"Come, Annabella, no more Sister now,
But Love, a name more gracious; do not blush,
Beauty's sweet wonder, but be proud to know
That yielding those hast conquered, and inflamed
A heart, whose tribute is thy brothers life."
If it is not clear from the quotation of a brother's declaration of love to the sister he has just bedded, this play is for mature audiences only. John Ford's 1630 drama, 'Tis Pity She's A Whore has been controversial for all of its performance history for its frank embrace of incest and its depiction of the corruption shown in this Catholic version of Parma, Italy. The play twists the ideals of star-crossed lovers making them the full-blood relations Giovanni and Annabella, the former never shows remorse for his incestuous desires and the latter, who briefly does, is manipulated by the advice of those who surround into continuing the forbidden affair. The subplot involving the attempts to murder one of Annabella's suitors for marriage exposes the true corruption of this tale. For is it truly Annabella who is the whore of the title or is it Italy and the Catholic church that Ford condemns?
Giovanni (Patrick Earl) returns home to Parma from University with his tutor, Friar Bonaventura (Kevin Hauver) to whom he reveals his incestous desire for his sister, Annabella (Denice Mahler). He is counseled to turn to God for repentance. Annabella and her governess, Putana (Bridget Rue) discuss the merits of Annabella's three suitors, the foolish Bergetto (Rick Blunt) , Lord Soranzo (Jake Mahler), and the soldier Grimaldi (Michael Amendola). Giovanni confesses his love to Annabella who reciprocates and they consummate their forbidden love. Giovanni and Annabella's father, Florio (Daniel Abraham Stevens) favors his good friend Donado's (Kevin Hauver) nephew Bergetto, whom Annabella rejects. Another of her suitors, Soranzo left a bitter mistress, Hippolita (Stephanie Holladay Earl), who arranged to have her husband, Richardetto (Ronald Peet) killed, so that Soranzo would marry her. She plots to have Lord Soranzo killed. Richardetto returns to Parma in disguise. Annabella falls illl and learns she is pregnant with Giovanni's child. The Friar counsels Annabella to marry Soranzo to provide a father for her child. Annabella agrees. Things do not end well.
This is very rough material and two patrons did leave the performance I attended at intermission. Director Jim Warren has fully embraced all of the difficulties in the script choosing to stage some moments for maximum shock effect. Erin M. West has designed costumes with a modern flair using a lot of constricting plastic and leather pieces that evoke a sexuality that is bold and daring.
The performances are not uniformly consistent with some of the other outstanding productions in the past season, yet this tight ensemble of eleven actors, who have been touring this play in repertory with two other shows since September 2011 have an ease with Ford's difficult material. It is said that 'Tis Pity She's A Whore shares a palette with William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and there are certain elements of 'Tis Pity that do evoke the comparison. There is the element of forbidden love, here taken to uncomfortable extremes. There is a great deal of comedy in the tale of Annabella's suitors, that ends with the charming comedic character being the first death that turns the story into tragedy.
Rick Blunt wins the audience with his blustering charm as the clown Bergetto and when he finds love with Richardetto's niece, Philotis (Bridget Rue) his shocking death is heartfelt by the audience. Mr. Blunt also is powerful as the Cardinal who gives sanctuary to Bergetto's killer preventing justice. Bridget Rue is not your typical nurse figure as the enabling Putana and has an easy confidence in her encouragement of Annabella's dangerous choices. Denice Mahler garners a great deal of sympathy as Annabella. Her love for her brother comes across as pure and she gains sympathy for her brief remorse. When Annabella is punished for that love by her pregnancy and duplicitous marriage to Soranzo, Ms. Mahler somehow manages to continue to find the sympathetic elements in poor Annabella's fate.
Patrick Earl exudes magnetism as the hot-blooded Giovanni. There is no remorse in his portrayal yet even the audience can see why Annabella cannot resist him sexually even though we see that she should. In the play's horrifying ending Mr. Earl plays the emotions to the extreme. There was not an audible sound from the audience in what could have been an uncomfortable "cough" inducing moment.
Yet, the most compelling performance comes from the play's most moral character. This is Vasques, the Spanish servant of Lord Soranzo. As a true outsider he is able to be the commentator for the audience on these corrupt proceedings. Eugene Douglas ably plays the loyal servant, who uncovers all of the plots involving the attempted murder of his master and the duplicity behind his master's wedding. In the end he is one of the few left standing and his decision to leave Italy behind is echoed by the audience's desire to flee this very uncomfortable story.
John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's A Whore is being performed as part of the 2011/2012 Almost Blasphemy Tour and the Blackfriar's Playhouse 2012 Spring Season. It is in repertory with William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Winter's Tale through June 16, 2012. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.americanshakespearecenter.com.
Warning: Parental Advisory with spoilers: - This play is really intended for mature audiences. If you prepare a teenager they might be able to handle the material, but it is definitely not for children. Beyond the incest at the center of the story, there are several deaths, a lot of stage blood, Annabella's death is particularly graphic and the final scene features a bloody heart on a dagger.
Monday, April 30, 2012
Sunday, April 29, 2012
The Imperial Theatre holds all of the ingredients for a sure fire hit. We've got the songbook of George and Ira Gershwin, an updated book by Tony Award winner Jo DiPietro, direction and choreography by Kathleen Marshall who worked magic on the similarly set Anything Goes last season, and star power in the form of Matthew Broderick and Kelli O'Hara. What could go wrong?
Where to begin? Nice Work If You Can Get It, a very loose reworking of the 1926 musical, Oh, Kay!, has a great deal of charm and contains many wonderful performances. The choreography is infectious, the costumes (Martin Pakledinaz) and sets (Derek McLane) are bright and delightful. Yet, what ultimately is missing is a few screws in this leaden attempt at a screwball comedy.
