Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

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.


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.


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.


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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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. ”






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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shakespeare and London, london metropolitan archivesThe name of a new exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives.

As an article in our current Members’ newsletter points out, Shakespeare is not as widely celebrated in the town of his trade as one might expect. You have to search hard for places touched by him. A great example is the spot where he bought a property in Blackfriars – whether to live in or to rent out is not known. The deed which records this sale is the prize document in the exhibition. It bears the Bard’s signature, one of only six known to exist worldwide.

shakespeare and London, london metropolitan archives

There are many other objects in the show, including other official documents, correspondence, prints, playbills, programmes, maps. Nor is it in any way restricted to Shakespeares’s own time, far from it. We celebrate many historical luvvies from Richard Burbage down to Sir Laurence Olivier. As you might expect, Hogarth’s famous engraving of his good friend David Garrick doing Richard III is featured.

shakespeare and London, london metropolitan archives

We get the story of Shakespeare’s Globe including a beautiful model from 1951 when its modern photocopy was possibly still a glint in Sam Wannamaker’s eye. You like maps? There are some near contemporary beauties on the wall including the Norden map from 1593. The original – in a book – is about nine inches wide. The LMA have scanned it at massive resolution and blown it up to about six feet wide, so you can appreciate better the London topography at the back end of the sixteenth century. Such a boon.

shakespeare and London, london metropolitan archives

In addition to all this, there are four smallish audio visual displays. Except without the “audio”, just the visual (what’s that called?). Anyway, they use subtitles. Hoorah, so much more civilised than having booming displays causing noise pollution when you’re trying to enjoy displays. Museums, take note. My favourite was the one about contemporary and subsequent pubs with Shakespearean connections. There’s much about the Mermaid near Cheapside, of course (long gone), but loads more fascinating facts. How many pubs in London today bear Shakepeare’s moniker? Can you name them?

If you’ve read my recent posts about the Office of Works and Royal Mint shows, you’ll know I’m a great fan of smaller exhibitions. Typically, they’ll take you about an hour or so to do properly, and you’ll leave feeling educated and entertained rather than overwhelmed. Shakespeare and London at the LMA is another perfect example. It opens tomorrow and runs until 26th September. Entry is free, don’t miss it.

More information.

shakespeare in london, london metropolitan archives

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hair the musical

Origianal HAIR album cover, just as I remember it.

Forty three years ago today, the musical HAIR opened at the Shaftsbury Theatre. The producers had to wait for theatrical censorship to be abolished the previous day. It must have been long expected for surely  they would not have made that kind of investment in cast, scenery etc. without knowing it was coming, and precisely when. 1968. The Summer of Love and student riots in Europe and America. All that. As a 10 year old, I remember HAIR very clearly, and I loved it. The music anyway – we did, after all, live in Zambia at the time. But I was fortunate that my parents had trendy expatriate friends with state-of-the-art hi-fi and cool LP collections. And I always liked the little umlaut (or is it an infinity symbol?) over the capital “I”. Far out, man.

HAIR so represented the spirit of the age. Its London cast included hunky Oliver Tobias and cute cheeky chappy Paul Nicholas. Rocky Horror’s Richard O’Brian and Tim Curry met during the production. Elaine Page was a developing star of the musical stage. Cast member the late Marsha Hunt, black, beautiful and Mick Jagger’s lover. HAIR‘s anthemic, naive, hippy songs are still very listenable today. I think so, anyway.

The new censorship regulations opened the door and HAIR came crashing through. But did it open the floodgates of filth and perversion? Hardly. Oh! Calcutta followed a year or two later but only very occasionally have we had further controversy, Jerry Springer The Musical being the only one I can think of, actually.

Until September 1968, theatre censorship was the responsibility of the Lord Chamberlain’s office. This duty was set up under the Licensing Act 1737 by Robert Walpole, fed up with dramatists various satirising him and his administration. The Act, it is argued, was partially responsible for the rise of the novel, creative writers seeking new avenues to take a poke at authority. And the revival of Shakespearian drama.

The Licensing Act was superceded in 1843 by the Theatres Act, which essentially removed the political dimension of the censorship, just leaving the protection of the theatre-going public from lewdness. This was the Act that was scrapped in 1968 to give us HAIR.

Further back still in the Elizabethan and early Jacobean eras, plays were controlled by the Office of the Censor operating out of St John’s Gate. The plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries were all scrutinised. In 1593, The dramatist Thomas Kyd, accused of sedition, narrowly escaped with his life following severe torture as an indirect result of what he’d written.

st john's gate

St John's Gate. In Shakespeare's time, the Censor's Office operated from this very room.

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