Armitage brothel-keeper? A rabbit trail

cov3510Most humanities professors love to read. I am probably on the high end of that spectrum, I’ve discovered over the years. I read an above average number and range of things, even for an academic. Where I really differ from the average academic reader, however, is in my consumption of middle– to low-brow media. I remember exactly the moment when I realized, in a conversation at work, that I wasn’t supposed to admit that I read Oprah or Martha Stewart Living or Ladies’ Home Journal, or People or Time, or at least, not that I read these outside of doctors’ offices.

I got this from my parents. The local paper was delivered around 4:45 p.m., as we got home from school, and one of us would grab it on the way in (my parents have a long, farm-style driveway). If we forgot, we had to go back out immediately, which could be unpleasant in winter. Dad got home from work around 5. He would walk in the front door, say “Up  / down?” — my parents house is a split level — but mom was always in the same place. Upstairs, on the living room sofa in the corner by the window, reading the paper, from about 4:45 to 5:15. She could not be interrupted during her reading of the paper, but somehow dad never noticed. He’d hover, expecting a kiss, and when he didn’t get one, he’d say, “What’s for supper?” and still be ignored. For my entire childhood, the paper was read at 4:45, the national news was on tv at 5:30, the local news at 6, and then we ate at 6:30 or a little later.

My brother and I used to laugh about how this worked. WE learned never to interrupt mom while she was reading the paper, but dad never seemed to get it. Except maybe he did at some point. Last Sunday he came home from the hospital and said, in a helpless tone, “I brought her the Sunday paper and she didn’t even want to read it.” For the first time in a while, I thought he looked small.

484px-Samuel_Foote_by_Jean_François_Colson[Right: Samuel Foote. Source.]

Anyway (sigh), this post was supposed to be about magazine reading. I’ve tried to cut it down, because I don’t like all the paper generated (and I’ve been busy this week, trying to get a bunch of this stuff that’s accumulated out of my parents’ living spaces), but I still read a number of things and I like to have a paper or magazine in my bag at all times just in case. My favorites are Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books, but since I’ve been home, the nearest Barnes & Noble has been sold out, so I’ve had to scrounge. Last week I came home with the London Review of Books, a thoroughly venerable publication, because someone I know had a book reviewed in it. (I just noticed that it’s the May 23rd number — typical. Snorts.)

So it’s been in my bag and yesterday I read a review by Charles Nicholl of a book, Mr. Foote’s Other Leg: Comedy, Tragedy and Murder in Georgian London (London: Picador, 2012), a biography of one of the most popular comedic actors of eighteenth-century England, Samuel Foote.

Nicoll writes of Foote:

Foote’s celebrity status can be measured in the proliferation of theatrical prints and paintings of him onstage, working the audience with his idiosyncratic blend of goofy humour and topical satire, the latter sharpened by his fabled knack as an impressionist. … We see him as …. his best-loved creation — mob-capped and shawled as Mrs. Cole in The Minor. This prototypical pantomime dame was also a topic skit on a Covent Garden brothel-keeper, ‘Mother Douglas’, whose recent conversion to Methodism provided the kind of ready-made comedy of modern manners on which he thrived (LRB, 23 May 2013, p. 8).

Interesting. Here’s wikipedia on the success of The Minor; on the historical figure, Jane Douglas, who sounds like she was the Heidi Fleiss of her day (many of her customers were royal / noble) and on her inspiration for the character “Mrs. Cole,” not only in The Minor, but also in a book that might be more familiar to many readers, that seminal pornographic classic, Fanny Hill.

But, yeah, legacy fans, are you with me, does this description of the role of “Mrs. Cole” make anyone else think of this interview with Richard Armitage from 2004?

[interviewer] Should men wear make-up?

[Richard Armitage] Only if they’re in drag. However, as an actor, make-up can help you get into a role. If you don’t recognise yourself in the mirror, it can give you instant access to the character you’re playing. At drama school, I played a female brothel-keeper and a bald wig helped me to do that.