Nice Work If You Can Get It shares with its source material only the barest of elements. This is the tale of a charming group of bootleggers led by tough broad, Billie Bendix (Kelli O'Hara). One night while trying to find a place to stash their illegal "demon" rum, Billie meets playboy Jimmy Winter (Matthew Broderick) on his last night out before his fourth marriage. Billie and Jimmy immediately hit it off, yet Billie uses Jimmy by snatching his wallet. She decides the perfect place to stash the rum is Jimmy's never used mansion on Long Island. Of course, the very next day, the bootleggers are nearly caught when everyone shows up at the mansion for the wedding. The bootleggers disguise themselves as the mansion's new servants, the prohibitionists arrive as the family of the bride and Jimmy finds himself torn between his "don't touch until we're married" fiancee, Eileen Evergreen (Jennifer Laura Thompson) and his attraction to Billie. Madcap mayhem ensues until at the eleventh hour, Jimmy's mother (Estelle Parsons) arrives to set things right.
There's nothing wrong with relying on the Gershwin brothers songbook. It has been done before to good effect (see Crazy For You). This version uses a lot of songs not in the original Oh, Kay!, although the most famous song from that score is here, Someone To Watch Over Me. Yet, the score feels like it's trying too hard to include a lot of well known tunes, such as the orchestral Lady Be Good and Rhapsody in Blue. While a lot of the new songs are character appropriate it's just the first stage in a disjointed evening of theater.
Nice Work If You Can Get It attempts the absurdity of screwball comedy. The problem is that most of the performers are not giving the heightened acting necessary to consistently pull off the farcical elements. There are exceptions to the rule and it would not surprise me if there are several nominations from this talented casts' featured performers at this year's Tony Awards. First up is the astounding Judy Kaye as the crusading prohibitionist Duchess Estonia Dulworth who is forced to loosen up when she is purposefully dosed with the rum she detests. Miss Kaye dominates her scenes,her voice shatters the rafters and a highlight literally has her swinging from the chandelier. Michael McGrath as the bootlegger turned butler who torments her is quick with the witty remark and hilarious with the physical demands of the role. His partner in crime, Chris Sullivan's Duke is adorable as the lovable lunk with his eye on the showgirl (Robyn Hurder) he believes is out of his league. Jennifer Laura Thompson channels Madeleine Kahn as Eileen, which is understandable as the role seems torn from Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. Her Delishious is a comic gem in act one. Estelle Parsons commands attention in her brief appearance as the deux ex machina to the rescue.
Kelli O'Hara continues her reliability as one of the most talented leading ladies of musical theater of recent years. Yet here she seems almost too natural in her acting for the screwball elements required of Billie. There are two exceptions, the ironic staging of the ballad Someone To Watch Over Me and her hilarious attempts to seduce Jimmy in Treat Me Rough. Matthew Broderick is all charm as Jimmy Winter. The problem is that Jimmy is a playboy who falls in love at the drop of a hat. The role requires a more forceful personality than the one that Mr. Broderick has chosen to portray. Jimmy really should be in the mold of Bertie Wooster, not meek like Leo Bloom.
There lies the real problem with Nice Work If You Can Get It. At two and half hours, the show is about fifteen minutes too long. There are one too many couples dividing our attention and as a result a couple of the minor romantic pairings are underwritten. While Kathleen Marshall's choreography as rousing as the dancing she created for Anything Goes, the direction is just not madcap enough. A trip next door to One Man, Two Guvnors could enlighten just how a farcical comedy should be staged.
Nice Work If You Can Get It is being performed at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway. For tickets please visit www.telecharge.com.
Friday, April 27, 2012
If there was a way to truly convey through the written word the gut-busting merriment now appearing on The Music Box stage you would have a sense of why One Man, Two Guvnors is the funniest show on Broadway this season. From start to finish this beautiful update of Carlo Goldini's 1746 commedia-inspired masterpiece, The Servant of Two Masters, barely leaves you time to catch your breath, except perhaps to dab your eyes from tears of joy. This import from the West End and The National Theatre of Great Britain, expertly staged by Nicholas Hytner, works its magic simply because the entire ensemble embraces the absurdity of their characters without a tinge of irony.
Richard Bean's adaptation wises makes no changes to Goldini's original tale. From Italy in 1746 to Brighton in the early 1960's we go. Charlie "The Duck" Clench is in debt to the gangster, Roscoe Crabbe, and has betrothed his daughter Pauline to him. Pauline is desperately in love with aspiring actor Alan Dangle. At the beginning of the play they receive welcome word that Roscoe has died. To their surprise, Roscoe appears with his put-upon servant, Francis Henshall in tow. Roscoe is desperate to obtain the money he is owed so that he can get out of town. Francis is desperate to obtain lunch. To that end, while waiting for his master, he gets himself hired as servant to Stanley Stubbers, a dashing young man laying low because he has killed Roscoe. Confused? It turns out that our Roscoe is really Rachel, Roscoe's identical twin sister, who is desperately in love with her brother's killer, Stanley. Rachel is trying to collect her brother's debts so that she and Stanley can run away together. Poor Francis juggles his two masters in the hopes that he can get twice the lunch, twice the wages and the love of the beautiful secretary, Dolly. In the mayhem that ensues will these mixed up couples find true love? Will Alan earn an Academy Award? Will Francis ever get lunch? What will happen to poor Alfie?
One Man, Two Guvnors is the perfect farce. It embraces its origins in the Italian commedia dell'arte, with its stock characters and absurd scenarios and mixes it brilliantly with best elements of the British sex comedies of the swinging '60's. It is inspired to take the musical interludes built into Goldini's original play and transform them into a musical score reminiscent of the British invasion pop groups. While the lyrics are fun and the tunes hummable, they also provide subtle commentary on the action. Grant Olding's songs are provided by The Craze - Jason Rabinowitz, Austin Moorhead, Charlie Rosen and Jacob Colin Cohen who liven up the proceedings before the show and between scenes.
Not that the acting ensemble needs any help in that department. Farce works best when the acting is genuine and the entire company takes their stock characters and brings them to full-bodied life. From Claire Lams air-headed Pauline to Daniel Rigby's Actor with a capital A Alan everyone is perfectly cast. Oliver Criss' Stanley Stubbers is very reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster. Jemima Rooper in the trousers role of Rachel juggles with finesse the menacing gangster and the lovelorn girl. Suzie Toase's Dolly wraps Francis around her ample assets as the wisecracking secretary.
