Travel for research

Category

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

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.

sam-wanamaker-playhouse
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-austin
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

edward-ii
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!

same-wanamaker-playhouse
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?

sam-wanamaker-playhouse
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.”

sam-wanamaker-playhouse
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-int1
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!”

richard-iii
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 & note: Fontainebleau

I visited the magnificent Château de Fontainebleau in May. It was a gorgeous sunny day, hot by mid-afternoon, even by Texas standards. Fabulous rich blue sky for photography! We went in the middle of the week, but being a World Heritage Site, it was full of people, including many groups of French schoolchildren sitting on the floor listening to their teachers.

A few words to the wise traveler

It’s a big palace; there’s room for everyone. You travel in a single line through the rooms, looping back at one point, confusingly. There are people fore and aft, but you can tuck yourself out of the path to study some detail or soak it all in. Everyone is very tolerant of photography these days. Though it is hard to take pictures of whole rooms, there are so many people and the light is pretty dim.

My usual strategy is to get to these places at opening time. Alas, I planned poorly. It took forever to find the right place in the Gare du Nord. You’d think there’d be signs for tourists going to a World Heritage Site, but no. Mom and I had to wander across three floors even to find an information desk that could give us the correct information. Then we needed correct change to buy tickets from a kiosk and had to run fast to catch the train. “Vite, vite, Madam!” the lady cried to my 86-year-old mother. Luckily, she’s fleet of foot.font2

Also, buy your tickets in advance, for the specific date you will go. France is lovely, there’s no denying it, but something is always on strike, half the things you want to see will be closed and the rest will be understaffed. There was 1 (ONE) woman working the ticket desk at this World Heritage Site on a sunny day in May. We waited in line for 40 minutes. Luckily, I had this fancy window latch to contemplate while we stood stock still for no apparent reason. This is what we call detailed craftsmanship.

It would also be a good idea to bring food and water. The restaurant was closed and there is no cafe. All they had for lunch was French breakfast tacos (ham and cheese crepes) served from a cart. So it’s France, so it’s excellent ham and cheese, but still.

History of the magnificent palace

Fontainebleau started out as a hunting lodge, convenient to the large royal forests around Paris. In 1137, it was called Fontem Blauhad, believe it or not, which means the spring or fountainhead of a person named Blizwald. Wikipedia tells us this with a straight face, so we must believe it.

Francis I (1494–1547) turned the hunting chateau into a palace of exceptional splendor. If you think that window latch is stylish, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet! Not one square inch of this place has been left undecorated. Also, we find the ‘F’ for ‘Francis’ absolutely everywhere, in case later generations forgot who built the place.

Every monarch from Francis to Louis XV (sweetly known as Louis the Beloved) added their own touches. The Beloved died in 1774, just before the whole monarchy situation went south. The palace is vast; we only get to tour a portion of it.

Francis is the one who imported the new Renaissance architectural style to France, as interpreted by his architect, Gilles le Breton. It’s a brilliant style; quintessentially French and handsome. Paris is full of buildings like this. That’s a large part of its eternal charm.

font4
French Renaissance style

There is a still a large and scenic forest called Fontainebleau, to which Parisians regularly resort. I didn’t see it. If I’d been on my own, I would’ve done some hiking in there. But this wasn’t a research trip. I dragged my mother out to this busy place because it was there in Francis Bacon’s day. He probably spent some time there in his late teens. His cousin, Robert Cecil, certainly visited on diplomatic missions in the 1590s.

We start with an overview, swiped from the web somewhere. I do not have an aeroplane.

The red arrow on the right shows the entrance (lockers, tickets, guards). The other arrow shows where you exit. The display rooms run in a line on the second floor (first in British terms). We walk along to the horseshoe stairs and then go through the gallery connecting the front palace to the rear palace and then take a right (hook a roscoe, in Chicago terms). The chapel is on the other side there somewhere. I must confess the topography has me foxed. I’ll scan and post the floorplan. 

fontainebleau
Enter on the right; exit on the left.
font5
Extra housing for courtiers
font1
The famous horseshoe staircase
fontainebleu2
One more long shot and then we’re going inside.

 

The tour

The main idea is to regulate the flow of tourists, both modern and, I suspect, early modern. Elizabeth’s palaces were tourist attractions in her day; no reason this one wouldn’t have been. One of the functions of a magnificent palace to is show foreign visitors how magnificent you are.

fontainebleau_floorplan

Let’s see. The yellow building in the lower right portion of the palace houses some exhibits about Napoleon, which are very interesting unless you are focused on the late 16th century. Napoleon who? says me.

The bookshop is the last stop on the tour, unhelpfully, so I didn’t have this plan while we were cruising through. The thing that most interested me was the progression of rooms leading to the monarch. First the outer guard room, relatively plain (nothing here is really plain), then the inner guard room, for guards of greater rank, one supposes. Then we have presence chamber, private presence chamber, reception room, bedroom, another bedroom, and then we exit through rooms in the reverse order, ending with another guard room. Or that’s how it seemed to go.

It was hard to take pictures of rooms and I don’t want to scan the whole book. So we’ll just dip into the photo pool and take potluck instead of trying to reproduce the tour.

Rooms

fontainebleu3
A place to confer and to wait.
fontainebleu5
Armless chairs for ladies in huge dresses.
fontainebleu6
The gallery where we stroll in bad weather and mingle in all seasons.
fontainebleu9
The minstrel gallery in the great ballroom.
fontainebleu10
The chapel, shorn of all religious frippery.
fontainebleu11
The mind-blowing library.

Details

font3
The people who invented Art Nouveaux must have seen this.
fontainebleu14
A typical bit of wall.
fontainebleu15
A typical bit of ceiling.
fontainebleu12
Some famous person’s bed. Note the mirror on the inside. Kinky? Or just vain?
fontainebleu13
His Majesty will see you now.
fontainebleu16
A lion AND a dragon, in case you thought Francis was a wimp.
fontainebleu17
This, because artists can be hard to keep on topic.
fontainebleu18
This, because Francis could have ridden an elephant everywhere if he wanted to — which he didn’t.
fontainebleu19
The little angel who said, “Meh.”
fontainebleu20
This guy just sits in the gateway, mouth eternally open, with his oddly Vulcan ears.

References

The Château de Fontainebleau. 2008. Connaissance des Arts.

This website uses cookies for basic features such as contact or blog comments, but not for anything else. For more information, read my Privacy Policy.