Friday 29 July 2011

Goldsmith season coming soon.


Described as the jester in Johnson's court, ridiculed by almost everyone he met and still, as a writer, never out of print.

A man of petty jealousy and great generosity, a man who described himself as 'the most ludicrous thing in the world' - and most of the world agreed.

Reviews of his novel, 'The Vicar of Wakefield' his periodicals, 'The Bee' and 'The Citizen of the World'

Biographical details and anecdotes.

General Goldsmith lovin'

Coming Soon...

Tuesday 26 July 2011

Review of Satan's Mistress by Val Lewis

The title was the first thing that stood out about this book; ‘Satan’s Mistress’ sat in the nautical theme shop amongst the books of naval history and behind the case of barometers. Odd title to have in a nautical gift shop; odder too that on closer inspection it was published by the shop itself, odder still, the portrait on the front cover has holes where the eyes are so bright red backing behind can shine through, giving her evil eyes, and oddest of all, the blurb contains a prediction for the end of the world... to have taken place seven years ago.

The eyes! The eyes!

Satan’s Mistress is, in theory, a historical biography of a religious fanatic named Joanna Southcott active at the end of the eighteenth century. I knew a little about her - that she believed that she had borne that son of God, that she had predicted his future return, that there were still believers who owned a house somewhere in the English countryside awaiting his return. This book is not written by one of her believers, this book is written by someone who believes that Joanna was seduced by the devil and her acts and her prophecies, though real, were gained by diabolic means. Not a completely ordinary historical biography then, but one so fitting to it’s subject and so provoking when it comes to the idea of biography itself.

But before all that, diabolic pacts aside, what do we learn about Joanna Southcott? She was a country girl born in 1750 of reasonable but not stupendous means and a basic education. She was attractive and devout, with a fervent desire to be of use to God, but a certain vanity also. Her vanity is evidenced in a number of well documented examples of courtship, where she played a number of men around on a string until they became fed up of her or married someone more pliable. It was at a young age, the author suggests, that Joanna was first contacted by demons, who prayed on her vanity and her true and ardent desire to play a part in God’s kingdom. She grew into a typical spinster, good with traditional lotions and cures, and she wrote doggerel poetry when she got stressed. 

One of her publications.

She became convinced that this doggerel was from God, and managed to convince other people. When the prophecies in the poetry started to come true, she started to grow in fame and recognition but what she craved most was recognition from the established church. She approached many ministers, cursing the Bishop of Exeter when he refused to take her seriously as God’s prophet etc..etc.. he died less than a year later - her followers nodded and said ‘I told you so’. (If you can name the book referred to in the wording of that sentence, I will love you forever and we will be best friends).
She fixed her main sights on a handsome cleric called Joseph Pomeroy - who she decided would be her John the Baptist. He humoured her at first but eventually became disgusted by her, and she hounded him for the rest of his life, tarring him with her brush. Luckily for her not everyone was against her and she succeeded as the leader of a fanatical group formally run by a Richard Brothers. Her new followers took her to London and treated her as the prophetess she believed herself to be. She gathered a box of prophecies that she added to throughout her life and would continue her name after her death. 

She also amused herself by eating, creating church services that added her works to the praise, creating 14,000 official followers by giving them a seal that was regarded as a passport to heaven and sewing a quilt meant to curse King George III for not listening to her. She claimed the quilt was the thing that drove him mad.

But time went on and inevitably, her fame faded. By queer coincidence, this is when she revealed that she was pregnant with the son of God despite being a virgin. She did grow bigger, her belly did kick, she certainly had weird cravings. Medical professions examined her (in the bounds of propriety) and most of them agreed, probably, possibly, she was pregnant and a virgin. As the time approached, interest in her and her baby - to be named Shiloh, increased but obviously not enough - because there was no baby. It was later claimed that he was born, but as a spiritual being. Shortly after that, Joanna, who was going to live forever, died and that was it.

But not for long, because her box of prophecy, sealed until the official opening (done in the presence of the right number of clergy) was being passed around and the rumours of the coming of Shiloh still current, and so it remains till today. Rumours of the box, rumours of Shiloh and rumours of the end of the world continue up to this day and there are still believers.

Shiloh's crib, a picture.

An undeniably fascinating story - and presented in wonderful detail by the writer of the book - but there is also the belief of the writer that Joanna was actually tricked by the devil and not a charlatan or deluded. It is this that makes the book rise from an interesting story well told to a fascinating look at faith and biography. The author is presenting (as she sees it) a true biography of  a woman but includes beliefs many find hard to believe - it brings alive the whole issue of relationship between reader and book. When reading a biography it is usual to think that the realtionship is between the reader and the subject of the book, and we forget the author of the book, the ideas that they have about the subject, their own interpretation of the person we are reading about.
I am considering writing a biography of Oliver Goldsmith, the last major biography of him was most recently revised in 1969. Now, I fell in love with Goldsmith in his clumsy and endearing appearances in Boswell’s Life of Johnson (and there is a fascinating essay to write one day comparing Johnson biographies) but the biography of him I am now reading contextualises Goldsmith’s behaviour in whole new ways. My relationship with the man is wholly reliant on the interpretations of others, even his own work is changed by suggestions of others in biography and it is not until you read a biography where the author has a completely different view of the world to you that you start to properly question what you read.
This raises a very interesting book to a fascinating one, and I recommend it to any discerning reader who can find a copy. Also, anyone interested in Joanna’s own writings (containing prophecy and poetry) a modern day Southcottian has uploaded many of them to the web here.


(Very incidentally,  I wrote the review of this book during the last year that the modern Southcottians, the Panacea Society, existed. Their last member died the year after I wrote this and the house that they bought for Jesus, and the £14,000,000 of investment they bought in Bedford, which they believed to be the Garden of Eden, is now a charity. The charity has a museum with Shiloh's cot and the box of prophecy in it.)

Friday 15 July 2011

Review of 'Polly' by John Gay

The Beggar’s Opera ( we now all know) was the huge success story of C18th theatre and Polly, the sequel was finished in double-quick time and ready by the end of the same year but John Gay was never going to capitalise on his success because he had made too many enemies and these enemies included the prime minister, Robert Walpole.

So, when Polly was complete and rehearsed it was shut down before being performed. A year later it was published to great acclaim but it was not performed for fifty years and Gay was long dead. Which is a pity, because, for a sequel, it’s not too bad. 
We all know that sequels are never as good, so does John Gay. The first line of the play admits as much, comparing a sequel to yet more words spoken by a dying man. The Beggar’s Opera opened with a prologue by the writer, an almost penniless poet talking to his patron. This time, the Beggar is having trouble with the success of his previous play because this time he has been able to employ proper actors and proper actors are awkward, selfish and difficult. The actors argue about position and previous parts before the play begins proper.

Peachum is dead and Macheath has been transported so Polly arranges her own passage to America so she can find him. Unfortunately she runs into an old friend, Diana Trapes, a former madam who has been transported for some years. She offers to help Polly but actually sells her to the local landowner as his mistress. She manages to escape dressed as a boy, just when an army of pirates who were formally led by Macheath but now led by the savage black man Morano and his woman, Jenny Diver, one of the prostitutes from the first play who stitched Macheath up.
Somewhere in that lot there are a group of Native Americans, led by the improbable names Poheetohee and his son Cawawkee. The disguised Polly saves the son and becomes a bit of a hero and the Native Americans and the landowners fight off and beat the pirates and hang Morano the leader, who turned out to be Macheath anyway, which means that even today if it were performed (which it won’t) the part of Morano/Macheath would have to be played by a man blacked up. Polly is devastated for about ten minutes before going off with Cawawkee.

Lavinia Fenton, the first Polly Peachum, later married a Duke smitten with her from the theatre

There are fewer big comic set pieces in this play and less deliciously amoral characters, but the satire, though less funny, is sharper and more incisive. There are still some lovely scenes, like the one where the landowner Mr Ducat is being taught the new vices imported from London or the one where the Native Americans find themselves completely lost with the way the English people talk to each other because the Native Americans are used to talking straight.
There is also a great pleasure in seeing Macheath again, this time in a much reduced state. Not only is he blacked up in the guise of Morano but his former lover/betrayer is completely controlling him to the extent that the pirates laugh and joke about him behind his back. It is almost a relief to see him hanged because everything that made him great and heroic in the first play has gone sour. I said in the review for ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ that Macheath is a James Bond figure, representing all that is both admirable and reprehensible in the concept of masculinity and manhood, but in this he is completely unmanned.

Talking of manhood, Polly spends part of the play disguised as a young man. Unfortunately she still doesn’t grow any balls and is quite dull company and that is the problem that affects this sequel, we miss the rogues from the first one.
So, to sum up, good - but not as good. I would like to see someone put it on though.
“A sequel to a play is like more last words. ‘Tis a kind of absurdity.”


Wednesday 13 July 2011

Review of 'The Beggar's Opera' at The Regent's Park Open Air Theatre on 7/7/11 (my birthday)

      Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, well to do, sedate and attracting a gentle audience who probably owned their own houses. A group of posh six-formers think they are the history boys and crack wise but unfortunately lack the writing of Alan Bennet. There is a large corporate group, (which I infiltrate and grab a free Pimms). Indeed, it seemed that half the audience were there to ‘show they were alive’ and I longed for a Captain Mirven to come in and sort them out.

Peachum (r) and Lockit have a little chat.

I took my seat early, and tried to look at the set, but most of it was covered in a huge banner announcing ‘The Beggar’s Opera - A Newgate Pastoral’ and a tremendous picture of all the whores and rogues depicted in as if they were Patrolicus and Eupheminie and all the other saps of pastoral poetry. 

The theatre rings a bell to announce the imminent opening of the play, and the sound of the increasingly desperate handbell trying to get the audience in, the excited chatter of the audience and the rattling of chains some where, mixed with the woosh of the wind made a really evocative sound. 

This was burst by a whistle, the banner was dropped, revealing a scaffold with eight nooses and small room made of a large barrel and a bed that we later learnt was built from a cart of the kind used to carry people to execution...people start doing maypoles with chains and so the play was under way.

The first scene is with Peachum and Filch. Peachum is toughier, flintier and less fruity then the films I’ve seen. He’s a harder man, which makes all the talk of death seem real and possible. He also gets the first laugh of the night with his first line, ‘A lawyer is an honest profession.” Filch, his assistant is played effetely, giving variety to his scenes. Through the songs, extras are used (and abused) to add visual interest to the songs and provide movement, especially in this static first part of the play.

I have never enjoyed the part of Polly Peachum, she always strikes me as more than a bit wet, but when Polly came on in this production, I was won. In the scenes in the first half, with her family and Macheath she was played partly as a petulant little girl and partly as the only adult in the piece. There is something about the seriousness of Polly compared to the double-dealing and gameplaying of everyone else that gives her dignity. Polly unfortunetely suffers in the second half when she becomes more whiny - and less lively than her rival Lucy Lockit. 

Macheath on the other hand is the opposite, the performer lacked a certain spark as the swaggering rake, but was much stronger in the later scenes of self pity and defience in front of death.

There were a number of allusions to eighteenth century painting, one of the most blatant of which was during the romantic ‘over the hills and far away’ when a swing dropped from the scaffold and Polly was swung in it, while Macheath lay on the floor and someone dressed in gold as a cupid came on to watch. It looked a bit like this. 

The Swing by Fragonard
The romance of the scene led to a very strong contrast with the next one, in which Macheath’s gang got ready to take to the road and rob, mainly by beating each other up. When they had gone, Macheath could enjoy his bevy of beauties who all came on from different angles, some through the audience. They laughed and joked, they did stripteaze, Macheath even put his pistol suggestively up one of their dresses - this is when the young families started to walk out. 

They cut the end of the first act so that it focussed more strongly on Macheath’s arrest and we were ready for the second half.

Macheath and his girls

Act two was stronger than the first. The scenes are written shorter and stronger, and we had the introduction of Lucy Lockit and her father. Lucy Lockit is often portrayed as a firebrand, but in this production she is a rotund lady with the habit of very fast and furious waddling and when she fights, she doesn’t screech and get catty, she wallops a person in the face. Lockit himself was played with an almost pantomimic relish, and the less classy Lockit certainly matched Peachum for nastiness, if not for cunning. 

Polly (in white) and Lucy have a heart to heart

The scenes between Lockit and Peachum brimmed with menace (and the odd bit of slapstick strangling) the scenes between Polly and Lucy were wonderfully catty - but the best scenes were those between Macheath and Lucy. Those scenes ran on the dynamic that Macheath needed Lucy to escape and so had to give her promises of fidelity to get her on side, the relationship on stage was fantastic and improved further when Macheath fell over and Lucy had to fight the desire to corpse (and failed).
Everything built to the end - and what a way to end it, I was surprised, dismayed and delighted and the ending was a big reason I went away with such a huge grin on my face. 

Macheath was loaded in the cart for execution and the cast went round and round the central staff of the scaffold, laughing, singing, drinking and eating oranges - in true eighteenth century style. The central part of the scaffold also revolved, adding to the chaos and reminding me of Hogarth’s comment on the South Sea Bubble.

The Lottery by Hogarth

The noose was tightened around Macheath’s neck and it was perfectly possible that they were going to hang Macheath (as other productions have done), but then Mrs Peachum read the lines of the nobleman, arguing for Macheath’s reprieve, which he was given. He was slipped off the noose, picked Polly for his wife and the cast danced (but did not sing) to my favourite song ‘Thus I Stand Like A Turk’. 

However, there was something up and noise was coming from the back and the audience started to realise that other members of the cast were being strung up on the eight nooses. The dancing stopped, execution style drums were hit and the carts were pulled away - the cast simulated hanging in a grisly and painful looking way, they died, the audience were silent. My mouth was so open that, being an outside production, I was surprised a fly didn’t whizz in. After the silent moment, the people on the nooses made a loud ‘ta-dah’ noise and the cast broke into ‘Thus a Stand Like A Turk’ in full voice, the hanged people dancing a la ‘Life of Brian’. It made me grin ear to ear and I walked home on a high, listening to other audience members whistling the tunes (and others deriding it as tacky.)
I very much enjoyed finally seeing a production of ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ and I found the play lived up to the image of it I had in head (unlike recent productions of ‘The Rivals’ and ‘School for Scandal’, which I found disappointing). My only quibble was that the performance would have had more gusto and the ending more impact if the production was inside. The open air and trees dissipated some of the mood and madness the production conjured up so well.
But it’s always better to leave the review of an opera on a high note- So, a message for anyone feeling a bit down, ‘Think on this maxim and put off your sorrow, the wretch of today will be happy tomorrow’.


Tuesday 5 July 2011

Review: The Beggar's Opera by John Gay (the script)

The Beggar's Opera was one of my first encounters with eighteenth century literature when I read it as part of my A-Level drama course back in those halcyon days of being able to drink gallons of cheap vodka and wake up the next day, fresh as a daisy.

Since then I have wanted to see it, and I have managed to secure a ticket (only one alas - damn fraud squad canceled my card before I could pay for the second, -grumble grumble-) to see it performed at the Regent Open Air Theatre with Phil Daniels from Quadraphenia and The City Waites, who do a great line in 17/18th century street musics.

So.... as preparation to reviewing the performance, here is what I think of the script.

 The Beggar’s Opera was the theatrical sensation of its time and was the most performed play of the C18th and with good reason, it’s great fun.
Mr Peachum is a pillar of two communities; in the first he is a keeper of law, capturing criminals at fifty quid a pop. In the second, the leader of the largest criminal gang in London, keeping them in line by threatening to capture them at fifty quid a pop. 

The trouble is, his daughter Polly married one his gang, the Highwayman Macheath, which gives Macheath power over Peachum. Macheath has been sleeping around, as well as marrying around and one of his other wives is Lucy, daughter of Lockit the head turnkey of Newgate Jail. The rest of the plot consists of Lockit and Peachum’s attempts to imprison and execute Macheath and the two daughter's attempts to free Macheath and keep him away from the other wife. This all leads to Macheath’s execution which is postponed as a sacrifice to the absurdity of opera. Not that the plot matters much, more enjoyable are the lines, the characters and the set pieces. 

So, the script, what do we get? Only some of the finest set pieces in all theatre. The beginning, where Peachum is trying to work out which gang members should live or die with callousness and cold hearted business sense, as if he was merely talking about food going out of date. There is the scene in the pub where the gang drink themselves into brave spirits before leaving to haunt the heath and rob weary travellers, justifying their actions to themselves as they do, this is followed by Macheath (who was swearing undying love and loyalty a few minutes before) entertaining himself with dozens of catty prostitutes  - and hundreds more scenes filled with humour, darkness and songs.
My absolute favourite scene has Macheath chained to the floor of the prison, unable to move. Unfortunately for him both Lucy Lockit and Polly Peachum come into the room and lay claim to him. They start to fight each other, leaving Macheath unable to do anything but watch. 

I love the dash of Macheath, how he is incapable of fidelity but his affection is equally strong with all his loves. Boswell, stepping into a brothel, imagined himself to be Macheath, who played a very similar role in the C18th imagination as James Bond does in ours. He is charming, smooth, brave and successful with the ladies - he is also dangerous and a bit of a selfish tosser - the key ingredients for any popular exploration of manhood.
 The other characters are also good. Mr Peachum and Mr Lockitt spend most of the play helping each other to achieve mutual ends but are at the same time are looking out for any opportunity to 'bubble' the other and come out one better. The gang's attempts to justify their lives as thieves remind me of Defoe's 'innocent blackguards' and the prostitutes are fleshed out in their scene, with all of their bitchy rivalries hidden under the appearance of gentility. Polly is a pretty standard sappy heroine but Lucy Lockitt has enough spunk to make up for her, nearly poisoning Polly with rat poison in one scene.

A Benefit ticket, showing the same scene as the Hogarths.
Most of all, I love the way the characters have their own personal desires that they will twist and turn and wriggle for, like fish on hooks. 

There is also one large benefit to reading the play instead of watching  it. It is possible to I re-stage it differently in my head each time, making it a constantly changing and lively experience.
My favourite quote... ‘Money is made for the free-hearted and generous.’ Too right - and I’d prove it to if I ever had some.