Happy in Her Work

07 19 florence foster jenkinsToday, I am celebrating the birthday of Florence Foster Jenkins who was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1868. Florence became a New York socialite and founder of the ‘Verdi Club’, a society dedicated to the advancement of American artists and musicians. She was greatly valued by charitable organisations for the concerts she arranged. But Florence also really loved to sing, and it is for this that she is most remembered. Unfortunately, she was completely tone-deaf and had no sense of rhythm or pitch.

Florence took piano lessons as a child and was something of a prodigy, performing all over her home state. She really wanted to study music abroad but, although her father was wealthy, he refused to pay. She retaliated by eloping. Shortly after her marriage, she contracted syphilis from her husband which probably lead to partial deafness. None of this deterred her though. In truth, she was blissfully unaware, until the very end of her life, of her shortcomings.

After separating from her husband she scratched a living teaching piano until an arm injury forced her to give it up. When her father died she inherited enough money to allow her to pursue her dream. She began to take singing lessons.

In 1912, she gave the first of many annual recitals at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in New York City. Her concerts were immensely popular, people came along for the unique experience. The audiences were strictly by invitation only and she would interview people before allowing them to buy the $2.50 ticket, just to make sure that they were true music lovers. What she didn’t know was that the tickets were often being sold on for ten times their face value. Her concerts were always a sell-out and every year the police had to chase away gatecrashers.

She also designed her own elaborate costumes for her performances, and would change them frequently throughout. Probably her favourite outfit was a tulle gown which she wore with a halo made from tinsel and a pair of massive gold wings. She called it her ‘Angel of Inspiration’ costume. Most of her repertoire was made up from operatic arias which she was ill-equipped to perform. Her rendition of ‘Cavelitos’ from Carmen, which is a song about carnations, she sang whilst dressed in a lace shawl with jewelled combs in her hair. She carried a basket of roses and randomly clicked a pair of castanets. At the end she would fling the roses out into the audience, sometimes also the basket and the castanets would follow. Her audience knew it was her favourite piece and would loudly demand an encore. Then her accompanist would have to head out into the audience to collect the flowers, basket and castanets to give back to her. Then the whole thing would start again.

Among the regular attendees of her concerts were Cole Porter and Enrico Caruso. There are a few surviving recordings of her singing. You can hear her massacring Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’ here. Her recordings were self published and intended for friends, but quickly sold out. This only added to her complete conviction that she was an excellent singer. When she heard people laughing during her performances, she just assumed that they were ‘hoodlums’ sent by rivals to undermine her. In fact, her audience were so appreciative of her awful singing that they would try to drown out their laughter with applause and stuff handkerchiefs in their mouths in order to avoid hurting her feelings.

Sadly her downfall came at the age 76, when she hired the Carnegie Hall for a public performance. No one could keep out the critics and obviously the reviews were awful. Previous reports of her singing had been ambiguous such as “Her singing, at its finest suggests the untrammelled swoop of some great bird.” which is lovely. Florence had this to say to her critics “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.” Which is true enough.

Florence suffered a heart attack shortly after her last performance and died a month later. Although her singing was absolutely terrible, it really can’t be denied that she brought joy, however unwittingly, to a lot of people. Also she clearly loved doing it. One of her obituaries read “She was exceedingly happy in her work. It is a pity so few artists are.”

Dark Times

07 02 etienne robertToday, I want to tell you about Étienne-Gaspard Robert. Robert was an artist and showman, but also a physics lecturer and a balloonist. He died on this day in 1837. I don’t usually celebrate the death of a person here, not if I like them anyway. But Robert’s career was all about death, so it seems appropriate. Robert became a stage magician who was famous for his ‘Phantasmagoria’, which means, roughly, ‘gathering of ghosts’.