Tom Edden gives an amazing performance in the small role of Alfie, the elderly waiter assigned to assist Francis with the two lunches he must serve simultaneously. Mr. Edden's nimble physicality and expressive face have earned him several worthy award nominations for his performance. Do not be surprised if he picks up a Tony nomination for his efforts.
A Tony nomination is also inevitable for our brash servant, Francis Henshall. James Corden is energetic, vivacious and wickedly bold in the title role. Incredibly nimble whether physically or using his wit, Mr. Corden is in complete charge of the evening from start to finish. Beware the member of the audience whose laugh catches Mr. Corden's ear. For yes, in the tradition of commedia and pantomime, the audience is fair game. One Man, Two Guvnors contains several opportunities for audience interaction, both verbal and....well let's just say those premium seats make for easy targets.
If you are looking for a Broadway show that will exercise your funny bone, One Man, Two Guvnors is the show for you.
One Man, Two Guvnors is being presented at The Music Box Theatre on Broadway. For tickets please visit www.telecharge.com.
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
"Every time I look at you I don't understand why you let the things you did get so out of hand."
At its basic level, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar is a passion play. The last week of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has been a part of theater since the middle ages. This sung-through version uses music styles popular in the early 1970's with the somewhat cynical modern commentary of that era in the libretto. This revival originated in the summer of 2011 at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada with a detour to La Jolla, California before arriving at the Neil Simon Theatre.
What is it about this particular production that resonated enough with audiences to merit a transfer to Broadway? While this production has flaws, Des McAnuff has created an interesting modern scenario as the backdrop for his version of the passion of the Christ. The problem is that it is all surface flash and contains very little substance. The disciples of Christ seem reminiscent of the burgeoning protest movements of the past year. Occupy Jerusalem springs to mind. The grim steel set designed by Robert Brill coupled with Paul Tazewell's mostly grungy costumes evoke the atmosphere of a small cult worshipping and hiding from the authorities. Mr. Brill also provides a New York-style electronic ticker that counts down backwards from 2012 that provides a silent progression of the days leading to the crucifixion. Director Mr. McAnuff keeps the pace brisk with the entire production including intermission coming in at two hours, a welcome change from the length of most Broadway musicals.
Yet, there are problems. Mr. McAnuff has chosen to focus the drama on the triangle of Jesus and his most trusted followers, Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene. This is justified in the libretto, yet as a result it is never clear why Jesus is such a threat to the Roman and Jewish authority figures. The decision to depict "The Temple"as peopled with leather bound dancers reminiscent of a go-go club seems an old and tired cliche copied from the 1973 film. There must be other ways to show the corruption of this house of prayer. Jesus' tantrum lacks an emotional punch that would force the status quo to destroy the burgeoning Christian movement.
The rock opera is sung expertly by the entire cast. Tom Hewitt captures Pontius Pilate's dilemma towards how to deal with the demands for Jesus' death, yet his final decision to put him to death does not seem inevitable and lacks the sorrow written for the part. Marcus Nance's (Caiaphas) liquid bass voice resonates the threat and Aaron Walpole's (Annas) tenor the alarm of the Jewish priests threatened by Jesus' exposure of the corruption of the faith, yet the staging does not match the vocals in portraying that threat visually.
Bruce Dow gives an interesting take on King Herod. His song in act two is normally played strictly for laughs, the only levity in the heavy drama leading to the crucifixion. Mr. Dow's Herod's wit is biting and cynical in his demands for miracles. Of the villain authority figures Herod is the only one who genuinely seems disturbed by Jesus and his followers.
Two of the three members of the central triangle of Jesus, Mary and Judas sing their roles well, but do not bring any true passion to their acting. Paul Nolan certainly looks beatific,yet for most of the performance he does not deliver any charisma. Mr Nolan succeeds in giving Jesus strong emotional depth during the act two "Gethsemane" where Jesus confronts God over his pending fate, but the rest of the performance seems to be going through the motions. It is difficult to see why this Jesus attracts a large following.
Chilina Kennedy is a beautiful young woman with a very beautiful voice. Unfortunately Mary Magdalene is a woman of the world with a sordid past. Her Mary is Jesus' helpmeet and chaste love, but in her most famous song, "I Don't Know How To Love Him", Miss Kennedy lacks the anguish of a fallen woman drawn to a saintly man.
Josh Young was absent due to illness at the performance I attended. However his understudy Jeremy Kushnier gave a worthy performance as the right hand man betrayer of Jesus. Mr. Kushnier telegraphed Judas' growing unease over the increasing prominence of Jesus'. His genuine torment over the betrayal and his growing realization that he has been a pawn in God's plan grew throughout the performance. From what I understand Mr. Young is equally brilliant in the role and the production is worth seeing for this pivotal performance.
Jesus Christ Superstar is being performed at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway. For tickets please visit www.ticketmaster.com
A Presidential election has produced a political convention that is deeply divided. The two frontrunners for the nomination are two very different prospects. William Russell, a former Secretary of State, is the establishment candidate. Known for his integrity in his political dealings he has damaging secrets in his personal life. Senator Joseph Cantwell is the brash rising star, deeply religious with the picture perfect wife and family, he has a reputation for winning by any means possible. Both men seek the endorsement of former President Arthur Hockstader, feeling that such an endorsement could be the key to break the deadlock votes and win the coveted nomination. When Secretary Russell is offered damaging information on Senator Cantwell, will he stoop to his opponent's tactics to in order to win?
Gore Vidal's The Best Man was written in 1960 and in many ways it is a play of its time. The conflict over hiding the personal foibles of political candidates is frankly quaint and outdated in the era of 24/7 news cycles and the instant gratification of twitter and other social media outlets. The very idea that these candidates would be able to hide their secrets from the press is very much of the era in which it was written. These days it would not be the candidates threatening to make these revelations public. It would be the cleaning woman and the bell boy tweeting the juicy details. While watching The Best Man I could not help these thoughts coming to the surface and wondering how an update to modern times using the same premise would change the outcome of the story. Despite the dated concept, Gore Vidal's The Best Man is an interesting drama well-acted by its extremely star-studded cast.
