The Countess (play)

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The Countess
The countess.jpg
Poster for the original production of The Countess at the Greenwich Street Theatre (signed by the author and members of the cast)
Written by Gregory Murphy
Date premiered 1999
Place premiered Greenwich Street Theatre, New York City
Original language English
Subject Ruskin's marriage breaks down when his wife Effie meets artist John Everett Millais
Genre Period piece
Setting London and Scotland in the 1850s

The Countess is a play written by the American playwright and novelist Gregory Murphy. It recounts the break-up of the marriage of John Ruskin and Effie Gray, one of the greatest scandals of the Victorian era in Britain.

Written in 1995, Murphy's two-act drama premiered in New York in 1999, and transferred twice to ever-larger Off-Broadway venues. It later had a successful run in London's West End, and has since been performed worldwide.


  • John Ruskin
  • Effie Ruskin
  • Elizabeth, Lady Eastlake
  • John Everett Millais
  • Mrs Ruskin
  • Mr. Ruskin
  • Crawley


Based on one of the most notorious affairs of the Victorian Age, The Countess is a play about the idealization and oppression of women. In 1853, the preeminent author and art critic John Ruskin, his wife, Effie Gray, and his friend and protégé, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painter John Everett Millais, depart in high spirits for the Scottish Highlands. When they return to London four months later, Millais' hatred for Ruskin is only exceeded by his passion for the beautiful, young Mrs. Ruskin. What Millais did not know was the truth at the core of the Ruskin marriage, a secret, which when revealed through the persistence of Effie Ruskin's friend Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, renowned writer of the period, would rock London society and change forever the lives of Millais and the Ruskins.


The play, directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser, was first performed in 1999 at the Greenwich Street Theatre, New York City. It soon transferred to the Samuel Beckett Theatre, and finally to the much larger Lamb's Theatre. The production ran for 634 performances and was the longest-running play on or off Broadway in the 1999-2000 season.[1] The original production of the play starred Jennifer Woodward as Effie Ruskin, James Riordan as John Ruskin, Jy Murphy (no relation to the playwright) as John Everett Millais, Kristin Griffith as Lady Eastlake, Honora Fergusson as Mrs. Ruskin, Frederick Neumann as Mr. Ruskin and John Quilty as Crawley.

In 2005, Villar-Hauser directed the West End production of The Countess, which began at Guildford's Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, before transferring to the Criterion Theatre. Alison Pargeter starred as Effie Ruskin, Nick Moran as John Ruskin, Damian O'Hare as John Everett Millais, Linda Thorson as Lady Eastlake, Jean Boht as Mrs. Ruskin, Gerald Harper as Mr. Ruskin and Edmund Kente as Crawley.

The Countess was published by Dramatists Play Service in 2000.[2]

Poster for the 2003 production of The Countess in Tokyo


The Countess received critical acclaim when it premiered in the spring of 1999 with the New York Times calling the play "…serious…wonderfully witty…erotically charged." "splendidly directed" and "the entire cast is excellent".[3] The New York Post wrote that The Countess has "sex scandal appeal", is "nicely acted" and a "Damned good tale".[4] Some critics of the London production were less impressed. Michael Billington called it "curiously stolid" and objected to what he called the "forelock-tugging framing device, set in Windsor Castle" in which Effie meets Queen Victoria.[5] Ian Shuttleworth also objected to the "clunky" framing scenes, writing that the play "is a standard triangular story with several cumbersome attempts to spice it up."[6] Tim Walker of The Sunday Telegraph, however, called The Countess “a wonderful, evocative piece of theatre,”[7] and Emma Whitelaw of indieLondon wrote that it was a “marvelous production,” calling Nick Moran’s portrayal of John Ruskin “sublime.”[8]

The Countess sparked some debate over its depiction of John Ruskin, and the resulting controversy led the New York Times to publish "A Twisted Victorian Love Tale That Won't Die Out" written by Lucinda Franks.[9] Billington said that "Murphy takes the stock line that Ruskin was a domestic bully who pontificated about art and beauty while recoiling from living flesh", but the play gave no indication of Ruskin's radical political ideas.[5]

Margo Jefferson, theatre critic for The New York Times in her essay REVISIONS; Lurking Behind the Victorian Propriety, Wit and Pluck.[10] wrote: The Couness, by Gregory Murphy, reminds us of the terrifying imbalance of power between those who claim adult authority and those they treat like children … It is a revisionist drama, since Ruskin’s wife, Effie, was seen for years as one of those people who surround a genius and have no real needs, privileges or rights that he is bound to respect … The scene in which Effie confesses [the non-consummation of her marriage] to her friend Lady Eastlake is harrowing. She thinks she has a disease that cannot be named and she can barely get the words out … Mr. Murphy centers on Effie, and gives a full-bodied portrait of a woman who was generally seen as too worldly and shallow for such a great man. Here she is restless, quick and at odds with herself, and very much our contemporary. But The Countess does something harder, Mr. Murphy gives us a Ruskin whom we can pity as well as rage against for betraying the ideals he claimed to be teaching us.”

Plagiarism dispute[edit]

Some years after its first production The Countess generated its own scandal when playwright Gregory Murphy entered into a protracted and public lawsuit with Emma Thompson who had written a screenplay based on the same historical events as the play. Murphy argued that Thompson's screenplay drew on his own play, or possibly his cinematic treatment of it, which had been pitched to Thompson's husband Greg Wise. Murphy recounted his meeting with Thompson in a first person article written in London's Daily Mail entitled "The day I sat in Emma Thompson's kitchen and accused her of stealing my movie".[11]

Thompson eventually won the battle and the film Effie Gray, starring Dakota Fanning, was released in 2014.


  1. ^ Lortel Archives: The Countess
  2. ^
  3. ^ Gates, Anita, "A Critic Who Takes His Work Home", New York Times, March 30, 1999
  4. ^ "The Countess has sex scandal appeal The New York Post
  5. ^ a b Billington, M, "The Countess: Criterion", The Guardian, 8 June 2005
  6. ^ Shuttleworth, Ian, "The Countess, Criterion Theatre, London W1", Financial Times, 2005.
  7. ^ Walker, Tim (30 October 2011). "Emma Thompson faces legal threat to Effie". The Telegraph.
  8. ^ "Romance, scandal and two in-laws too many in The Countess". Retrieved 15 June 2005.
  9. ^ Lucinda Franks, "A Twisted Victorian Love Tale That Won't Die Out", New York Times.
  10. ^ Jefferson, Margo (26 June 2000). "REVISIONS; Lurking Behind the Victorian Propriety, Wit and Pluck". The New York Times.
  11. ^ Murphy, Gregory April 23, 2011 (23 April 2011). "The day I sat in Emma Thompson's kitchen and accused her of stealing my movie". Daily Mail. London.