Robert was born in Belgium in 1763. He studied at the university of Leuven and became a professor of physics, specialising in optics. But he also loved painting. In 1791, he moved to Paris to pursue his vocation. He arrived only a couple of years after the beginning of the French Revolution and he probably witnessed the deaths of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1793. This was followed by the ‘Reign of Terror’ when more that sixteen and a half thousand people were guillotined. They were dark times. Coupled with this, France was at war with Britain. Robert thought he had a fantastic idea that would really help. He proposed building a giant burning glass that could be used to set fire to the British ships. His idea was based on the myth of the burning mirrors of Archimedes, who was supposed to have used mirrors to focus the sun’s rays to set fire to a fleet of ships at Syracuse in 212 BC. I mentioned this concept, when I wrote about Roger Bacon the other day. But the French government didn’t go for it and Robert focused his talents instead on a series of lectures about optics and galvanism.

07 02 burning glass

In 1793, he had attended a magic lantern show by the illusionist Paul Philidor and he realised the potential of the medium. He studied the work of seventeenth century scholar Athanasius Kircher, who is one of the many people credited with inventing the magic lantern. The magic lantern was an early form of the slide projector, with hand painted images on glass slides. Robert added adjustable lenses and mounted his lantern on wheels. The wheels and the lenses were connected in such a way that he could move his lantern backwards and forwards, thus changing the size of the image but still keep it in focus. By back projecting the images onto a waxed gauze screen, he could make his images look as if they were rushing towards his audience. He named his device the ‘Fantascope’.

So what sort of images did he choose to show in his new machine? Well, they were all about death. He could use his lantern to raise from the dead, famous French heroes: Marat, Rousseau, Voltaire. But he did not make the same mistake as Philidor, and try to raise their lost king. Robert, being a talented artist was able to produce pretty faithful representation of the dead. He had so many slides that he could ask his audience for requests and conjure up pretty much anyone. He also made speeches to whip up his audience into a state of terror before the show had even begun and he had unseen musicians playing ghostly music. His first show was on January 23rd, 1898. Everyone was terrified, he was investigated by the authorities and closed down.

07 02 robert's balloonHe left Paris for Bordeaux for a time and it was here that he had his first balloon ride. I’m not going to mention much about his ballooning today, but he went on to conduct several experiments about the effects of altitude: the shapes of clouds, the boiling point of water, the effect of altitude on pigeons and butterflies. From 1803 to 1839 he held the altitude record after flying to a height of 23,900 ft. However, you will have noticed this picture, on the left. This is what Robert imagined, in 1804, balloons would be like in a hundred years time. If you want to know more about what all the different bits are, I can refer you to Andrew Joseph’s blog, Pioneers of Aviation, and he’ll tell you all about it.

When he returned to Paris, he discovered that his assistants had just carried on the show without him. He moved his operation to a more permanent location and he made a good choice. He moved his show to the crypt of an abandoned convent and made it even more elaborate. His audience would have to wind their way through passages and tombs filled with scary surprises before they even got to his ‘Salle de la Fantansmagorie’. They would be seated in a room lit by a single candle, which was then extinguished. Next, they where treated to the sounds of wind and thunder and the sound of a glass armonica. Then, Robert himself would begin his frightening monologue about death and the afterlife. It was along the lines of: no one knows what happens to us after we die, but I am going to show you. All light would be extinguished and the projections would begin. He used a brazier to make smoke, using sulphuric and nitric acid and, for added effect, two cups of blood. Apparitions would begin to form in the smoke above the heads of the audience. He did this by having assistants dotted about with lanterns strapped to their chests. With a more complex lantern he was able to project more than one image and make it seem to move and change. He could make an image of the Three Graces turn into skeletons or make the eyes of his images seem to move. He was able, through using a screen, to present his ghosts alongside live actors and make the two interact.