Star-studded cast? One only needs to gaze at the banner above the marquee to see the high wattage performers director Michael Wilson has assembled on the Gerald Schoenfeld stage. While it is a delight to see so many well-known performers tackle this material, there is the nagging question of can there be too many stars on one stage? Despite the interruptions caused by multiple applause breaks (five the performance I attended), the answer is no. For the most part each of the stars is extremely well cast, any egos are checked at the stage door and there are very compelling performances.
The true stars of the play are the rival candidates Secretary Russell and Senator Cantwell. John Larroquette conveys a quiet dignity as Secretary Russell. His dealings with his frustrated staff, led by campaign manager Dick Jensen (the earnest Michael McKean) show a leader who is in control of his side of the game despite the pleadings of his workers. Mr. Larroquette conveys heartfelt anguish in Secretary Russell's devastating relationship with his estranged wife, Alice (Candice Bergen perfect as the suffering betrayed political spouse). Mr. Larroquette gives Secretary Russell a sympathetic portrayal of a man who is, in reality,a womanizing cad.
On the other side of the coin is Eric McCormack's slick slime ball Senator Cantwell. Clearly written as the unsympathetic candidate, Mr. McCormick creates depth from what could be a very shallow villain. Senator Cantwell wears God, America and apple pie on his ever ready for the media face. Aided by his take no prisoners campaign manager, Don Blades (eager Corey Brill) and his partner in ambition, trophy wife Mabel (charming with fangs behind the beauty queen smile Kerry Butler), Cantwell weasels his way through every speed bump the evening presents to his side. Yet, his confidence is missing a vital element and his need to destroy his opponents nearly derails his goals.
Into this fray are several minor characters who provide critical plot points. Angela Lansbury portrays Sue-Ellen Gamadge, the Chairman of the Women's Division. Charming in the small role, Miss Lansbury channels the leader of the women's vote with the slight edge of a political force that can give vital support to either candidate. The only issue is that her southern accent comes and goes. Dakin Matthews' Senator Clyde Carlin sways with each change of the political winds of fortune.
Then there are "The Visitors" brought in by both campaigns to provide damaging information to persuade the other candidate to drop out of the race. Bill Kux portrays the unethical Dr. Artinian who breaks doctor patient confidentially with only a drop of remorse. Jefferson Mays is fascinating as Sheldon Marcus, a former military colleague of Senator Cantwell forced against his will to provide information on the Senator that could destroy his both the Senator's entire political career and Mr. Marcus' quiet life. Mr. Mays is tentative and reluctant and easily persuaded by both sides to give contradictory information. It is a compelling performance that will leave you wondering in the end where the truth lies.
Pivotal to both candidates chances to be nominated is the endorsement of President Arthur Hockstader. James Earl Jones delivers a charismatic performance as the seriously ill former president traveling between bathroom suites to hide his visits to both candidates while feeling out each man before deciding whom to anoint with his favor. It is a charming and dominate performance that fits the importance of the character.
Derek McLane set design has transformed the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre into a boisterous convention hall with bunting, state banners and 1960's era television screens. Ann Roth has created costumes that, while of the early 1960's, clearly help distinguish the personalities of the candidates particularly the three main women's roles. Michael Wilson directs his ensemble with a steady hand that brings forth both the humor and the pathos of Gore Vidal's script. It is only the fault of the script that makes it fairly obvious who will win the nomination. Yet, that is not the real ending of the story. The real ending is seeing who is the actual winner of this unconventional morality play.
Gore Vidal's The Best Man is being presented at Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in a limited engagement through July 8, 2012. For tickets please visit www.telecharge.com.
Thursday, April 12, 2012
Presented at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference in Boston, Massachusetts on April 12, 2012.
One of the more fascinating aspects of performing as part of the cast of a renaissance festival, particularly one in which royal court story lines get performed on a regular basis, such as at my home festival, the Maryland Renaissance Festival, is the challenge to develop information when portraying an actual historical person. It is easier to find information if you portraying a prominent person, such as King Henry VIII or his wives. However, if you are given the role of a courtier or a courtier's wife it is much more difficult to find contemporary information. Birth dates are largely unknown in the first half of the sixteenth century. Unless you are of royal birth your early life and rudimentary education will not be recorded. There may be brief glimpses of you in the historical record, but for women of the sixteenth century, unless you came to prominence on your own accord, there is little to go on for an actor to develop insight into the personality of the historical figure.
My own actor’s journey into the court of King Henry VIII began in the year 1529, better known as 2001, the 25th anniversary season of the Maryland Renaissance Festival. Prior to this season I had portrayed fictional village characters. I was ready for a change and was assigned Gertrude Blount Courtenay, the Marchioness of Exeter. My first reaction to this was, “who?” My second reaction was how on earth do I pronounce Marchioness.
We are extremely lucky at the Maryland Renaissance Festival to have a resident historian who is also the court director, Mary Ann Jung. There are also several other members of the cast who either have years of experience in historical interpretation or, like myself, are amateur Tudor history geeks. At the first rehearsal I was given a basic fact sheet on the Marchioness.
Titles: Marchioness of Exeter (1525)
Father: William Blount, 4th Baron Mountjoy (1479-1534) Catherine of Aragon’s chamberlain.
Mother: Elizabeth Say.
Husband: Henry Courtenay (1496 – x1538) Marquis of Exeter, a grandson of Edward IV.
Children: Edward Courtenay, Earl of Devon (1526-1556).
v Devout Catholic
v Somewhat of an enigma, being called both a “pathetic, ailing, devout, rather silly woman, with the credulous faith of the women of her kind” and an “energetic, high-spirited woman” willing to risk her life to keep a Catholic on the throne.
v Participated in pageantry at court.
v Accompanied Princess Mary at a May 1527 banquet for the French ambassador.
v Ensured that Queen Catherine’s staff were musically well-equipped.
v Very resourceful.
v Became a “useful, imperturbable go-between” for Princess Mary and Chapuys.
v At the same time she was working for Princess Mary, she was one of the Godmothers to Princess Elizabeth.
v She eventually consulted the Nun of Kent on a “family matter”, but apologized to Henry VIII and was pardoned for her indiscretion.
v Worked behind the scenes to bring down Anne Boleyn.
v Told Chapuys in January 1536 of Anne Boleyn’s witchery.
v Bore Prince Edward to the font at his Christening.
v Served water to King Henry and Queen Jane.
v She was eventually attainted and sentenced to death for treason in 1539, but she was pardoned in 1540.
v Her husband was not so fortunate: he was executed in 1538.
v She remained a loyal friend to Princess Mary and became part of her court when she rose to the throne.
