Wednesday 27 May 2020

The Clandestine Marriage at the Dr Johnson's Reading Circle (Part Two)

The first online meeting of the Dr Johnson’s House Reading Circle having been a success, we scheduled another for the next week. So far we had performed the first two acts of The Clandestine Marriage for each other and, it not being a well known text among us, we wanted to see what would happen next.

Alas, the technology gods were not with us in this session. Some people fell in and out the programme, there were audio and visual aids and I found myself literally phoning in a performance to a speakerphone that was then heard on the video conference. What’s more, at times the voices became strange and tinny. Ever wanted to hear an eighteenth century as performed by daleks? Garrick certainly never had those problems.

Despite the comedy of technical errors, the show had to go on and we went into act 3 where some lawyers were discussing their business. I have to admit, I was sure if there were jokes in this part that I wasn’t picking up on, maybe something about the breezy way the lawyers decided cases in advance. Maybe it was a spot on parody of the way lawyers talked to each other and the type have evolved since then.

Up to this point we have established that Sir John is set to marry Betsey, Sterling’s elder daughter but actually is in love with Fanny, his younger. Unknown to him, Fanny has secretly married Lovewell, the family steward. When Sir John asks to swap daughters, Sterling is shocked. He declares that he is no ‘African Slave Trade’. Of course, Sir John wins him over financially, letting Sterling out of financial obligations that were set in place with the older daughter. It’s hard to say whether we’re supposed to be on Sir John’s side. Fanny has already told him that she doesn’t wish to marry him, yet he’s bribing her father into swapping brides without any thought to her at all. 

Poor Fanny, her older sister and her Aunt Heidelberg feel that she has been pretending to flirt with Lovewell to conduct a secret affair with Sir John. What annoys them most is that Fanny is so very nice, she just needs a shepherdess outfit and a lamb under her arm to be a picture of innocence. What’s more, she’s good to servants, says please and thank you and treats them politely, that can only be hiding depravities galore. Of course when Sterling meets up with them, he changes his mind about the whole marriage-swap thing, he has no backbone and Aunt Heidelberg is on Betsey’s side and promises to bring much more money in the future than Sir John.

Finally we met up with Fanny and her secret husband Lovewell, they decide that the best person to convince Sir John off her case is Lord Ogleby and Lovewell decides that Fanny is the person to make their case. Unfortunately, Lord Ogleby is so enamoured with the idea of himself as a magnet for all the ladies, he thinks that Fanny can’t marry Sir John because she loves him so, an idea that he finds utterly understandable despite their huge age difference. When the Lord suggest this to Sterling, he quickly tots up the figures and agrees - and that is where we left the plot this week.

It seems like the central joke of the piece is that everyone wants Fanny and the bumbling and misunderstanding each character undergoes provide the laughs. Unfortunately for a modern audience, Fanny herself doesn’t have enough to say, she is more plot point than character and it makes most of the men in the piece seem rather creepy. Thank goodness for Aunt Heidelberg, a character with power and influence, which is of course secured by her wealth.

We look forward to next week to discover if the play becomes a little more satisfying but even with the dated comedy, the technical mishaps and the plague swirling about somewhere out there, it was still a pleasure to meet up with however we could and discover a new text together.

Wednesday 20 May 2020

The Clandestine Marriage at the Dr Johnson's Reading Circle (Part One)

The previous Dr Johnson Reading Circle, in which we looked at William Cowper, was one of the last events before corona-virus closed all museums and, it seemed, any sort of fun. Now on a glorious May evening, with the government guidelines are as clear as the Fleet Ditch, the Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle meet again, online. 

Meeting as a panel of faces, we did what we could to eighteenth-century ourselves up. Some wore bonnets, some hats, others wore wigs, whether out of material or homemade from paper. There was even a custom background of Dr Johnson’s House. It’s amazing what people can pull together when locked at home.  

