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Hairposter49 years ago this very evening, the stage musical HAIR opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre, heralding the dawn of the Age of Aquarius, whatever that was. A troupe of hirsute performers led initially by Oliver Tobias and including Richard O’Brien and Tim Curry (yes, the seeds of Rocky Horror) delighted London audiences for the next five years until the theatre roof literally came down.

The previous era –  the Age of Stage Censorship – had ended the previous day with the Theatres Act 1968. This new law extinguished the considerable and centuries-old powers of the Lord Chamberlain to curtail all sweary bits, nudy bits and politically subversive bits from the theatres of the nation.

As the title suggests, the Lord Chamberlain is a Royal official. Originally, the approval or otherwise of new productions fell to the Master of the Revels, a powerful and lucrative royal sinecure. His physical office between 1578 and 1607 was based at St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell. Whenever I visit there, I always imagine the work of Shakespeare and his great contemporaries  having their first airing in front of the Master or his officials.

This situation pertained (not forgetting, of course, outright suppression during the Commonwealth) until 1737. Robert Walpole happened to be the Master of the Revels at that time. Weary of anti-government satire by the likes of Henry Fielding, Walpole put censorship on a statutory footing with his Licensing Act 1737, giving the responsibility of stage censorship directly to the Lord Chamberlain. Under the Act, the Lord Chamberlain could suppress any performance without recourse of appeal. The measures were softened with slight modifications in 1788 and 1843, but essentially our public entertainment remained thus bridled for over 200 years.


Interesting article on HAIR and contemporary theatre censorship here.
Complete 1968 HAIR soundtrack on YouTube here (terrific!).

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A Guest Post by Robert Cox.

The Life of the Inimitable Mrs Jordan

“Thank you my dear, for twenty years of love, happiness, financial support and ten children – now kindly leave the stage!”

200 years ago last year (2016) Dora Jordan died in poverty in St Cloud, Paris, aged 54. Her death followed an incredible life from impoverished Irish actress to greatly loved and admired celebrity, causing ‘Jordan-mania’ as one contemporary newspaper described her impact on the British public. She was the best-loved and greatest comedy actress of her day, alongside the acclaimed Mrs Siddons.

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Mrs  Jordan as Hypolita, 1791, after Hoppner. British Library.

As a star of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Dora caught the attention of the Duke of Clarence, later to become King William IV, and for twenty years they lived and loved together as ‘husband and wife’ at Bushy House, Richmond Park. During all these years she maintained a furious pace on the theatre circuit whilst giving birth to ten children by William, acting throughout her pregnancies – often feeding the latest new arrival between scenes.

So why did she die penniless and alone – and how is her name virtually unknown?
Quite simple. This devoted hard-working mother who ‘kept’ her wasteful man for most of their twenty years together was ultimately betrayed by the Royal Family and their ruthless advisers.

This is nothing unusual you may think, but how could it be that Dora Jordan (born Dorothea Bland), until quite recently, failed to appear in the official history of the theatre where she was greatly acclaimed as actress and singer in roles from Shakespeare to farce, and where she was close friends with the theatre’s owners as well as major public figures of her day?

In 1994, Claire Tomalin’s brilliantly researched book, “Mrs Jordan’s Profession”, told for the first time the complete story of Dora Jordan’s rise from poverty in Ireland to the pinnacle of fame, fortune and adoration on the London stage. Dora was The Duchess of Drury Lane for 30 years – a testimony to her sheer hard work, enchanting personality and a comic talent second to none. A lady whose infinite goodness contrasts starkly with the deeds of those responsible for her wholly avoidable downfall. The fact that she and the Duke were so close – genuine soul mates as evident from the hundreds of letters they exchanged – makes her story all the more heart-breaking and the actions of royalty all the more contemptable. A poignancy resonating sharply with more recent events involving royal betrayal, as Michael Arditti writes of the biography, “Enthralling … brilliantly brings to life a saga in which the 19th century House of Hanover foreshadows the House of Windsor”.

The first person to attempt a biography of Dora was Elizabeth Inchbald – a contemporary and friend – but she lost her nerve and destroyed her manuscript on the advice of her confessor. For she was a Roman Catholic, and this was 1821.

In June 1830 the Duke of Clarence, son of George III, suddenly and unexpectedly found himself King of England. He was 64 and with his older brother George IV on the throne, had imagined seeing out his days as he’d spent most of his life – with no real responsibility or job. But overnight, King George’s sudden death turned that prospect on its head.

Soon after he took the throne, as King William IV, he was seized with remorse at the way he’d treated Dora. She had been dead for 15 years but one of the new king’s first acts was to commission a statue of her by England’s leading sculptor, Francis Chantrey, soon to be Sir Francis. Lost or forgotten for nearly 200 years, ironically the statue now rests where Dora was never invited, at Buckingham Palace. Not invited because of her wrong blood. A successor to the crown was not allowed to marry a commoner – his wife had to have blue blood. But it was the theatre, not royalty, that pumped through Dora’s heart.

