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HelenboyNow 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. Helen

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.

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* Well, perhaps – depending on what version is the original one…

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