An American divorcee who nearly felled the British monarchy with her lady parts. That is how Wallis Simpson became one of history’s Much Maligned Women, yet another temptress out to dissuade a man from his destiny, from greatness.
The late Canadian playwright Linda Griffiths, who passed away last year, saw that as a dismissive conclusion. Her wild romp, The Duchess a.k.a. Wallis Simpson tells a broader story, while also detailing the notorious events of the 1930s. That was when Simpson began her scandalous affair with Edward VIII, who ultimately chose to abdicate the throne so he could marry her, throwing Britain into upheaval at a pivotal time.
Diane Brown, Ruby Slippers Theatre’s artistic director, has been a fan of the script since she first workshopped it with Griffiths in 2009. Funding cuts delayed Ruby Slippers’ original production, but now, six years later, Brown is preparing to play the role of Simpson herself.
“Linda Griffiths’s interpretation of this woman is so fabulous to me,” Brown says, taking a break from rehearsing one of the play’s rigorous dance numbers. “She’s taking a demonized figure from recent history and humanizing her. She’s not glorifying her by any means, or romanticizing her, or the prince, for that matter. But what she does do is reveal her within the context of her time as a multifaceted, talented, smart, ambitious woman. I loved that.”
Simpson also attracted criticism for what some historians have suggested were Nazi sympathies. Hitler, after all, features in the play. (Other fictionalized historical characters are Noel Coward and Queen Mary, among others.)
“They [Wallis and Edward] weren’t actually that politically cunning,” Brown says, gently correcting the notion that the prince and Simpson supported the Nazis. “They liked to be part of high society and go to parties and go on yachts, and that’s what they did and they did it well. But I think it had little to do with actual political sympathy.”
And strangely, Simpson is largely vilified for far different reasons than the poor company she kept.
“The qualities that she’s much maligned for are ambition, intelligence, wit—all these qualities that we love in men, so it seems like quite a double standard to me that we would revile these in a woman,” Brown says. “Obviously, she didn’t steal the king; he chose her, so that’s just a nonsense argument. It really is the John and Yoko argument, right? She was the Yoko Ono of her generation, which is a line from the play, but I think it’s really apt.”
In Brown’s opinion, there’s so much sexism, “it’s just in our bone marrow as a culture. Of course we should do a play about Wallis Simpson and of course there should be dance numbers and singing, and her jewels should come to life and speak. Why not? Why isn’t that good subject matter?”
Brown points to film as another frustrating place where stories about women are dismissed as “chick flicks”, but she’s working on a plan to help assuage these innately sexist attitudes. This fall will see the inaugural weeklong festival Advance Theatre: New Works by Women, which will run during the second week of the Vancouver Fringe Festival. Five plays over five days, written by women and directed by women—just like The Duchess a.k.a Wallis Simpson.
“Wallis is not Joan of Arc, she’s not somebody we can put on a pedestal,” Brown says. “She’s a real human and that alone seems to be revolutionary in our culture—small ‘r’ revolutionary. We just need so much more of these kinds of stories.”
The Duchess a.k.a. Wallis Simpson runs from Tuesday (April 7) to April 18 at the Historic Theatre at the Cultch.