Thankfully Dora Jordan has now been restored to her rightful place in the history of English theatre. Her name now echoes through the corridors and corners of The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane where once her beautiful voice and unique talent graced the stage and thrilled audiences for thirty long, extraordinary years. She is in the theatre’s Souvenir Brochure, talked about in the highly entertaining guided tours, and even on some occasions brought alive in lavish costume beneath an abundance of hair, laughing and lovely as ever she was.

Finally, the words of one of Dora’s contemporary admirers, Leigh Hunt – critic, poet and essayist – speaking straight from the heart after her tragic passing.

“The way she would take a friend by the cheek and kiss her, or make up a quarrel with a lover, or coax a guardian into good humour, or sing (without accompaniment) … trusting as she had the right to do, to the sole effect of her sweet, mellow and loving voice – the reader will pardon me, but tears of pleasure and regret come into my eyes at the recollection, as if she personified whatsoever was happy at that period of life, and which has gone … like herself.”
Robert Cox (February 2017)


More on Dora Jordan here.

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Last week I gave St Paul’s Covent Garden a proper visit for the first time. The church was designed by Inigo Jones, having been commissioned by the Duke of Bedford, who told him to keep it simple. He wanted to keep costs down, so instructed the architect it should be no more than a barn, to which Jones replied: “Then you shall have the handsomest barn in England.” And so it is.

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It is known as the Actors’ Church and once inside you’ll see on all walls, nooks and crannies, commemorative plaques and memorials to notable thespians of the past. This one, to Charles Macklin, immediately caught my attention.

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Just look at that carving of a theatrical mask with a knife penetrating the left eye. Very gruesome you may think, and you’d be right. This must allude to the true tale of the killing by Macklin of a fellow actor Thomas Hallam by fatally wounding him through the eye with his cane. The violent dispute – apparently over a wig – took place backstage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Macklin defended himself in court and was convicted of accidental manslaughter, resulting in being branded with a cold iron.

Although his actual birthdate is unclear, Charles Macklin (c1690 – 1797) was born in Ulster and enjoyed an extraordinarily long life for his or any other era. A larger-than-life character, he became a leading Shakespearean actor on the London stage as well as writing and producing dramas of his own.

Based primarily at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (with whom he was constantly in dispute), he made his name through the realistic portrayal of Shakespearean drama, most famously in his depiction of Shylock. This was a radical transformation, for the first time making these plays as something we would recognise today. Audiences loved it.

He set up an acting school, mentoring among others David Garrick who then took Shakespeare to yet another level again in the decades to come. Lessons were given both at his home and in the upstairs room of the Bedford coffee house where Macklin would also be found expounding cantakerously to all and sundry. Essentially, he had founded London’s first drama academy.

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Charles Macklin in later life, by John Opie

These are just the basics.
Further reading.
Wikipedia is a pretty good start, here.
My first introduction to him was in Mr Foote’s Other Leg (2012) by Ian Kelly, pp90 and ff. Excellent further detail, especially on the coffee shop scene and drama school.

More images of St Paul’s, Covent Garden in our Flickr space, here.

 

 

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We cannot allow Shakespeare 400 completely to overshadow the anniversary of another giant of Elizabethan theatre.

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Edward Alleyn (1566 – 1626) was born 450 years go this day in Bishopsgate to a quite well-off family with some royal connections. He was pretty much Shakespeare’s exact contemporary.

Alleyn eschewed the family innkeeping business to take to the stage, supported by his elder brother John. From a teenager in the early 1580s to about 1600 he was spectacularly successful as a leading actor with great stage presence. Working successively for the Earl of Worcester’s Men, the Admiral’s Men and Lord Strange’s Men, the young actor performed both in the capital and on tour. His best-known roles were written by Christopher Marlowe and Ben Johnson.

Alleyn’s only significant performing rival was Richard Burbage (1567 – 1619), who worked primarily with Shakespeare. Alleyn had teamed up with his stepfather-in-law Philip Henslowe (1650 – 1616). These, then, were the two dominant rivals in the London theatre business at the turn of the 17th Century.

Despite the rise of puritanism at this time, entertainment in London was nonetheless massive business. Alleyn and Henslowe coveted the mastership of the bears, the patent to run all animal baiting shows (bears, bulls and even lions for King James himself, a noted connoisseur of animal cruelty). They succeeded in securing this from 1604, until 1612, a period during which they also won the direct patronage of young prince Henry. Meanwhile, the two business partners invested in and built a new playhouse, the Fortune, in St Giles Cripplegate. Despite local and puritan opposition against the venture, the impresarios had more than enough influence in very high places to win through.

Still only in his thirties, Alleyn retired from acting completely around 1600 to concentrate on co-managing the business which had made him exceptionally wealthy. Conspicuous philanthropy was a particular leitmotif of the age. Edward Alleyn – twice-married yet childless – wished to cement his name, reputation and memory through worthy foundations. Having purchased the manor of Dulwich in its entirety in 1605 and moved there, he endowed Dulwich College which was formerly opened on 13 September 1619. The ceremony was attended by Francis Bacon, Inigo Jones and other worthies. Old Alleynians of note include Sir Ernest Shackleton, P.G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler.

Please remember to raise a glass to this Londoner of great note.

