The Abdication premiered in Bath, England, on May 26, 1971. A year earlier, as soon as it was written, Roger Stevens optioned it for production. He gave it to the prominent London producer, Donald Albery. Albery gave it to Val May, director of the Bristol Old Vic. Val, who the previous season had planned to produce my play Eleanor of Aquitaine, said he liked this new script and wanted to present it at the Bath Festival in the spring of 1971.
He and Albery made several demands my agent Audrey Wood and I found shocking. (Audrey was the fabled representative of Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Robert Anderson, etc., and is the extraordinary woman to whomwith Roger StevensI dedicate this publication of the play.) Among their demands were that I would not have casting approval and that I could come to the first reading but could not attend any of the subsequent rehearsals. I was young, I was powerless, it was a matter of having a production under these conditions or having no production at all. We said yes.
I don't think Val expected me to actually arrive in England for the first reading and then sit around for three weeks while the play rehearsed without me. But that's what I did. I attended the first reading then wandered alone around Bath, that genteel Regency city of genteel tourism, exiled from the development of my play.
Val knew I did not approve of the set design he'd settled on. I'd always seen the play as one whose contemporary ideas were far more important than its royal or religious trappings. I wanted to see it on a space stage, as open as possible, as modern and abstract as possible, with the imaginary characters moving in and disappearing easily. I wanted the costumes to be freely adapted from the period, not heavily encrusted with the past. Instead, in this production, we were definitely in the Vatican. And the clothes didn't say, "This is now, this is timeless," they said, "This is then."
However, when I finally got to see the play at a dress rehearsal, I felt the acting was high quality and professional. Gemma Jones was 29, exactly the age Christina was when Christina abdicated and came to Rome. David Neal was giving a strong and sensitive performance as the cardinal. The othersyoung actors, for all of the characters in the play except one are quite youngdid excellent jobs.
Audrey Wood came over for the opening and we sat together, alone in the empty theatre, for the final dress rehearsal in the 18th-century jewel-box Theatre Royal in Bath. At that dress rehearsal all went beautifully. Audrey, who was a seasoned professional not given to wild enthusiasms, was unreservedly ecstatic. The play, she said, was sturdy, beautiful, moving, and would obviously be successful. What we didn't know at the time was that the management had invited the London critics to Bath to see the play the next night, opening nightthe first time the actors would be performing before an audience. Ever.
On that night, I think Gemma was terrified. David Neal had to carry the play. The others were off their marks in pacing, in expression. Playing in front of an audience for the first time threw them. The soaring, moving performances Audrey and I had seen the night before in the dress rehearsal simply weren't there.
I would be less than candid if I didn't report that some of the critics who had dragged themselves all the way to Bath to see what turned out to be a ragged performance were not charmed. There was resentment that an American was being given a production partially supported by public British moneys. There was also resentment that a national theatre was presenting a play which clearly was meant for a commercial run in London's West End. And as for the content of this highly emotional drama about a queen trying to come to terms with her masculine and feminine natures and then falling in love with a cardinal! Well! While there were a couple of critics who understood the universality and contemporaneity of the subject matter, there were also a couple who found these ideas beyond their understanding.
The next day the producers made the decision not to bring the play in to London unless there were cast changes. Some attempts were made to re-cast the star. Vanessa Redgrave, Judi Dench and others were sought, but no suitable actress was available. My husband, young son and I stayed in Bath a few days after the opening then returned home to Cambridge, Mass., feeling empty and disheartened.
Miraculously, however, across the ocean in Bath, the play had found its audience! People came and watched and were absorbed and moved and immensely appreciative. They were, I was told, tremendously grateful for a play which brought them so much substance. Confounding the critics, The Abdication sold out every night of its run.
And so began its onward journey. One member of that audience had been a scout for Warner Bros. The play sold to the movies. I was asked to write the screenplay. The film, starring Liv Ullmann and Peter Finch, came out in 1974. The play was published by Random House in The New Women's Theatre, a collection of plays edited by Honor Moore.
The American premiere of the play took place in 1979 at the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco. Since then, the play has been produced in almost every state of the union. It was optioned three times for Broadway and once, by Vanessa Redgrave, for a West End production to co-star Omar Sharif. The Abdication has been taught in college courses on playwrighting, on biography, on feminism and on religion. It has had studies written about it in such farflung places as Germany and Australia. It was presented in The Hague (in that modern, open setting I had always hoped for), has been published in Dutch, and has been produced in that language in Bruges.
I flew to Italy for the premiere of The Abdication's Italian production which opened in Florence and toured all of Italy. The critics proclaimed the play and its production "a triumph." The sets were by the noted contemporary sculptor Mario Ceroli. In that production (which I wrote about in my New York Times Magazine article "We Open in Florence") there was a collective intake of breath from the audience every night when the Swedish wood suddenly was revealed beyond the room in which Christina was being interrogated. That moment said "we are not in realism country, we are in the country of the imagination." That moment of transformationphysically represented or notmoves the audiences onto another plane in every production of the play I've ever seen.
Several years ago I went to Montreal to see the play's first production in French. It was an extremely simple production, but witnessing it I experienced that feeling which a playwright experiences only rarely in a lifetime: I was wafted so completely into the world and emotions of the play that I lost all sense of being a separate being. I so breathed within the world of the play that I was suspended out of my own time and place and psyche. Others in the audience must have experienced the same phenomenon, for the play kept selling out and extending its run. Some of that was because of the extraordinary performances of the actress playing Christina, Elise Guilbault. Unlike some other Christinas I've seen, when Guilbault appeared at the beginning of the second act having shed her masculine clothes and donned a handsome gown, this Christina was not suddenly transformed into a great beauty. She was the same troubled woman she had been, but was now, almost pathetically, attempting to attract a man by dressing up in a pretty gown.
The play's Italian incarnation and its overwhelmingly successful production in French in Montreal are two of the greatest high points in my theatrical life.
In The Abdication and in all my plays, one of my aims is to write strong parts for women. Because most of my heroines (like George Sand, the Dowager Empress Tzu-hsi, Mary Shelley, Edith Wilson, etc.) have had complex relationships with the other gender, this has meant I've found myself writing quite a few strong (some award-winning) parts for men. If I notice one underlying theme which pervades all of the plays it's the idea of someone trying to take life into their own hands and make it come out as they want it to. That seemingly simple act is not easy. Not in the theatre, not in life.
On that fateful opening night in Bath over thirty years ago, Audrey Wood gave me a brooch, a Victorian miniature of a child in a white bonnet against a black ground. In the note which accompanied this gift she wrote: "Dear RuthWhatever happens tonightor tomorrowor tomorrowor tomorrowremember you are a gifted writer and, in my belief, will continue to flourish." I treasure those words, that encouragement. In this fickle business full of sudden success and sudden failure, her faith that, no matter what may befall there is a tomorrow and a tomorrow and a tomorrowfor a playwright and for a playhas been a solid rock on which I have been able to stand.
After its tumultuous beginning, I'm pleased that The Abdication has had so many tomorrows and tomorows. With the publication of its definitive acting edition by Dramatic Publishing, I look forward to its having many more.