaptation of King Arthur for Andy's Summer Playhouse, a children's theatre in New Hampshire. As of now, I think I'm going to divide the show into a prologue, which features Merlin briefly narrating the tale of Arthur's birth, Act I, which stages Arthur's boyhood and tutelage under Merlin, and Act II, which details some of the adventures of the Round Table.
An important goal in my writing for children's theatre is to provide strong roles for girls. The theatrical cannon does not typically offer strong female characters — either a role is admirable or fun to play, but has very little stage time, or the role espouses stereotypes that I do not wish to perpetuate. I am naturally thinking about this quite a bit as I begin to outline my play for this summer, as King Arthur is a classically male-dominated tale. Many of the women live fairly tragic lives, usually completely at the mercy of abusive husbands, evil knights, giants, and dragons. These damsels are at least involved in adventures, however, which is more than women like Guinevere can say. Guinevere and other ladies are often confined to their castles whilst the men go on quests, doomed to hours of needlepoint, picking flowers, and overwhelming boredom.
I have been contemplating three different ways to deal with this issue.
The first idea is to change some of the male roles to female roles by introducing the idea of female knights. I am not wild about this idea, however. It is exciting to deal with open-source archetypes, the same characters penned by different authors over hundreds of years and I like the idea of honoring the historical gender of the characters. Also, so much of the chivalric code is wrapped up in what it means to be a "man," which is interesting to look at through a contemporary lens. Rewriting some of the knights as women would muddle what I believe to be one of the central themes in the story.
The second idea is to write the traditional female roles to be stronger and more influential. This was done in the novel The Mists of Avalon, which takes a more feminist approach to the legend. Instead of Morgan Le Fay being an evil enchantress, for example, she is a pagan priestess who is simply fighting against patriarchy and female submission. This option is a definite possibility, though I would need to make this idea my own, and not simply adapt The Mists of Avalon for the stage.
The third idea may be my favorite, and involves creating entirely new female characters as important ancillaries to the story. A key device in the first act would be Merlin teaching Arthur lessons by turning him into animals. (Though this device is used in The Once and Future King and then, later, in Disney's The Sword in the Stone, Merlin is cited as a shape-shifter as early as the twelfth century... so I can't imagine I'll run into copyright issues there, especially if I create my own animal lessons.) Anyway, my idea is to write most of the animals as female. I like this idea for two reasons. One, this device would provide fun and sizable roles for girls, roles that are important and thoughtful and wise. Two, I like the idea of Arthur's educational journey driven by a female energy, which in turn puts him in the position to be a fair and just king in the second act. One of the main things that set Arthur apart was his internalized creed: "Might is Not Right." Who better to teach this to him than women?
What are your thoughts, friends? Do any of these ideas (or others) excite you?