From this fact sheet this woman clearly intrigued me. Obviously, the Marchioness of Exeter was a prominent figure at the court of King Henry VIII and Queen Mary I. Why had I not heard of her or her husband before? I knew her son’s name Edward Courtenay, Earl of Devon from his role in the Wyatt Rebellion of 1554. That was as little as I knew. I had been obsessed with the court of King Henry VIII since I was ten years old and watched the BBC miniseries The Six Wives of Henry VIII that was broadcast on CBS and PBS in 1971. Yet, I had never come across the Exeters in my reading, or if I did, they did not register as important.
As an actor at the Maryland Renaissance Festival we are encouraged to continue our research into the people we are portraying. It helps us give a richer performance and our discoveries can help to write our character’s roles in the scripted storylines that are performed at the Festival. What has differed for me is that I have developed a decade long love for the Marchioness of Exeter that has steered me into discovering as much about her as I can. Thanks to resources that were not available to me a decade ago when I first portrayed the Marchioness, I have gained a deeper understanding of this complex and important woman who served at the court of King Henry VIII.
In 2001 I had more limited options and they involved rudimentary research on the Internet, going to the library and ordering used books. The first resource that I consider essential when researching a woman from the English court in the 16th century is Burke’s Peerage in its various forms and volumes. This will give you basic genealogy for both the father’s family and the husband’s family by searching under either the family name or the title and these sources will give you a basic biography that include the titles and offices that the father or husband held at the court. There are also websites such as www.tudorplace.com.ar and www.tudorhistory.org that provide short biographies of the important figures of Tudor history using some of the same material.
Here is what I learned about the Marchioness’ father, William Blount, 4th Baron Mountjoy. William Blount was the son and heir of John, 3rd Baron Mountjoy who succeeded to the title on the death of his father in 1485 while still a child. He studied in Paris where he met and became the patron of the famous humanist scholar, Erasmus. Lord Mountjoy paid Erasmus a pension of 100 crowns per year. There are several Latin letters between Erasmus and Mountjoy and Erasmus dedicated several of his writings to Lord Mountjoy and his son, Charles.
From Erasmus’ letters we know that Lord Mountjoy came back to England around 1497/1498, probably because William’s marriage had been arranged to Elizabeth Saye, the daughter of Sir William Saye. Lord Mountjoy would marry multiple times, and his other wives included Alice Kebel, the widow of William Browne, Lord Mayor of London, and Dorothy Grey, daughter of Thomas, Marquis of Dorset. Antonia Fraser in her The Wives of Henry VIII states that Lord Mountjoy also married Katherine of Aragon’s Spanish lady-in-waiting, Inez de Venegas and that Inez was Gertrude’s mother thus making Gertrude half-Spanish. Sources differ on whether Inez was his second or his fourth wife. In order for Inez to be Gertrude’s mother Gertrude would have to have been born during Henry VIII’s reign after 1509 and given that her marriage occurred in 1519 and she starts to make appearances at court shortly after that, it is unlikely. I have come to the conclusion that Gertrude is most likely the child of his first marriage to Elizabeth Saye.
It was Lord Mountjoy’s court career that made it possible for Gertrude to make her illustrious marriage to the King’s first cousin, Henry Courtenay. Lord Mountjoy is present at many of the prominent events of the first two decades of the reign of King Henry VIII. In 1512 he becomes Chamberlain to Queen Katherine of Aragon, a position he remained in with a few gaps until the fall of 1533, when he was tasked with informing the “Princess Dowager” that her marriage was invalid. He died the following year.
Gertrude is believed to be Lord Mountjoy’s eldest child.  He would have several more children by his many wives, Mary, Charles, Katherine, John, Dorothy and another Mary. As to her birth year it is listed in sources as anywhere from 1499 to 1504 and in some sources as late as 1509. As is typical for a female courtier of the early 16th century Gertrude does not merit a mention in her own right until she is married.
There is slightly more information about Gertrude’s husband, Henry Courtenay, although his importance at the court of Henry VIII has been diminished in popular culture in favor of those courtiers who have closer ties to the families of the king’s subsequent wives. One of the best sources I found during the early years of my research came unexpectedly. Horatia Durant published a book on the three generations of the Earls of Devonshire in 1960. Entitled Sorrowful Captives: The Tudor Earls of Devon, Ms. Durant gained access to the family archives of the current Earls of Devon who live in Powderham Castle.
Henry is the only surviving child of William Courtenay and Princess Katherine Plantagenet. William was the son of Edward, created 1st Earl of Devonshire in 1485 for loyal service to King Henry VII. William married the Queen’s younger sister in 1495. When Queen Elizabeth of York dies, it is Princess Katherine who acts as chief mourner at her funeral. Unfortunately William begins a pattern in which his family is suspected of treason for supporting the Yorkist claimants to the throne. William is arrested in 1502 and attainted for corresponding with Edmund de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk. He would be released from the Tower on the ascension of King Henry VIII and he was given the honor of carrying the Third Sword at the coronation. The attainder is reversed and William is granted his father’s title of Earl of Devonshire in 1511, but he dies before the formalities are completed. Henry Courtenay appears to have been close to his cousin Henry VIII. He succeeds to the Earldom on his father’s death, participates in the invasion of France in 1513 and by 1520 becomes a privy councilor and a gentleman of the privy chamber. 
