The Events Leading up to The Lion in Winter
A history by director Stuart Bousel
The European Middle Ages began around 500 AD following the collapse of Roman infrastructure and the withdrawal of Roman troops from northern Europe, and was marked by a period of invasions from the Vikings and the Huns that reduced a once unified continent to a myriad of small kingdoms which wouldn’t know national cohesion again until King Charles of the Franks was crowned Charlemagne of France in 800. In 1066 the Duke of Normandy, a vast region on the north coast of France, crossed the English Channel and defeated the English king, Harold Godwinson, at the Battle of Hastings, just 3 weeks after he had defeated the Norwegian king, Harold Hadrada, effectively ending the era of Viking power. The victor crowned himself William the 1st of England and Normandy, thus ushering in the High Middle Ages (1066-1300) and laying the groundworks for the power struggle at the root of The Lion In Winter.
William’s son William Rufus succeeded him as king, but died childless in 1100, and the throne passed to his younger brother, Henry the First. Henry’s only legitimate son (William Adelin) drown in a shipwreck in 1120 while attempting to save his half-sister, and so the crown passed to Henry’s daughter, Matilda. Though many people, royal and common, accepted Matilda, a rebellion lead by her cousin, Stephen, resulted in a period of civil partisanship known as The Anarchy, during which England was split into two kingdoms: Matilda’s in the northwest, and Stephen’s in the southeast. Eventually the two sides agreed that Stephen would reign as King, Matilda would reign as “Lady of England” (a title never held again), and her son by Count Geoffrey of Anjou would succeed Stephen upon his death. On October 25, 1154 the son in question, nicknamed Curtmantle, took the throne as Henry II, King of England. Through his marriage in 1152 to Eleanor, the Duchess of Aquitaine (the largest, richest county in France), and his inherited titles of Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, Henry was the ruler of more of France than the King of France himself, Louis VII, who was, incidentally, Eleanor’s first husband, before she divorced him in 1152.
]Eleanor and Henry would have 8 children. The first, William, died as an infant, but the remaining 7- Henry, Matilda, Richard, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joanna, and John- survived to adulthood and through their marriages and deeds Henry became the most powerful man in Europe. At the time of Lion in Winter, his empire included parts of Germany and Spain, the islands of Sicily and Ireland, and more of France, namely the county of Brittany through his son Geoffrey’s marriage. Under Henry’s leadership Europe achieved a stability that resulted in the flourishing of major cosmopolitan centers like London and Paris, and cultural advancements in international trade (particularly of English wool and French wine), romantic poetry (Marie de France composed the most popular version of the King Arthur legends during this time), and gothic architecture (work began on Notre-Dame in 1163). Determined to see the world he created last, Henry crowned his eldest son in 1170.
The crowning of Henry the Young King so enraged his mother and brothers (who saw it as an attempt to cut them out of the legacy) that they revolted in an Eleanor helmed uprising that ended in her imprisonment in Salisbury Castle for the rest of Henry Senior’s reign. Attempting to keep his sons in line, Henry brokered a potential marriage between Richard (who was his mother’s favorite) and Alais of Vexin, the daughter of Louis VII by his second wife, and half sister to Phillip Augustus, who would succeed his father as King of France in 1180. However, by the time Henry the Young King died of dysentery in 1183, Alais and Richard had still not married (though Henry Senior had set up a military presence in her homeland), nor had a new heir to the English throne been declared. Though the Christmas court of 1183 that is the setting of Lion in Winter never actually happened, all of the people in the play, and the various alliances at stake, were real, and would continue to affect life in Europe for the 200 years to follow.
This is a big weekend for the Bright Room cast. It’s our first run through! It’s going to be a “rough draft” if you will, but I’m very excited to see how it’s all shaping up.
This is actually going to be the first time I’ve seen some of the other actors in rehearsal since the reading in January. Because of the way this play is set up, the rehearsal process has basically been broken down into three groups (and please note that these are the names that I have given these groups to help explain them): the “modern day” group, which consists of Zillah and all the people she interacts with in modern day Berlin. There’s the “new friends” group, which includes the people Agnes knows through her political ties as well as Die Alte (I’m not going to say too much about her because I feel it’s important for you to see her for yourself) and finally there’s the “old friends” group, which is the one my character Paulinka is part of. This group has known each other for a while (probably years) and we are trying to help each other get through the bad times. Of course what ties everyone in the play together is Agnes and her apartment. She is the home base, the nurturer who we all seek out to comfort us. For my my character, she has become somewhat of a moral compass, someone whose opinion Paulinka values very highly and whom she runs to for comfort when things don’t go well.
I’m very much looking forward to seeing what the other actors have discovered through their respective rehearsals. It’s going to be nice to get a feel for the play as a whole rather than thinking in terms of smaller pieces.
It’s great to be back! Back at Custom Made Theater Company (last time I was here we were performing at the Off-Market Theater), back working on another fabulous Tony Kushner play, and back to the Berlin featured in “A Bright Room Called Day.” I had the pleasure of doing this show back in college and I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to get the chance to perform it again. I’m looking forward to seeing what new things I will be able to discover as Paulinka, and how some additional life experience will change the way I see her.
Something that has already struck me in the first few rehearsals is the political climate at this time in history. Post WWI, Germany is in financial ruin, there are rallies and feuding political parties everywhere, and yet Berlin is a creative and artistic hub. Still, somehow the Nazis are able to take control and lead the world into another war, and with this play we see it happen bit by bit. Kushner has a way of taking what is a complex and difficult vortex of events and breaking it down into smaller digestible pieces by showing us how it effects each and every one of his characters. Even the selfish and vain actress Paulinka has her moments of triumph in difficult situations within the context of this play.
I won’t say too much more, only that I am thrilled to be back on this journey. Welcome to Germany my friends, soon to be playing at a San Francisco theater near you!