Sir Tristram is best known for his tragic romance with Iseult, such that we are more likely to think of him as a lovelorn swain than a valiant Knight of the Round Table. As with all Arthurian legends, different chroniclers have written different variations of his story, but a basic version might go something like this:
Tristram, the nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, went on a diplomatic mission to Ireland in order to bring back his uncle’s fiancée, Princess Iseult. Among the treasures of Iseult’s dowry was a powerful love potion, intended for her and Mark to drink on their wedding night. Unfortunately, while sailing back to Cornwall, Tristram and Iseult accidentally drank the potion, and from then on they were besotted with one another. Once she arrived at King Mark’s palace, Iseult did everything she could to avoid her new husband and sneak off to be with Tristram. The two lovers were nearly caught several times and Iseult was even subjected to a trial by ordeal for adultery, but for a while, they always managed to talk their way out of it. Finally, though, Mark caught his nephew and his wife in flagrante and banished Tristram to Brittany. There, Tristram married another beautiful young lady who also happened to be named Iseult (one could say that he had a type). He also engaged in knightly adventures, and during the course of one, was struck with a poisoned lance. On his deathbed, he begged for Iseult to be brought to him from Cornwall, asking that her ship raise white sails if she was on board, and black sails if not. When the ship sailed into Brittany harbor, Tristram’s jealous wife (the “other” Iseult) lied to him about the color of the sails, and he died of grief. Isolde ran off the ship and rushed to his bedside, whereupon she also died of a broken heart.
If the Tristram-Iseult-Mark love triangle seems to echo the even more famous Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur love triangle, scholars of medieval literature have determined that the Tristram story is actually the older one, and likely influenced the French courtly romance authors who developed the Lancelot narrative.
Of her play about Sir Tristram, Marissa Skudlarek says “The Tristram and Iseult legend features many compelling scenes and vivid images, but the part that has long obsessed me is that this all-time tragic romance happened involuntarily, due to an accidentally ingested love potion. This idea also seems to have special resonance in an era when it’s fashionable to proclaim that ‘love is just brain chemistry’ and many people regularly take drugs that alter their neurotransmitters. If a drug were invented that caused you to fall in passionate, long-lasting love with the first person you saw after taking it, would this be good or bad for society? Would it lead to a breakup-free romantic utopia—or would there be unintended and tragic consequences, just as there are for Tristram?”
SIR TRISTRAM by Marissa Skudlarek
Directed by Nara Dahlbacka
Staged Reading on November 20, 2019 at The EXIT Theatre
After taking a break from writing for the Olympians Festival in 2018, Marissa Skudlarek is thrilled to be back! Her past Olympians commissions include the full-length drama Pleiades in 2011, the screenplay Aphrodite, or the Love Goddess in 2012, and the shorter plays Teucer and Laodike in 2013; The Dryad of Suburbia in 2014; Tethys, or You’ll Not Feel the Drowning in 2015; Macaria, or The Good Life in 2016; and Carmenta, or Songs for Amazing Comet Girls in 2017. Several of these plays have also gone on to further productions or development. You’ll Not Feel the Drowning was selected for Custom Made Theatre’s Undiscovered Works program and received a workshop production at the EXIT Theatre in April 2017. Macaria also received a reading from Custom Made in December 2018. The Dryad of Suburbia was produced in PianoFight’s 2016 ShortLived competition, and Pleiades received a full production in San Francisco in August 2014 and has been published in Heavenly Bodies, an anthology of Olympians Festival plays. Marissa’s other full-length plays include Juana, or The Greater Glory (Loud & Unladylike Festival staged reading, 2016), Deus ex Machina (Young Playwrights Festival National Competition winner, 2006), Marginalia, and The Rose of Youth (Marilyn Swartz Seven Award and Vassar College production, 2008; EXIT Theatre staged reading, 2013). Her shorter plays and translations have been produced by PianoFight, San Francisco Theater Pub, Un-Scripted Theatre, Wily West Productions, and the San Francisco One-Minute Play Festival. She is an occasional contributor to American Theatre‘s website and, from 2012 to 2016, she wrote a twice-monthly column for the San Francisco Theater Pub blog. For more, visit marissaskudlarek.com, or follow her on Twitter @MarissaSkud.