Christopher Marlowe, playwright, poet, and probable Elizabethan spy, is the perfect kind of historical figure to include in fiction. The information about his life is both striking and mysterious, with unexplained gaps of time and a suspicious death. Peter Whelan’s play The School of Night is one of many fictionalisations of Marlowe and doesn’t do anything particularly notable, but that doesn’t stop it being enjoyable.
First performed in 1992 and thus predating the publication of Anthony Burgess’ fantastic A Dead Man in Deptford, The School of Night features Kit Marlowe at Thomas Walsingham’s home in Scadbury, attempting to influence life with dramatic performance. For Marlowe fans, the characters are familiar: Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Walsingham and his wife Audrey, Walter Raleigh, and the infamous men surrounding Marlowe’s death, Frizer, Poley and Skeres. Questions of religion, scandal, and betrayal haunt the plot, again no surprise to anyone with familiarity of Marlowe’s biography.The interactions between the characters and the play’s dialogue are what particularly help to make it stand out, combining literary and historical references with the kind of sixteenth century intellectual banter that draws you into the world.
As with many fictional Marlowe works, Whelan inevitably is drawn towards the Shakespeare question, weaving the more famous poet into the narrative and playing around with the claims that Marlowe either wrote Shakespeare’s works or was in deep competition with them whilst he lived. Whilst Whelan’s version manages to keep elements of this enigmatic, the plot requires the big Shakespeare question that Burgess was wise to sidestep in his novel about Marlowe. Luckily, Marlowe is written as a big enough character to keep himself central in his own narrative.
The School of Night is a worthwhile read for Marlowe fans, because unlike some other fictional versions of the playwright (for example, Tamburlaine Must Die) this one is solidly written and gets in all the major details or possible details of his life. For those more familiar with works centred on Shakespeare, the play may illuminate more about Marlowe the bit character in Shakespeare’s real/fictional life (though I’d recommend reading Park Honan’s biography of Marlowe too as the play format does not leave space for historical detail or elaboration).