Monday, 5 October 1998

Ugo Betti: The Queen and the Rebels (1949)

Translation: Henry Reed, 1960
Edition: Penguin, 1960
Review number: 127

The Queen and the Rebels is a play which reminded me of Shaw, particularly of Arms and the Man. That may be partly to do with the setting, a middle European war, or may be to do with the translation; it is always difficult to know anything about the tone of a play when it is translated from a language which one does not speak. In this case, I suspect that Henry Reed has chosen to write in a Shavian style, for, other than superficialities of setting, The Queen and the Rebels is not a comedy nor does it have a strong didactic purpose.

The play itself concerns a group of travellers stranded by the war and suspected by the side controlling the village where their train has been stopped of being spies. One of the leaders of the other side was a woman of noble extraction known to both her followers and her enemies as "The Queen". She is believed to have escaped the destruction of her headquarters and to be attempting to flee the country, in disguise.

Once this is established, the theme of the play begins to become clear: it is to do with identity. There are two women in the party of travellers, a peasant woman and a girl who is apparently a wealthy call-girl named Argia. The latter is suspected of being the queen, but she herself treats the peasant woman as though she is the queen. Relying on the villagers' interpreter, Raim, who knew her before the war, to establish her identity, she has the ground pulled out from under her when he refuses to do so for fear of the authorities (who might then decide he is an accomplice).

All the questions which arise are about real identity. Which of the two women is the queen, if either of them are? (If Argia is the queen, what she says to the peasant woman could be just in case she's overheard, and Raim could indeed by a former accomplice.) The other question of identity left unanswered is which side is formed by the rebels of the title?

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