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

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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

Queen of Nowhere

06 06 queen christinaToday I want to tell you about Queen Christina of Sweden. She is something of a contradictory character. Not entirely good, but also a fascinating person. I didn’t want to celebrate her birth, because she caused a lot of problems for a lot of people. But celebrating her death isn’t really appropriate either, so today I am celebrating her abdication from the throne of Sweden on June 6th 1654.

Christina was born in 1626 and was made heir to the throne by her father, Gustav II. Her mother had already given birth to a stillborn daughter and a second daughter, also called Christina, who died when she was only a year old. When Christina number two was born there was, at first, some confusion over her sex and everyone thought she was a boy. This seems mainly to have been because her body was covered in hair and she cried with a “strong, hoarse voice”. When the king was informed of the mistake he replied: “She’ll be clever, she has made fools of us all.”

Gustav was very fond of his daughter and had her raised with the sort of education normally reserved for boys. She studied languages and philosophy and learned about politics. When Christina was only six, her father was killed in a battle and her mother, who was already emotionally unstable, went completely over the edge. She refused to bury her husband’s body. She kept it in an open coffin and visited it regularly. The King remained unburied for over eighteen months. So Christina’s mother was, fairly swiftly, sidelined and she was raised by an aunt.

06 06 christina and descartesChristina was hugely interested in arts and sciences and, by 1649, had amassed an enormous collection of paintings, statues, manuscripts, coins and scientific instruments. She was equally interested in opera and theatre and was a bit of an amateur actress herself. Christina wanted to make her capital, Stockholm, the “Athens of the North” and she invited many learned men to her court. Most notably, she asked René Descartes. Christina had a lot of stuff she felt she needed to learn about. Her days were long and she decided the only time she could possibly see Descartes was at five in the morning. The climate and possibly the early starts didn’t agree with poor Descartes and, sadly, he caught pneumonia and died there in 1650.

She was not officially crowned until later that year, but it wasn’t long before she was making plans to abdicate. Christina made it very clear that she had no plans to marry, ever. She admitted “an insurmountable distaste for marriage” and “for all things that females talked about and did.” Though this did not stop her having an extremely close relationship with one of her ladies in waiting, Ebba Sparre, who she describes as her ‘bed-fellow’. For most of her reign though, she pursued a punishing regime of long days, a rather ascetic existence and very little sleep. It led to a sort of nervous breakdown in 1651 and she again asked to abdicate. In 1652, under the care of a French physician, Pierre Bourdelot, she was persuaded to stop studying so hard, get more sleep and enjoy life a bit more. He also introduced her to the sonnets of Pietro Aretino.

As she never planned to marry or have children, she made arrangement to have her cousin, Carl Gustav, made her heir. Christina had, for a long time been very interested in the Catholic idea of celibacy and with Catholicism in general, which made a lot of people very uncomfortable. This may have been one of the reasons her abdication was finally accepted. Another could have been that she was just spending loads of money and had become a bit of a liability. There was an abdication ceremony at Uppsala Castle in which she removed her regalia piece by piece. She made a speech and left in a simple white gown. But she had already packed up most of her treasures and sent them on ahead.

Days later, she left Sweden disguised as a man, to make travelling easier. She journeyed through Europe, spending and partying all the way and arrived in Rome in 1655. There, she was warmly greeted by the Pope, Alexander VII, and was accepted into the Catholic faith. Her presence was widely celebrated. Firework displays, jousts, fake duels, operas and all manner of celebrations were held in her honour. Take a look at this carousel (below), which was given for her in February 1656, it’s pretty splendid. She set up home in the Palazzo Faranese and opened an academy for the enjoyment of music, theatre and literature.

06 06 carousel for christina

Of course, as soon as the Swedish government found out about her religious conversion, they cut off all her financial support. Then, she became involved in a very close relationship with a cardinal called Decio Azzolino, who was rather liberal for a Catholic, and that didn’t go down so well. But they stayed firm friends for the rest of their lives.

Cut off from her revenue, she hatched a plan to become Queen of Naples. Spain and France had been fighting over Naples for years and she had the idea that, if she were made Queen, she would pass on the crown to the King of France. When she visited France, in an attempt to organise this, the French found her extremely uncouth. At the ballet, she applauded too loudly and sat with her legs over the arm of the seat. Nevertheless, she was treated with respect by the King and his mother. It was at this time that she visited and recommended the release of Ninon de l’Enclos, who I mentioned back in November.

