Victorian era


Three nights at the theater

Two nights in London last month; one night in Austin last year. The performances in London inspired me to share them all with you. Each was fabulous in its own way and wonderfully relevant for both of my series, the Elizabethan and the Victorian. The theaters themselves were a big part of the fun.

The theaters

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The minstrel gallery by candlelight

This is the indoor theater at Shakespeare’s Globe in London (another experience to put on your bucket list.) The SWP is a recreation of a 17th-century theater, loosely modeled on Blackfriars Theatre, which was possibly the first indoor theater in England.

The Blackfriars Theatre was opened in 1596, over the objections of Francis Bacon’s aunt, Lady Elizabeth Russell. I’ve blogged about her before and probably will again. There’s a great book about this conflict: Laoutaris, Chris. 2015. Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe. London: Penguin Books.

Note the dress-up hiking clothes. The guy in the black suit works there.

The Wanamaker Playhouse is lovely, lovely, lovely. It’s an intimate space, very vertical so you look down onto the projecting stage. The actors use all the space, often emerging from the stalls or the aisles, sometimes sitting next to a startled — and delighted — person in the audience. It officially holds 340 people. I guessed 150, which shows you how bad I am at guessing quantities. We sit on lightly padded benches with barely enough room for purses under our knees. There’s a cloakroom, so you don’t have to bring your layers in with you.

People were not dressed up, in case you’re wondering. Standard costume seemed to be what I call dress-up hiking clothes, which all tourists seem to wear everywhere nowadays.

Scottish Rite Theater

Scottish Rite Theater from the parking lot

I have lived in Austin since 1974, and I didn’t know about this theater until a local writer pal recommended this particular performance on her Facebook page. Ya think ya know a place…

The theater was built in 1871, so I have no excuse, though t is unassuming on the outside. It started out as a German opera house, then became the home of Scottish Rite Masons, who created the non-profit theater in 2004. They mostly host children’s plays, which look hugely fun. The Victorian reproduction I saw was an unusual event I sincerely hope they’ll repeat. 

Marlowe by candlelight

Before the play begins: Edward I’s coffin

This was amazing, and it took me by surprise, even though they say on the SWP website where I bought my ticket that plays are performed by candlelight. This is as close to the Elizabethan experience at Blackfriars as I’ll ever get. If I’d been wearing period garb, I would’ve taken up two spaces instead of one, but the usher told me that Blackfriars Theater was much bigger, so there would’ve been more room.

The candles weren’t just lighting at SWP; they became part of the performance. We started out fully lit, with two big candelabras hanging over the stage and lots of candles in sconces on the pillars in front of the stalls and the musician’s gallery. The gallery stayed lit throughout, but as the play turned to the dark side, actors lowered the candelabras whilst delivering a thoughtful monologue and snuffed out the candles. Spooky!

Then later another actor lit a few of them again. During some impassioned scenes on the floor of the stage, an actor would take a sconce from a pillar and hold it to illuminate their faces. Once or twice toward the end, actors came out with a basket of candles to set at the front of the stage. Footlights!

The floor, designed for Edward II, though this pic was taken before Edward I

One thing I wouldn’t have thought of just from pictures and floor plans: the theater grew cooler as they put out more candles. The Swedish lady sitting next to me and I were quite chilly! That’s exactly the sort of detail that makes a whole trip worthwhile.

The play was Edward II, by Christopher Marlowe. I’ve blogged about him before and will again. This play is dark and grim, like all of Kit’s plays. This one was first performed in 1592. It just occurred to me that I will definitely blog about this play again next year, when I publish Now and Then Stab, which will be the 7th book in the Francis Bacon mystery series. That title is a quote from Ed II. That ticket was tax-deductible in all directions :-).

The performance I saw in February consolidated several characters and cut several scenes that didn’t carry the central conflict. The result was a play more about prejudice than about favoritism; a modern perspective. Marlowe balanced the two. In a nutshell: King Edward had a favorite, a lover named Gaveston. He showered money and titles on this upstart, neglecting his queen, the other noblemen, and his subjects. Naturally, this caused resentment, also distaste for the unnatural relationship between the two men. Nobles remonstrated Edward; he refused to mend his ways. So they rebelled and ultimately murdered him. Gaveston dies too, of course.

