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The Tragicall Historye of Launcelot and Guenever

Programme Notes


"Oh, love! So these are the rewards of serving you; for whosomever giveth himself entirely to you cannot escape death, and that is the reward ye give for faithful service."

from "The Tragicall Historye of Launcelot and Guenever"

Nota Bene


The Tragicall Historye of Launcelot and Guenever is the latest in a series of shows adapting a wide variety of Arthurian romances -- a series of shows that exist, if not exactly in the same continuity, then perhaps in the same imaginative space. If they share one element in common, it is the sense that the tale of Camelot has in some way become unhinged in time: the setting has shifted freely between three millennia. The tradition of the chroniclers has been to reinvent: the institution of knighthood hadn't been introduced to Britain in Arthur's lifetime, but that didn't stop Malory from packing Arthur's warriors into plate mail and teaching them to joust. Launcelot himself is an anachronism who doesn't appear in any text until the twelfth century. The term "accuracy" becomes meaningless when speaking of Camelot: we are in the realm of the unreal.

For this adventure, I've taken the liberty of shifting the action from the Middle Ages to the English Renaissance: this particular tale seemed to settle easily, if not comfortably, into a world of formalized political maneuvering and ritualized duels between gentlemen.

My primary source is Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, supplemented by passages from his own sources: the Mort Artu and the Stanzaic Morte Arthure. The tale consists of two stories: that of Guenever and the poisoned apple, and that of Launcelot and the Lady of Astolat. In Malory's sources, these two stories are carefully interlaced: Malory took the liberty of separating them. I have attempted to interweave them again, though in some slightly different places that I think will be more dramatically satisfying to a modern audience.

I have endeavored to preserve Malory's language. He was writing at the very cusp of the transition from Late Middle to Early Modern English, placing his language somewhere between that of Chaucer and that of Shakespeare. While his text is deceptive in its simplicity -- he certainly lacks Shakespeare's impressive vocabulary and poetic flourishes -- he is in my opinion more than his equal in some startling turns of phrase and keen psychological insight.

Middle English was a largely phonetic language: I have taken the liberty of updating the spelling and pronunciation to modern convention. I have weeded out some of the more opaque archaisms, though I haven't eliminated them entirely -- as far as I'm concerned, more than half the fun of Malory and his contemporaries is stumbling across lost words of beauty, power, and efficiency that our language has unjustly discarded. This process is instinct more than science.

Though I believe that in most cases meaning should be evident from context, I should make a brief note of Malory's use of pronouns. English did not become a standardized language until the invention of the printing press, and even in Malory's time was still something of a linguistic Wild West. There are not grammatical rules so much as there are grammatical habits, habits which shift from region to region and in some cases decade to decade, and are often not applied with internal consistency even within individual texts.

By Shakespeare's time (and these are all generalizations), ye and you were formal terms of address, while thee and thou were more familiar. (Curiously, this has shifted for us: we now regard the you form as being more natural, and thee and thou as indicating archaic formalism.) However, Malory tends to use his pronouns in a more French style, indicating status as opposed to familiarity (along the lines of tu and vous): ye and you are used to refer to figures of equal stature or higher, whereas thee and thou are used to refer to underlings. Malory often uses this device in some clever ways, switching between the forms of address even in a single conversation to indicate the changing views of the speaker.



Here's what history tells us: at one point, the isle of Britain consisted of a collection of warring tribal societies, not wholly unlike the Americas before the arrival of European civilization. Like the Americas, Britain quickly succumbed to a technologically superior Empire, in this case: Rome. The Romans built roads and infrastructure, the baths of Bath and Hadrian's Wall, as well as bringing cutting-edge technology, cutting-edge art and philosophy, and their key export that made cutting-edge art and philosophy possible: wine.

The fact that we regard Latin as a dead language should give us a good hint as to how this ended: the Empire collapsed, and while it was doing so it frantically recalled its political and military forces from the far corners of the globe. Britain's native population was left in a state of anarchy, without a government or a military but with plenty of wine.

A state of libertarian bliss, no doubt, with one major hitch: they faced nothing short of the existential threat of total annihilation from Germanic tribes, who were both willing and able to loot, pillage, and rape the British population to the point of extinction.

This eventually happened -- one of those Germanic tribes was called the Angles, who lent their name to the new country, Angle-Land -- but someone or something successfully held them back for about a generation. This is where history gets fuzzy: the Romans were fantastic record-keepers, but a body of people undergoing genocide tends not to be. We call them the Dark Ages for a reason.

Here's what romance tells us: the someone that held them back was a man called Arthur, a savvy enough politician to unite the warring states and a skilled enough strategist to secure the country's borders. If romance views him as practically a messianic figure, he was nothing less than a savior to the generation of people he saved.

He took a queen, Guenever, and with her the dowry of a Table Round, a table significant for having no head: all who sat around it did so as equals, and that included a king who was as much admired for being a fellow soldier as for being a leader.

The most valued of his generals was Launcelot, a brilliant tactician thought to be unbeatable in hand-to-hand combat. Moreover, he inspired admiration for more than his military prowess: he was deeply pious, deeply patriotic, and a man of profound personal honor. Arthur honored him with a position as Guenever's personal bodyguard and champion, at which point he began a prolonged sexual affair with her.

The affair progressed for decades, and became an open secret within the court. Launcelot was a man of absolute loyalties who had sworn contradicting oaths to too many masters: sworn to absolutely uphold his God, his king, and his lover, he began to have a series of nervous breakdowns that would culminate in him fleeing the court and living as a wild man in the woods for years at a time.

One Pentecost, a vision of the Holy Grail, the cup that held the blood of God, appeared before Arthur's court. On the spot, the bulk of Arthur's military force swore to achieve it, or die trying. Arthur attempted to withhold them, foreseeing the collapse of the Table Round, but in a fit of religious fervor the knights set out in its pursuit.

Regarded by many as the perfect knight, Launcelot was expected to do well in the quest. In a series of visions, he was brought face-to-face with the reality that a lifetime of deception -- self-deception not the least -- had left him stained too deeply with sin to even look upon the Grail. From a courtyard, through a window, he was permitted to look upon those knights who had been sufficiently worthy: the Welsh hick, Sir Percival; Launcelot's own cousin, Sir Bors; and Launcelot's estranged son, Sir Galahad.

After many years of questing and abject failure, Launcelot, filled with shame and self-loathing, finally returns to Arthur's court. Which is where our tale begins...