We had planned to read through George Coleman and David Garrick’s, The Clandestine Marriage but we took the opportunity to split it up and this time read the first two acts. It was not a play many knew much about but it was in the same volume that supplied us with She Stoops to Conquer and that had provided a lot of entertainment. 

The introduction gave the plays slightly troubled origins, co-authored by Coleman and Garrick, who argued with each other about who deserved the credit, it was also based on the early pictures of Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode and a novel by a man called John Shebbeare called The Marriage Act. As the picture series was tragedy, the novel a polemic and the play a comedy, I’m sure there are some major differences.

We begin with Fanny Sterling and her secret husband, Lovewell. They meet in secret under the watchful eyes and tight lips of Betty, who only wishes she could tell a few people, not that it makes much difference, they are so obviously lovey-dovey. At the same time, her older sister is negotiating a ‘proper’ marriage with Sir John Melvil, who is distinctly unromantic. Sir John and Lord Ogleby go to the Sterling’s country house to finalise details for the marriage.

There are added complications though, Lord Ogleby’s determination to prove himself a lady’s man aside, it turns out that Sir John is not a cold-hearted lover at all, it’s that he is far keener on the younger daughter, Fanny, than the older. What’s worse, he thinks he has Lovewell on his side to help him woo her.

The first two acts involved a lot of setting up of character and situation, with all the pieces moved into place for future shenanigans. While lacking the big laughs (so far) of the other comedies we’ve read, there were moments of humour. These included Mr Sterling’s desire to take everyone on the tour of his garden and show all his improvements, however vulgar. His sister, Mrs Heidelberg’s conviction that she herself is not ‘wulgur’ and knows how to mix with the ‘qualaty’. Then there were Lord Ogleby’s pretensions towards gallantry, which would be much easier if his back didn’t twinge so.

Add to that, outrageous French accents, perfumed paper being passed through video screens and the sheer pleasure of doing something different and fun, the evening was a success. 

The next two acts take place on Tuesday 26th May, contact the Reading Group on Facebook for the link.

Wednesday 13 May 2020

Review: A Pickle for the Knowing Ones by Timothy Dexter

If last week’s entry Hurlothrumbo was a little unusual, A Pickle for the Knowing Ones is something utterly bonkers. I was introduced to it in a slightly odd way, a Polish teacher working at the same primary school as me ordered a copy for her year 4 (aged 8-9) class. I never heard an explanation of why this book was chosen, whether it has a particular cultural relevance in Poland or what the book was for. All I knew was that there was  this very badly made rich-text print-on-demand book written in the eighteenth century and of captivating oddness. So I prigged it.

A Pickle for the Knowing Ones or Plain Truths in a Homespun Dress was originally a free text given out by an eccentric Massachusetts businessman named Timothy Dexter. He was largely uneducated and it shows in the book, which consists of lots of scraps of writing, badly spelt and not at all punctuated, often making very little sense. Ever listened to a Legendary Stardust Cowboy album or spent time in Anti-vax Facebook? If so, the incoherence and tone will be recognisable. I, however, Have spent the last 11 years reading children’s scrawls in exercise books - I can do this.

The first part is a description on his house and garden, much as Horace Walpole did for visitors to Strawberry Hill. His house in Newburyport was decorated in forty wooden statues of great people set ‘hiw up’ so that people can ‘peape sly and feele glad’ at considering such great people. This leads him to consider the nature of greatness and on the greatness of American Presidents in particular. He considers that being a president is like being a king but should ‘pleas the Peopel at large.’ 

He addresses himself to ‘Mr Pintterr’ (alas, not Mr Editor) and describes/rants about the people who have wronged him in the past, including the lawyer hired by his son-in-law to beat him up. This leads him to philosophical thoughts (as in the thoughts of a ‘flosofer’) about the nature of mankind. 
“Tell trouth Man is the best Annemel and the worst”. He concludes that we resemble different kinds of animals, ‘sum like a dog sum Lik horses sum bare sum Cat sum Lion sum like Ouls sum a Monkey sum Wild Cat sum lam sum A Dove sum a hogg sum a oxe sum a snake” - though he doesn’t really elucidate in what way people are like this, he does extend the idea, deciding that there are lots of different kinds of people, “there is Grat Minds and littel minds Grat sols anf littel sols grat minds and littel minds”.

