Gager took a classical story and gave it a political message for his own times. The parallels between Dido, also known as ‘Elisa’, and Queen Elizabeth I are explicitly drawn in Gager’s play. The powerful Queen, who has built up her realm, cedes control of her kingdom when she gives her love and her body to Aeneas, a foreigner with divine obligations to another nation. Aeneas is extensively flattered by the playwright in lines which are also compliments to the distinguished visitor, the Polish Ambassador, for whom the play was first staged at Christ Church, Oxford: nonetheless, the play offers a clear warning to Elizabeth against marriage to a foreign prince.
The double vision – both ‘then’ and ‘now’, both ‘here’ and ‘there’ – of such a reading would perhaps have been realized in the costumes and props of the original production. The stage design of early modern plays might now be described as ‘fusion’: a contemporary drawing of a performance of Titus Andronicus shows a woman in Elizabethan dress onstage with men in Roman togas and tunics, and soldiers in early modern armour. We will be practising fusion tonight, too. Outsiders come not just from another country but also from a different moment in history.
Gager’s play was performed by an all-male cast of university men, and we will recreate that circumstance tonight. The inspiring work of all-male companies like Propeller has offered considerable insight into the effects of theatrical gender play: perhaps the most surprising but consistent insight has been that audiences can quite quickly forget about an actor’s gender, accepting the fiction of performance.
This evening also offers an opportunity to see this play within an academic community of our professional friends and colleagues, a circumstance similar in some ways to the first performance in Christ Church: what did it mean to see classical heroes appear in the communities in which audience members lived and worked? The familiar and the foreign meet in an experience that is uncanny and, we hope, enlivening. Thank you for joining us, and please, enjoy the show!