07 02 fuseli nightmare

His shows presented the popular Gothic iconography of the time. He had images based of Fuseli’s painting, ‘the Nightmare, Macbeth and the Ghost of Banquo, The Bleeding Nun, A Witches’ Sabbath, The Witch of Endor, The Gorgon’s Head, The Opening of Pandora’s Box. He would end the evening with another rousing speech:

“I have shown you the most occult things natural philosophy has to offer, effects that seemed supernatural to the ages of credulity,’ he told the audience; ‘but now see the only real horror… see what is in store for all of you, what each of you will become one day: remember the Phantasmagoria.”

Then a large skeleton would suddenly appear in the room. Robert had the perfect audience. Many people were completely captivated by death, having seen so much of it during the Reign of Terror. Then there was the birth of Gothic literature, with novels like ‘The Castle of Otranto’ and ‘Vathek‘, and corpse re-animators like Galvani and Aldini. Robert performed his show at the convent for four years and then, like Aldini, he took his show on the road, visiting northern Europe and Russia. But this was partly in order to pursue his obsession with ballooning. If you need any more evidence that Étienne-Gaspard Robert was all about death, take a look at his tomb. There is a balloon on the other side of it, but I couldn’t get a picture…

07 02 robert's tomb

Theatreland

06 29 globeToday, I want to tell you about the Globe Theatre, in Southwark. The theatre where William Shakespeare worked and where his plays were performed. It opened in 1599, I don’t know the exact date, but I do know when it burned down and it was on this day in 1613.

The Globe was built to house an acting company called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It was owned, for the most part, by the company’s lead actor, Richard Burbage and his brother Cuthbert. But Shakespeare owned a one eighth share in the project. The actors’ previous home in Shoreditch, north of the City, had been one of the first, and certainly the most successful permanent theatres to be built in England since Roman times. I can tell you where it was: between Alice Daridge’s garden and the Earl of Rutland’s oat barn. Just near the Great Horse Pond, next to the common sewer and a slaughterhouse. Not that this really tells you much about it’s geographical location, but it does give you some idea of what it might have been like. It opened in 1576 and was called, simply, ‘The Theatre’. But they had run into problems. The Theatre had been built by Richard and Cuthbert’s father James Burbage and a man named Mr Brayne who was his brother-in-law. After both men died, there was a huge falling-out over who owned what. Added to this, the Theatre was built on land that was leased from a man called Giles Allen. Allen was a staunch Puritan who wasn’t keen on theatre and, when the lease ran out in 1596, he refused to renew it. What’s more, he claimed that the building now belonged to him too.

The Burbages side-stepped the whole problem on the night of December 28th 1598. Giles Allen was away celebrating Christmas at his country residence and the Burbages, along with a carpenter called Peter Street and a few others, probably including Shakespeare, simply stole the building. They assured onlookers that they were renovating it, but in fact, they carted away all the massive oak beams and stored them in the carpenter’s warehouse over the winter. When the weather improved, they used the beams to build themselves a new theatre across the river at Southwark.

The site of the Globe theatre wasn’t great either. It was prone to flooding, especially at high tide and they had to build a sort of raised bank to protect it. Also, one of the other attractions on offer nearby was bear-baiting. We have an account from a Swiss tourist called Thomas Platter, who visited in 1599. He said that he saw twelve bears and a hundred and twenty mastiffs and it absolutely stank because of all the offal that was fed to the dogs. He also went to see a play. It was Julius Caesar and it may have been the first play performed at the Globe. Thomas tells us that the audience could stand and watch from the courtyard for one penny. For two, you could get a seat in the galleries and for three, you could get a cushion as well and a seat where everyone could see you. He describes the actors as lavishly dressed and explains why this was. Lords and knights, he says, tended to bequeath their best clothes to their servants. But they were much too fancy for a servant to wear, so they sold them and actors bought them.