In the next section, he tells us his disdain for people of learning, which doesn’t surprise anyone who's read up to this point. He also dislikes priests.

The next section is his plan to build a great ‘mouserum’ if none of his enemies murder him first. He plans to fill this place with many examples of greatness and while he’s at it he concocts a plan for world peace. This plan consists of world leaders meeting round a common table to discuss problems, a precursor to the UN perhaps. He thinks the chair of this meeting should be that peaceful soul, ‘boneypartey’. He warns those who scorn his museum that they shall look silly in the end. Then he talks about meeting the devil…I think…and the devil came in the form of a black slave…to be honest, this was the bit I couldn’t understand at all.

The next part is a longer denunciation of the lawyer who beat him up at the orders of his son-in-law.

Now he seems to have a transcriber, perhaps it originally appeared in the newspaper. The ideas still have the same strident tone and car-crash pileup, but they are properly spelt. The first part is a call against ruffians in the neighbourhood. The second is a little more philosophy, that the world is “one very large living creature”, possibly a precursor to Gaia theory. On this living creature, man is the head animal and “the whale is the head fish”. Then the section goes into his own full style and he talks about how he hates his learned son-in-law and considers his wife to be like a ghost.

The next section is about how the masons won’t let him in because he has ‘toue much knowledge in my head” but it doesn’t matter, because they’re rubbish anyway.

The next section again details his grievances, that his son was an idiot, that his daughter married a cruel thief who hired a lawyer to beat him up and that his wife is a cruel ghost. It’s not that he’s a bad person, he wouldn’t hurt man nor beast, well, perhaps some beasts. 
“I Meane no hurt to A Flie only when he bits me when I kils the flye if I can”. You should feel sorry for such a man, his family are really mean to him and it makes him sad.  “with tears in my Eys I Can’t see to Rite Aany more”.

The next part is how he made his money. He collected useless currency and then sold it back to the government at a fraction of the cost but more than he paid for it. He sold warming pans to the Caribbean, although they used them as molasses ladles. He hoarded whalebone and got lucky when the French started a fashion for men’s corsets. He sold Bibles to Asia, not to the people living there, but to missionaries. He caught stray cats and sold them as mousers to plantations. He sold woollen gloves in the East Indies to a group of Portuguese traders going to Alaska. Finally, he literally managed to sell coal to Newcastle as the coal miners were on strike when his ships arrived. Was it luck? Was it intelligence? Who knows? This ranty mess doesn’t help clear that up.

The next part is a repetition about how evil his son-in-law is and a repetition about how his wife is a malicious ghost at that you can ‘count the scars on my head’ if you don’t believe him.

The next section changes tack - his son-in-law has just died. The world is a wonderful place.

The next section is about drought I think - I got lost on this part also.

The next part is a summing up, a boasting of his achievements despite his not having much. He boasts that one of the few skills he has is to “play on A Jous harp” which was so good “it would mak my mouth warter and the ladeys sumthing warter”. I’ve heard the Jew’s Harp and I didn’t realise it had aphrodisiac qualities but Timothy Dexter claims it’s true.

In the next section he feels bad again. Everyone in the world except him is a liar and what’s worse, “the burds will Chip offen before I Can git to sleep”.

The last part is not written by Timothy Dexter but by Jonathan Plummer, whom he paid to be his poet. He must have paid fairly well as Plummer writes a panegyric that trumpets Dexter’s wisdom and literary qualities, a particular irony for anyone having struggled through this book. However, he didn’t pay Plummer enough to make the poem any good.

The afterward is the best part of the book. In the second edition, Dexter responded to to complaints that there were no punctuation marks in it with a page of them and the instruction for the reader to salt and pepper the writing as they pleased.

