On the Subject of Love

Ken McCormack's 'limited profile' of Frederick Hervey revels in the former Bishop of Derry's lascivious nature

In a dimly lit Playhouse theatre in Derry~Londonderry, the audience take their seats on either side of a rectangular, floor level stage, where the sepulchral columns of a black four poster bed form the dramatic Baroque centrepiece of designer Kate Moylan’s superb set.

A voluptuous lampshade looms red above the bed, and around it are smaller items of furniture of ecclesiastical design. To one side of the stage, flush with the wall, is a modern television screen fixed like a mirror above a contemporary wall table and chair made of translucent material.

On separate plinths in the auditorium, three female figures sit, still as statues, their frilled petticoats draped can-can style over the cellos between their legs. A pianist takes his seat at a grand piano next to the stage.

Tolling bells break the silence and a head emerges from beneath the silken bed drapes as the Bishop of Derry, Frederick Hervey, Earl of Bristol, played here by actor Howard Teale, rouses from his slumber.

Thus in Rome begins Ken McCormack’s play, On the Subject of Love (Proposito di Amore), inspired by the life and loves of the colourful and eccentric 18th century cleric. Hervey was renowned not only for his extravagant lifestyle and unconventional love life, but for his largesse and fair minded treatment of both Catholics and Protestants in the city of Derry~Londonderry.

On the Subject of Love

 

‘No More religion, I can’t bear it!' wails the voice from the bed before reflecting that he is more catholic than the Catholics. Gradually, Hervey raises his tired body, emerging from his bed, clothed only in a white cuff-linked shirt, bright red underpants and black socks.

He moves unsteadily to don a frocked coat, then pours himself a glass of whiskey. 'B of D, Bishop of Derry, D of B the Damnation of Bishop. Hell and damnation, losing my mind in the year of our Lord 1803.' He laughs out loud, but he laughs alone.

The aristocratic cleric, who was born in Bristol and educated at Westminster School, had exquisite taste in art, particularly the art of Giotto, Raphael and Titian, and in architecture. He travelled around Europe, and especially to Italy, where his favourite cities were Rome and Naples.

‘The Herveys have a hungry eye for love,' reflects the bishop. He reveals that his father loved both women and men. He himself married young, but when he became enamoured of the 18-year-old Frideswide, wife of Daniel Mussenden of County Down, he despatched his own wife, Elizabeth, claiming a wife should not interfere in her husband’s affairs.

'My little excellent began to lose her excellence,' he reasons. For Fridiswide he built the Mussenden Temple at Downhill, where the winds and the mighty ocean roar; a circular building which boasts 16 Corinthian columns and which remains one of Northern Ireland's most romantic, picturesque attractions. It was their bower.

Suddenly the television screen lights up and a pale faced, dark haired woman representing the bishop’s daughter Mary speaks (incongruously) in a broad Derry accent. Angrily, with tears in her eyes and a snarl on her red lips, she lambasts her father for his infidelity. She is the voice of his conscience. 'The devil himself was biting at my tail,' Hervey laments.

At once the bishop trumpets the art of love, Ars Amatoria. 'Pursue beauty, pursue allure,' he urges. Then, just as quickly, he decries the craving that possesses the soul, railing 'I hate Love!'

He remembers Naples and his love for Emma, Lady Hamilton, his Helen of Troy, whom he estimed the most beautiful creature of her day. The memory of Wilhelmina Reitz, Countess Lichtenau, is so vivid he imagines she is lying on the bed.

He pulls off his coat, his shirt, his socks and is within an ace of stripping his underpants when he turns, sad again, recalling how he introduced Emma and Wilhelmina. Together they plotted against him.

The Earl Bishop returns to his deathbed and an epitaph, read by an off stage voice, confirms the date of his demise as July 8, 1803 and the place, Rome.

One cannot criticize Howard Teale’s central performance, nor Catriona McLaughlin’s direction. The incidental music, specially composed by Adam Burnette and performed on piano by him and Lizzy Donaghy, Elaine McCann and Naoimh Simpson on cello, is entirely pleasing.

However, the hour-long monologue affords a limited profile of a man who undoubtedly achieved notoriety in his own lifetime, and across much of Europe – a man who has been described as the first true European. The humourless, restless and relentless ravings of the dying Hervey are mostly maudlin, and leave a bitter taste.

On the Subject of Love ran in The Playhouse, Derry~Londonderry until Saturday, February 23, and was an original production for UK City of Culture 2013.

Frederick Hervey