06 29 globe and bear garden

The theatre, as I said, caught fire in 1613. It was during a performance of Henry VIII. It broke out after the firing of a theatrical cannon. Some of the material fired from the cannon reached the thatched roof of the building where it smouldered unheeded for a while. The fire spread inside the thatch and soon the whole roof was on fire. The entire building was burned to the ground in less two hours. It seems no one was hurt though, which was lucky as the theatre could host up to three thousand spectators and there were only two small doors for everyone to get out. According to an eyewitness the only casualty was a man whose breeches caught fire, but it was quickly put out by someone pouring a bottle of ale over them.

The theatre was quickly rebuilt on the same foundations, but this time, they sensibly built it with a tiled roof. The Globe Theatre was in use, apart from periods of closure due to outbreaks of bubonic plague, until all the theatres were closed by down the Puritans in 1642. It was demolished two or three years later. We have a pretty good idea of what the theatre looked like because we have a beautiful reconstruction of it, only 750 ft from where the original stood. It is the first thatched building to have been allowed in London since the Great Fire of 1666.

06 29 shakespeare's globe

Sensational Woman

06 03 josephine baker 1926Today, it is the birthday of this lady. In her early teens she was homeless and scratching a living on the streets of St Louis. She became a world famous entertainer, helped the French Resistance during World War II and was offered unofficial leadership of the American Civil Rights movement after Martin Luther King died. Her name is Josephine Baker.

Josephine was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St Louis, Missouri in 1906. Her mother was a washerwoman, her father a vaudeville drummer who abandoned the family not long after she was born. From the age of eight, she worked as a domestic for wealthy white families and was very badly treated by them. She dropped out of school at thirteen and found herself living on the street in the slums of St Louis, searching garbage cans for food and making what money she could as a street corner dancer.

At fifteen, Josephine was recruited into the St Louis Chorus vaudeville show and wound up performing in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic and social explosion of African American culture during the 1920s. There, she performed a sort of comedy role in the chorus line. The dancer at the end of the line, who gets all the dances a bit wrong until the final number when she proves that she is better than all of them. She was a huge hit and became quite wealthy as a result. Unfortunately, racial segregation meant she couldn’t spend her money freely in the places that other, white, performers might and, in 1925, she left for Paris.

Josephine also arrived in France at an opportune time. Just as the Paris art scene fell in love with all things African. She was appearing in a show called ‘La Revue Nègre’ where she appeared  on stage almost naked and wowed audiences with her erotic dancing. She travelled Europe with the show and then returned to Paris to perform at the Folies Bergère. Although she was born in America, she enjoyed playing up to her audience’s image of her as a wild African woman. She danced wearing only a skirt made from a string of bananas and got herself a pet cheetah. The cheetah wore a diamond collar and together, they stalked the streets of Paris. It may even have performed with her. Perhaps it occasionally escaped from the stage and frightened the orchestra. Josephine was an inspiration to Picasso, to Christian Dior. Ernest Hemmingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw”. It wasn’t long before she was the most highly paid American entertainer in France.

In 1934, she became the first black woman to star in a major motion picture. She played the title role ‘Zou-Zou’, a laundress turned stage performer. In the mid 1930s, she also became a successful singer. In 1936, she returned to the United States, but her tour did not go well. American audiences were not ready to accept a sophisticated black performer and she returned to Europe heartbroken. She married a Frenchman, Jean Lion, became legally French and gave up her American citizenship.

At the beginning of World War II, Josephine was recruited by French military intelligence. As she travelled reasonably freely and often attended embassy parties, she was able to pick up all sorts of information without raising suspicion. As an entertainer, she travelled all around Europe and North Africa and carried with her important military intelligence. It was written in invisible ink on her music. It was written on notes that she pinned to the inside of her underwear. She did all this despite suffering from a bout of pneumonia and later, a miscarriage which resulted in a hysterectomy. And she was performing all the way. After the war, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the Rosette de la Résistance and made a Chevalier de Légion d’honneur for her bravery.

