Saturday, 28 February 2009

Commedía dell'Arte

Commedía dell'Arte (Comedy of Artists) was Italian street theatre of the 16th and 17th centuries, and — like Cirque Soleil today (which began on the streets of Montreal) — came to be a significant art form, influencing, among others, Shakespeare in England and Molière in France.

At a time when Italian theater was deadly serious, Commedía dell'Arte provided bawdy, improvised farces. The stock characters had distinctive masks, costumes, manners.The plots were familiar, but not without unexpected comments on politics and happenings of the day.

The troupes would travel from town to town, and often the language — the village patois — would not be understandable, but everyone could enjoy their universal humor. Laughter united.

The characters signified human characteristics everyone could recognize: Capitano was a puffed up braggart, Pantelone was greedy and avaricious, ignorant Dottore pretended to know everything.

The universal favorite was Arlecchino, or Harlequin, the amorous acrobat and wit who carried a stick that made a loud noise when he engaged in combat: thus the origin of the term "slapstick" and the beginnings of our modern clown.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

John Evelyn 1620-1706

The words, ‘Diarist’ and ‘Restoration’, tend to conjure the name Samuel Pepys, but an equally prolific diarist of the time was John Evelyn. Sam Pepys wrote his diary over a period of ten years, but John Evelyn began his as a schoolboy and wrote it almost until his death. He gives us a vivid picture of not only his own domestic life, but Royal and political life in Restoration England. By the standards of his age, Evelyn was a man of dignity, philanthropy and loyalty. Samuel Pepys, who was usually regarded as a typical 17th century man, received bribes, [allegedly] deceived his wife and hit his servants.

Evelyn was an adult during the Civil War, lived through the Commonwealth, saw the return of Charles II, witnessed the Great Plague and the Fire of London, survived unscathed the reigns of James II, the Glorious Revolution, William III and Mary II, including the tragedy of Queen Mary’s death from smallpox at the age of 32, and the beginning of Queen Anne’s reign.

He was close friends with Samuel Pepys, the philosopher Robert Boyle and architect Sir Christopher Wren and also introduced the woodcarver, Grinling Gibbons to Charles II. Pepys, who occasionally found Evelyn conceited and some of his books boring, made a revealing observation of Evelyn by one of his friends, 'he being a very ingenious man, and the more I know him, the more I love him.' Diary, 29 April 1666.

As a Commissioner for Sick and Wounded Seamen, a post he refused to leave during the Plague Year, Evelyn was appalled at the number of maimed and destitute sailors and soldiers begging on the streets of London after the Dutch and Jacobite wars in Ireland and France. He and Samuel Pepys, Christopher Wren and Queen Mary II, founded the Greenwich Hospital where these men were offered a home for the rest of their lives. He was also a founder member of the Royal Society as well as a celebrated gardener and authority on trees.

In 1637, John was admitted into the Middle Temple in London to study law and a year later went up to Balliol College at Oxford. Some of his almanacs survive and they show that, by our standards, he was barely literate.

In the years leading up the Civil War, although a staunch Royalist, Evelyn decided to: 'absent my selfe from this ill face of things at home'. He left England in late 1643 and spent the next few years exploring France, Italy and Switzerland and came into contact with the exiled court of Charles II. Evelyn met the king's ambassador to France, Sir Richard Browne and in 1647 married Browne's daughter Mary.

In 1649, Evelyn bought Sayes Court, Deptford from his father-in-law; a run-down Elizabethan manor-house adjacent to the naval dockyards. This insalubrious location was compensated for by the available land and its proximity to London.

Their eldest son, Richard suffered a series of fits and a fever during an appalling winter of 1658 and died at the age of five. Evelyn and his wife were reduced to despair. The following morning their fourth son, seven month old George, died too. Their second son had died as an infant and only the third, John, survived to adulthood. The impassioned account of Richard's life and death in John’s diary belies our belief that parents in an age of chronic infant mortality coped better with losing a child.

Evelyn was one of the first environmentalists and after the Great Fire in 1666, he presented the King with a plan to rebuild the City. His tracts ‘Fumifugium’, and ‘A Character of England’ had already suggested removing the pollutive industries to more distant locations. Christopher Wren also planned a remodeled city, but neither plan was put into operation with the excuse that Londoners couldn’t wait for the schemes of great men and simply built their houses back on their original footprints.

