Wednesday, 12 August 2020

The Dr Johnson Reading Circle read The Modern Husband (Part Two)

We returned to Fielding’s The Modern Husband more prepared for the cynical tone, which was good as we begin Act Three with the line,
   “Can you be so cruel?” and proceeds to show Lord Richly gleefully making plans to seduce Mrs Bellamant and bribing Mrs Modern into helping him. As a former flame of Lord Richly, Mrs Modern most looks forward to seeing him drop Mrs Bellamant as she has been dropped He admits this is likely to be true but he is so rich and she so desperate, that he could easily have her back. Mrs Modern is amazed that Lord Richly has chosen Mrs Bellamant, she’s as close to her husband as Lady Coquette and her smelly lapdog. It’s Mrs Bellamant’s perceived loyalty that has Lord Richly courting Mrs Modern, he plans to use one woman to soften up the other. 

Mrs Bellamant is busy entertaining Gaywit, Amelia, Lady Charlotte and her stepson, Captain Bellamant. Charlotte gets most of the best lines, whether she’s being ‘charmed with those delightful creatures’, the inmates of Bedlam, or castigating Gaywit for crying in a tragedy - could be worse though, he could be laughing in a comedy. Indeed, Lady Charlotte can’t remember when she last saw the first act of a play, she doesn’t go to the theatre for all that acting nonsense.

As this play is set in a tight community of gossips, we are often given names of characters who we never see. As most of the names in the piece are essentially descriptions of their characters, we have a parade of vices and follies whenever these off-stage characters are named. Particular favourites in this section were Beau Smirk and the Duchess of Simpleton. One never-met character who is described a little more is Lady Grim, the subject of vicious mockery by Lady Modern and her maid, Lately. If their descriptions are correct, Lady Grim has little eyes, short nose, a head wedged between her shoulders and one leg shorter than the other - yet she believes herself beautiful. Lately endears herself to her mistress, describing Lady Grim as;
  “an ugly, ungenteel, squinting, flirting, impudent, odious, dirty puss,” Such slander serves her best.

Whereas Mrs Modern is trying to do her best to flirt her way out of money troubles, obsequious Mr Modern has a plan of his own. If he catches Mrs Modern with someone else, he’ll be able to take them to court and win damages. She’s dismayed by this idea, not wanting to lose her reputation but Mr Modern compares reputation to clogs, something only poor people need. Ultimately it doesn’t matter is Mrs Modern is on-board with the idea, if he can pay a servant to ‘catch’ her with another man, the plan doesn’t need her consent.

Meanwhile, Lord Richly’s plans are coming on well. He’s won a note for one hundred pounds off of Mrs Modern (which she had borrowed from Mr Bellamant) and has given it to Mrs Bellamant in payment for a six pound gambling debt. He sees these hundred pounds like little Greek soldiers behind Troy’s walls, ready to obey his commands and open the gates for him. However, he is an old hand at seducing other men’s wives, having made twenty men cuckolds for the promise of a place, and he’s keeping Mrs Modern in reserve.

Lord Richly’s plan goes awry though, and the hundred pounds betrays him. Mrs Bellamant gives it to her husband, who recognises it as the one he gave to Mrs Modern. At the same time Mr Modern ‘catches’ Mr Bellamant with his wife, which he decries in as exaggerated manner as he can. All looks wrong for the Bellamants..for about a minute.. before his giving back all the kisses he ever gave her wakens her passion and forgiveness. After all, as Mr Bellamant declares, he’s not injured her with ‘any other woman’ but Mrs Modern

While we await the outcome of these events next week, it is a good time to bring up the time that life imitated art. Theophilus Cibber, son of Colley, played Captain Bellamant in the first production of The Modern Husband. The part of Lady Charlotte was played by his first wife, Jane, who died the same year. It was thought that her busy schedule of acting and pregnancy was the cause of her death. Two years later, Theophilus married up-and-comer, Susannah Arne. Only three years into the marriage and following some bad business decisions and gambling debts, he took to selling off Susannah’s clothes, furniture and jewellery as well as taking her earnings. 

The couple set up house with a rich squire called John Sloper, where they lived in a kind of ménage a trois. Sloper paid all the bills but even this wasn’t enough and Theophilus had to flee to France to escape his creditors. While he was there, Susannah wrote a letter to Theophilus, telling him she was going to leave him for Sloper. His response was to come back to England, hire armed thugs to kidnap his wife and to imprison her in a London house. This plan was foiled when Susannah’s brother Thomas, the composer of ‘God Save the King’, led an armed assault on the house and rescued her. 

Theophilus’s next plan was to take John Sloper to court and sue him for criminal conversation - the exact same plan Mr Modern has in the play. The sum Theophilus sueded for was the immense one of £5,000. The court were not convinced that John Sloper was with Susannah without the connivence of Theophilus, deciding that he had happily turned a blind eye to the relationship when it was paying for his lifestyle and only caused a problem when it no longer was. He was awarded a paltry £10. Humiliated, he took Sloper to court again, this time he wanted £10,000 for detaining his wife and was awarded £500. No longer a favourite of the London public, he toured provinces and frequently performed in Ireland.

Theophilus Cibber claimed his tempestuous nature was caused by his being born in the great storm of 1703, he was to die in a storm in the Irish Storm on the way back from a performance in Dublin.

Surprisingly, the story of Theophilus, Susannah and John is the subject of a romance novel by Karen Hooper. The book itself is well researched and told but the title is Midnight Mirage and the front cover features a topless man in khaki trousers ravishing a women in blue lingerie. I found a copy at a bus-stop, I only hope you will be as lucky.