Apart from re-aligning the major theme, the alterations kept the show down to two hours. Which I appreciated, because it was cold as the dickens that night and I had to walk about 6 blocks to the tube station. Safe as houses, though. Even this old Houston girl felt comfortable (apart from the cold) walking those well-lit streets. Next time, I’ll bring a sweater in addition to my raincoat.

Actors turn a hash into a feast

Sunday night’s fun was a “reading” of George Peele’s play, Famous Chronicle of Edward the First. This was published in 1593, so it must have been performed sometime before that. Before or after Marlowe’s hit play, I wonder?

The minstrel gallery. For Edward II, they had brilliant musicians playing a variety of period instruments.

I downloaded The Works of George Peele, edited by A. H. Bullen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1888) to read on my phone whilst riding the tube hither and tither that day. Don’t we love the internet and the kindly people who scanned these classic works to make available through Google Books? (We don’t thank Google because they rarely acknowledge the librarians who preserved, catalogued, and scanned these works for us.)

I actually never got past the introduction, which is excellent; very informative. Recommended, especially when you’re stuck waiting in line or somewhere like a subway where you can’t get a signal. At some point I jotted down this quote to share with you, because it is the perfect description of that wacky hodge-podge of a play. Bullen said, “It is tiresome, windy, bombastical stuff, but it held the stage.”

More of the amazing ceiling.

Only because the actors were so enthusiastic about what amounted to an improvisation of a long dead and quite terrible play. They performed in street clothes with highlighted sheafs of paper in their hands. They’d had a read-through earlier that day — their entire acquaintance with the play. I had expected this reading to be a scholarly, somewhat dry event. I grossly underestimated the talent, inventiveness, and spirit of the London actor!!

Edward was played by Jason Hughes, who played DS Jones on Midsomer Murders. He was totally convincing as the imperious king, and the rest of the cast was equally delightful. They climbed all over that theater, using the whole space. They had minimal props like a crown or a bench, which they carried in and out as needed. Electric lights were on and it was always fairly bright. The usher told me that actors love these readings, because it’s only a day’s commitment, but they get to really exercise their acting skills in the company of a little group of equally engaged colleagues.

The play is dreadful as literature, but Bullen was right: it held the stage, meaning it was entertaining. It’s like a song hits of the 1590s. Here we have a scene where a messenger delivers troublesome news to the king. Then later, for no discernible reason, Evil Isabel the Queen poisons somebody (the king? her son? I can’t remember) by pouring poison in his ear. (Hm, we wonder who else saw this play back in 1592?) The next scene bears no relation to what came before or what comes after, but it was fun, in and of itself. This is what you get when you write without a theme.

The plot is ridiculous and the set speeches the very definition of bombastical. But the actors were having so much fun, we did too. We laughed and laughed! Perhaps not the effect George Peele was looking for, but if he was a typically pragmatic Elizabethan, he would have shrugged and said, “It likes me well enough.”

Boo! Hiss! The Victorian experience

Scottish Rite Theater, from their website

The Hidden Room Theater calls itself “A theatrical curiosity shop in Austin, TX. We make time machines.” And that’s all I can find out in a general way. They’re not a place; they’re a group who now and then conjures up a unique theatrical experience.

The one I got to enjoy was a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III. The script and staging were taken from the original book of John Wilkes Booth. Yes, you read that correctly! So this was a 21st-century recreation of a Victorian production of a Jacobean play. Pure experiential ambrosia for a writer of historical fiction set in those periods!

The Beth Burns, the director, spoke to us at the start of the play to explain a bit of the context. She encouraged us to enter into the recreation by performing the role of a good Victorian audience. We should boo, she said, and also hiss, and call out things like “He’s lying!” or “Look out!”

The dastardly Richard III, from Austinot.

It was a riot. Nobody must ever have fallen asleep at the theater in Victorian times. You’re too busy participating!

Judd Farris played Richard. He also played us like a well-tuned violin. He would creep out onto the stage, sort of hidden from the other actors by the curtain, and grimace at us with his hunchbacked wickedness gleaming in his eyes. We would hiss and boo and stamp our feet. That just made him all the more wicked!!! We cried “Kill him! Kill him!” and eventually they did. We cheered lustily.

I am longing for them to do this again with another play. Any other play. The worst play from the 19th century would be an evening of great entertainment in these people’s clever hands.

Sorry I don’t have pictures of the actual performances. But only a barbarian — or a theater critic — takes photographs during a play.