January 1671, John Evelyn discovers sculptor Grinling Gibbons (1648 - 1721) working on a wood carving in a cottage near Sayes Court in Deptford. Evelyn introduced Gibbons to King Charles II's Court, where he became Master Carver in Wood to the Court

Evelyn had difficulty balancing his respect for Charles II with his outrage at the decadence of the Restoration court. The drinking, gaming, and parading of mistresses were 'all dissolution' to him. When news came in January 1686 that Charles's most famous former concubine Nell Gwyn had been seen attending Catholic services, his comment was well quoted as: 'no greate losse to the Church.'

His diary shows that he loved his wife and children, and was concerned for the welfare of his servants. When his beloved daughter, Mary died at nineteen in 1685, he mourned her deeply. That same year, his seventeen year old daughter, Elizabeth eloped with a young man from the Navy Office. Evelyn immediately disowned and disinherited her and when she contracted smallpox just weeks later, he visited her sickbed with a minister so she might take the last sacrament and seek forgiveness for her actions.

When God ‘took her out of this vale of misery,’ Evelyn’s diary states that, ‘My Child was buried by her sister on 2d September in the Church of Deptford’ He appears not to have attended the funeral, sending Susanna instead and his words at the time were that Elizabeth’s fate was God’s punishment A harsh attitude perhaps, but disobedience of a father was a grave sin in the 17th Century when children, especially daughters, were regarded as the property of their parents.

King Charles II pays a visit to the architect of St Paul''s Cathedral, Sir Christopher Wren, circa 1675. Also pictured are diarist Samuel Pepys, Grinling Gibbons (far left) and John Evelyn Painting by J Seymour Lucas

During the reign of James II (1685-88) Evelyn reached his highest official post as a Commissioner of the Privy Seal. He avoided having to apply the privy seal to documents that troubled his conscience, like the printing of ‘Popish Books’, by not turning up at meetings. Luckily James II's reign was over quickly enough for this not to be an issue.

Evelyn died in his house in Dover Street in 1702, his wife Mary Evelyn, three years later. Of his eight children, four lived to adulthood and only his youngest daughter, Susanna, outlived her parents. The private Evelyn chapel in Wotton church has been closed since 1992, when the stone sarcophagi on the chapel floor was hacked open and Evelyn's, and his wife's skulls were removed. They have yet to be recovered.

Evelyn’s thoughts after the death of King Charles II
‘……..he was ever kind to me & very gracious upon all occasions, & therefore I cannot without ingratitude deplore his losse, which for many respects (as well as duty) I do with all my soule: 2nd October 1685’

On the Execution of the Duke of Monmouth
Thus ended this quondam Duke, darling of his Father, and the Ladys, being extraordirily handsome, and adroit: an excellent souldier, & dauncer, a favorite of the people, of an Easy nature, debauched by lust, seduc’d by crafty knaves who would have set him up onely to make a property; tooke this opportunity of his Majestie being of another Religion, to gather a party of discontented; failed of it, and perished:

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Theatre Review: Sabbat by Richard Shannon

Sabbat by Richard Shannon
Performed at the Dukes Theatre, Lancaster, England

The theatre in the round is packed with people standing in the upper stalls. The square stage, divided into quadrants depicting earth, grass, stone, and wooden floors, has four ominous butchers’ hooks hanging overhead. At the edges of the stage area, just over the first rows, dried herbs and willow manikins hang.

Three women step forth and face each other across the stage, their voices joined in an ancient folk charm:

There came three angels out of the East,
One brought fire and two brought frost
Out fire and in frost,
In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

To seal the charm, each woman crosses herself, revealing how the strands of Pagan folk magic had become so tightly interwoven with Catholic belief. In Jacobean England, both Catholics and presumed witches may be punished by death. The ambience is heightened by the fact that Dukes Theatre is located beside the Golden Lion Pub where the Pendle Witches reputedly were given their last drink before being marched to the gallows in August, 1612. They condemned would have marched up Moor Lane, right outside the theatre doors.

Richard Shannon’s atmospheric retelling of the dramatic events leading up to the Pendle Witch Trials is sensitive and well drawn although it does take liberties with history. As the play is limited to four actors, the story becomes truncated.

On the side of law and order, there is Roger Nowell, magistrate, and his wife Judith, heavily pregnant and tormented by nightmares that evil forces threaten her unborn child. Judith’s friend, recusant Catholic Alice Nutter provides her with herbal potions to soothe away her fears and aid her sleep. Roger Nowell wonders if the Widow Nutter is, in fact, working magical charms inside his house—does she have his wife under her spell? When Judith is alone in the house, teenaged beggar Jennet Preston comes to wheedle for bread, money, and whatever else she can lay her hands on, ominously suggesting that if Judith does not pay her to “bless” the baby in her womb, she will be sorry. And yet Jennet’s muttered charms appear almost identical to Alice Nutter’s fervent Catholic prayers.