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

The Dr Johnson Reading Circle read The Modern Husband (Part one)

(A print featuring some of the cast of The Modern Husband)

The Modern Husband came out in 1732, fairly early in Henry Fielding’s highly successful nine years as a playwright and was performed by the company of Drury Lane Theatre. It ran for a 13 nights, a good run for the time. The cast were the best the company had to offer, with Colley Cibber playing Lord Richly although he was later to be castigated as poet laureate and remembered as King of the Dunces by Alexander Pope, he was a hugely popular performer. Joined by fellow manager, Robert Wilks, the cast was also something of a family affair featuring his son, Theophilus, daughter-in-law, Susannah and one of the first appearances of his daughter Charlotte, who would later play male part - eventually living for a while in male dress. Theophilus and Susannah were going to find life imitate art, but that’ll be in the next instalment.

The play didn’t find itself part of the common repertoire, partly because Wilks died later that year and the Drury Lane company found themselves in years of turmoil which resulted in Theophilus Cibber leading an actor’s revolution against his own father. I think it’s also probable the play hasn’t been revived because it’s not a particularly ‘fun’ piece.

The Modern Husband finds Fielding in full, bitter satire mode, closer in tone his novels Jonathan Wilde and Amelia, then the more celebrated Tom Jones. If it’s not particularly funny, it’s because it’s not supposed to be, it’s satire as scourge not light amusement. The target is modernity, particularly its mercantilism, silly fashions and esteem of reputation and appearance over substance, a topic that appeared in the much gentler The Clandestine Marriage as a division between town and country. It’s not a new topic in any way and in the culture war that took place between old and new ways, Fielding identified with the old, his initial writing published under the name Scriblerus Secondus, linking himself to the Scribleran society of Pope, Swift and Gay.

The play is about how Mr and Mrs Modern can’t maintain their spendthrift lifestyle so Mr Modern decides to pimp his wife out to Lord Richly. Meanwhile, all their fashionable friends are undergoing similar crises of love, money and conscience. 

For a play with such on-the-nose naming as Mr Modern, Lord Richly, Mrs Banespouse and Lady Pawnjewels, the characters are not as simplistic as they first appear. For example, while Mr Gaywit originally seems to live up to his name, dispensing cynical comments from a position of indifference but he’s actually deeply in. Unfortunately, when he tells Emilia that his emotions for her can be called;
        “A just admiration of the highest worth. Call it the tenderest friendship of you please, though I fear it merits the swiftest, softest name that can be given” she assumes he’s speaking ironically. 
His declarations of love have a simplicity and sincerity that read as more genuine than the decelerations of love found in the other plays we’ve read. 
Similarly, Mr Bellamant seems built up to be the scoundrel for the week, a character warns another about his skill at cheating on his wife without anyone knowing. What’s more, we meet the wife he cheats on, who seems (at this stage of the play) to be one of the few uncomplicated ‘good’ characters in the play. However, in the subsequent scene with his faddish, spendthrift, son, he is resolutely on the ‘right’ side of the play’s debate, laughing at his son dressing as a woman and blowing to every fashionable breeze that comes along. The son feels his father is unfair in this, declaring that, “If a man will keep good company, he must comply with the fashion” but fashion is definitely the main villain in this play.

Wholly unsympathetic are Mr Modern and Lady Charlotte. He’s a snivelling suck-up who reminds me a little of Rigsby from Rising Damp and she’s someone who confuses cruel with funny. She’s even proud of the fact, boasting,
   “Oh! I would not say a good−natured thing for the World.” Unfortunately for Gaywit, he has to marry her if he wants to inherit Lord Richly’s fortune despite his heart being with Emilia. He knows he is not fond of Lady Charlotte but can’t tell whether she likes him as, “it is as difficult to be certain of her dislike, as her affection,” she being equally nasty to everyone. In the end, the problem is the desire to be respected and the notion that money is the only route to that - a problem in which nearly all the characters in the play are currently struggling with in some way or another, especially when battling with love.

All this does mean that, while the play did not produce the laughs of Wild Oats, there was a lot bubbling away under the surface and many of the jabs find their mark. One part that did raise a laugh was a conversation Lord Richly and Gaywit have about a new opera called ‘The Humours of Bedlam”. It maybe the most perfect opera ever made as, being written by an Englishman and set in Bedlam, it has “neither sense nor music”. I think it might have played Edinburgh last year.

However, whether dabbling in light comedy or bitter farce, it’s nice to know that it’s possible to come together, even if it’s over video-conference and explore something new and interesting.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

The Revenge of the Return of Leon Garfield (Part Four)

The finale of my Leon Garfield binge, a rare adult novel.

The House of Cards

This book has such an arresting beginning. It describes a baby born in a Polish Town that ‘begun with a W, ended in a Z and was pronounced like a sneeze’. We then hear the baby’s interior monologue, demanding food before going beyond the baby’s perspective to see that its mum is dead, its dad is dead, everyone in the town is dead. It’s a striking first page but it does not let up in the second, as an old man who’s face looks like ‘a curse with a beard’ came into town. The description of him is full-on Dickensian excess of the most enjoyable type and his indifference to the carnage around him is shown to be false as he talks to the corpses he steals from. He finds a baby and, unable to leave it crying, takes it with him, muttering to it as he goes. It’s a fantastic first chapter, one of the best I may have ever read.

