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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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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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This is excellent news.

Samuel_Foote_250It has been announced this morning that Ian Kelly’s play Mr Foote’s Other Leg will transfer to Theatre Royal Haymarket after its sell-out run at the Hampstead Theatre. The play is about the 18C satirical comedy actor and impresario Samuel Foote (1720 – 1777), who was all but forgotten until Kelly’s 2012 biography drew him out of the shadows. The West End run could hardly be more significant: the Theatre Royal Haymarket was Foote’s own playhouse and the royal warrant was granted to him personally.

Kelly told London Historians:

“I am chuffed to bits, of course as a playwright and actor, but mainly, in truth, for Mr Foote – who returns to HIS OWN theatre 240 years on….and if I do nothing else, as a historian, I am proud as punch of that – one of London’s great lost figures re-found”.

The play is directed by Richard Eyre and stars Simon Russell Beale as Samuel Foote. Its West End run is from 29 October for 12 weeks.

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John RichAs the panto season approaches, we remember the man credited with inventing the genre: theatre manager, impresario and performer, John Rich (1692 – 1761). He also opened the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden on this day in 1732.

Rich had a lucky start on the London theatre scene, such as it was, inheriting from his father a royal patent to run a theatre, the privilege initially granted to Sir William Davenport by Charles II. But it wasn’t plain sailing, for he lacked an actual theatre, the building in Lincoln’s Inn Fields being still incomplete. It opened in 1714, but the early years were beset with financial problems. He was even forced to lease out his own theatre for a few years.

From 1717 right though the 1720s, Rich staged comic dance and drama mainly based on commedia dell’arte, himself constantly performing and building his reputation, almost inevitably in a harlequin role. His first blockbuster came in 1728 with John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, the proceeds of which largely financed his new theatre, the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, which opened on 7 December 1732. He engaged some of the leading landscape painters of the day – notably George Lambert – to paint the scenery.

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John Rich, comic dancing in harlequin garb.

From 1747, Rich’s biggest rival was David Garrick at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and to a lesser extent Samuel Foote’s theatre in the Haymarket, whose output was often brilliant but just as often patchy and unapologetically political. The two titans of the Georgian stage locked theatrical horns throughout for the next decade, with Rich supplying more populist pantomime fare which also introduced ground breaking special effects, though Shakespeare was by no means ignored. Yet he drew sniffy criticism and even enmity from more literary London types such as Alexander Pope, Henry Fielding and Garrick himself. They dismissed him as vulgar, unlettered, even illiterate.

But his friends and supporters included the likes of Hogarth, Samuel Johnson, John Wilkes. These were some of the original members of an early iteration of the Beefsteak Club, which Rich had founded and which in time even drew royal patronage through the person of Frederick, Prince of Wales. Not bad, he can’t have been the boor as portrayed by his detractors. Rich was also popular among his players for paying them promptly and treating them fairly, even supporting destitute retired actors. So all-in-all, a major figure in the story of London theatre, a mover, a shaker and all round good egg. John Rich.

Main Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (sub required).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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