06 03 josephine baker 1950Josephine returned to perform at the Folies Berègre and in 1951, she was invited to tour North America. In many ways, she was a huge success this time. She performed in Harlem in front of 100,000 and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People awarded her the title of ‘Woman of the Year’. But she found racial segregation was still rife. In many places she was refused hotel accommodation because she was black. Josephine began to write articles on the subject of segregation and when she toured the South, she gave a talk at the Fisk University about the equality of races in France. She refused to perform in venues where the audiences were split between black and white and afterwards received threatening phone calls from the Klu Klux Klan. Her tour went well until she was involved in an incident at the Stork Club in Manhattan in which she felt she was being discriminated against. Whether she was or not, there was an enormous fuss involving a court case. She was accused of Communist sympathies, which was pretty serious in 1950s America, and forced to give up her tour and leave.

In 1963, she was back in the US and speaking alongside Rev. Martin Luther King at the March on Washington. She was the only female speaker. After King was assassinated, his widow, Coretta Scott King, asked her if she would take her husband’s place as leader of the Civil Rights Movement. But Josephine eventually declined, saying that her children were “too young to loose their mother.”

Josephine’s children were not her biological children. She adopted two daughters and ten sons from countries all over the world. She called them her ‘Rainbow Tribe’. She intended them to be an example of how people from all nations and religions could live harmoniously. They all lived in a castle with her at Château des Milandes in south western France. Looking into this, it probably wasn’t a resounding success. She kept them all too much in the public eye.

In the mid 1960s, she got into debt, lost her château and by the 1970s, began to believe everyone had forgotten her. But her family encouraged her to continue her career and by the mid 1970s she was performing at Carnegie Hall and the London Palladium. On April 8th 1975, she starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris celebrating her fifty years of show business in the city. It was so successful that they had to put out extra chairs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was there. So were Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey and Liza Minnelli. Four days later, she was found in her bed in a coma, having suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. She was surrounded by newspapers with glowing revues of her performance. Josephine Baker is the only American-born woman to have been buried with full French military honours.

06 03 josephine baker 1

American Beauty

05 25 marie doro 3Today is the birthday of this lady, a long forgotten star of silent film called Marie Doro. She was born Marie Katherine Stewart in 1882, in Duncannon, Pennsylvania. Like most early film stars, she began her acting career on the stage. Also like most stage actresses, she began working in the chorus. By 1901, she was appearing in a play by David Belasco called ‘Naughty Anthony’. It doesn’t seem to have been one of his better plays and she appears to have been the best thing in it. She played a hosiery model who, in one scene, has put on a pair of silk stockings and is demonstrating their fit to three shocked Salvation Army women, when… a man walks in. It doesn’t sound like much to you and me, but in 1901, it was pretty scandalous.

In 1903 she was spotted by impresario Charles Frohman who took her to Broadway. In 1905 she travelled to London where she worked alongside William Gillette in a play called ‘Sherlock Holmes’. Gillette was the first man to play the role of the detective. I mentioned this play when I wrote about Charlie Chaplin back in April. The sixteen year old, then unknown, Chaplin also had a small part in the play. He still remembered seeing her for the first time when, years later, he wrote his autobiography. He said:

“She was so devastatingly beautiful that I resented her. I resented her delicate, pouting lips, her regular, white teeth, her adorable chin, her raven hair and dark brown eyes… But oh God, she was beautiful. It was love at first sight.”

And who can blame him? The photograph below was taken around 1902 by a Broadway photographer called Burr McIntosh. It’s a wonderful picture, she is indeed, radiant.05 25 marie doro 2 I was glad I managed to track down the name of the photographer. I only wish I could tell you who was responsible for her costume.

Ten years later, Marie and Charlie were both in Hollywood. Marie told a friend that she was a huge fan of Charlie Chaplin and would like to meet him. She had no idea that they had once acted together. When they were introduced he said: ‘But we’ve met before. You broke my heart. I was silently in love with you.’ She answered ‘How thrilling.’ He told her how he had timed exactly when she would leave her dressing room, just so he could meet her on the stairs and gulp ‘Good evening’.

