Re-creating Tudor England

That energy infuses the students who work with Huszti each year—as singers, of course, but also as dancers, knights, jesters, tumblers and servers ferrying platters of boar's head, peas pottage, barley lentil soup, figgy pudding and bottomless tumblers of wassail for the endless toasting to some lord or lady's health or good fortune. They describe the Husztis as "meticulous," "perfectionistic" and "driven," but also "fun," "warm" and "caring."

"He's a fabulous conductor," says Amy Stacy, a UC Irvine alum who has returned to help produce the show. "Once you've worked with him, you're spoiled."

Like other students, Stacy is especially drawn to the Husztis' obsession with what the professor calls simply "getting it right." "They really research this stuff out," Stacy says. Joe Huszti hands out backgrounders each year to the 80-plus performers—photocopied articles on the era's politics and economy, and his wife's tip sheet on the manners and habits of the Tudor court ("In order to keep [Henry's] marriages straight, perhaps you can silently repeat the rhyme about the chronology of Henry's wives: DIVORCED, BEHEADED, DIED/DIVORCED, BEHEADED, SURVIVED"). Melinda Huszti sews all the costumes for the performers, costumes so right in every detail that Stacy was moved when she discovered their exact duplicates—in Hans Holbein portraits hanging in a gallery in Henry VIII's Hampton Court, an hour north of London.

"You've got to make it right in the details in order to make the audience believe," Huszti says.

There are concessions to modern culture: dance numbers that might have been repeated endlessly over the course of a seven-hour party in Henry's time have been trimmed to a single cycle or two, for example. But it's still a longish evening for flabby modern buttocks, though an evening that works through song and dance like a hypnotist's swinging watch.

Last year, I sat at a table with strangers, eating the figgy pudding and yakking it up with the serving women (not, they reminded us, "wenches," but good ladies of good birth) about the king (whom they loved for his "great good wit") and the music ("ever so diverting, don't you agree?") and the court ("Are not the ladies most beautiful?"). The food is prepared by a man whose fame—in real life—extends to regional Renaissance Pleasure Faires and even to England itself. And I was overindulging. And then someone in the court asked us politely to be quiet; the king, he said, had commanded a few among us to come forward. I ate. I thumped my sternum energetically. I drank more wassail. And then my wife poked me in the ribs.

"They're calling you."


And then I heard my name. "Stand and approach His Majesty."

A woman in costume appeared suddenly at my elbow. I stood, alone among the plaid-clad audience—and took a few steps toward the court a hundred feet away.

They sat staring at me like a Mormon Tabernacle choir dressed in Tudor costumes—several rows of men and women of noble birth, at either side of King Henry VIII, a towering, dark-haired Henry of great humor and powerful lungs. I walked, or rather hobbled, toward them, suddenly under something like the real weight that might have settled upon any common man asked to approach a king.

My brain went to war with itself for an instant, the 20th-century part belittling the younger, primitive, imaginative part, before falling away entirely and leaving me speechless before a man about my age with an immense sword, foppish hat, ballooning sleeves and tights.

My escort guided me to my knees, and I was lost to my own century. I looked into the king's face and saw something like the face of God. How had this happened? He touched each shoulder with the sword, commanded me to do good work among his people, told me to stand, and introduced me as a knight.

There's no power in ritual but this: that we believe we are changed by it. And as the audience and King Henry VIII cheered generously—not because they knew me, but because we were constructing this authentic fantasy together—I became a knight, charged with a severe blessing as comfortably vague as any astrological forecast, as binding as law: that I should care for a king's people.

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