The plot keeps cycling back to this moment and most of the main events in the plot start at this moment. We find ourselves twelve years later and in London. Mr Walker and his daughter, Perdita go to the weekly dinner held on a Friday by Mr Dolly, Jewish purveyor of middle-European delicacies. They are joined by his family, a young Polish Clerk and the housekeeper, before a beautiful but vaguely threatening woman, Katerina Kropotka, stumbles into the shop and the plot begins in earnest…

One of the brilliant things about the book are the characters. Perdita, the young girl grown from the baby in the ruins could have been a typical wilting flower, a weak figure of pity for all the other characters. She’s not only assertive but Garfield is brave enough to make her dislikable. The imperious selfishness of the baby’s inner monologue is not just a reflection a baby’s self-centred nature, it fully predicts how she will grow up. Often called ‘princess’, and not always for nice reasons, Mr Walker’s soft touch and her own prettiness has led to her being a sour, short-tempered girl who has other far more pleasant characters walking constant eggshells. 

On the other hand, there’s Mr Dolly, who rivals Uncle Toby in niceness. Sometimes we are told a little too relentlessly about his goodness, there’s the faint whiff that his own likability is being forced onto the reader a little. He has a love of company and hosting, he sees the best in everyone and he enjoys being able to do people a good turn. There was an element in which his jury duty, the events of the book and the visit of his snobby cousin, Clarry Dolska, bring him down. I crueler author would have brought him down lower which may have added a bit more weight to the book.

The influence of Dickens is worn very clearly on this book’s sleeve, indeed the inside jacket claims that ‘Dickens would be proud to claim authorship’ of it. Garfield does do a good Dickens, he adopts the tactic of having clear, memorable characters that have their ‘things’ that they do. Descriptively, Garfield over-eggs his puddings in true Dickensian style but sometimes it comes off as a little false, where in Dickens it always feels like he’s full to bursting, Garfield is sometimes stretching to imitate that ebullience. 

With other characters like the clerk, Mr Clarky and the policeman, Inspector Groom, it would seem that Bleak House is the main influence and here where The House of Cards shows itself to be a little flimsy. The book doesn’t have the same weight of event, of characters, of a labyrinthine plot that isn’t fully grasped by any one character till the end. It does have these things, but there are only three main plot points, the labyrinth doesn’t have enough twists and turns and there aren’t enough characters working their own wheels within wheels. Essentially, it’s not long enough, not big enough. Like Garfield sometimes stretches his descriptions to match Dickens’s ebullience, so the book stretches what is has rather than struggles to contain it.

That said, it’s still a wonderfully enjoyable novel to read with descriptions that made me smile and want to share them every few pages. 

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

The Revenge of the Return of Leon Garfield (Part Three)

 Part Three of my most recent Leon Garfield binge, five books this time and some of them very short.

The Confidence Man

This is a good one. It announces this quality from the first paragraph when the book introduces us to a grimy part of town where the sun doesn’t shine and “the air seemed tired of being breathed in, and loafed about, thinking of cabbages and pickled herrings”. Leon Garfield can always spin a decent tale and pull off a striking and interesting description in even his most rote work, but there was a real feeling of investment in this book that permeated it throughout.

This book is set in the eighteenth century and the main character is a young man making his way in the world. As well as that, there’s a mentor figure of dubious morals and even the new Garfield-usual I’ve picked up on - the pseudo-ghost. Despite the presence of these usual Garfield tropes, they are dealt with an a fresh and re-energised way. For a start, the book starts off in Germany and our young man is a protestant in a Catholic town, where he and his family are persecuted. Following an accident with a soldier, a storm and a missing head, the family and their whole community decide to go to America. They get this idea from Von Strumpfel, a hussar and the confidence man of the title.

He is the morally dubious mentor figure for the while, but his moral dubiousness it fairly dubious. Indeed, what sort of confidence man he actually is, whether he is trying to con people, whether he gives others confidence, whether his only con is his self confidence, are all interesting facets of this character as we travel with the outcasts.

Garfield has great fun with this exodus, exploring how the uprooting of people from their street and setting them on the march both changes and doesn’t change them. For most of the journey they camp down in the exact order they left, meaning that wherever they go, they recreate the street they left. However, the relationships and expectations have changed as well. The previous hierarchy of the street is questioned, as they are all levelled as poor as each other, it’s character that shows more than wealth. By the time the refugees reach their final settlement, they create a new town reflective of where they are from but also of the things that have changed along the way.

There’s also a spirituality about the book. The group are protestants fleeing Catholic persecution, though they have a detour to England where it is assumed they are Catholic and allowed to starve in a wasteland. Hans, the main character starts of as an atheist, pretends to be religious to impress Von Strumpfel, grows some faith, loses whatever faith he had and then regains it for a reason he realises is pretty arbitrary. It’s interesting to track this element as the book progresses.
It’s also a book where a man is decapitated by flying debris, lightning strikes a gibbet cage, a thief uses a hand of glory and various people see ghosts. It declares that a puppy has become a man now when it cocks it’s leg, includes people who play their hats as musical instruments and asks the big question about a nice walk, “Why is there so much more hill than dale?”

Even as far as Leon Garfield goes, The Confidence Man is not a particularly well remembered book but it’s one of his best.

The Saracen Maid

A book for younger children, it finds Garfield at his sweetest, most storytelling tone. It feels like this is a book made for reading out loud to children and has a beautiful first paragraph describing London in the twelvth century as ‘like a garden with a wall around’. We are also introduced to out hero, Gilbert Beckett who wears, ‘a crimson cloak and yellow stockings, like plums and custard.’

Gilbert is a forgetful soul and his parents are very worried about him as he makes his trip to ‘the East’, a land where carpets fly and genies are stoppered in bottles. Unfortunately, he is captured by Barbary pirates and is taken for ransom because of his expensive clothes. Unfortunately, not the most intelligent of people, he can say no more than his own name and hometown so is kept in a dungeon. There the fair saracen maid releases him and escapes herself, using Gilbert’s only two words as a guide to lead her to him where they marry and live happily ever after and have ‘a daughter called Agnes and a son called Thomas, who became a saint’.