The Pickle for the Knowing Ones may be short but it’s incredibly hard work. While I’d argue that Hurlothrumbo has, or at least reaches for, artistic merit, The Pickle for the Knowing Ones has none whatsoever, nor does it even try to achieve any. It is nothing more than the rantings of an illiterate man which an over-inflated sense of himself, it may as well be a Trump speech.

Wednesday 6 May 2020

Review: Hurlothrumbo by Samuel 'Maggoty' Johnson

The first thing that needs to be made clear about Hurlothrumbo is that although it’s by a Samuel Johnson, it’s not by that Samuel Johnson. This Samuel Johnson was a Cheshire dancing master and one of the last official family fools who was also known as Maggoty. He was a man who amused a lot of important people, including members of the Rockingham Whigs and Robert Walpole.

The second thing that needs noting about Hurlothrumbo is that it was incredibly successful, running for 50 nights, coming close to The Beggar’s Opera’s 62. The other Samuel Johnson’s play Irene ran for 9 which was considered decent. This means that ‘Maggoty’ Johnson would have received at least sixteen benefit nights as the author, not counting any benefits or wages given to him as one of the performers.

The last main thing to note, is that Hurlothrumbo’s success makes absolutely no sense. Ridiculed as a peculiar mess when it was first performed, Johnson’s appearance as Lord Flame, sometimes on stilts and sometimes not, is utterly baffling. Even more baffling now we have no clear report of how it was staged and what effects it created other than, ‘odd, whimsical and original’. As far as I can tell, this was a play people went to so they could talk about it and laugh at it, much as people may watch The Room or other films noted as so bad, they’re good.

The play is set in a Kingdom somewhere, where the King Soarethereal rules. He is a daydreamy person, given to intellectual pursuits. A character describes him as being ‘above this sublunary world,’ who ‘keeps his court in the horizon’ and ‘makes a foot-ball of the globe’. Apparently he also ‘plays bowls with the sky’. He’s also in love, having absconded a Princess of Spain with the help of her brother Theorbeo. 

There’s unrest in his realm, some of his noblemen have sold off their property, a sure sign that they are squirrelling money away incase of unrest and the Dutch King Lomporhomock has been sighted but these should not be a problem as Hurlothrumbo, a general brave enough to have a murdered a lion in a Roman gladiatorial match, is on hand to protect them.

Unfortunately, the rebels bribe Hurlothrumbo and the King and his allies find themselves outnumbered, outgunned and facing a sticky end. Theorbeo, the Spanish prince finds himself sent to ‘The House of Burning Glass’, a way of killing people with refracted sunlight. 

Fortunately, King Soarethereal and his allies win despite the odds, the rebels exiled, Lompohomock driven off and Hurlothrumbo very sorry and condemned to wear a coat with his crimes written on them for the rest of his life.

Oh - and Lord Flame is there. 

His role is a real conundrum. He’s a spurned lover, sometimes he serves as Greek chorus, sometimes he simply talks. He’s always remembered as the main character but he isn’t, although I can see why he was the most memorable one.

The real mystery I have about this play is the intention. Certainly the version I have (essentially a photocopy of the second edition) is packaged like a comedy, there’s a comic tag line on the title page which reads;

Similarly, the epilogue seems to acknowledge the ridiculous nature of the play. The Biographia Dramatica of 1782 described the epilogue as having been written ‘by a friendly hint’ to point out ‘the absurdity of the play’. 

There’s also ‘Maggoty’ Johnson’s reputation as a professional fool (in the jester sense) and his performance of the character of Lord Flame, which the Biographia described as ‘sometimes in one key, sometimes in another; sometimes fiddling, sometimes dancing, and sometimes walking in very high stilts.” Surely it must be intended a comedy, if the author performs his character in such a strange way. 


As jokey as everything surrounding the play is, the play itself feels serious, not only serious but grand and important, it’s like the play is desperately trying to reach a weight and beauty that condemns it to nonsense. 

