Wednesday 19 August 2015

Review: The Unspeakable Curll

I’ve read a number of books from a series published in the 20’s and republished in the 60s and focussing on various niche aspects of eighteenth century literary culture. The ones I have read were ‘The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith’; Passionate Intelligence’, ‘The Grub Street Journal, ‘Clubs of Augustan London’ and ‘Tom Brown of Facetious Memory’, which I have all reviewed before.

They are all brilliant books in their own way. They are meticulous, detail-orientated and tending towards the dry. I was rather put off by some of their tones, especially the Tom Brown book’s tone of a wearied headmaster. This one takes a whole different and far more enjoyable approach. Curll has a distinctly bad reputation and although Strauss will not paint him white, he presents him as a lovable rogue.

(Curll is the 2-headed man on the far right - this is the only portrait of him - I'm guessing it's not totally realistic.)

The ‘Unspeakable’ Curll was a Bookseller in the first half of the Eighteenth Century. He became notorious in his lifetime for a catalogue that included titillating compilations of divorce court proceedings and French novels about half undressed nuns. 

He was most famous for his ability to spin books out of nothing, particularly biographies. One of his particular tricks was to put an advert in the papers staking a claim in someone’s biography and appealing to readers to send letters and memories to refine the book. The book would then be hastily cobbled out of the letters received and any material about the subject that was in public domain - and their will. He was also adept at writing intriguing title pages, and would re-brand a book with a new title for adding the teensiest of extra material.

Curll also had the reputation, as many eighteenth century booksellers did, of keeping stable of cheap writers who he used to churn out product. While this was true, it also seems clear that Curll was friends with his writers and nursed one through his final illness. (Possibly unlike Newbery, who forced his into penury and locked Christopher Smart in a madhouse - if you believe that interpretation).

Curll was the subject of a hate campaign by all respectable writers, especially the Scriblerans, Pope in particular. Pope’s first sally against Curll was to feed him a vomiting drug in retribution for obtaining some old poems of his and publishing them. 

Pope’s second attack was in The Dunciad, where Curll was represented as one of the booksellers taking part in the dunce olympics and swimming through liquid sewage. The last tangle between Pope and Curll was a weird and complex plot where Pope tried to use Curll to surreptitiously release some more of his letters. Although Curll is the one with a bad rep, it’s Pope who comes across as something of an arsehole.

Curll also faced other problems, spending a year in and out of prison for obscenity charges and being stripped and spanked by Westminster schoolboys (as was his son). He also gets involved in the usual Grub Street wars of words.

As Curll is presented as a loveable rogue, so is Strauss the writer. Near the beginning, when introducing him, Strauss admits that he couldn’t be bothered to find out about Curll’s ancestors. Strauss is prone to imagining Curll, supposing that he was fond of his own voice, fond of a laugh, and meticulous in detail, from very little evidence. Near the end he decides that his book was not a ‘proper biography’, though I would disagree. 

Finally, I usually judge a biography by seeing whether I am sad when the subject dies. Curll’s death made me laugh, being told to us in the aside of, ‘he died, by the way’. The last sentence in the book is, ‘One day, I must look for his grave.’ One day, I might also. 

Incidentally, I have a Curll publication, one of those terrible lives. It's pretty spread thin.

Monday 10 August 2015

Review: The Beaux Stratagem at the National

I have an intermittent tradition of going to see a play around my birthday. A few years ago I saw The Beggar’s Opera in the Regent’s Park Outdoor Theatre, this time I went to see The Beaux Stratagem at The National.

It’s a Restoration comedy written by George Farquhar in 1707 and was adapted by Patrick Marber. It’s about two men who are on the run from blowing all their money in London and hole up in an inn in Lichfield. (The one I stayed at in Easter). While there, one pretends to be master and the other servant. They hit upon Dorinda, the younger daughter of the lady Bountiful. She also has a son, Mr Sullen, who lives at the home with his wife. The two are equally unhappily married.

The one playing the master courts Dorinda and the other Mrs Sullen, the unhappy wife. While this is happening, some highwaymen at the inn plan to rob the Bountiful residence. Meanwhile, a French prisoner of war, Count Bellair, is using the Irish/Swiss priest to try and woo Mrs Sullen also. 

All these plots come together, with the con-men defending the family from the robbers; and alls well that ends well, ending with a happy marriage, and more unconventionally, an equally happy divorce.

Farquhar died before this was presented on stage, so he had little to lose, allowing him to write some pretty brave things about the nobility of divorce, much of which he cribbed off Milton’s writing on the subject. It makes the play a little off kilter, Mrs Sullen having such noble and persuasive language in the middle of what is mostly fun and silliness.

Susannah Fielding played it very well. She had a sparkle in her eyes and I was lucky enough to be seated close enough to see it. It seemed clear that she was a fun and lively person, only brought to fits of despair after spending a bit of time with her husband. At the beginning of the second half, she addressed the audience direct, getting some cheers and support. I liked her a lot.

I also felt sorry for Mr Sullen at the end. He was a man who just wanted to be left alone to nurse his hangover with a dram and a venison pasty, he couldn’t be doing with any of the other characters.

Of the two rogues, I preferred, Archer, the one pretending to be the servant the most, payed by Geoffrey Streatfield. He warmed into the part very well, a swaggering, bold man who was not afraid to give Mrs Sullen some atrocious chat up lines. The part was originally written for Farquhar’s friend, so was a little stronger for that. He also had a stupid song about trifle to sing. 

The other, Aimwell,  was a very slight, feminine man, who when he was sword fighting the robbers at the end was dressed, and looked exactly like, Guybrush Threepwood. I have to admit, this broke my concentration near the end.

Guybrush Threepwood

Aimwell in The Beaux Stratagem

My favourite character was the servant Scrub, played by Pierce Quigley, who I’ve seen before as a brilliant Bottom at the Globe. He gave his character a proper Lichfield/Midlandy accent and delivered all his lines with such deadpan dourness, that almost every line brought a laugh.

There were also a lot of good songs in the play, these often raised a laugh, when one of the musicians would appear at the top of the multi-story set and, in the case of Streatfield’s character, goading him into singing a song he didn’t want to. Also very funny, was the accordionist in beret, red scarf and stripy scarf who appeared before the French count sang.

All in all, I laughed a lot. It’s not a particularly clever play. The lines do not sing with Goldsmith’s fine honed wit, or the anarchy of The Beggar’s Opera but it’s good fun, there’s singing, swordfighting, bad chat up lines and all sorts of good stuff. So I’d recommend it as a night out.