KPBS AIRDATE: APRIL 13, 2001
Some sex scandals are just too delicious not to be made into movies or plays. So why did it take 150 years to bring the true story of John Ruskin to the stage? Well, thanks are due to novelist/playwright Gregory Murphy for bringing the tale to light, without stooping, Hollywood-style, to our grossest, basest instincts. The small, spare, tightly-crafted drama, the hit of the 1999 Off-Broadway season, considers a historical love triangle that revolved around an unconsummated marriage — of eight years duration.
There’s even a luscious little back-story: Last year was the centenary of the death of the acclaimed art critic, John Ruskin, the first (and according to this version, most offending) husband of Euphemia ‘Effie’ Gray. The original New York production was supported by descendants of the real Effie, who were eager to clear the name of their great-great-grandmother, a woman who, exiled from the Queen’s court, has been reviled for a century, for defying her husband’s will. In the other camp, devotees of Ruskin, who dictated artistic opinion in 19th century England, were dismayed by the play’s personal and sexual revelations about their hero.
Murphy’s play condenses all this drama into one fact-based year in the life of the Ruskins — 1853– when they took a trip to her homeland in the Scottish Highlands, accompanied by the energetic young painter John Everett Millais, Ruskin’s protégé, who would soon be a national sensation in his own right. While the controlling, misogynistic Ruskin demeans and nearly destroys Effie, insisting she’s insane. Millais, who affectionately dubs her ‘The Countess,’ falls in love with her. Her attraction to Millais prompts her confession to a close friend, the feminist writer Lady Eastlake, that her marriage had never been consummated. On their wedding night, Ruskin, seeing his wife naked for the first time, pronounced her ‘diseased.’ What the play coyly avoids saying is that this diagnosis stemmed from Effie’s failure to live up to his ideal of female beauty; i.e., she had — dare we say it — pubic hair. Years later, he was to fall in love with a 10 year-old, and her untimely death propelled him into madness. For the rest of the post-play narrative, don’t miss the big, informative sandwich board outside the theater.
Most of all, be sure not to miss what’s inside the theater — a provocative study of hypocrisy, and the chasm between the ideal and the real. In this starkly beautiful production, tautly directed by Globe associate director Brendon Fox, the costumes are striking, the set and lighting are suggestive, and the uniformly outstanding performances flesh out the seductively skeletal plotline. Especially appealing are Emma Roberts as a luminous Effie, and Gabriel Olds as a fiery, sensual Millais. It’s all aptly intimate in the cozy Cassius Carter Centre Stage. We wince, we swoon, we gasp. We feel the tension. We sense the sexual energy. We succumb to the irresistible pull of a shocking story superbly told.
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.