Jennet, as she appears in the play, bears little resemblance to the historical Jennet Preston who was a married woman in her forties in 1612 and had no reputation as a cunning woman or dealer in charms. Instead, Richard Shannon’s Jennet is a wholly fictional creation combining aspects of Alizon, Jennet, and James Device, the historical grandchildren of Elizabeth Southerns, aka Old Demdike, of Malkin Tower—the most notorious of the Pendle Witches. Shannon’s Jennet, brought to visceral life by young actor Amaka Okafor, appears naïve, vulnerable and delusional, careening down a course which will lead all the characters to tragedy.

The four actors are excellent in their roles, particularly Christine Mackie who plays Alice Nutter with a quiet and utterly convincing dignity, revealing a tragic heroine: a good, well-meaning woman who, caught up in a climate of hysteria and religious foment, is framed as a witch. While Mistress Nutter, a woman of property and member of the lower gentry, is revealed in great depth of character, Jennet and her family, all of them poor and needy, are shown as comtemptible victims of their own ignorance and envy of the upper classes. I only wish that Richard Shannon could have depicted the “real” witches of Malkin Tower with the same nuances and depth that he granted Alice Nutter.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Will Shakespeare retires from the theater 1611

No one knows exactly what day the most famous writer of all sold his shares in the Globe Theater and the acting company The Kings’ Men, packed his books and clothes, hugged his fellows and hired a post horse to take him home to retire in Stratford-on-Avon where his estranged wife and two grown daughters had long awaited him. No one knows because few records were kept of ordinary people then and a scribbler of plays which would be performed six or eight times and disappear was very ordinary

London at that time was a walled city of seven gates; some mansions, farmlands, and villages (among them Charing Cross) stood between it and the city of Westminster. Its population in narrow winding streets was upward then of 100,000. The open-air Globe, however, stood across the Thames outside the city limits in Southwark so the Puritans in the London government could not order it closed. Most of the players lived in the city itself and had to take a wherry across the Thames to the water steps leading to their theater.

The actors were drawn from the shareholders, the apprentice boys whom they trained up to play the women (women would not be allowed on the English stage until after 1666), actors hired by the week and by the day. Each likely played many parts. It was not an easy life: with a few read-throughs if that, the play went on. But by the time Shakespeare retired, plays were also being given in the Blackfriars Theater, a small indoor theater, one of the first of its kind.

At the age of 47, Will was a tired man. He had entered the theater in about 1590 when it was just emerging from the church steps and innyards of the medieval era and left at its height; though talented writers emerged after him, none could ever equal his golden age. So likely he left shortly after his performance of his last great play The Tempest with its famous speech by the magician Prospero:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air…

His departure was noted only by those who did not keep diaries and dates. He came back to visit in 1613 when eight of his plays were performed at Whitehall for the betrothal of King James’s daughter and took the opportunity to buy some property. On the profits from his shares in the Globe, he had bought the most impressive house in Stratford, perhaps to show his neighbors that the young man who had left his small town for the theater world in the big city had made good after all.

And what about his original manuscripts? They were probably discarded after the printing of the First Folio or perhaps destroyed when the Puritans tore down the Globe in 1644. And his letters? Likely used to light fires or line pie tins. Who would keep a letter?

As soon as Shakespeare could afford it, he had acquired a coat of arms and so it was as a landed gentleman that he returned to Stratford and died at the age of 52 in 1616. He never bothered to have his plays printed and many of them would have been lost if two of his best friends and fellow actors Heminges and Condell had not collected them into the large book known as the First Folio in 1623. A monument to those two men stands in the old City of London today a short walk away from where Heminges lived on Wood Street, that house where a bunch of tired actors may have gathered more than four hundred years ago to read through a long new play called Hamlet.

Shakespeare thought he went home quietly but those who love his work have long proved otherwise.

Stephanie Cowell

Friday, 6 February 2009

The Powhatan

When the first permanent English colonists arrived in Virginia in May 1607, they encountered several Native tribes. Among the most prominent were the Powhatan. The word Powhatan translates to "ruled by priests," and their society was structured around spiritual concepts. Contrary to what most historical and modern texts state, the Powhatan were not a confederacy. Confederacy is a term applied by the English and is a common misinterpretation of Powhatan culture. The correct terminology is Powhatan nation, paramount chiefdom, or Powhatan tribes.