Now it is time for Gertrude to step forward into history. She was Henry Courtenay’s second wife. He was first married to Elizabeth Grey, Viscountess Lisle in her own right, but she died young no later than early 1519. Ms. Durant uncovers evidence that Gertrude and Henry’s marriage almost did not happen. In 1519 Henry Courtenay was proposed as a husband for the niece of William of Chievres, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor’s chamberlain and tutor. As Horatia Durant quotes in her book, Sir Thomas More wrote to Cardinal Wolsey,
“as touching the overture made by my Lord of Shevers for the marriage of my Lord of Devonshire, the King is well content, and as me seemeth, very glad of the motion, wherein he requireth Your Grace that it may like you to call my Lord of Devonshire to your Grace, and to advise him secretly to forbear any further treaty of marriage with my Lord of Mountjoy for a while; staying the matter, not casting it off; shewing him that there is a far better offer made him, of which the King would that he should not know the speciality before he speak with his Grace.”
The marriage between Henry and Gertrude took place on October 25, 1519. The king paid 200 pounds 4 shillings and 9 pence for jousts at Greenwich to celebrate their wedding.  Gertrude makes her first appearance as Countess of Devonshire at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, where she was allowed in her retinue three women, four men servants and eight horses, and she participated as one of the virtuous ladies in the court masque, the Chateau Vert in March 1522, alongside the King’s sister, Mary, Dowager Queen of France, Mary Boleyn Carey and Anne Boleyn. Gertrude portrayed Honor. Clearly, the Marchioness had the courtly graces of music and dancing, so based on this information I could portray her as a young woman who enjoyed court entertainments during the 2001 season of the Maryland Renaissance Festival. While the year was 1529, the height of the King’s Great Matter, because it was the 25th anniversary season, it was decided to have one last “happy’ day with King Henry and Queen Katherine enjoying the hospitality of the little village of Revel Grove.
Yet, I was still intrigued by the descriptions of Gertrude that seemed so diametrically opposed. Where did they come from? For that I turned to another valuable resource for anyone researching Tudor women. In 2001, this resource was in book form, Wives and Daughters: The Women of the Sixteenth Century by Kathy Lynn Emerson. It is now available as an online resource at kateemersonhistoricals.com that has made it easier for Ms. Emerson to update her information as new scholarship has happened over the past decade. So, let’s examine Gertrude. It was from Ms. Emerson’s book that I discovered the origin of the pathetic, ailing devout portrayal was A.L. Rowse, who wrote his works on Tudor history during the period of the 1930’s – 1970’s. The source of the energetic quote is Garrett Mattingly who wrote his biography of Katherine of Aragon in 1941. Horatia Durant in 1960 clearly did not like the Marchioness saying that she wrote “interminable letters” and that she “wanted power at a time when women…seldom wielded it.”
During the off-season, I started researching more deeply into Gertrude’s life. I would find snippets of her here and there, references to her in letters that placed her even more closely into the events of King Henry VIII’s reign. I discovered that it was very likely that she was, as she is portrayed in the one time she appears on the screen, in the BBC’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, the enemy of Queen Anne Boleyn, the friend of the King’s eldest daughter Princess Mary and the woman who had the privilege of carrying Prince Edward during his christening.
In 2002, the Maryland Renaissance Festival portrayed the year 1533 and the coronation of Anne Boleyn. I figured that since the Marchioness of Exeter was a close friend of Queen Katherine that I would not be asked to portray her that season. I was wrong. As a matter of fact, when I mentioned to my Artistic Director, Carolyn Spedden that I believed based on my research that the Marchioness did not attend the coronation of Queen Anne, she wrote it into the storyline and I received a brief dramatic scene following the coronation in which Queen Anne berated my arrogance and I chose to silently take the queen’s wrath. That led to some wonderful acting opportunities for the next two seasons as the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn took place at the Festival.
Here are a few highlights of the wonderful events of Gertrude Blount, the Marchioness of Exeter’s life.
Henry Courtenay benefited from the execution of the Duke of Buckingham in 1521. He became a knight of the garter replacing the attainted Duke. In 1527 he was appointed lieutenant of the order of the Garter. He received the lordship of Caliland in Cornwall and the Duke’s London home, Red Rose in St Lawrence Pountney. He was an accomplished jouster and the records from the Field of the Cloth of Gold show that his opponent was another royal cousin, Henry, Lord Montague the eldest son of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury and elder brother of the Reginald Pole who became Queen Mary I’s Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry Courtenay was created Marquis of Exeter in June 1525 on the same day that the king’s bastard son, Henry Fitzroy was created Earl of Nottingham and Duke of Richmond and Somerset. 
The Marchioness of Exeter was chosen to hold Princess Mary’s hand as she entered for a banquet in May 1527 when she was presented to the French ambassadors who proposed a French marriage for the young princess. During the Sweating Sickness epidemic of 1528 during which Mary Boleyn’s husband died and Anne and George Boleyn took ill, there is a letter from Thomas Heneage to Cardinal Wolsey that shows that the Marchioness of Exeter also took ill and that the court left her behind fleeing to Ampthill.
For the Exeters’ role in the dramatic events of the 1530’s it became necessary to dig deeper into even older source material. The Marquis performed his duty to his King and supported him in his quest for an annulment from Queen Katherine.  Both of the Exeters took part in the christening of Princess Elizabeth with Gertrude acting as godmother at the confirmation ceremony that took place immediately following the baptism. And we see in an episode from the reign of Queen Anne Boleyn, a time when Gertrude had to beg her forgiveness of the King.
There is a letter in volume two of Letters of Royal and Illustrious Ladies of Great Britain, edited by Mary Anne Everett Wood, in which a lady of the court begs the king’s forgiveness for seeking advice from Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent.  Sister Elizabeth Barton was famous for her predictions and she would ultimately lose her life for foolishly predicting that King Henry VIII would die if he married Anne Boleyn. Clearly if a lady of the court was caught patronizing Sister Elizabeth it could have dire consequences. What is puzzling to me is why is it presumed to be Gertrude that wrote the letter? The letter published was not taken from the original letter and it is unsigned. It comes from the Cotton Manuscripts, which were heavily damaged in a fire, and the original may be lost. Everett Wood states that the only women of rank that consulted the Holy Maid of Kent were Lady Exeter and Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury. She attributes the letter to Lady Exeter because of the references to her husband and by giving as a reason for the consultation that she was pregnant and had lost all of her children. Margaret Pole was a widow in her sixties at the time the letter was written. However, Everett Wood gets some information incorrect, such as stating that the Marchioness was imprisoned until the reign of Queen Mary I. She also states that the Marchioness attended Queen Anne's coronation, while other sources say she did not. Yet another reason to wish I had access to the actual material.