However, things went terribly awry when she accused her master of the horse of revealing her plans and had him executed. She had to leave France and was not particularly welcome in Rome either. Then, in 1660, her cousin. Carl Gustav died and she thought she might go back and be Queen of Sweden again, But, being a Catholic, they wouldn’t have her and she went back to Rome. She was reasonably happy there until 1666, when she returned to Sweden again and, disappointed by her reception, went to live in Hamburg. There, she found out that her patron, Pope Alexander, had died. The new Pope, Clement IX, was also a friend and had been a regular guest at her palace. She threw a party to celebrate. Citizens of Lutheran Hamburg were furious. The party ended with shooting and she was forced to leave in disguise via the back door.

Christina made a spirited attempt to be made Queen of Poland in 1668, but this also failed. She passed the rest of her years in Rome. She and Pope Clement shared a love of theatre and in 1671, she established Rome’s first public theatre. Subsequent Popes were less keen, and Innocent XI had it turned into a storeroom for grain and banned women from performing. Christina didn’t care though, she carried on putting on plays at her palace.

06 06 queen christina 1685She continued to be a bit of a rebel, supplying the world with her unsolicited opinions, long after she had lost her rights to rule. When Louis XIV revoked the rights of French Protestants, she wrote him a letter of objection. In 1686, she made the Pope put an end to an awful practice of chasing Jews through the streets at Carnival. Then, she issued a declaration pronouncing all Roman Jews under her protection and signed it ‘the Queen’.

When she died, in 1689, she left all her treasures to her old friend Cardinal Azzolino and they passed almost immediately to his nephew, who sold them. Many of her books are now part of the Vatican library. Most of her paintings went to France and many are now in the National Museum of Scotland.

On balance, I really like Queen Christina. She upset a lot of people, but she did what she wanted and she didn’t care. Certainly, she walked off with a lot stuff that almost definitely should have stayed in Sweden but, in 1697, her castle burnt down and it would all have been destroyed anyway. She is one of only three women to have been buried in the Vatican.

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.

No Such Thing As Bad Publicity

04 19 mae westToday I want to tell you about Mae West. Mae was close to forty when she started her film career in 1932, which is unusually late. A year later, she was the eight largest box office draw in the US. By 1935 she was the second highest paid person in the United States, second only to newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hurst. She would have a career that spanned seven decades and was famous for saying things like: “Between two evils, I pick the one I’ve never tried before.” Today is not her birthday though. Today I want to tell you about something else that happened to her. On this day in 1927, she was jailed for obscenity. It did her absolutely no harm whatsoever.

Before she ever appeared on screen, Mae had a long stage career. She first began performing professionally in vaudeville at the age of 14. She tried out various personas, including a male impersonator. By the time she was eighteen, she was appearing on Broadway. In her thirties, she began to write her own plays. In 1926, she wrote, directed and starred in a play called ‘Sex’. The play is about a prostitute who tries to better her social standing by marrying a rich man. She winds up realising that you are better off with someone who accepts you for who you are.

It was not well received by critics. They didn’t like the title, they didn’t like the themes. One reviewer said: “We were shown not sex but lust—stark naked lust.” The audiences loved it. The first night was a sell out. The play ran to 375 performances and was seen by 325,000 people. Religious figures and those who considered themselves ‘guardians of morality’ did not enjoy seeing the word ‘Sex’ in huge letters outside a Broadway theatre. Nor did they care for the posters that announced ‘Sex – with Mae West’. After several official complaints, the police were sent to the theatre on February 9th 1927. They arrested Mae, along with the rest of the cast, and the show was closed.

Her arrest and the subsequent court case received a lot of media attention and Mae was not afraid to exploit that. She knew that any publicity was good publicity. She did loads of interviews, dressed in her most glamorous outfits. In court, on April 19th, she was found guilty of ‘corrupting the morals of youth’, fined $500 and sentenced to ten days in jail. The play had been on stage on Broadway for ten months, so frankly, if they really thought she was corrupting the morals of youth, they were dragging their heels a bit.

Mae took the verdict well and was driven to jail in her limousine. During her short stay she distributed the gifts she received from fans among the other prisoners and dined every night with the warden and his wife. She gleefully revealed to the press that she had worn her silk panties all the time she was in prison. Mae was released two days early for good behaviour. Afterwards she said that it was “…the first time I ever got anything for good behaviour.”

The media attention surrounding the trial considerably furthered her career and she certainly had no intention of changing her ways. Her next play ‘The Drag’ was about homosexuality. The play did well in out of town try outs but never made it to Broadway. Like ‘Sex’ it was popular with audiences, but panned by the critics. It was closed after two weeks because of its portrayal of homosexuality and cross-dressing. Mae was an early advocate of gay and transgender rights and once told a cop who was raiding a gay bar “Don’t you know you’re hitting a woman in a man’s body?”

I like Mae West a lot. I like the way she accepted controversy joyfully and turned it to her advantage. So hooray for Mae West today and hooray for living your life with people who accept you for who you are.