Nell Gwynn

September 20

November 4, 2018

CST’s Courtyard Theater

by Jessica Swale
directed by Christopher Luscombe

Q&A with the Playwright

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 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...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.

HN: What was theatre like when it was re-established after Cromwell’s Commonwealth?

JS: When Charles II returned from France in 1660, he licensed two theatre 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 Dryden, it is funny that so many of his plays are badly written, but he must have felt the weight of expectation; theatre was re-emerging 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, particularly 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.

HN: How did the first actresses fit into the picture?

JS: 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. Punters [customers] 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.

HN: You have actors demonstrating ‘attitudes,’ poses to indicate emotions. Would the acting style have seemed alien to us?

JS: 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 which actors used to underscore the text. As theatres were large buildings, it was important that emotion could be read in an actor’s posture. Heightened emotion, stylized, but still real.

HN: Are the songs in the play based on the music of the period?

JS: They’re certainly inspired by it. I love writing lyrics, and had been listening to everything from Purcell to an album called The History of Bawdy Songs, which tells you all you need to know! So I would write in pastiche of a style, then pass the lyrics on to Nigel Hess, who would transform them by writing original melodies and scoring them so beautifully that they’d become unrecognizable. He is a genius, I think.

HN: How much is known of Nell’s relationship with the king?

JS: 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 Castelmaine, she made no attempt to interfere in politics and never asked for a title for herself (though she did for her sons). Louise de Keroualle, another favorite mistress and Nell’s rival, was tremendously unpopular and as 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 heat 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...

HN: Who was Arlington, the courtier?

JS: Arlington was an ambitious advisor to the king, significantly older and more experienced...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 re-established, 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 Yard Alley, who would see him as divine then? What would stop the next Cromwell?

HN: One of your themes is celebrity.

JS: 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. . . .

HN: Was it difficult to distinguish fact from legend and gossip?

JS: 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. Reprinted with permission of Heather Neill, a freelance journalist and arts writer in the UK.

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