I do not have access to the complete letters of Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador, but other biographers have used those letters to show that Chapuys relied on one or the other of the Exeters for a lot of the information that he passed on to his master, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. It is from Chapuys that we learn that the Exeters are presumed to be the sources for the King claiming that Anne Boleyn had bewitched him and the charming episode of Mistress Jane Seymour on her knees demurely rejecting a gift of sovereigns from the King begging him to respect her honor. .”
Gertrude was tireless in her role as informer to Ambassador Chapuys. It is clear from his letters that the Marchioness believed Queen Katherine and Princess Mary are in mortal danger. In two letters from Chapuys to Charles V in November 1535 he writes “The Marchioness of Exeter has sent to inform me that the King has lately said to some of his most confidential councilors that he would not longer remain in the trouble, fear and suspense he had so long endured on account of the Queen and the Princess, and that they should see at the coming Parliament, to get him released there from, swearing most obstinately that he would wait no longer. The Marchioness declares that this is as true as the Gospel, and begs me to inform your Majesty and pray you to have pity on the ladies. In the second letter he wrote, “The Personage who informed me of what I wrote to your Majesty on the 6th about the Queen and the Princess –came yesterday to this city in disguise to confirm what she had sent to me to say, and conjure me to warn your Majesty, and beg you most urgently to see a remedy. She added that the King, seeing some of those to whom he used this language shed tears, said that tears and wry faces were of no avail, because even if he lost his crown he would not forbear to carry his purpose into effect.”
I was able to portray the Marchioness of Exeter through the year 1537 participating in the fall of Anne Boleyn, the betrothal of Jane Seymour and the restoration to the court of Princess Mary. Yet, because this is a Renaissance Festival and the Exeter Conspiracy is not one of the tales that gets told in a couple of thirty minute shows I was unable to portray the downfall of the Exeters. It is a sad story that, believe it or not was portrayed by Showtime’s The Tudors series, without the Exeters taking part.
Following the death of Queen Anne Boleyn, the Marquis again did his duty in helping to suppress the Pilgrimage of Grace and a similar uprising in the west counties. He benefited greatly from the dissolution of the monasteries and became the largest landowner in the west.  Yet, it was his royal blood, his close friendship to the Pole family and his dislike of Thomas Cromwell that would prove the destruction of his family.
Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, was the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV. Her middle son, Reginald Pole, had been educated on the continent at the expense of King Henry VIII. Reginald became very vocal about opposing the divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the dissolution writing a treatise against the English Reformation entitled Pro Unitatis Ecclesiasticae Unitatis Defensione (A Defense of the Church’s Unity) better known as De Unitate.  The Marquis was close friends with the Pole family, particularly Henry Pole, Lord Montague, Margaret Pole’s eldest son. Thomas Cromwell had Geoffrey Pole, the Countess’ youngest son arrested for clandestine correspondence with his brother Reginald in August 1538 and put in solitary confinement in the Tower of London for two months. He betrayed his entire family and the Exeters.
The Marquis and Henry Pole, Lord Montague, were arrested in November 1538. The Marquis was accused of encouraging apprentices in Cornwall to march carrying his banner and declaring that he should be heir to the throne. This makes no sense, as he would not have displaced Prince Edward or Princess Mary to whom he was one of her staunchest champions. It didn’t help the Marquis that was overhead saying “Knaves rule about the King; I trust to give them a buffet one day.”
The Marchioness and their 12-year-old son, Edward was arrested along with Lady Montague and her young son, Henry Pole. The Marquis and Lord Montague were convicted of treason and executed on December 9, 1538. One week later the Marquis was formally degraded from the Order of the Garter.  Among the other men executed in the “Exeter Conspiracy” were Sir Edward Neville and Sir Nicholas Carew whose sole crime was to have treasonous correspondence with the Marchioness.
Act of Attainder convicted the Marchioness along with several other prisoners in May 1539. For a time her cell mate in the Tower was Margaret Pole. The Marchioness is mentioned in the reports of Thomas Cromwell. In reference to being unsatisfied with her confession he wrote that “I shall try to the uttermost and never cease till the bottom of her stomach may be clearly opened and disclosed, and I can declare it to your highness by mouth more than I could by writing.” Thomas Philips, a senior warder would write “The Lady Marchioness feareth sore lest she stand in the King’s displeasure and consequently wants your Lordship’s favour. She also wanteth rainment and hath no change but only what your Lordship commanded to be provided. Further, her gentlewoman, Mistress Constance, hath no change and what she hath is sore worn. Another gentlewoman hath been with her one whole year and more and very sorry is she that she hath not to recompense them, at least their wages.” Later Cromwell’s memorandum lists “remember the Marchioness of Exeter…remember the two children in the Tower.”
The Marchioness of Exeter was pardoned on December 21, 1539 and released.  Not so her young son, who would remain a prisoner of the Tower until Queen Mary I came to the throne. Mary would restore him to his father’s family title of Earl of Devon. Young Henry Pole simply disappears from the Tower records around 1543. Margaret Pole would be executed at the age of 68 in May 1541. Geoffrey Pole attempted suicide twice, was released and lived out his life shunned by his surviving relatives.
Gertrude returned to court with the ascension of Mary and became chief gentlewoman of the queen’s bedchamber.  Her son would become the English candidate for the queen’s hand in marriage supported by Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, whom Edward had befriended during his imprisonment.  When the Queen announced her intention to marry Philip of Spain, Edward was caught up in the Wyatt Rebellion that proposed to marry Edward to Princess Elizabeth and place them on the throne. Edward when questioned stated that while he was aware of the plans to marry him to Princess Elizabeth he had declined. He was briefly re-imprisoned in the Tower and then exiled to the continent where he traveled to Calais, Antwerp and Italy. Edward Courtenay, the last Tudor Earl of Devonshire would die in mysterious circumstances in Padua on September 18, 1556 and was buried in St. Anthony’s church. 