** It just so happens that a week today is our Annual Lecture for 2016 at Gresham College. Professor Sheila Cavanagh will be talking about the whole theatrical environment and business during Shakespeare’s time. Preceded by a wine reception. There are about a dozen places still available at time of writing. **


Edward Alleyn in Wikipedia
Edward Alleyn in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription required).

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sheridanTwo hundred years ago today, Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751 – 1816)- a titan of the London theatre – died in  poverty at home in Saville Row.

Things didn’t go well for him after his Theatre Royal Drury Lane burned down in 1809 and he lost his seat in Parliament in 1812 after 32 years an MP.

Sheridan it was who gave us the malapropism after Mrs Malaprop from The Rivals (1775), one of the great comic characters of English drama.

This great man was born in Dublin in 1751. His parents moved to London when he was young and sent him to Harrow school and then further education privately. He spent time at Middle Temple but hankered for a career in the theatre in which there was a strong family background. This was the London of David Garrick and Samuel Foote – it was a very exciting time for the stage.

Success came quite quickly with The Rivals – initially badly received but transformed spectacularly and almost instantaneously with a rewrite and a new cast. Sheridan epitomised the can-do attitude of the Georgian period. There followed School for Scandal in 1777. Aged 26, the playwright had produced two of the great plays of the English canon. Many other productions followed.

Between 1778 and 1780, Sheridan bought by instalments the Theatre Royal Drury Lane from Garrick. Then as now, it was the greatest of all London theatres. The building was thought to have been designed by Wren (we now know it wasn’t, the architect remains unknown), but the reputation of London’s great architect paled besides Sheridan’s ambition and vision. He tore it down and built an even bigger building in 1794 with all the latest fire safety features (actually laid down by recent law). This was the one which burned down in 1809, leaving Sheridan in the street – glass in hand – to remark laconically: “A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.”

Sheridan’s other great interest was politics. As with the theatre, he engaged in it with no half-measures, taking his seat at Westminster in 1780. Already a famous man about town, he was soon at the heart of the Foxite Whigs, the circle of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire and the Prince of Wales himself. With Fox, Burke and others, he vigorously sought the prosecution and impeachment of Warren Hastings, formerly governor-general of Bengal. In pursuit of this, he stood up in court and spoke for several days, finally collapsing theatrically back into his seat, uttering: “My Lords, I am done!”. And so was Hastings. It was a trial which took 148 days over seven years. Chilcot is by no means new.

Sheridan’s fame coincided with Reynolds, Gainsborough, Lawrence et al, so it’s perhaps surprising that there are relatively few likenesses of him. His face was markedly disfigured from the second of two duels he had in 1772 aged just 21. They were against a thuggish army captain, one Captain Mathews. It all resulted from Sheridan rescuing and eloping to France with a 17 year old girl whom the married Mathews had been pestering. Brave and physically courageous. Yet another reason to love Sheridan. He went on to marry Eliza Linley. They were both spectacularly unfaithful to each other, but stuck together.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Brave, quixotic, talented, ambitious. A great man and a great Londoner, who typified a great age. He is buried in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey and today we remember him.


Good coverage on Wikipedia and an even better entry if you can access by subscription the Dictionary of National Biography.

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curtain theatre 200Last week, as guests of Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), we visited one of their current explorations, that of the old Elizabethan playhouse, the Curtain Theatre. The opportunity for access comes about prior to a new developement on the site for retail and office complex to be called, appropriately, The Stage.

The Curtain ran from 1577 to 1627 in Shoreditch, initially under the proprietorship of Richard Burbage. Like its counterparts in Southwark – the Globe and the Rose – the theatre was sited outside the walls of the City of London, which held restrictive laws against public entertainment of this sort.

One for the team’s key findings is that the theatre was a rectangular building of approximately 22m by 30m, and not polygonal as previously thought. As is usual in virtually any excavation in London, many historic artifacts have been unearthed. One of particular interest in this instance is the remains of a bird whistle, in this case probably for theatrical sound effects rather than a child’s toy. There are numerous references to bird song, for example, in Romeo and Juliet, for example: “That birds would sing and think it were not night. ”

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Although selling out fast, there are still places left on the public tours of the site, which are taking place on Fridays, full details of these are listed on the MOLA web site.

This visit is quite typical of a wide variety of Events undertaken by London Historians, most of which are nowadays Members only affairs. Join us!

 

 

 

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On this day in 1809, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane was destroyed by fire. Theatres were always burning down, so nothing really unusual in fact. What made this conflagration different, is the involvement of the magnificent Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Dublin-born, Harrow-educated Sheridan is one of my favourite Londoners. A duellist, MP, playwright, impresario and much besides, he obtained full ownership of Drury Lane in 1778. In 1791 he demolished the 120 year old building which had opened in 1674 (replacing the short-lived 1663 original), and built a fabulous modern theatre more to his liking and ambition. Designed by Henry Holland, it opened in 1794, apparently with the latest fire-prevention features. Here is Rowlandson and Pugin’s depiction of its interior, only a year before disaster struck.
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Sheridan himself witnessed the destruction of his beloved theatre from the street, glass of wine in hand, remarking laconically: “A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.”

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