Fred Pitts portrays Stephen of Blois in Exit Theatre’s online production of “The Arms and Armament of Stephen of Blois.” (Courtesy Fred Pitts)

Fred Pitts portrays Stephen of Blois in Exit Theatre’s online production of “The Arms and Armament of Stephen of Blois.” (Courtesy Fred Pitts)

Exit Theatre’s 12th century-set tale speaks to contemporary times

‘Arms and Armament’ a funny portrait of a forgotten ruler


King Stephen of Blois, who ruled England from 1135 to 1154, may seem like an obscure subject for a contemporary play.

But “The Arms and Armament of Stephen of Blois,” prolific local playwright Stuart Eugene Bousel’s 30-minute monologue, streaming as part of Exit Theatre’s series “Exit Theatre Presents,” is funny, scatological and carefully wrought.

And, as performed with humor and wistfulness by terrific local actor Fred Pitts and directed by the equally impressive Nick Trengove with, wisely, little movement (Pitts sits in a chair on the Exit stage the entire time) and plenty of emotional variation, it’s an engrossing little portrait of a forgotten ruler.

It’s set on the springtime day of Stephen’s wife Mathilda’s funeral, only two years before the king’s own death in 1154. He is preparing for the event and confiding, to his 10-year-old page, his innermost thoughts, which tend toward the “heavy is the head that wears the crown” variety. (In fact, “You would not believe how heavy this is,” he tells the page, examining it.)

A longtime rival for the throne against his cousin Empress Mathilda (his life is filled with women named Mathilda, he notes), he, in 1120, just happened to be waylaid by a bout of diarrhea on the beach before boarding a ship—known as the White Ship——filled with members of the English court. Thus he missed the last call, and was spared when the ship capsized and most of the passengers drowned. Somehow that accidental reprieve helped him attain the crown, he believes, in a sort of re-destined way.

This solo show is Part 2 of Bousel’s planned “Anarchy Quartet.” He previously premiered Part 1, about Empress Mathilda’s struggle, during a wintry walk, to escape Stephen, so this one explores Stephen’s perspective (he calls her a sourpuss and says it’s important for a ruler to be popular).

Next up will be speeches by Eleanor of Aquitaine (set in summer) and Henry I’s son William Adelin, who died at 17 (autumn). All four take place during “The Anarchy,” a medieval period of civil war in England. Bousel says he perceives parallels to our own period.

Be that as it may, this is an entertaining little piece. In Pitts’ assured portrayal, Stephen’s teasing, affectionate relationship with his page is convincing (“Do I frighten you?” he says jovially. “Good God, you look terrified,” and “You are not hopeless. Neither am I.”)

And his sometimes sad, sometimes agitated, sometimes goofy meanderings about his life—his beautiful mother, his mistress, his adored favorite son, his longing for wineoffer intriguing, if slight, glimpses into a long-ago, faraway scenario. The quartet, hopefully eventually playing all together live onstage, will be meatier and is something to look forward to.

Exit Theatre’s “The Arms and Armament of Stephen of Blois” currently streams for free at and

Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts journalist specializing in theater.


If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at

Just Posted

Organizer Jas Florentino, left, explains the figures which represent 350 kidnapped Africans first sold as slaves in the United States in 1619 in sculptor Dana King’s “Monumental Reckoning.” The installation is in the space of the former Francis Scott Key monument in Golden Gate Park. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
What a reparations program would look like in The City

‘If there’s any place we can do it, it’s San Francisco’

Officer Joel Babbs at a protest outside the Hall of Justice in 2017 (Bay City News file photo)
The strange and troubling story of Joel Babbs: What it tells us about the SFPD

The bizarre and troubling career of a whistle-blowing San Francisco police officer… Continue reading

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a COVID-19 update at the City College of San Francisco mass vaccination site in April. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
Gavin Newsom under COVID: The governor dishes on his pandemic life

By Emily Hoeven CalMatters It was strange, after 15 months of watching… Continue reading

People fish at a dock at Islais Creek Park on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
What Islais Creek tells us about rising sea levels in San Francisco

Islais Creek is an unassuming waterway along San Francisco’s eastern industrial shoreline,… Continue reading

Deputy public defender Chris Garcia outside the Hall of Justice on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
As pandemic wanes, SF public defender hopes clients will get ‘their day in court’

Like other attorneys in San Francisco, Deputy Public Defender Chris Garcia has… Continue reading

Most Read