Apparently, this is quite an old legend, told by a number of people and somehow being attached to the parents of St Thomas Beckett, even though his mother was a Norman woman called Matilda. This story was still being told in the Victorian era and Dickens wrote a version for one of his magazines, probably Garfield’s main source as he was a Dickens nut. I can’t say I had ever heard of it before though.
This was a very short and pleasant read and I might read it to the kids at school one day.


King Nimrod’s Tower and The King in the Garden

I’ve grouped this two as a strange blip on Garfield’s worx. While books like ‘The Confidence Man’ and many of ‘The Apprentice’ stories suggest a spirituality in him that may be of a Christian nature, especially when considering the attention (and occasionally dignity) he offers to outcasts and diamonds in the rough, these two are retellings of Bible stories. Oddly, they are both set in Babylon at different points of the Bible and both deal with arrogant kings.

‘King Nimrod’s Tower’ deals with the Tower of Babel, but from quite an oblique angle. A young boy has found a recalcitrant puppy and is trying to train it while the tower of Babel is being built in the background. The dog not listening to instructions are being compared to the workers carrying out theirs in perfect harmony. Throughout it all, Nimrod is making plans to climb his tower to heaven and show God how things should be.

Despite the panicking angels, God is not paying the tower much attention, being far more preoccupied with the boy and his dog. When it’s suggested he knock the tower down, he refuses because he doesn’t want it to crush the kid and puppy. Finally he curses the workers with different languages and confusion but blesses the boy and dog with the ability to communicate as “My Kingdom of Heaven is better reached by a bridge than a tower”.

I found it interesting how Garfield adds the dog story to reinterpret the Tower of Babel myth, giving God a tone of warmth for the boy rather than spiteful jealousy against the builders. There’s also something distinctly Christian about how God describes his kingdom of heaven. 

‘The King in the Garden’ is about a girl called Abigail who finds a dirty old man in her garden. He’s covered in hair and brambles, he eats the grass on her lawn and tries to drink out of the fishpond, she finds him utterly disgusting. Her following and listening to the story of this disgusting hobo are interleaved with people in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, who carry on as if he’s there and not noticing he’s gone. Eventually, Abigail shaves and restores the hobo back to his old self and realises with shock it is Nebuchadnezzar, condemned to madness for his hubris, she leads him back to his palace.

Again, Garfield has added a child to add a different slant on the Biblical meaning. The emphasis is less that Nebuchadnezzar is being cursed but on how his madness and absence make no difference to the running of his country. When he comes back to his senses, he feels his country must have fallen apart but nothing of that kind has happened. 

I don’t know much about Leon Garfield’s faith but if these books are a suggestion, he’s a Christian with an emphasis on the importance of the ‘little’ people and from his other works I’d also suggest a belief in divine justice and also a strong element of pacifism - was he a Quaker? I enjoyed these little books though.

The Restless Ghost

This is a collection of three Leon Garfield short stories and I’m sure I’ve read it before. I checked my bookshelves, I looked at my reviews and records, if I did read them, it was before 2011 but I must have, I remembered so many details.

It’s packaged like ghost stories but only the first story, The Restless Ghost is. It’s also the first appearance of Bostock and Harris, who would later be the main characters in two novels. Their personalities weren’t quite as defined as in the full novels but they are essentially the same, risk-taking boys with too much imagination and a tendency to cause trouble.

The boys hate a sexton in a church in Hove. He’s horrible, frightening and is far too vigorous in his efforts to keep boys out of his graveyard. Years ago the ghost of a drummer boy had been seen patrolling the area but had been rumbled as a ruse by a group of smugglers who were later hanged, the boy himself disappeared. Bostock and Harris decide to recreate the phosphoresce the original smugglers used and be the ghost themselves, this all goes out of hand - as we now expect from these two. The story is entertaining, it has a good little twist at the end. I’m not sure that it’s a particularly creepy or frightening ghost story in itself but it did keep me fixed till the end.

The Second story is , this is the one where my feeling of deja vu really kicked in. It is such a peculiar little story that it’s not a ‘type’ and so the details really popped out. It’s about a Dutch painter and his apprentice going on a ship to paint a battle with the English. It’s a nifty little story, the painter is an absolutely spineless man with poor personal hygiene and extreme rudeness - but it’s all worth putting up with for his genius at capturing an event on paper with a full sweep of humanity that his other actions wouldn’t suggest. It’s the shortest of the stories here but it introduces a really under-represented part of English history, the Dutch naval wars and is a pretty interesting little story in itself.

The last story, is the longest and the one I had the most deja-vu moments about. I remembered a character finding themselves in a confined space with irons flying about and I remembered a line about the ship without its sails up looking like a house without a roof. The story itself is about the dramatic events on a ship transporting convicted felons, including mutiny, murder and love-at-first-site. Again, it’s a very good story but I was so nagged by the feeling I’d read it already and trying to work out where, that I was a little distracted.

It's taken me a month to realise - the last two stories in this collection were also the last two in Mr Corbett's Ghost, I'm glad I realised that and am not going mad.

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Wild Oats at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle.. on Zoom (part 3)

The internet has been a marvellous tool in this time of coronavirus, bringing people together in shared interests even as they are separated into different houses and scattered throughout the country. At least it is when it works. There were a few wobbles with technology at the beginning of this session but after a few prayers to St Isidore of Seville, patron saint of the internet, things straightened out. Leaving us solely in the tangle that is the plot.

