The following article is part of the reference materials at the end of “Catherine de Valois: A Play in Three Acts.”
“Based on a true story.” When we hear those words we know and fully expect (rightfully) that a play, teleplay, or screenplay takes certain artistic licenses that deviate from events as they really happened.
Though every effort was made to keep this stage play as faithful to the biography upon which it is based as possible, there are a few differences between book and play which make both worth reading, exploring, and performing.
As with all books, the narrative biography “Catherine de Valois” uses prose-format narrative covering events that are not readily translated to the stage. For example, after the Battle of Agincourt, King Henry V secured an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor and together waged a naval battle against the French and Genovese at Harfleur in 1416. Between Act I, Scene VI and Scene VII four full years have passed. In the book you know what happened; in the play you do not. Likewise the book covers the entire twenty-seven months Catherine and Henry were married, including the birth of Prince Henry on 6th December 1421. Finally the book explores Catherine’s marriage to Owen Tudor. We are there in the book as each of Catherine’s sons are born, seeing Catherine as the loving mother that she was and why King Henry VI, Owen Tudor, and Edmund Tudor remained so close after her death in January 1437.
Though most of the events covered in the narration were left out of the play (for example, the birth of Edmund Tudor), some events that were conveyed narratively instead of dramatically are in the play. These appear as new scenes:
- Act I, Scene VIII: in this mother-daughter scene set fourteen months after Henry and Catherine’s first meeting in October 1419, we learn that Catherine and Henry married on 2nd June 1420 and that Catherine still despises Henry.
- Act II, Scene IV: as the Siege of Meaux begins in earnest, King Henry confides to his younger brother John Duke of Bedford about his marriage to Queen Catherine. Henry’s court herald arrives from London to inform him of the birth of his son, Prince Henry.
- Act II, Scene VI: Catherine returns to Paris certain that her duties as queen of England are now over with Henry’s death. This scene was added to make it explicit that Henry V is dead.
- Act III, Scene III: Catherine and Owen’s wedding. Historically all we know about this wedding is that it happened in secret sometime before 1427 and that their priest told no one. This scene shows the wedding to make it clear that Catherine and Owen married at least three years before Edmund’s birth in 1430.
Finally one scene stealing character was all but removed from the play version on practical grounds. That character of course is Isabelle, Catherine’s Alexandrine parakeet.
In medieval Europe, companion birds were the primary pets for most people with the type of bird kept largely controlled by wealth and access to the food and shelter needs of the bird species. From 2006 to 2013 I researched medieval aviculture as part of my membership in the Society for Creative Anachronism. I became society expert on parrots in the middle ages and taught seminars on both medieval aviculture and medieval falconry. So it only makes sense that my expertise in this area makes an appearance in Catherine’s biography. In fact nothing could be more “Laurel” than including a parrot in the narrative.
In the book Isabelle behaves exactly the way the parrots I know (mine and those of friends) behave. From the food stealing in chapter one to the playful aerial antics in chapter three, the book showcases life with parrots as I know it.
Parrots are unpredictable; they have minds of their own; they are not domesticated creatures. Though they can be trained, there is no guarantee at any given moment that the bird will do what you ask. In a live environment like theatre this is asking for trouble, trouble readily avoided by keeping Isabelle confined to a single scene where she can be replaced by a hand prop if need be.
In summary, “Catherine de Valois: A Play in Three Acts” is a faithful adaptation to its parent biography. Though not everything in the book makes it to the stage, it accurately and dramatically renders the events of Queen Catherine’s life in a form so entertaining it’s hard to realize how much you are learning in the process.
Enjoy the audio edition, kindle edition, and paperback edition of the original biography on Amazon sites worldwide. Audio edition narrated by veteran Shakespearean actor and voice artist Richard Mann.