His mother would be forgiven by Queen Mary for her son’s mistakes and would remain a part of the Queen’s household. Gertrude Blount Courtenay, Marchioness of Exeter died on September 25, 1558 and is buried in Wimborne Minster. 
I end with Gertrude’s own words. The Marchioness of Exeter wrote several letters to her son in his exile. Five are reprinted in volume three of Letters of Royal and Illustrious Ladies of Great Britain. This letter is poignant. It is the letter of a mother desperately missing her only child.
Your letter wrote to me, dated the two-and-twentieth of October, I received from Brown the 7th of November. The letter was one way comfortable, to perceive you do not forget your mother, who esteems you above her own life. And very glad I am to hear the king’s majesty is so much your good lord as you write; beseeching our Lord long to preserve him: but sorry I am you will, as I perceive by your letter, travel so far hence, but I trust, according to your bounden duty, you will first come into England to see the queen’s highness and your poor mother, who has as little worldly comfort as ever woman had, saving only the goodness and comfort of the queen’s highness. As I perceive by your letter, your man has to say to me from you, but, as he writes to me, he trusts you shall shortly come hither and speak with me yourself; the which I would be most gladdest of, and causes me purposely send this bearer to bring me word; if there be any such good news I will remain here till I hear the certainty what you will do. And thus with my hearty blessing I will bid you farewell, for I am at this present so pained with the cholic and the stone, that I have much ado to write; fearing you cannot read this ill written letter, praying daily for your short return into England. Written the 8th of November, from Master Warham’s house at Malsanger.
If you come to England I trust I shall see you, or else I will shortly write to you if I be alive.
By your most assured loving mother,
Dodds, Madeleine Hope and Ruth. The Pilgrimage of Grace 1536-1537 and The Exeter Conspiracy 1538, volume one. London: Frank Cass and Company Ltd. 1915, 1971.
Durant, Horatia. Sorrowful Captives: The Tudor Earls of Devon. Great Britain: Pontypool, Hughes & Son, Ltd. The Griffin Press. 1960.
Emerson, Kathy Lynn. Wives and Daughters: The Women of the Sixteenth Century. Albany, New York: Whitston Publishing Company, Inc. 1984, 2001.
Everett Wood, Mary Anne. Letters of Royal and Illustrious Ladies of Great Britain, three volumes. London: Henry Colburn. 1846.
Fraser, Antonia. The Wives of Henry VIII. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1992
Ives, Eric. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Malden: Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing. 2004.
Jerdan, William. The Rutland Papers. New York and London: AMS Press. 1968.
Matthew, David. The Courtiers of Henry VIII. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode. 1970.
Murphy, Beverley A. Bastard Prince: Henry VIII’s Lost Son. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Ltd. 2001.
Naylor Okerlund, Arlene. Queenship and Power: Elizabeth of York. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. 2009.
Seward, Desmond. The Last White Rose: Dynasty, Rebellion and Treason The Secret Wars Against The Tudors. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd. 2010.
Starkey, David. Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII. London: Chatto & Windus. 2003.
St. Clare Byrne, Muriel Ed. The Letters of King Henry VIII. New York: Funk & Wagnalls. 1936, 1968.
Taylor, Jr., James D. The Shadow of the White Rose: Edward Courtenay, Earl of Devon 1526-1556. New York: Algora Publishing. 2006.
Towend, Peter, editor. Burke's Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry, 18th edition, 3 volumes. London, England: Burke's Peerage Ltd, 1965-1972
Tremlett, Giles. Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen. London: Faber and Faber Ltd. 2010.
 Dictionary of National Biography, pg. 721
 Antonia Fraser, The Wives of Henry VIII (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992) 195
 Tremlett, Giles, Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2010) 378-379
 Charles Mosley, editor, Burke's Peerage, Baronetage & Knightage, 107th edition, 3 volumes (Wilmington, Delaware, U.S.A.: Burke's Peerage (Genealogical Books) Ltd, 2003), volume 1, page 1123.
 Arlene Naylor Okerlund, Queenship and Power: Elizabeth of York (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) 127
 Okerlund 204
 Horatia Durant. Sorrowful Captives: The Tudor Earls of Devon (Pontypool, Hughes & Son, Ltd. The Griffin Press, 1960) 26
 Durant 28
 Dictionary of National Biography, pg. 1261.
 Durant, pg.36.
 William Jerdan, F.S.A. M.R.S.L.The Rutland Papers (New York and London: AMS Press, 1968) 36
 Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, Ltd. 2004) 37
 Durant 36
 Durant 37
 Durant 52
 Dictionary of National Biography, pg. 1261.
 Durant 37.
 Beverley A. Murphy, Bastard Prince: Henry VIII’s Lost Son (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited, 2003) 55
 Durant 40
M. St. Clare Byrne, Ed. The Letters of King Henry VIII (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1968) 72
 David Matthew, The Courtiers of Henry VIII (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1970) 147
 Mary Anne Everett Wood, Letters of Royal and Illustrious Ladies of Great Britain, Volume Two (London: Henry Colburn, 1846) 96-101
 Durant 45
 David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (London: Chatto & Windus, 2003) 551
 Madeleine Hope Dodds and Ruth Dodds, The Pilgrimage of Grace 1536-1537 and The Exeter Conspiracy 1538 Volume One (London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd. 1915, 1971) 24-25
 Durant 47
 Durant 50-52
 Desmond Seward, The Last White Rose: Dynasty, Rebellion and Treason; The Secret Wars Against The Tudors (London: Constable & Robinson, Ltd., 2010) 240
 Durant 57
 Durant 58
 Durant 61-62
 Durant 59
 Durant. 63
 Matthew 153
 Durant 64
 James D. Taylor, Jr. The Shadow of the White Rose: Edward Courtenay, Earl of Devon 1526-1556 (New York: Algora Publishing, 2006) 59
 Durant 63
 Durant 76
 Seward 316
 Taylor 75
 Taylor 85
 Taylor 160-161
 Everett Wood, Volume Three, 307-309