UCR husband-wife duo explore the story of English folk heroine

Vincent Ta/Highlander
Vincent Ta/Highlander

Having a penchant for historically based plays, UCR professor Bella Merlin wrote a fascinating piece on one of the world’s first great actresses, Nell Gwynne. Titled “Nell Gwynne: A Dramatick Essaye on Acting and Prostitution,” this one-person, fact-based drama explores the complicated relationship between women and theater in 17th-century England.

“A lot of research went into writing this piece,” Merlin said. “It’s known that for many, many centuries, women didn’t go on stage.” She notes the irony of playwrights creating female characters with incredible depth, only for those roles to be taken by men. “Even back to Shakespeare’s time,” Merlin noted, “you’d have men performing female characters.”

For Merlin, Gwynne’s real life represents one of the greatest Cinderella stories ever known. “Her mother worked in a brothel, and working women were very, very rare in this time,” Merlin said. “There’s a real, tangible ‘rags-to-riches’ quality about her life.” In 17th-century England, her own personal research revealed that “most women were wives, servants, prostitutes, or just around her (Gwynne’s) time, actresses.” In an era where acting was arguably lower on the social ladder than prostitution, Gwynne was almost one-of-a-kind.

“Her very first experiences in theater actually wasn’t acting, but rather as an orange-seller during performances,” Merlin said. Gwynne began selling oranges to theater audiences around the age of 13, and within six months caught the attention of theater manager Charles Hart. “Oranges were a pretty exotic and expensive luxury then, and they were sold in theaters, among with other commodities,” stated Merlin. “She had a knack for being very sparky and very funny. She was very attractive and full of character, so when she caught Charles Hart’s attention, he said, ‘I think you’d be great for the stage.’”

The play also speaks a little about her time as a mistress to King Charles II. In that time, it was not uncommon for a variety of women to be courtiers of royalty. The love affair between Charles II and Gwynne allegedly began in the spring of 1668, and by the summer it became publicly known. Most royal affairs did not last very long, but Gwynne and Charles’ lasted for several years. She even gave birth to two children in her time with Charles.

For Merlin, this part of Gwynne’s history is problematic for her legacy. “Too many people remember her as either this silly, cheeky orange seller who was the ‘darling of the people,’ or as a simple mistress to the king of England,” she said. “What I want to do with this piece is to speak of the more professional moments of her life, the time spent acting in professional theater. She took acting seriously, and over in the U.K. she’s incredibly famous. The first and third acts of her life are mentioned, but the story being told is about what happened in between those two.”

Merlin’s husband Miles Anderson, who will be directing the play, has extensive knowledge of 17th-century England, and the important events in those times that helped create the environment for Gwynne to do what she did.

“Charles II was exiled to France for several years following the execution of his father,” Anderson explained. “In France, he spent some time watching French theater, where women were performing on stage all the time. He eventually returned to England in the aftermath of a massive, bloody civil war and 16 years of Puritan rule, where there’s no theater at all.” He restored the theater upon his return to England, but ran into a problem.

“Charles would come to the English theaters and suddenly thought, ‘Why do we have all these guys dressed up as women, for Christ’s sake? Let’s have women performing as women.’” To Anderson, “he was the first guy to actually promote women on the stage.” If it hadn’t been for Charles II, “there would probably be boys running around with frocks on.”

Merlin agrees, saying “Charles was a serious theater supporter, and a serious promoter of women. Of course,” she remarked with a chuckle, “he was well-known for his number of mistresses.” While not focusing entirely on Charles II, the play “looks a little bit at that very fine line between treading the boards and bedding the bawds, because playwrights would encourage actresses to behave like prostitutes to make their plays more popular.”

As the play’s author, Merlin dislikes the pervasive idea of people in the performing arts being loose and abnormal, which was carried onto the present day from English theater over hundreds of years. “People must remember that she was a serious actress, a person of great wit and also a confidant to the king,” she remarked, explaining that the modern day equivalent would be Barack Obama’s closest ally being an unknown actress.

Merlin and Anderson also expressed a high level of enthusiasm regarding their five-person creative team, four of whom are UCR undergraduates, including designer and assistant director Allison Molnaa, costume designer Jason Estala, stage manager Gema Trujillo, production assistant Natalia Zufferey and Alix Conde in charge of marketing and publicity. “As a team, we’re doing everything ourselves,” Merlin noted. “It’s sort of a mini-lesson in small scale producing, like theatre production 101.”

As the directing-and-acting, husband-and-wife team for “Nell Gwynne,” Merlin and Anderson ultimately wish for their play to demonstrate that “This (17th-century English theatre) is the birth of the first professional artists, and Nell Gwynne should be remembered as such.”

“Nell Gwynne” will be opening at the Culver Center on May 23 at 8 p.m., and its first showing at the Hollywood Fringe will be June 8 at 8 p.m.

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