With only 20 pages to go, there would have to be some rapid about-faces to untangle the current knot, a feat that O’Keefe surprisingly pulls off with ease. Lady Amaranth quickly discovered Ephraim Smooth, the man charged with keeping her on the straight-and-narrow, in a compromising position, something she could use to gain her independence. Sir George Thunder was attacked by ruffians and was saved by Rover, who runs back into Banks’s house where he saves Banks’s (newly introduced) sister from the indignity of a bailiff. 

Arrested under the ruffians false witness, he is taken to Lady Amaranth’s house and put on trial before Sir George thunder. The needs of the trial serves to straighten out each character’s identity. Of particular note, that Rover was a baby taken from a loving mother who was jilted by a sea captain and raised abroad before coming back as a wandering actor. His unknown mother happens to be Banks’s sister, his father to be George Thunder and the fake priest Banks himself, yet he was actually a real priest, making Rover the legitimate heir to Sir George. Newly rich and honoured, Rover feels he can marry Lady Amaranth, who suggests that her own fortune is enough for them both, so why not let the freshly disinherited Harry Thunder have it?

And so all they all live happily ever after. Probably.

I had quite a few lines in this final instalment and my notes aren’t as useful as they may have been. There’s a scene between Lady Amaranth and Amelia, Banks’s sister (and secret mother to Rover) where they seem to be trying to outdo each other in noble romance heroine sentiments, with Lady Amaranth declaring that, “Duplicity, even with good intent, is ill”, blissfully unaware of the duplicities that surround her. When she hears Amelia’s tale of woe, she says that,“My pity can do thee no good, yet I pity thee.” Which is sometimes all that can be said.

Sir George Thunder and John Dory again prove themselves to be a brilliant comic pairing in the scene where the ruffians threaten to kill them. Rover rushes to the man’s defence, with Sir George Thunder being keen to get on the action. He’s detained by John Dory, who carries him off, walking  a ‘noble crab walk’ - which took some imagining.

Another great scene of comic violence was Rover against the bailiff distressing Amelia. In all the scenes were Rover has to face someone down, he does it with a wonderfully out of place sense of politeness. He bows with great ceremony to the bailiff and declares himself a ‘humble, obedient servant’ before asking him if he’s ever been astonished. When the bailiff asks why, Rover replies that he intends to astonish him, before hitting him on the head and declaring him astonished. After inflicting a few more astonishments, it’s his suggestion to amaze the bailiff next that has him running from the room.

Other highlights include the phonetic spelling of ‘A-bo-min-a-tion’ that Ephraim declares the play, echoed back to him by Jane, who exposes his hypocrisy. There’s Sir George’s appellation of Rover as ‘Puppy Unknown’, who also gets to call Ephraim, ‘Squintibus’.

All in all, Wild Oats was a very enjoyable and successful play, and John O’Keefe an under-noted author. Born in Ireland to a family who’d lost their land through supporting the Stuarts, he worked in theatres in Dublin and London. Primarily he wrote afterpieces, funny little plays that took place after the main performance. It was possible to get cheaper tickets to slip in during the fourth act of a play just to watch the afterpiece. He wrote Wild Oats late in his career, having become blind in that time. One story tells of him standing in the wings, listening to the rough reception of a play and having to go outside, before his daughter came and pulled him back in to hear the audiences laugh hysterically. 

He’s also a tax-cheat - sort of. During the 1977 run of the play, a letter arrived at the theatre from Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue and Customs. They’d noticed the success of the play and had also noticed that this Mr John O’Keefe had very few tax-records, so they demanded he sort his tax situation out, not easy for a man who had died 150 years before.

Our next performance will be of Henry Fielding’s The Modern Husband. Anyone interested in signing up, make themselves known on the Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle facebook page or contact Jane Darcy. Hopefully, Fielding can entertain us as much as O’Keefe did.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Wild Oats at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle.. on Zoom (part 2)

‘I say unto thee, a playhouse is a school for the old dragon and a playbook a primer for Beelzebub.’

On Tuesday, Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle pulled out their primers for evil and got down to their wicked work on the next batch of scenes from John O’Keefe’s Wild Oats

The last time we were with our characters, Sir George Thunder was scheming to marry his son Harry to his distant relative, Lady Amaranth, who is forced into being a Quaker by a dictatorial Will. The conditions of this Will are enforced with glee by Ephraim Smooth, the character with the dim view of theatre. Meanwhile, Rover, a character with a very positive view of the theatre, has helped out the kindly Mr Banks against the ungenerous Farmer Gammon and had been seen doing this kind act by Lady Amaranth and the two have a connection.

It was in this week’s instalment that things grew complicated (spoilers, but I plan to try and explain this plot, more as a feat of derring-do than anything else.)

Rover was taken to Lady Amaranth’s by Sir George Thunder’s valet de chambre, a man called John Dory, under the confused identity of being Harry, Sir George’s son. Rover decides to play along as it gives him time to spend with Lady Amaranth and he helps out Lamp, the theatre impresario by persuading Lady Amaranth to stage a play at her house. The play is to be As You Like It but Ephraim certainly does not, dismayed at Rover’s training all the staff in the art of theatre.

Rover is then told that as Harry Thunder, he is expected to marry Lady Amaranth. As much as he is keen on this idea, he feels it would be immoral for her to marry him, a lowly player, under an assumed identity. He is prepared to tell her everything when his friend Dick Buckskin turns up, saying that he has concocted a scheme to marry Lady Amaranth and has hired an actor with the wonderful name of Mr Abrawang to play Harry Thunder’s father, Sir George Thunder.
However, Dick Buckskin is the genuine Harry Thunder and the man he’s called Abrawang is the real Sir George Thunder. Harry is expecting Rover to play along, but smitten by his love for Lady Amaranth, immediately blows ‘Abrawang’s’ cover, much to the confusion of the old man, who insists he really is Sir George Thunder (because he is).