Marie appeared in several plays alongside Gillette, including one he wrote himself called Clarice in which she had the title role. It is about a doctor and his young ward who are in love but neither knows the other’s feelings. There are some suggestions that Gillette wrote the play with her in mind. Frohman and Gillette exerted a strong influence on her development as an actress and she later admitted that she had been ‘hypnotised by them.’ She was rather typecast as the weak and pretty woman but people who knew her described her as very intelligent and funny. She was an something of an expert on the work of Shakespeare and on Elizabethan poetry.

After Frohman was killed in the sinking of the Lusitania she made a sideways move into cinema. She appeared in eighteen films all together, almost none of which survive. Old films were shot on cellulose nitrate film which tends to rot away. Either that or it spontaneously bursts into flames. It will carry on burning, even if you submerge it in water. Maybe 75 % of all American silent films are lost. The titles of her films are intriguing, I’d love to be able to show you a clip from ‘The Mysterious Princess’ orMidnight Gambols’, but I can’t. She does have the honour of having appeared in the first 3D film to be shown to a paying audience, in 1915. It was just a few test shots, but still, that’s quite a claim.

I can’t tell you a great deal about Marie Doro’s life. She married in 1915, was divorced quite soon after. She never married again. She never had any children. In the 1920s, she became disillusioned with Hollywood and left. Marie later made a few films in Italy and at least one in the UK. After returning to New York, she became increasingly reclusive and died in 1956, leaving $90,000 to the Actors Fund, which provides financial support for workers in the performing arts and enntertainment industry. Her life and career may be lost to us but, thanks to Burr McIntosh, we still have these lovely images…

05 25 marie doro 1

An Idle Place Of Intercourse

05 07 second drury lane 1674Today I want to celebrate the opening, in 1663, of the first theatre to be built at Drury Lane in London. I say the first theatre, because it has been demolished once and burned down twice but it is the oldest theatre site in London which is still in use.

Following the execution of Charles I, the Puritans had banned all theatre because they were a serious bunch and thought it was all a bit too frivolous. They called playhouses ‘idle places of intercourse’ and declared all actors to be ‘rogues and vagabonds’. If they were caught acting they could be whipped for a first offence, and for the second treated as ‘an incorrigible rogue’, whatever that means. Charles II loved the theatre and he granted licenses to two acting companies. One of these was led by Thomas Killigrew, whose acting troupe were named the ‘King’s Company’. You can find out more about him, and what he has to do with Ken Russell’s film ‘The Devils’ here.

02 07 thomas killigrew 1650It was under Killigrew’s direction that the theatre, then called the ‘Theatre Royal on Bridges Street’, was built. Sadly, there is no picture of it, so we don’t know exactly what it was like. The drawing above is of the second theatre, which was opened in 1674. We know that it was a wooden building with semi circular tiered benches in the stalls, three semi circular galleries around the walls, a lot of green baize and it could hold at least 700 people. It had scenery which could be changed by sliding it off into the wings and sliding another into place, which was then a very new thing. Performances happened in the afternoons and it had a glazed dome to let in the light. It was not entirely weather-proof though. We know this because Samuel Pepys tells us that he and his wife were once forced to leave because of a hail storm.

Many of Killigrew’s troupe were seasoned actors. Charles Hart and Walter Clun had acted in the ‘King’s Company’ (Shakespeare’s old company) prior to the closing of the theatres in 1642. It was through this connection that Killigrew claimed the sole right to perform all of the plays that had belonged to that company which, of course, included all of Shakespeare’s plays. Much of what we know about theatre in the 1660s comes from the diaries of Samuel Pepys and we know that he didn’t care for Shakespeare. He called ‘Romeo and Juliet: “the worst that I ever heard in my life” and Midsummer Night’s Dream: “the most insipid ridiculous play”. He loved Macbeth though. Pepys was also 05 07 edward kynastonrather impressed by an actor called Edward Kynaston, who was well known for playing both male and female roles. He said Edward was ‘the loveliest lady that I ever saw in my life”. Kynaston’s ambiguous sexuality made him very popular. Ladies enjoyed taking him out in their carriages after the performance whilst he was still in costume.