There are certainly a semblance of structure and definite themes, of the conflict between ambition and contentment, and a conflict between worldly and unworldly characters. Our heroes, Soaretherial (and to a lesser extent Flame) are flighty, their eyes fixed to the heavens - in his stilts, Lord Flame sometimes literally had his head in the clouds. The bad characters are more grounded, concerned with money rather than higher things like love and the heavens.

The title character of Hurlothrumbo is the central battleground between the high and low. At his best, when fighting the lion, he is a man of ideals but at his worst can be paid off. This might be the moment to note that the description of the lion fight must be one of the most wonderfully over the top monologues ever. 

He’s also described as being so on the alert, that his very pores have sentries.

The sun also pops up a lot. It’s not a controlled metaphor, nothing in the play is controlled, but it is frequent. The sun is gazed on, reached for, straddled, ridden, burns out of people’s eyes. When Theorbeo is caught by enemies he is taken to ‘The House of Burning Glass’ to die like a dog in a closed car but is rescued by a lucky cloud. At one point Hurlothrumbo compares the Earth to a joint of meat roasting on a jack, the fruits ripening much like meat cooks though he ultimately wishes that the sun would come closer and kill everyone. 

The problem with the sun metaphor in the play is that it stands for whatever is needed at each moment, it’s not a sustained or controlled motif. There’s also the specificity of the metaphors which derail them, the example of the Sun and Earth like roast meat on a jack, or the king pledging to feed his troops brandy mixed with gunpowder as it will make them like dragons and; 
      “Then Swift lightning bolts from the nostrils flies, and lightning bolts from the anus.” He simply gets too enthused by the image that has caught his imagination.

The best discussion of Hurlothrumbo I found was in an introduction to an eighteenth century  book  The Bog-House Miscellany, that records graffiti on toilet walls which was attributed to an author called Hurlothrumbo. The author of the piece reckons that Samuel ‘Maggoty’ Johnson was the author of  the bog house book also and has a little discussion of Hurlothrumbo itself where he says that the play is not intending to be a satire of tragic excess but is the work of;
    “The mystic whose tendency is to merge the high and the low, the sublime and the absurd, within a single work”.

I described this play to my friends as eighteenth century The Room and I think what happened to that film is what happened to Hurlothrumbo. The Room was intended to be a moving domestic tragedy but due to technical incompetence, over-stuffed writing and a truly eccentric performance from its writer/director/star that it became a loved comic work. That writer, Tommy Wiseau, quickly declared he had been intending a back comedy all along and since toured the film to be ridiculed and loved at cinemas all over the world, accepting the ridicule but also the love. 

I feel that Samuel ‘Maggoty’ Johnson may have done something similar with Hurlothrumbo, to have reached for something so sublime and so very idiosyncratic that it was a source of ridicule but to have leaned into it to enjoy the love that we have for something that makes us laugh (not forgetting the serious financial benefit of a 50 night run and two editions of the script sold in quick succession). 

Another thing it reminded of was Death's Jest Book, an unperformed play that so caught it's authors imagination that it toppled in on itself.

This confusion with the piece is reflected in the prologue. On one hand, it acts as a warning, that the piece is ‘unchained by `art’ and gives ‘criticks’ the warning to ‘be gone’ because like swine, they wouldn’t understand the pearls that were to be cast before them and that as wolves howl at the moon, so critics hate anything not as earthbound and sluggish as they. On the other hand it revels in its lack of artistry, declaring that;
“Rules were by coxcombs made to cramp the mind, by nature free, unfetter’d and unconfin’d.” 

Not enough of the performance, or the context for it, exists now to really get why this play was the success it was. The script is quite hilarious in small bursts but rather tiresome overall and the character of Lord Flame, on stilts or not, makes absolutely no sense to me. I think you really had to be there, but I can get the ghost of a glimpse why.

(Also, as a total aside, the Hurlothrumbo was the name of the ship owned by Joshua Norton, one of my favourite historical oddities, who later declared himself Emperor of the United States and Lord Protector of Mexico, and was actually obeyed in San Francisco.)