So, now we have Rover pretending to be Harry Thunder who loves Lady Amaranth and believes that his friend Dick Buckskin was intending to play Harry Thunder but has relinquished the role to him out of kindness, not knowing that Dick Buckskin really is Harry Thunder and the old man, Abrawang, who he thought was playing Sir George Thunder is actually Sir George Thunder, although Rover is ignorant of that fact. Simple really.

Actually, it wasn’t all that difficult to follow in real time and there were so many good jokes, it didn’t matter much either way. Every character has one or two corking lines and I couldn’t tell which were my favourite.

I did love Ephraim Smooth and his Malvolio spirit, and hope he gets a kinder ending than that character. Aside from anything else, he gets to dismiss a play as, ‘prelude, interlude, all lewd’ and his description of someone playing of the violin: ‘The man of sin rubbeth the hair of the horse to the bowels of a cat.’ 

Rover is a character so engrossed in theatre that he can only express himself in theatrical quotes and, when left to his own words, finds himself extremely tongue-tied. That said, his incessant need to quote isn’t always the clearest way of communicating. Shakespeare references are all well and good, but the modern cast weren’t up on all the eighteenth century quotation he flings about - including the plot-vital reference to Mr Thunder from the play The Rehearsal. It’s not only the modern audience, half the characters in the play aren’t sure what he’s saying either, marvelling at being compared to bulls and larks and suchlike. Luckily, he can speak plainly when it’s important. He reminds me a great deal of characters in a comedy like Spaced or Clerks, an early example of a character who can only represent himself through pop-culture references. I also enjoyed that, despite being an actor, he is really very bad at pretending to be someone else.

Even Lady Amaranth, who could have been a very bland character, has a spirited defence of theatre, using similar defences to the ones that Jane Austen had of the novel: ‘A good play, is taking the wholesome draught of precept in a golden cup.’ There’s also something very fun about the strait-laced character giving in to her secret desires to unwind and making some very stretched excuses to do it.

Though, out of all the characters, my favourites are probably the characters of Sir George Thunder and his man, John Dory. Sir George is a big, blustering Squire Western-type figure, hollering and bellowing, much like Lord Wellington in Blackadder. He is extravagantly happy and extravagantly angry and he is accompanied by the deadpan stoicism of Dory. When given good news, Thunder orders Dory to create a punch big enough for ‘a jolly boat to sail on’, including such quantities as a ‘hogshead of sugar’ and ‘an orchard of oranges’, watered down with a ‘fishpond’ of water. However, when the news turns out not to be as good as it seemed, Dory is castigated as ‘a thirsty old grumpus.’ Rover, in the belief that Sir George is really Abrawang the actor, applauds his apparently simulated anger: ‘That’s right! Strut about on your little pegs’. 

The biggest laugh of the night came when John Dory was giving Sir George the steamy details of (the man Dory believes to be) Harry’s courtship of Lady Amaranth. At two, he will be walking with her in the garden, at half past they plan to rest in the flowers, at three they shall get up again, at four they are ‘picking a bit of crammed fowl’ but if it’s half past… ‘they’re cracking walnuts.’ The phrase ‘cracking walnuts’ cropped up a few times later in the play and I shall never see the activity in the same way.

At the end of this session, the characters were tied deep in notes with only a few scenes left to straighten everything out. This Tuesday, we shall see if everything ever runs smooth or if anyone ever gets their walnuts cracked.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Wild Oats at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle.. on Zoom (part 1)


Directed from an ironing board in Ealing, the Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle Players presented John O’Keeffe’s 1791 comedy, Wild Oats.

Pre-warned that the plot was fiendishly complicated, we’d read up a little on the play, aided by scans of the programme for the very well-reviewed RSC production of Stratford (1976) and the Aldwych (1977). We were in the unique position of having the ASM of that production to play Lady Amaranth in ours. Her previous credits include Corpse in Arsenic and Old Lace (Theatre Royal Windsor).

Immediately the play showed itself to contain more gags than The Clandestine Marriage with a scene between Sir George Thunder and his former boatswain, John Dory, a man named after a fish. Both speak in naval slang, complaining that having arrived at Lady Amaranth’s, they have not been offered refreshments. Unaware that the new owner is a lady and a Quaker to boot, Dory hopes ‘the governor of this here fort’ can ‘victual us a few’. Sir George, meanwhile, needs a drink, having ridden ‘at the rate of ten knots an hour, over fallow and stubble’ and being ‘as dry as a powder match’. They drop some pretty clear expositional points, telling the audience that Sir George had years before sown his wild oats by since tricking a young woman, Miss Amelia, into marriage, posing as Captain Seymour and employing a fake clergyman, before setting off to sea. He had subsequently been forced into marriage in his turn, his father insisting he marry an heiress. 

Lady Amaranth, it turns out, can only keep her fortune if she acts in a Quaker manner – dropping her title and answering to ‘Mary’. There’s a man whose job is to make sure she behaves, the suitably entitled Ephraim Smooth who lards his conversations with ‘thees’ and ‘thous’. Thunder takes against him and his ‘sanctified poop’ and decides his son should marry Lady Amaranth. Just as he decides this, he is told his son has run away from Portsmouth with an acting troupe.

In the next scene we meet his son, Harry Thunder, who is disguising his true identity from all but his servant Muz. To the others he is Dick Buskin. But he admits his ‘rage for a little action’ has worn off and he plans to return to ‘the gay old fellow’ his father. He is joined by Rover, a motor-mouthed actor who has ‘an abominable habit of quotation’, who describes young Thunder as like his ‘own brother, had I one’ (see where this is going yet?). They part ways and Rover finds himself alone, little knowing that Harry has put a wodge of money into his pocket.