Pix & notes: The Thames

The characters in both my historical mystery series often find themselves on or near the Thames, the great river that runs through London. My Professor Moriarty rows for exercise. He’s a memberthames-map of the London Athletic Club (founded in 1863.) I’ve had him rowing from the Stamford Bridge to Putney and back, about 4 miles. Rowing is good for thinking, one would think, and can be a solitary sport, which is why I chose it for him. He rowed for Cambridge too.

The Thames was the major metropolitan thoroughfare for my Elizabethans. I have them walking a lot, because I can’t deal with horses, narratively speaking. Horses are people in themselves, requiring names, appearances, and personalities. Then you have the grooms, stable boys, and someone to hold the beasts when you reach your destination. All these people expect tips and need  names. Many paragraphs squandered just to get across town! So, no horses. Besides, most of the places they go — courts, palaces, theaters, prisons — are near the river.

Where’s that wherry?

When my Elizabethans venture any farther from Gray’s Inn than Westminster (or strike northeast into the City), they take a wherry.wherry I find one reference in my google results saying you might pay 3 pence for the trip. Presumably that would depend on how far you were going and how many people you were with. The standard craft could hold 5 passengers and two oarsmen.

Wherries were manned by members of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. Lightermen moved goods on and off lighters — flat-bottomed barges.

John Taylor was a wherryman who wrote poetry, some of which has survived. Someday I must drag this man into a book. Francis would not appreciate a wherryman spouting poetry at him as he journeyed up or down the river. Not sure I would either. Imagine a cab driver regaling you with his latest oeuvre on the way home from the airport. But go read one of Taylor’s poems and decide for yourself.

Up a winding river

oxfordThe river begins in Gloucester at a place called Thames Head. I’ve never been there. I have been to Oxford, for a short visit. I took this picture outside the Oxford University Physic Garden, which I now learn is on the River Cherwell, not the Thames, although the Thames is also more canal-like at this stage. If you hopped into one of these boats and headed downstream, you would eventually find yourself in London.

The Thames is 250 miles long; not as long as the Severn, but wholly within England. (The Severn runs through Wales as well.) It’s a tidal river, meaning the sea pushes in at high tides and rushes out at low ones. The difference between high and low is 23 feet! The river is tidal all the way up to Teddington, which is west of Richmond Palace and east of Hampton Court. This map shows train stations, not vanished palaces, unfortunately.

If I were a wherryman, I would charge more to row into the rush of an incoming tide. Such things were probably regulated, this being an essential service. Although they weren’t very good at enforcing their many regulations.

On the Agas map, I count seven places labeled ‘Kay’ (quay) or W (wharf) on the north bank east of London Bridge. There are ten to the west, not counting private palaces like the Savoy or Bayard’s Castle, which have their own piers, quays, or wharfs. (I fail to grasp the difference between these things.) The ones on the map are public wherry-landings, I think. You can walk down and flag your boat, like hailing a cab. You always have to get off at London Bridge and walk over to the other side to catch another wherry. It was very dangerous to “shoot the bridge”  — navigate between the narrowly-spaced piers. Nobody would do this.

London Bridge was the only bridge over the Thames below Kingston-upon-Thames until 1729.  It’s about 13 miles by car on the A3, which is not at all what I wanted to know when I tried to google up the distance. There’s a definite bias toward utility and against curiosity on the Internet; have y’all noticed that?

Using the Thames Path Distance Calculator, I get roughly 29.3 miles. That’s a heckuva hike! I would have to stop twice along the way, making it a three-day walk. A sturdy young lad in Bacon’s day could do it in two, but of course he wouldn’t. He’d take the direct road, or beg his master for money for a wherry.

The river is tidal for most of that distance, so if the tide was going out and you were rowing downstream, you could make the journey in, uh… I have no idea. This is the kind of micro-fact that I long to know, but can never figure out. If you know, please write and tell me. Seriously! I spent quality time trying to figure out how far up and downriver Moriarty could row in his scull in thirty minutes or so, and I would love to know how long it takes Francis Bacon to get from Westminster to Blackfriars, for example, under different tidal conditions.

London Bridge to Kingston-upon-Thames
29.3 miles walking along the Thames Path.

There are now 32 bridges between the Tower and Kingston Upon Thames, including railway-only bridges. Only 16 of them had been built by the time of my first Moriarty book (1885.) Here are the Tower Bridge (1894) and the Richmond Bridge (1777), photos taken by me in the new millennium.



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