Why Have An Audience? A Theatregoer's Guide to the Basics of British Royalty

News   Why Have An Audience? A Theatregoer's Guide to the Basics of British Royalty Do you adore Helen Mirren but find yourself a bit confused by the play she's starring in? The Audience, which imagines Queen Elizabeth's private meetings with her prime ministers, may confuse American fans who are unable to keep track of the Henrys and Richards of England, let alone Winston Churchill. To keep theatregoers from Googling "monarchy" during intermission, Playbill.com offers a guide to the basics of the British monarchy.

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Once upon a time, five centuries separated the reigns of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth II. But this spring the monarchs pair off in Times Square like a great hand in blackjack. Of course, the role of the English royal has changed enormously from the Renaissance Tudor of Wolf Hall to the post-war Windsor of The Audience. But most Americans are stuck in the Middle Ages when it comes to monarchy, since most of our knowledge can be traced back to Shakespeare's history plays, fantasy novels and Disney musicals.

Helen Mirren in <i>The Audience</i>
Helen Mirren in The Audience Photo by Joan Marcus

That's probably why Wolf Hall's Henry VIII and his absolute monarchy is immediately recognizable to theatregoers. As the sole ruler of his kingdom and eventually (spoiler!) head of his own church, Henry was at the apex of an entire structure of authority. His power was defined mainly by his will and secondarily by political expediency. But between Henry's divinely proclaimed majesty and Elizabeth II's limited, dignified figurehead lies the birth and growth of modern democracy.

Yet the duties of Queen Elizabeth can be hard for 21st-century Americans to grasp. We may know that she bestows honors like knighthoods, or that Britain's national anthem, "God Save the Queen," plays whenever she makes a public entrance. Our republican impulse is to dismiss her royal station as ceremonial, empty of actual power.

Obviously a queen yelling "Off with her head!" was an absurdity even when Lewis Carroll put it in "Alice in Wonderland," published in Queen Victoria's reign. But Elizabeth is actually invested with a complex official capacity that can't be reduced to a profile on postage stamps. The Audience shows Queen Elizabeth as she executes her most important duty. Each week, the monarch meets with prime minister. Their conference is more than a courtesy, it's a formality — a fine distinction that might describe the British monarch's powers in general.

This regular conference supplies The Audience with its plot material. Playwright Peter Morgan, while writing his movie "The Queen" for Helen Mirren, was fascinated by its dramatic potential. Queen Elizabeth has met with 12 PMs in her reign, which is the second longest in English history (and she's set to pass Queen Victoria this September!).

The object of the Prime Minister's appointment is to brief the Queen personally on state affairs. The proceedings are unrecorded and completely confidential (which means that Morgan is applying a lot of dramatic license). They can last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, depending on the chemistry between ruler and subject. In these sessions, the Queen cannot order the Prime Minister upon a course of action, but she may advise.

This may sound more like therapy than governance, and at least one retired PM couched it in those terms. But Elizabeth takes her official role seriously, and daily she receives a red courier box filled with cabinet minutes and parliamentary notes (sadly, the box looks more like an embossed attaché case than one of London's red mailboxes). Depending on Elizabeth's rapport with her prime minister, the meeting might just as easily look like a visit to the principal's office!

Dakin Matthews as Winston Churchill with Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II
Dakin Matthews as Winston Churchill with Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II Photo by Joan Marcus

For all its significance, the consultation is a relatively new tradition. A British legal scholar told Morgan that records are vague but the engagement probably began during the second World War, with Winston Churchill filling Elizabeth's father in over weekly lunches. But because she has formalized the session over her 63-year reign, it may now be considered a constitutional affair.

That shift from casual confab to legal obligation can sound baffling to Americans. Britain follows an unwritten constitution: an organic sum of legal tradition embodied by its laws, statues, and principles. Because it's based on institutional convention, Parliament's authority is still said to govern in the Queen's name.

In fact, the Prime Minister isn't elected by popular vote, or even by Parliament. Instead the position is appointed by the Queen, who bases her judgment on which party or coalition holds the most seats in Parliament. In theory she could appoint whomever she pleases. It also sounds strange until you consider that Americans don't elect presidents by popular vote either; we use an electoral college. In a curiously archaic gesture, the first of the meetings between Queen and Prime Minister is called the Kissing of Hands. Once upon a time, at his investiture the minister actually bowed and kissed the royal hands as a gesture of fealty and loyalty. The ceremony gets played up in many of Shakespeare's plays. It's subverted in Shakespeare's Richard II, acting as a sort of Judas Kiss when Henry Bolingbroke kneels to pledges his allegiance even as he usurps Richard's crown.

In theory, all of the Prime Minister's power derives from this ritual, and the weekly appointment is an implicit restatement of his or her duty to the Queen. But then all of this is merely conceptual, because of the unwritten constitution. In this respect, their relationship is essentially theatrical. The weekly meetings, which provide a setting for The Audience, repeats on a small scale the ritualized granting of authority upon the subject by the monarch.

The cast of <i>The Audience</i>
The cast of The Audience Photo by Joan Marcus

And so Broadway this spring will perform a dramatic re-staging of that English sacrament on two stages. Spectators at The Audience watch as Elizabeth II meets with Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Across Times Square, visitors to Wolf Hall will spy as Henry VIII delegates his affairs to Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell. They are all different players in the same roles, simultaneously a part of history and outside it.

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