The age of acting being a men only career was coming to an end though, and Drury Lane Theatre became one of the first to employ female actors. The rumours of Kynaston continuing his female role playing away from the stage was one of the things that led the king to allow female roles to be played by female performers. Nell Gwyn, who later became the kings mistress, acted there, as did Pepys friend Mary Knep. Also Margaret Hughes and Anne Marshall, both of whom have been named the first actresses on the English stage. Killigrew even staged an all female production there of his own play ‘The Parson’s Wedding’. In fact women playing male roles became terribly popular but mainly because men liked to look at their legs.

The theatre was closed, along with all other forms of public entertainment, during the time of the Great Plague in 1665 but reopened in 1666. It survived the Great Fire of London but was burnt down in 1672. Killigrew rebuilt it, bigger and better two years later. In the following years, the theatre faced a lot of upheaval. Some of it political, some of it just mismanagement. But one of Drury Lane’s actors, Charles Macklin, became very famous in 1741 after appearing as ‘Shylock’ in ‘The Merchant of Venice’. His naturalistic style was much admired and he later tutored other actors. One of his students was Samuel Foote, who I’ve mentioned elsewhere because he was a terribly interesting fellow. Another was David Garrick, who I’ve only mentioned in passing because, although he is extremely famous, he was relatively dull. He took over the theatre in 1747 and, in 1776, sold it on the Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

05 07 third drury lane 1808Sheridan employed a lot of child actors, including a young Joseph Grimaldi, who made his debut there in 1780. Grimaldi was, of course, the man who popularised the role of clown, but unfortunately you won’t find him here either as his life was rather sad and difficult. In 1791 Sheridan had the theatre demolished and rebuilt again. It was enormous. There were three tiers of galleries. In fact, it was so big that people sometimes found it rather difficult to hear what was going on and productions tended to lead heavily on visual spectacles. In 1794 there was a play that featured real water pouring down a rocky stream into a lake which was large enough to row a boat on. The water came from huge tanks in the attic that were installed at the same time as an iron safety curtain as a precaution against fire.

In the year 1800, the theatre saw an assassination attempt on King George III by a man named James Hadfield. James was not a well man at all. He believed that he could help bring about the second coming of Christ by shooting the King. In 1809, despite the safety precautions, the theatre was, once again, burned down. Sheridan was found out in the street with a glass of wine in his hand, watching it burn. When asked about it, he said: “A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.” The theatre was rebuilt for a fourth time in 1812 and still stands today.

05 07 burning of drury lane from westminster bridge

So, with such a long history, you might not be surprised to learn that the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane has more than its fair share of ghosts. Both Macklin and Grimaldi have been seen at the theatre. But its most famous ghost is the ‘Man in Grey’, a gentleman dressed in 18th century costume complete with powdered wig, tricorne hat and a sword. He usually appears in the fourth row of the upper circle and proceeds towards the royal box. In 1848, a skeleton was found in a walled up passageway near the box. There was a knife in his ribs.

You Don’t Know Me

04 26 william shakespeareWilliam Shakespeare was baptised on this day in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon. We don’t know what day he was born. Although tradition says he was born on April 23rd, there is no evidence. It’s just that he died on April 23rd and it gives his life a pleasing symmetry. In truth we don’t know very much about him at all. We don’t know what he was doing before he was twenty-eight, apart from the fact that he got married and had three children. He never commissioned a portrait so we don’t really know what he looked like, though the portrait on the right might be him. We don’t even know how he spelled his name. There are six surviving examples of his signature and they are all spelled differently. None of them are ‘William Shakespeare’. But spelling was really not quite the rigid thing it is today, and probably if I had to use a quill, I might be tempted to leave off halfway through and just write ‘Willm Shaksp’ too.

