It is Christmas Eve in the year 1013. The king of England, Ethelred, has retired to a cell in a monastery on the Isle of Wight. He is mournful, despairing, and self-exiled from his court and kingdom due to remorse and paralyzing indecision. Two nobles arrive at the monastery to urge the king to action. They bring word that a Danish army has landed in the north of England, and if the king does not bestir himself to lead the English against them, the Danish king, Swein, will be in London by spring.
One of the nobles, Kent, is sympathetic to the king’s desire to appease the Danes rather than fight them; the other noble, Sussex, calls Ethelred a marshmallow.
In the course of the play we revisit – through flashback – the events that have led to the king’s self-imposed exile.
I first saw this play many years ago when I was in the midst of my early research into the reign of Æthelred. I responded to the performance with outrage because of the way the playwright so brutally twisted timelines, historical figures and historical events. What irritated me the most was that his King Ethelred was portrayed sympathetically as a man striving for peace in his kingdom; a man who dreamed of building ships, not for battle but for exploration; a man who insisted that civilizations found greatness only when their rulers found peace.
Meantime, his harridan of a wife (Queen Emma), his murderous harpy of a mother (Ælfthryth), and his vicious son (Edmund) continually berated him for paying tribute money to the Danes, insisting that the Danes were animals, not men, that they didn’t belong in England, and that his tribute payments would make them paupers.
Anyone who has read my books knows that my interpretation of Emma is vastly different, as is my interpretation of Aethelred who I portray as ruthless, cold, cunning, and paranoid. The playwright and I do agree on one thing though: the king is guilt-ridden.
I could make a very long list of the historical infidelities of this play, but let me give just a single example: Æthelred’s mother was dead by the time he married Emma, so the two women would never have been in the same chamber together. I won’t bore you with any more, and besides, having watched the play again recently (twice), I’ve come to an appreciation of it that I didn’t have on my first viewing.
This time I set aside my outrage, and I watched it as if I didn’t know who these people were – as if it was set in a mythical kingdom. The result: although it is at times a bit heavy-handed, it is a melancholy, intense play about a ruler striving for peace when war is inevitable. Ethelred, indeed, is given some wonderful lines, and actor Richard Kiley delivers them beautifully:
“Only the shadow of Him who made me moves through this mortar – and all the faces of the living and the dead.”
“I’ve come to the end of my reason, and I see before me an abyss.”
“I sought to find a dozen men to plant an orchard while all around me nature bloomed a thousand lunatics to chop it down.” That’s my favorite line in the whole play.
There is one thing about this play that truly reflects the history of the year 1013, and that is the tone. It is somber and mournful. Kent complains that he looks at England and sees decay, despair, futility and distortion, and in this he seems to be echoing the grim attitude toward Aethelred’s reign that we find in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. It is the same sense of loss that infuses so much of Anglo-Saxon poetry.
In the final scene of the play Ethelred recognizes that although he is a king and the leader of men, he cannot prevent the war that is racing toward him like a juggernaut. His one supporter, Kent, sides at last with the warmongers and deals the final blow that leaves the king stunned and speechless. Kent tells Ethelred that although both the Danes and the English are at fault, his allegiance is to England, and so the Danes must be resisted: “We are set to our duty,” he says, “though the cause be rotten.” It is quite moving and very sad.
I confess that I puzzled over the title of the play, The Ceremony of Innocence. I had to do some research (it always comes down to research), and I discovered that it is from one of my favorite poems. How did I not recognize it immediately? It’s from “The Second Coming”, by W.B. Yeats.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
In Yeats’ poem, the ceremony of innocence refers to the rituals that define civilization. These are drowned in the uncivilized, blood-dimmed tide of war, and that is what Ethelred is trying to resist in this play: the loss of peace, of scholarship and learning, of art and beauty. Did the real Æthelred concern himself with such things? I would hazard that, judging from the historical documents of the time, the king was more concerned with holding on to power and punishing his enemies than preserving scholarship and art. And as I write that I realize I’m still a little irritated at Ribman for making his Ethelred such a sympathetic figure.
“The Ceremony of Innocence” is available through Netflix. Watch it for the story and for Richard Kiley’s wonderful performance, but please don’t look to it for historical accuracy.