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This article by Joan Crespi was prepared for the February 19, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Drama Review: `The Countess’
John Ruskin, the foremost English art, architecture,
and social critic of his day, whose life spanned the Victorian Age
and 80 years of the 19th century, set forth original and startling
principles for art criticism. His personal life was even more unusual
and morphed into the diabolical. But it was his young wife’s legal
action that gave rise to the scandal that shocked proper Victorian
London in 1835 and beyond. This is the subject of "The Countess"
by Gregory Murphy, playing at Hopewell’s Off-Broadstreet Dessert Theater
through Saturday, March 15. Based on historical fact, the 1999 play
became a surprising success in New York, running Off-Broadway for
over 500 performances.
"The Countess" is akin to a movie script — its two acts
have 15 relatively short scenes, many with blackout endings. The action
all takes place in 1835. And the setting (except for Ruskin’s two
cameo lectures from a podium) is always the drawing room, whether
in Ruskin’s London home or the cottage in Scotland. The production
is skillfully directed by Robert Thick.
"The Countess" was the nickname of Euphemia Chalmers Gray,
Ruskin’s wife — known by all as Effie — a young woman of dignity
and beauty, rosy-cheeked and vibrant. The character is enchantingly
played by Jennifer East, even though, in some key scenes, there is
no hint of the sexual tension that is at the heart of the plot.
Ruskin is the highly respected but emotionally cold academic played
by Ed Teti. The third party in the play’s love triangle was the painter
John Everett Millais, portrayed by Walter E. Cupit. (Millais is said
to be have been impetuous, but isn’t so here.) Ten years younger than
Ruskin, Millais admired Ruskin for his defense of Millais’ own revolutionary
cadre of Pre-Raphaelite painters, a group that rebelled against the
artificial strictures of the Royal Academy and advocated returning
to nature as the source for painting. Millais, who later in life became
one of England’s most esteemed artists, painted the famous portrait
of Ruskin standing on Scotland’s craggy rocks beside a raging waterfall.
For background, Acts I and II each open with Ruskin lecturing briefly
on art criticism and we learn something of his advocacy of an esthetic
in which the moral perception of beauty was superior to the merely
sensuous. Ruskin believed that faith, education, morality, and healthy
social conditions were necessary for the creation of good art. He
is best remembered today as the champion of J.M.W. Turner’s evocative
The play begins in earnest with Ruskin’s resolve to take Effie and
Millais, who is painting Ruskin’s portrait, on a four-month holiday
in the Scottish Highlands. Ruskin’s stolid and self-righteous parents,
who dislike Effie, oppose taking along Millais. The pompous John Sr.,
lustily portrayed by Doug Kline, matches the haughty Margaret Ruskin,
played with sour believability by Lois Carr.
In the cottage in Scotland, over his wife’s objections, Ruskin deliberately
leaves Effie and Millais alone together. As he sketches Effie, Millais
expounds on his Pre-Raphaelite manifesto. When Millais kisses her;
she turns away, struggling to be a model wife. Ruskin is verbally
abusive to Effie in Millais’ presence, telling him such cruelty is
"necessary." Obviously masking his own failure, Ruskin schemes
further, telling Millais that Effie suffers anger and deep depression
and is mentally ill. "Effie thinks I leave her alone with other
men to compromise her," he tells the young artist.
Although Effie tells her husband that Millais may be in love with
her, Ruskin ignores this, too. Teaching Effie to sketch, Millais and
she are tete-a-tete, but the audience sees little sense of passion
or of Effie’s sexual frustration. It finally bursts out as Effie pleads
with Ruskin, telling him that "I am a woman after all!" In
the face of her husband’s frigidity, Effie finally yields to temptation.
She returns Millais’ kisses and, at his request, calls him for the
first time by his given name, Everett. She even tells Ruskin of her
love for Millais.
In the shorter second act, the group is back in London.
Margaret Ruskin proposes sending the unhappy Effie to a doctor who
specializes in nervous disorders; Effie, stronger now yet still believing
she is at fault, refuses to go. Still struggling to stay faithful
to Ruskin and conform to Victorian wifely behavior, she asks him to
take her away from his parents’ home; he refuses and cruelly insists
Effie return some of Millais’ sketches to the artist herself.
Millais, obviously sharing Victorian moral standards, is preparing
to absent himself from the Ruskins: he’ll go to Cairo to paint for
four years. In a penultimate scene, Effie’s friend and confidante
Lady Eastlake (Marianne Ahern) pries the secret out of Effie. The
secret of the Ruskin marriage? Ruskin has never consummated his marriage
to Effie, claiming that her body disgusted him. Effie tells Lady Eastlake
that on their wedding night, when he took off her nightgown, he discovered
she was "diseased." The disease? Although the play cannot
tell us, it was probably the presence of pubic hair. Lady Eastlake
assures Effie, "There is nothing wrong with you!"
Effie, stronger knowing the truth, leaves Ruskin and has him served
with annulment papers. He admits having failed to consummate the marriage
to his parents; after a moment’s shock, they stand by him, sticking
to the cover-up story that Effie is mad.
Ruskin fell in love with Effie when she was 12, married her when she
was nearly 20. Like Lewis Carroll, he is said to have been attracted
to prepubescent girls. Later in life he became infatuated with nine-year-old
Rose LaTouche and tried to marry her when she came of age.
On opening night some of the dialogue of the fast-talking characters
was lost, but this will no doubt be remedied after the first performances.
(OBT opens without any previews.) As the characters work together,
the story will become more electric. Thank Patricia Hibben for glorious
costumes on the women, particularly the long, wide skirted dresses
on trim-waisted Effie and on Lady Eastlake.
There’s irony in the brilliant intellectual Ruskin admiring beauty
in art, but not in the flesh of a grown woman. Perhaps Ruskin’s dilemma
is best summed up in his words, most suited to the Venus de Milo:
"Bachelors marry goddesses, husbands marry women."
— Joan Crespi
Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766. Fridays to Sundays to March 15. $22.50
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