Now we meet a farmer called Gammon – his is in fact very much what even today people today would call a gammon – red-faced and small-minded. He is about to evict a good man called Banks but along comes Rover with an accidental fistful of money. Enter Lady Amaranth who admires the generosity of this young stranger. 

At the same moment, Rover falls in love with her, but little suspects he has a chance of successfully winning her. His habit of proclaiming ‘I am the bold Thunder’, a line from The Rehearsal, means he is mistaken by John Dory for Sir George Thunder’s missing son … shenanigans will ensue in the next instalment. 

One of the issues that quickly became apparent as we read is that there are apparently several editions of Wild Oats, with some quite substantial textual variants. There were frequent substitutions of one word for another: ‘here’s a fine body’ was rendered elsewhere as ‘here’s a fine lady’; ‘beat’ is substituted for ‘licked’.  But the real chaos came – amidst much laughter – to long chunks of text being cut – or appearing in another place. 

So far the characters we have met are great fun. Ephraim Smooth is wonderfully pious and oil; Gammon is a really nasty, blaming his thoroughly decent children, Jane and Sim, for whatever they do; the sailors are bumptious and Rover seems to treat life as a play and is a shade away from realizing he is in one. Like the characters in so many eighteenth-century novels and plays we’re read, the characters seem to run around the landscape, bumping into each other in various combinations with different effects. 

There’s an energy and joy in this play so far and everything is set up for a lot of fun in the scenes to come. 

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

The Revenge of the Return of Leon Garfield (Part Two)

Here it is... the second part of my huge Leon Garfield review-fest.. four books this time.

The Boy and the Monkey

The Boy and the Monkey would certainly appear to be a Garfield book for younger children. As a chapter book, it only has two. However, this is still Leon Garfield and he’s not even writing in his Fair’s Fair younger children’s style, he makes a joke about the young protagonist not being a foundling but a lostling.

The main character is Tim and his monkey is called Pistol, they are the main characters in a trilogy of books (and I’ve managed to get the first and last of them). Tim is eleven and has a single ability, looking sad. He uses this skill to sell Pistol to people and Pistol, having “seen much of the world and none of it wonderfully honest” returns to Tim, having stolen something from the house.

This goes fine until Pistol returns with an astonishingly expensive wedding ring and the two of them are arrested, taken to Newgate and await trial. The tension is built up brilliantly, especially considering how short the book is. The Foreman of the jury is a tough man who encourages them to be utterly prepared to kill people and the judge is a tough man in a large wig which makes him look like a ‘villainous old sheep’. The Judge and Jury immediately start a battle of wills which leads to that most peculiar of things, a fair trial.
   “Gentlemen were convicted and beggars were freed, with no regard to anything but the evidence.”

The ending is a surprise and what I like is that it uses a genuine historical quirk to solve its problem. 

The Captain’s Watch

The second in the trilogy of Boy and Monkey books. I can’t find a copy of this for less than thirty pounds, which is more than I wish to pay for it. (Not to be confused with the title The Stolen Watch which is another name for Blewcoat Boy).

Lucifer Wilikins

The last in the Boy and Monkey trilogy, this short novel for younger children. My copy of The Monkey and the Boy comes from what seems to be a print-on-demand selection of Leon Garfield’s work, which sadly doesn’t include the illustrations, my Lucifer Wilikins is a first edition which does. It also reveals that the trilogy was commissioned for the ‘Long Ago Children’ series of books which aim to be ‘stories for younger readers about children in different periods in an authentic historical setting’. I can see why they went to Leon Garfield.

In the first book Tim was transported, what I can make of the second, it’s about an incident on the passage to America, this third one is set on a plantation and here we run into some problems. We meet Tim slacking off work and hiding under a cool tree for shade. He’s doing this because the main weapon in his arsenal is his pale and miserable-looking face and if he goes out into the sunshine he’d go “as black as them n_____ slaves” and lose his advantage - also losing the modern reader on the first page. It’s the only time the word appears in the book and it fits into the time period but having such a word at the beginning of a 46 page children’s book with colourful illustrations seems terribly out of step. (Though, the Black and White Minstrel Show was still on telly when this book came out, and would for another five years more.

What’s more, the use of the n-word at the beginning but not later could be a conscious choice to show Tim’s change in attitude, because as an indentured servant for seven years, he doesn’t really see any problem with plantation life and he wonders at why the Black slave, Lucifer Willikins is so unreasonably angered by the whole thing. As far as he’s concerned, all he needs to do is dodge work for seven years and then he’s home free, this being especially easy because their mutual master is “a saintly soul who uses his slaves and bond-servants better than most of his neighbours treated their wives.” As the book goes on, he begins to understand the slave’s distress.

Unfortunately, the means through which Tim changes his mind and grows is by reflecting on his monkey, Pistol. Not only are Lucifer’s main traits (often repeated) his bigness and his blackness, he is frequently compared to the little monkey. The two of them share a wild spirit and a longing for freedom and are put in a category of ‘wild animals’ together far too often. Again, I can see how this is Garfield’s intention to create an ‘authentic historical setting’, as the series aimed to do, drawing on eighteenth century notions of black people as ‘natural’ in ways ‘civilised’ white people were not but in the context of a very short book for eight year olds, it feels very questionable.

Lucifer, Tim and Pistol find themselves in Brazil, where Pistol goes back to his monkey home but is repulsed by his monkey family, going back to Tim who has now formed a family like bond with Lucifer. This means that as the trilogy ends, three lost souls have found each other and are facing the world as a unit, though I don’t feel their chances are very good.

