Jessica Swale talks to arts journalist Heather Neill about the world of Nell Gwynn
Heather Neill: Nell Gwynn, orange seller and mistress of Charles II, is a figure of legend, but where did she come from?
Jessica Swale: It’s hard to know exactly; working class lives weren’t recorded in enough detail for there to be accurate records, but many believe she was brought up in Coal Pan (Yard) Alley in Covent Garden, where her mother, “Old Ma Gwynn,” kept a brothel. Nell probably worked there, either serving drinks to clients or as a prostitute…. Her father died in a debtors’ prison and she had one sister called Rose. Part of the joy of writing Nell Gwynn has been sketching around the bones of the known facts, imagining and inventing. I never set out to write a documentary style play, but even if I had, the task would have proved impossible with the inconsistencies and contradictions in her history.
What was theater like when it was reestablished after Cromwell’s Commonwealth?
When Charles II returned from France in 1660, he licensed two theater companies in London: Killigrew’s “King’s Company” at Drury Lane and Davenant’s “Duke’s Company” at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. I imagine Killigrew must have been under tremendous pressure as the two companies were in constant competition…. As for John Dryden [poet and playwright, who is among Nell Gwynn’s characters], it is funny that so many of his plays are badly written, but he must have felt the weight of expectation; theater was reemerging after an eleven year gap, he was at the helm of the new culture, the King wanted new plays—it can’t have been easy. No wonder they reinvented so many familiar texts. There was a fashion for rewriting Shakespeare, cheering up the tragedies. King Lear was given a new ending in which Cordelia survives, and Dryden wrote a “new play” called The Enchanted Island, about Prospero and his two daughters—Miranda and Dorinda. Sound familiar? Yet, though his plays haven’t stood the test of time, he was a successful poet and even became Poet Laureate.
How did the first actresses fit into the picture?
Charles II had seen actresses on stage in Paris and decided it was high time we followed fashion. However, the early actresses got a rather raw deal. Writers knew the audiences’ interest in actresses was often voyeuristic, so played into this by writing body exposing rape scenes, or writing “breeches parts,” in which women, disguised as tight trousered men (exposing their shapely legs) were then revealed to be female with the dramatic exposure of their breasts. Male audience members often paid an extra penny to watch the actresses change, many of whom were prostitutes. This was Nell’s world, but I wanted her to question it.
You have actors demonstrating “attitudes,” poses to indicate emotions. Would the acting style have seemed alien to us?
It’s easy to assume that it was melodramatic, but actually [diarist Samuel] Pepys describes the best actors as seeming real, so I wonder if the style somehow used precise physical positions as a structure, rather like ballet, whilst still being emotionally connected, like naturalism. The “attitudes” weren’t static poses but frameworks of movements and gestures that actors used to underscore the text. As theaters were large buildings, it was important that emotion could be read in an actor’s posture. Heightened emotion, stylized, but still real.
How much is known of Nell’s relationship with the king?
I think they really were in love. She was his favorite mistress for many years, and they spent a lot of private time together. He had a secret passage built from his court rooms in Westminster to her house in Pall Mall, so they could rendezvous for card games and evenings away from the public.
Unlike Barbara Castlemaine, she made no attempt to interfere in politics and never asked for a title for herself (though she did for her sons). Louise de Kéroualle, another favorite mistress and Nell’s rival, was tremendously unpopular and was known as “the Catholic whore.” There’s a story that a crowd once attacked Nell’s coach thinking Louise was inside, so Nell merrily stuck her head out and said, “Hold, good people, I am the Protestant whore!” which garnered whoops and cheers from the delighted onlookers. The people loved her because she was one of them. And, of course, there’s Charles’ famous dying wish, “Let not poor Nellie starve.”
Who was Arlington, the courtier?
Arlington was an ambitious advisor to the king, significantly older and more experienced. I’ve conflated him with Buckingham to give Charles a righthand man. He may seem outspoken in his manner with the king, but the reality is that the court was terribly shaken after the Commonwealth, and it was essential that Charles didn’t put a foot wrong. The divine right of kings had just been reestablished, order restored, the aristocrats returned. If Arlington and his courtiers could ensure the king’s image was spotless, divine, he would stay on this pedestal. But, if his saintly image was tarnished by an affair with a prostitute from Coal Pan Alley, who would see him as divine then? What would stop the next Cromwell?
One of your themes is celebrity.
It’s fascinating to ask whether Nell’s celebrity was because of her brilliance as an actress or because she was the king’s mistress. Pamphleteers—like paparazzi today—would quickly report the activities of the famous, and Charles and his mistresses were the hot topic. There was such a frenzy to see him that they even allowed the public into the gallery to watch him eat dinner at night. There was a culture of writing lewd poems about society figures. So if there are a few dirty jokes in the play, don’t blame me. It’s all in the name of historical accuracy….
Was it difficult to distinguish fact from legend and gossip?
Yes, and I made a decision early on that the play should be an entertaining homage to Nell rather than an attempt at documentary style historical accuracy…. The key events of the play are historically accurate, but I’ve allowed myself to embellish. Primarily, I wanted it to be fun. And if it’s a play that Nell would have enjoyed, that’s enough for me.
Interview first appeared in Shakespeare’s Globe program with the play’s premiere in 2015. Reprinted with permission of Heather Neill, a freelance journalist and arts writer in the UK.
Top Left: Jessica Swale. Photo by Michael Wharley.
Top Right: Nell Gwynn (Alison Luff, center) in a dramatic performance on stage, with fellow actors (left to right: Catherine Flye, Alex Michell, Quinn Franzen) in Folger Theatre’s Nell Gwynn. Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography.
Middle Left: The King’s Company in performance (left to right: Caitlin Cisco, Quinn Franzen, Christopher Dinolfo). Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography.
Bottom Right: Nell Gwynn (Alison Luff) entertains a new fan—King Charles II (R.J. Foster)—backstage. Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography.
Bottom Left: King Charles II (R.J. Foster, above) looks down on Lord Arlington (Jeff Keogh). Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography.