Forgiving Aggravain: Once Upon a Mattress with 17 Years of Perspective

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When we, as the board of Island Theatre Workshop, discussed the possibility of staging Once Upon a Mattress this summer, our conversations included many walks down memory lane as we recalled the fun-filled antics of our younger days. The decision was finalized and auditions were held.  I tried out for the roles of Minstrel, the Queen, Princess Winnifred, and Lady Larken. Cast as Larken, 17 years after I first played the role; I began to delve into my character as we had initial read-throughs and began preliminary blocking.  Fond memories aside, I began to feel a bit unsettled. 

In 2002, playing Lady Larken was simpler and shallower in many ways.  The play itself was presented in a classic, “fractured fairy tale” style:  cute, comical with an almost cartoon-like quality. I was 30 years old, single, hadn’t yet married or birthed my babies and the #metoo movement was nearly decades away. Now, here I was, with present-day knowledge, cast as the pregnant Lady Larken at the mercy of an unfair system that placed the blame for pregnancy squarely on her shoulders.  It’s astonishing how much and how little has changed since those “hectic days of 1428”. 

Panicked, emotionally wrought, and solely shamed for an act that involved two, Lady Larken delightedly accepts help as it is offered—be it from a libertine, a lech, or a “musician”. Love conquers all as she sets aside her dignity and gives up her power to avoid shaming herself and ruining her lover’s political future. I wonder what would have happened had she reached out, instead, to the women around her for help—her sister ladies-in-waiting or even the fearsome Queen Aggravain, who “treated her as her own daughter”. Would they have banded together, given the chance to recognize both her precarious situation and her courage? 

The advent of the #metoo movement allowed and encouraged us women to openly share our experiences of sexual assault and sexual harassment—both blatant and subtle.


But even more powerful, to me, was the courageous abandonment of shame and the feeling of women coming together to support one another through it all. . .


There was no shortage of blame falling on men for their treatment of women and for a system that rewarded the perpetrators. I applaud and admire the brave women who came forward to publicly share their stories and I believe that little is ever solved through blame and shame; so I began examining the only people I have direct control over changing—me, myself and I. Looking within, I began to recognize how I am perpetuating our misogynist culture.  What I discovered is that these attitudes are so ingrained, in many circumstances, I wasn’t even recognizing them as misogyny at all. In fact, I had to look up the word misogyny before I even began my investigation. 

Indeed, I was contributing and perpetuating the mistreatment and hatred of women by some simple actions and unconscious beliefs.  Take one of my favorite shows of all time, for example: The West Wing. Smart, well-written, engaging; the show included many dynamic characters—both men and women—my favorite being Josh. Despite his politics, which aligned with my own, his treatment of the women around him was less than stellar.  And, his attitude toward his assistant Donna, was downright disrespectful and belittling.  Yet, I was willing to overlook this because—I don’t know—I liked his looks and his “chivalry” and I hoped that he would actually come to realize that he, in fact, loved Donna.  How much am I buying into the system when I hope that the man who is making fun of a woman is, in fact, in love with her? 

It brings to mind a conversation that I had with my 10 year old son this winter.  He was feeling picked on by the girls.  The first thought I had was that girls mature faster than boys and might have been starting to have new, uncomfortable feelings about some of them.  The paradigm that I grew up in taught me that someone was picking on me because they “liked” me. Luckily, I had this awareness before I opened my mouth and perpetuated a system that equates bullying with fondness.  Instead, my son and I had deep conversation that acknowledged that this, indeed, might be going on, that when I was his age I was told that’s just how it was, and then we talked about what it would be like to be taught how to share those feelings honestly—and to be given an opportunity to do so, without shame.

In a round-about way, this brings me back to the play and the character of Queen Aggravain.  She is a dynamic, powerful woman—the epitome of an overbearing, overworked queen.  Her brash bossiness combined with her incessant “jabbering” and her ill-disguised resentment at having to bear the burden of her family’s future all alone; make for a character everyone loves to hate.  She does not gracefully carry her burden of royal responsibility, I suspect because she fears that any sign of such “weakness” would jeopardize her position of power. This plays out again and again in our world today.  In fact, I can easily find myself playing this role. 

When I have strong reactions to a person (or character) I have developed a habit of looking within.  Often, the characteristics that most bother me in another person are ones that I am unable to see in myself.  How many times have I been Aggravain, the “know it all,” needing to assert my “right” opinion?  Or how often do I catch my inner voices prattling on about how much work I have to do to keep my family’s life in order: “What would they do without me?”.  How often do I ask my husband's opinion and then disregard his suggestions?  I find myself playing Queen Aggravain in my everyday life more often than I would like to admit.  As long as I am shamefully burying my Aggravanian tendencies, I have little hope of overcoming them and choosing, instead, to carry myself with integrity and strength. Cast into a world where women are often seen/treated as second class citizens, how can I gracefully step into my power within? I believe that the first step is the difficult job of finding forgiveness—for Aggravain, for myself and for others, men even, who have been living unconsciously within our current system.  As we allow ourselves and others to make mistakes—and view the admittance of such as a strength—we empower ourselves to make strides toward a more just future, full of opportunity for ALL.

Theatre is a kaleidoscope of opportunities:  the chance to escape from the trials and tribulations of our own life and enter another world and to immerse ourselves in laughter, love, and someone else’s life. I encourage you to immerse yourself in Island Theatre Workshop’s Once Upon a Mattress musical story with it’s brilliant tapestry of colors, characters, and costumes—three evening showings remain (get your tickets here for Thursday 7/25, Friday 7/26 or Saturday 7/27). Then, I invite you to travel beyond the mindless escape, to try on a magical lens that allows you to look within. Investigate the intersection between the engaging fractured fairy tale and our own fractured world and see what possibilities for our future emerge from your exploration.

Further Questions to Consider:

  • What were your feelings toward King Sextimus? Did you, like me, find him endearing despite his lecherous pursuits of the ladies of the castle. What is that about?

  • And what about the Jester? Funny man, accomplice/co-conspirator, problem-solver or all three?

  • What would a play about a mute queen and an overbearing king look like, sound like, feel like?

  • How does shame play into Lady Larken’s character and how does shame play into the choices that unexpectedly pregnant women today make. Or how does shame play into choices that anyone makes?

  • How do we find forgiveness for ourselves so that we are able to make positive changes moving forward?