Nobody’s Perfect

05 03 machiavelli Today is the birthday of Niccolò Machiavelli. He was born on this day in 1469. Even though the adjective ‘Machiavellian’ has become a pejorative term to describe someone who aims to deceive and manipulate others for personal advantage. Even though the Devil may be called ‘Old Nick’ in his honour. I’d like to argue that he may have made some good points.

Machiavelli lived through a time of enormous political unrest. New leaders were constantly rising to power, only to be immediately knocked down by someone else. He wrote his most famous work, ‘The Prince’, for Lorenzo II de’ Medici (father of Catherine) at a time when the Medici family were newly reinstated as rulers of Florence. Machiavelli had lost his job in the upheaval. He had been accused of plotting against the Medicis, he had been arrested, he had been tortured. He had been released and he had banished from the city. He was hoping to win Lorenzo’s favour. It is a political treatise offering advice on how a new prince might retain his power. Machiavelli knew that a prince should be both loved and feared, but if it is not possible to have both, it is best to be feared. He advised that the prince kill not only his enemies, but anyone who might be powerful enough to become an enemy.

His belief was that, sometimes, violence is necessary to maintain a stable society. That if you do something awful, most people will not notice if it achieves a result that is good. That there is no point imagining an ideal society where everyone is lovely because it’s not going to happen. He thought that religion was a bad thing for leaders because it made them lazy. Those who left everything up to the ‘Will of God’ never achieved anything. On the other hand, religion was a good thing for the geneal populace because it made them easy to manipulate. You could say anything was the ‘Will of God’ and they’d be fine with it. Some of his observations are based on the life of Cesare Borgia (brother of Lucrezia). He tells the story of how Cesare appointed a deputy to do his more unpleasant jobs. When his deputy was hated for it, he had him killed. Not only that, but he had his body cut in half and left in the town square along with a butcher’s block and a blood-stained knife. Of course, I’m not in favour of people who lie, cheat and murder their way into a position of power. But, let’s face it, destroying the opposition and having a good scapegoat is the way people get into postions of power.

Unfortunately Lorenzo didn’t like his book and Machiavelli continued to live on his farm outside the city, which he didn’t like very much at all. That’s when he wrote his comedy ‘La Mandragola’. I’d like to tell you about that because it sort of illustrates his political thoughts in microcosm and in a much less violent way. Everyone in the play does something completely immoral and yet everyone ends up happy.

05 03 mandragolaThe protagonist, Callimaco, falls hopelessly for a lady named Lucrezia who is young and beautiful. She is marries to an old man called Nicia who is a complete idiot. They have no children and Nicia is desperate for a son and heir. Callimaco’s scheming friend, Ligurio, devises a plan that will allow Callimaco to spend the night with Lucrezia which also involves a corrupt priest. Our hero poses as a doctor who can offer a solution to the couple’s childlessness. He convinces Nicia to drug Lucrezia with mandrake, claiming it will increase her fertility. However there is a caviat. The mandrake will undoubtedly kill the first man to have sex with her. Callimaco helpfully suggests to Nicia that an unwitting fool be found for this purpose. The ‘mandrake’ will be, in fact, just a big glass of wine and the ‘unwitting fool’, Callimaco in diguise. Lucrezia, being a religeous lady is reluctant but is eventually convinced by her mother and the priest to comply. The priest tells her that, like eating meat on a Wednesday, it is a sin that can be easily washed away with holy water. She allows a disguised Callimaco into her bed and, believing that the events which caused her to break her marriage vows were due to divine providence, accepts him as her lover on a more permanent basis.

Callimaco is happy because he gets to keep seeing Lucrezia. Lucrezia is happy because she has a nice new lover and has been told it’s not a sin. Nicia is happy because he will get his son and heir. Lucrezia’s mother is happy because she will have a grandchild. The priest is happy because he got a big bribe for taking part in a lie. Ligurio is happy everyone is pleased and that means he can get himself a free lunch whenever he wants.

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Chaos and Custard

03 26 fred karnoToday is the birthday of Fred Karno, an acrobat turned theatre impresario who helped launch the careers of Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin. He is credited with popularising the custard pie in the face gag. He was born Frederick John Westcott in Exeter, Devon in 1866. Shortly after that his family moved to Nottingham. Fred took up an apprenticeship as a plumber, but when he went to do some work at a gymnasium, he was so taken with it that he signed up for instruction. Fred, it turned out, was a natural athlete. Then he met a travelling juggler and wire-walker named Alvene and begged to be taken on as his assistant. It was around that time that the plumber to whom he was apprenticed died and Fred took to the life of a travelling performer.

He worked in circuses, pantomime, music hall and at what he felt was every fair in the country. It was a hard life and he soon found himself in London hanging out at ‘poverty corner’ opposite Waterloo Station where theatrical agents knew they could always find out of work performers in need of employment. To supplement his income, Fred kept a glazier’s kit at home. He and a partner would walk the streets shouting ‘winders a mend’. 03 26 the kidIf there were no windows to be mended, he was not above sending his partner ahead to break a few. Charlie Chaplin would one day use this stunt in his film ‘The Kid’.

His music hall career really took off when he and two other acrobats were asked to fill in for a troupe called ‘The Three Carnoes’. They were asked to stay on and, as no one realised they weren’t the real Carnoes, they named themselves ‘The Three Karnoes’. Fred began performing as Fred Karno and in 1895 he began to introduce music hall audiences to short mime sketches that were re-workings of his circus acts. Fred had introduced slapstick to the stage. He drew on his knowledge of clowning from his circus days and, by 1901, he had four action-packed sketches. They included ‘Jail Birds’, where prisoners played tricks on the warders and ‘Early Birds’, about a small man who beats a huge East End ruffian. Four sketches might not seem like very much but in those days, it was possible to perform the same material for years. He became so well known that people would come to see a show just because it had his name on it. This meant that he was able to give breaks to unknown young actors. Two of these were Arthur Jefferson (who would later become Stan Laurel) and Charlie Chaplin.

Fred was a master of publicity, it was a trick that he learned from theatre manager Arthur Jefferson senior, the father of Stan Laurel. Arthur had a portable zoo cage with a lion inside that was mauling a dummy which he exhibited around Glasgow. For a different show, he sent round a hansom cab with a man inside who had a dummy knife sticking out of him. For his sketch Jail Birds, Fred bought a Black Maria (the name of a police vehicle used 03 26 keystone copsto transport prisoners) and decorated it with streamers proclaiming ‘Fred Karno’s Jail Birds’. He drove it about filled with actors dressed as policemen, warders and convicts. Sometimes the convicts would ‘escape’, particularly during rush hour, and be chased about. Echoes of this stunt can be seen in the antics of The Keystone Cops in early silent movies. It was the Keystone Studio that first signed Charlie Chaplin.

His name became synonymous with anything that was chaotic and badly organised. There was even a popular First World War song called ‘Fred Karno’s Army’. But Fred trained his actors carefully, not only in the art of slapstick, but also showed them how they could gain the audiences sympathy. He believed that the best laughs came when a character didn’t know what was going to happen to him but the audience did. Which is where the custard pie in the face thing comes in.

03 26 fred karno's fun factoryWhen I first wrote about Fred Karno a year ago, who I had then never heard of, I discovered an amazing coincidence. He bought two houses in Camberwell and knocked them into one. It was his home, his office, a rehearsal space and a warehouse for theatrical props and costumes. He called it his ‘Fun Factory’. This is a photograph taken there in 1907. In the 1980s, the building was turned into artists’ studios and I found out that my friend Andrew used to have a studio there. In 2008, they all recreated this photograph, you can see it here.