Originally, there were six tribes forming the Powhatan nation: the Appamatuck, Arrohateck, Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Powhatan, and Youghtanund. Only the Mattaponi and Pamunkey survive to modern day, and both have reservations in present-day Virginia . Before the Powhatan nation's collapse, more than thirty tribes had joined through alliance and perhaps this led to the mistaken conclusion they were a confederacy.

All tribes spoke an Algonquian language, but in different dialects. Algonquian as it was spoken in Virginia in the seventeenth century is now extinct, but written traces of the language survive. John Smith and William Strachey left small dictionaries. Many of the adopted words can be found in present-day English, such as raccoon, moccasin, tomahawk, and powwow.

Unlike many plains tribes, the Powhatan were not nomadic. They lived in semi-permanent towns of various sizes. Houses were built by bending saplings and implanting them in the ground. Poles were lashed horizontally, and the frame was covered by mats woven from rushes. Upon becoming warriors, boys separated from the family to live on their own, and once married, women went to live with their husbands.

Men and women led very different lives. While the men tended to the hunting and fishing, women's chores varied from season to season. In the winter, they gathered dried reeds and plants that were important for cordage. In the spring, they collected saplings and bark for making mats and house building. Early planting included preparing fields for crops, such as corn, beans, and squash. After the crops were planted, their tasks turned to weeding and foraging for berries. In the early fall, they harvested the crops and gathered nuts. In late fall, they accompanied the men on their hunts to help process deer carcasses.

Despite Englishmen often referring to the women as "drudges," Powhatan women could rise to the level of a chief, and the raising of corn was considered highly important in their society. Unlike most English women of the time, they also had the choice of whom they could marry.

A typical day for both genders began before dawn with a bath in the river, regardless of weather, followed by breakfast. Meals were informal, with people eating when they were hungry, rather than at a specific hour. Mothers encouraged boys to shoot small animals with their bows to add to the morning cook pot.

While men went out during the day to hunt and fish, women pounded tuckahoe (a sturdy plant that grows in slow moving water, such as ponds, swamps, marshes, and the banks of streams) or corn, when in season, to make bread. Women also made baskets and clay pots. Deer hides were scraped and tanned for clothing. In the evenings, both sexes sang and danced.

The English observed that the Powhatan treated each other with respectful manners. Unfortunately, they had the mistaken impression that polite listening on the part of the Powhatan was one of agreement, which ended up setting off decades of back-and-forth swings between cooperation and raiding.

Kim Murphy

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Madame Molière

I'm doing a great deal of research right now into the theatre world of 17th century France. My focus is on Claude des Oeillets, the daughter of an actress, but along the way I've been encountering many wonderful characters. So many stories! One, in particular, is that of the actress Armande Béjart, Molière's wife. He was 40 when they married, she only 17. She had known him all her life, and must have regarded him as something of a father and teacher. Indeed, he had taken charge of her education as a child.

They were a miserable couple. It is said that Armande was heartless and vain. She was considered a frivolous, giddy flirt, and was quite likely unfaithful (possibly to Lauzun, and possibly to the comte de Guiche); certainly Molière was consumed by jealousy. After the birth of a son, and then a daughter, they lived apart — yet they continued to work together closely on the stage. Molière could simply not stop doting on her . . . and neither could the public. She was a brilliant actress, and Molière was inspired to write many roles specifically for her.

A mutual friend eventually persuaded Armande to reconcile with her increasingly-consumptive and love-sick husband. She did, putting him on a meat diet, yet he continued to decline. On the day of the 3rd performance of "The Imaginary Invalid," in which he starred, Armande begged him not to play. He refused, knowing how many depended on the performance for their livelihood.

At the end of play, Molière (ironically playing the part of a hypochondriac) had a coughing fit, which he tried to disguise with a harsh laugh. The curtain was hastily lowered and he was carried to his house. Always a comedian, he said on his deathbed: "I have set a detestable example. From now on, no playwright will be content until he has killed an actor."

After her husband's death, Armande proved herself to be anything but giddy and frivolous, fighting passionately for her husband's right to be respectfully buried by the church (a fight she sadly lost), and then running Molière's theatrical company with astonishing confidence and aplomb, making a number of difficult decisions that proved to be very successful. He would have been pleased.

I love her saucy attitude, but most of all I love how capable she proved to be as a widow.

Sandra Gulland