And in the interval he’s said similar things about not recognizing his face as Thorin Oakenshield. Anyway — I’m wondering. How many roles can there be likely to be studied at drama school, in which a female brothel-keeper was played inaugurally by a man in drag? Does anyone know if this was a common role in English drama literature? (I don’t.) This possibility also corresponds well with Armitage’s emphasis in self-description on having studied classical theater and the role fits in well some of the non-Shakespearean historic roles we know he’s played — his mention that he’d studied Behn’s The Rover in drama school and his work in The Duchess of Malfi for the RSC. “Mrs. Cole” as Foote played it was also clearly a comedic role — I wonder whether Armitage’s experiences doing this role, whatever it was, have any bearing on his statements that he’s not good at comedies.

Anyway, it’s just a guess. But suddenly I am much more interested. Richard Armitage in drag in a comedic role? Could be interesting. And a real challenge to his artistry.

See where magazine reading can get you?

~ by Servetus on July 28, 2013.

20 Responses to “Armitage brothel-keeper? A rabbit trail”

  1. Very interesting!! Would love to have seen him in that role. I love how possible bit and pieces keep being unearthed of our boy’s past performance history . . .


  2. That reminds me of Dustin Hoffman’s comments on playing Tootsie recently.

    I think switching genders is something all good actor should try (and would probably be a good lesson for all people, not just actors). I also have to admit that there’s something very appealing about a man who is confident enough in himself, that he’s happy to wear make up and/or play a woman.


  3. I wonder if he thought about that interview while he was sitting in the chair while being fitted with hair extensions and Guyliner in RH? I think that’s one of the reasons he doesn’t twitter, it doesn’t matter how fast you try to delete it, someone somewhere already screencapped it….


  4. My top London theatre / musical theatre experiences have twice included shows with male actors in female roles: Mark Rylance’s thrilling Globe production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” last Fall (with an all male cast – including Stephen Fry’s return to London stage!!) and just last night I saw “The Book of Mormon”, where Elders Price and Cunningham’s mothers were portrayed by male actors in drag.

    It made me appreciate the notion that men portraying female roles may be much more common in London than the US (although Harvard does give a nod via its Hasty Pudding Theatricals). 😉


  5. An answer to the Q “what magazines do you read,” I read NY Magazine & The New Yorker . If I come across Vanity Fair I read it- sometimes on line. I have subscriptions to Elle Decor and Bon Appetit, but I often buy other similar mags a la carte. When I have a manicure, I grab People and US.

    I wonder why the female brothel keeper wore a bald wig?


  6. Sean Bean has just done a drama here (2012)?about a transsexual teacher and was brilliant, really believable. Having been on stage with drag queens in Sydney, close up the make up is so thick, but they have much better tits and legs!!


  7. I wonder if Richard thinks he stinks at comedy because he laughs so easily. As H. Kennedy, he always looked like he wanted to laugh and I don’t think I’ve seen an interview where he’s been all that serious. However, would like him to maybe give it another go as I am tired of my 9 yr old daughter referring to him as Mister Grumpy Pants Richard after having seen North and South and some RH.


  8. I rather enjoy his grumpiness, nothing clears the room quicker than the sweet music of N&S opening credits….cue the groaning and complaining and Voila! empty room, tv to self, ahhhh….thank you Mr. Armitage, I think I will.


  9. Attending Pantomimes as a child growing up in the UK I was very used to the lead “Dame” being traditionally played by a male member of the cast! If my memory serves me correctly they always got the biggest laughs! 😀


  10. Well, considering that women were once forbidden to appear on stage, it’s not too surprising that there is a history of male actors playing female roles. It’s only eye-brow raising on this puritanical side of the pond, I think.


  11. […] are still (following customs that preceded the 1970s) prepared or finished right at your table. In my orgy of magazine reading last week, I’d read an interesting article about a dish called canard à la presse which is one of […]


  12. […] Armitage articulated a limited view on the utility of drag early in his career and, as far as I’m aware, he’s never said anything about it since. […]


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