Blewcoat Boy

This book has been published under the alternate titles, The Stolen Watch and Nick and Jubilee but Blewcoat Boy was the original title, having been commissioned by the National Trust for a series of books inspired by their holdings, in this case, the Blewcoat School. 

Not that this book takes much inspiration from the school, except that the two protagonists, orphan brother and sister, Nick and Jubilee, become pupils of the school during the course of the book. They begin the novel as vagabonds, living in bushes in St James Park. Nick lies awake worrying about Jubilee’s marriage prospects, while Jubilee wishes she were six inches taller. She has curly black hair and thin gold earrings and they both have a foxy look - I mention this because the book does, many times. The book tries to be child-friendly by repeating certain phrases, especially those which impact the plot.

The two children search for a stolen watch which they hope to get a reward for, they find the thief and through shenanigans find themselves posing as his children. He’s another in Garfield’s gallery of loveable rogues, being an inveterate criminal but also a man with a beautiful voice and a warm heart. In posing as the children’s dad, he starts busking, finding himself with a real talent for it and learning how to be a dad.

It’s a sweet enough book but the repetitive nature of the prose and the lack of experiment or risk make it a pretty flat endeavour.

Child O’ War

This is another Leon Garfield book that is set at the end of the eighteenth, beginning of the nineteenth century. It deals of a young man of slim means who finds his way in the world with the help and hinderance of various father figures. That aside, this is completely different to any of Leon Garfield’s other work and almost uncategorisable as a work in general.

Within the archives of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich are the privately printed memoirs of Sir John Theophilus Lee (who got people to call him Sir T Lee). He became a midshipman at the age of five, finding himself the youngest officer at the battles of Cape St Vincent and the Nile. This book takes extracts from those memoirs and places them into an imagining of Sir T dictating them to one daughter as two other daughters work on his portrait. Leon Garfield’s job in this instance is to create that frame story and to summarise the parts when the original memoir would be too lengthy or dull for an intended audience of children - sort of like a real version of the Princess Bride ‘good parts’. But the book spends the whole time sabotaging itself.

For a start, Sir T Lee’s story is not the Boy’s Own adventure that a reader would expect from this sort of book. Yes, he was a midshipman during was was probably Nelson’s finest victory, at the Battle of the Nile. He was even on the Swiftsure, the ship that blew up the French flagship L’Orient. His main task during the battle was fetching some officers ginger beer. Similarly, his action during the Battle of Cape St Vincent was fetching wine and water to officers. It’s true that he saw some things a child should never have to see (and I’ll come to those later) but his role on board seems to be more of cute mascot than anything else.

He came back to Greenwich and passed the Lieutenant’s exam but instead of getting a commission at sea, he got a job in the admiralty where he organised provisioning, most notably in finding a better deal for the Navy’s lemon juice. As he grew older, he meddled in politics a little and collects the handshakes of titled people.

Ultimately, the book spends most of its time taking the piss out of Sir T Lee. The preface calls him a ‘pygmy’ who ‘crawls on the edges of history’, the characters in the fictitious parts are his children and they all regard their father with a sort of fond disdain, his wife feels sorry for him and the book becomes a point and snigger at this pompous ass who thinks he has a place in history. Throughout the frame story, two of his daughters are trying to sketch his right arm and are failing, as the text goes on, various implements are put into this hand. Eventually, they draw it tucked into his coat, in classic Napoleon fashion. He is the ridiculous Napoleon of the little house.

What’s more, when the book isn’t picking out parts of the memoirs to make Sir T Lee look petty, nor creating fictitious situations to show how no one respects him, the narrator is making some very full throated and sardonic anti-war commentary. Whether it’s dead sailors saluting each other with ‘fish-nibbled’ fingers, or the running gag about great men writing history in other people’s blood - it’s the complete opposite way I would have expected a story like this to have been told. Not only is there no glory in this (diametrically opposite to your Hornblowers or Jack Auberys) but any notion of glory is a bad joke. Even the notion that a French invasion would have been a bad thing is ridiculed by the lines like, “bewildered listeners actually came to believe that chains stamped ‘foreign made’ were of a more constricting fit than those that were forged at home.”

I’m not saying I disagree with the sentiments particularly, but to self-sabotage a story quite this much seems like such a strange move. The cover and marketing suggest an exciting romp with a child midshipman at the Royal Navy’s most storied period - and it cuts the legs out from under itself in every way. It’s hard to know who this would be for, it’s too marketed at children to be for adults who would be mostly put off by the layers of fiction included, but also far too sour and mocking to please a kid wanting a high seas adventure.

I think the intention of the book can be discerned though, through the reaction of the different family members as they hear the story. They are charmed by the little boy with shining eyes and miniature naval uniform going off to see the world and unlike Sir T Lee himself, they see the damage that his early naval life has done to him. 

He tells a story of an incident during the Spithead Mutiny (though in the fleet out in the Mediterranean not Spithead.) The man asked the young boy, as an office, for a third cup of water and the little T Lee agreed. When the person giving out the water said no, the man became aggressive and  was hanged from the yard arm for that aggression. The older Sir T does not reflect on this as his fault, nor on the harshness of the punishment but reflects on the way that a couple such hangings effectively staved off the mutiny in their fleet. 

Each family member has a fondness for the young child and feels sorry for the adult that he became. Some of them are sorry that he was in these legendary places, dancing with Emma Hamilton, chatting with Nelson but was no hero himself. Others regret that he became a man who instead of living his life, has used it to ‘collect’ the handshakes of the great and good who have lived theirs. We are left with the feeling that being a child o’war is no thing to be indeed, and that is the main thrust of the book, it wasn’t a memoir or a sea story, it was a call against child soldiers and for humanity.