So, he married Anne Hathaway in 1582, who gave birth to their daughter, Susannah, six months later. In 1585, Anne gave birth to twins, Judith and Hamnet. Then we know nothing of him until 1592, when he was in London, having left his family behind in Stratford. As a married man, he wouldn’t have been allowed to go to university or to take up an apprenticeship in a trade that had an established guild. But acting companies had looser entry requirements, so maybe that is how he came to take up the theatre. In 1592, several of his plays were being performed in London and he was well known enough to be attacked in print as an ‘upstart crow’ and a ‘Johannes Factotum’ – a jack of all trades by a man named Robert Greene. So, we don’t know how he started his career. If his rise was meteoric, or if he’d been writing for ages. We do know that he also acted and probably played the ghost in ‘Hamlet’.

Two years later, he was part owner of an acting company called the ‘Lord Chamberlain’s Men’. It was they who built the Globe Theatre, but more of that in June. They became the King’s Men after James I came to the throne. We know that he didn’t abandon his family, because in 1597 he bought the second biggest house in Stratford and settled them there. The house was called ‘New Place’, even though it was actually built in 1483, and has a bit of an interesting history. Shakespeare bought it from a man named William Underhill for £60. Underhill died two months later, before the sale had been properly confirmed, and it eventually turned out he had been poisoned by his eldest son. The son, whose name was Fulke, either died or was hanged for murdering his father, so all his inherited property, including New Place was forfeit to the crown. But his younger brother, who had the splendid name of Hercules Underhill, confirmed the sale in 1603.

04 26 new placeAfter Shakespeare died in 1616, it passed to his daughter, Susannah, and then his granddaughter, Elizabeth. After that there were no more heirs. By 1756, it was owned by Reverend Francis Gastrell. He got very tired of people coming to visit Shakespeare’s home and he destroyed a mulberry tree in the garden that was said to have been planted by him. The people of the town were so upset that they broke all his windows. In retaliation, he had the whole place knocked down in 1759. That made everyone so angry that he had to leave town.

Shakespeare produced such a huge body of work, it’s not surprising he didn’t do very much with his personal life. Thirty-eight plays are attributed to him and a hundred and fifty-four sonnets as well as two long narrative poems. Some find it hard to believe that he could actually have written all of them. There are those who think that he couldn’t possibly have had such a large vocabulary without a university education. In fact Shakespeare’s vocabulary was not as massive as people like to make out. It was somewhere between 17,000 and 20,000 words, which was quite large for the time, but he did write a great deal about a lot of different subjects. When compared play for play with his contemporaries, he’s actually about average. Also a university education, it turns out, had very little to do with how large a persons vocabulary was. Top of the list is the Jacobean playwright, John Webster who was the son of a coach-maker. He didn’t go to university either. So Shakespeare’s skill doesn’t really lie in his vocabulary. It’s his talent for arranging them. I give you:

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;”

or

“We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

Lovely. There’s nothing odd or clever about any of those words, it’s the way he puts them together.

Another thing you might hear about Shakespeare, is from people who think he might have been bisexual. Of the one hundred and fifty-four sonnets that he wrote, one hundred and twenty-six of them are addressed to a young man, the ‘Fair Youth’. Twenty-eight are addressed to a woman, the ‘Dark Lady’. We don’t know who either of them were, but people certainly enjoy speculating. Nor do we know if they are in any way autobiographical. Shakespeare devoted a great deal of time to devising characters for his plays and giving them things to say. So how likely is it that he wrote a hundred and fifty-four poems about himself? So we can’t say for certain whether Shakespeare was bisexual or not. And it doesn’t really matter does it? I think maybe because he wrote such a lot and we know so little about what he was really like, people project on to him what they want to see. And that’s probably okay too, because we’ll never know the truth.