The Queen on Broadway

The Audience

a play by Peter Morgan, directed by Stephen Daldry, at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, New York City, March 8–June 28, 2015
Joan Marcus
Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in The Audience

“When a monarch can bless, it is best that he should not be touched,” Walter Bagehot wrote in The English Constitution. “It should be evident that he does no wrong. He should not be brought too closely to real measurement. He should be aloof and solitary.”

The impulse behind this advice was less worshipful than shrewd. Monarchy, Bagehot understood, was a magic act; its glamor and beauty—its ability to enlist “the credulous obedience of enormous masses”—could be sustained only as long as the masses were kept at a safe distance from the smoke and mirrors:

Above all things our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it. When there is a select committee on the Queen, the charm of royalty will be gone. Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic.

Bagehot’s warning may have been lost on—or never adequately conveyed to—the younger generations of the modern royal family, but the Queen has heeded it well. She has resisted the magic-killing daylight. Even as her children and grandchildren have succumbed to the lure of self-expression and self-exposure—divulging details of their eating disorders and unhappy marriages, sharing their views on modern architecture, disporting themselves naked in Las Vegas hotel rooms, and so on—she has maintained her potency as a symbol by revealing almost nothing of her personhood. After more than fifty years on the throne, she remains fundamentally unknown by her people. And it is because rather than in spite of this that she is popular among them. (There should be a term for the great many Britons who profess contempt for the royal family, but devotion to their sovereign; they are antimonarchy, but pro-Queen—Queenists, perhaps.)

The playwright Peter Morgan has written two works about, and in praise of, the Queen, both of them suffused with anticipatory nostalgia for the dignity and discipline of her reign. (She will be eighty-nine this year: après elle, le déluge.) Morgan’s screenplay for the 2006 film The Queen, starring Helen Mirren, was set in the weeks following Princess Diana’s death—a period when the Queen came under growing criticism from her subjects for failing to offer an official expression of grief. The film depicted the Queen’s struggles to understand—and, in the end, make grudging concession to—the country’s slightly hysterical mourning and it left little doubt about where its sympathies lay in the contest between her old-school stoicism and the people’s vulgar emotionalism. In one scene, Tony Blair’s press secretary, Alastair Campbell, refers snidely to the Queen’s “coldness” and an infuriated Blair rebukes him:

When you get it wrong, you really get it wrong! That woman has given her whole life in service to her people. Fifty years doing a job she never wanted! A job she watched kill her father.…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.