Now imagine for a moment that you are a boy player with the Admiral’s Men, in the early 1590s. The company’s sharers are discussing: should they buy Kit Marlowe’s latest work, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, or not?
When the meeting is over, you bounce to ask your master – and yes, they’ll buy the play, Ned Alleyn will play the lead, and there are devils in it. You are a little alarmed, because you still play women’s parts, and Marlowe’s women are not always what you’d call a joy to play…
“And what of the women, master?” you ask. “What do I do?”
He rubs at his chin. “Ay well, there is this pregnant duchess, see, and a hostess*, but you…” He cocks his head to watch you critically. “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?”
Being what you are, you know a good deal of old stories – and you are still raking your brain for the identity of this very lovely lady, when your master relents. “You’ll play Helen of Troy,” he says.
Who, you remember, was a queen of old, so beautiful that a war was fought over her… So you hoot in celebration, and your master sends you your way, to show off with the other boys.
And then they put you in a gorgeous gown of silver cloth, and send you onstage to be asked to make Faustus immortal with a kiss, and be serenaded in very lovely words:
Oh, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear’d to hapless Semele:
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa’s azured arms…
And you never say a word. Not one single word. Not a syllable… And the other boys snicker, and dub you Dumb Helen, and heap fulminations on that Marlowe fellow’s head. What was he thinking? Dumb Helen, forsooth!
Poor little lad. I guess he found some consolation, once shed the cloth of silver, in playing the devil. Another dumb part – but, at least, he got to throw fireworks.
* Well, perhaps – depending on what version is the original one…