KEEP IT SHORT, KEEP IT SIMPLE!

A look at the short-story and some of its best exponents across the literary landscape

I recall an English teacher once asking the class to write a short-story on any subject they chose. His only instruction was, ‘Keep it short, keep it simple!’ And that is really the art of the short-story. It goes without saying that to write an outstanding short-story and still adhere to those rules requires a special kind of talent. Short story writing in the latter part of the 19thcentury and the first half of the 20thcentury was a task undertaken by most writers of the time. I cannot include them all but will use one or two to illustrate my point. In recent times the only place you will find short-stories on a regular basis are in Sunday Supplements or women’s magazines. Or as they are now known, ‘gender specific publications!’ (Dear Lord and Father of mankind forgive our foolish ways!)

Story telling in its oral form goes back into the mists of history. For one thing it was a device to sooth frightened children or to help them get to sleep. Although when I was a small child trying to get to sleep I remember my Dad’s voice reciting, ‘One dark and stormy night three robbers sat in a cave. The eldest said to the youngest, ‘Tell us a tale…’ Nightmares!  Gradually the short- story became a written art and by the nineteenth century had a number of authors purveying their talents. The father of the short-story is generally regarded as the American Edgar Allan Poe.(Photo below) Believed to be the first writer to live on the income from his work his poem ‘The Raven’ established him on the literary scene. Two of his short-stories ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ and ‘ The Fall of the House of Usher’ are generally recognised as helping the short-story become an accepted literary genre. He is also credited with writing the first detective story, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue.’ It would be 47 years before Sherlock Holmes appeared on the scene.

 Poe died in 1849 at the age of 40. His rather disjointed and peripatetic lifestyle had not helped his health problems. The cause of death is worthy of a short-story. Take your pick it seems. Cholera, consumption, rabies, heart disease, meningitis, etc, etc!!!

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Whatever his health problems Edgar Allan Poe (He was just plain Edgar Poe, but both his parents died young and he was taken in care by a John Allan.) had set the standard bar high for future short-story writers. Mark Twain’s place in American literary history, indeed world history is based on ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and his chum Huckleberry Finn. However Twain was a prolific short-story writer and produced around sixty of them. My favourite short-story title is from the Twain oeuvre. ‘ The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.’ More fable than story like most of his stories humour plays a big part. Twain’s most famous quote is, ‘Reports of my death have been exaggerated.’ Not to mention, ‘Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority it is time to pause and reflect.’ The sixty odd stories are still in print but are not particularly famous outside the USA. They are good, but not great. Mark Twain took his name from the cry of the Mississippi riverboat men as they tested the water depth. ‘By the mark, twain!’ I think I would have stuck with Samuel Langhorne Clemens which is a great name.

Sam Clemens not withstanding the most famous author of the 19thcentury is surely Charles Dickens. (Jane Austen’s fame did not really blossom into full-blown adoration until the 20thcentury). Dickens most famous short-story is ‘The Signal-Man.’ The protagonist of the story being invested with supernatural vision it is a horror story that Stephen King would be proud of. Dickens did like a ghost story and included them in his short-story collections. Despite rumours to the contrary Dickens and Twain never met. Twain did attend a reading given by Dickens in New York on one of his American tours.

Another American short-story writer still remembered is William Sydney Porter who went by the pen-name of O. Henry. This author had a rather colourful life. His first wife died quite young, his second left him and somewhere along the way he was sentenced to five years imprisonment for embezzling money from the bank in which he worked! None of this deterred him from achieving fame on the New York literary scene of the early 20thcentury. His most famous creation was the Cisco Kid. Most of his short-stories dealt with the ordinary people of New York City. ‘The Gift of the Magi’ probably being his best story. In this a destitute husband and wife want to buy each other a Christmas present. The lady sells her hair and the gentleman sells his fob watch. With the money they receive the lady buys a new chain for the fob watch and the gentleman buys special combs for the lady’s hair. Read on!

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Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay in 1865. (Photo above) A child of the Raj he spent his early years in India before he and his sister were sent to school in England. The married couple in Southsea who looked after them were cruel and nasty people. Only holidays with an Aunt in London saved his childhood from total disaster.  Early journalism back in India pushed him towards a writing career. He was a novelist, a poet and a writer of short-stories. Later in life he would write the radio script for the first Christmas message by a reigning monarch. This was George V in 1932. The Jungle Book is regarded as a masterpiece of children’s writing. There was also The Jungle Book Stories, a collection of short stories for children. He would write many short stories in his lifetime, perhaps the most famous being ‘The Man Who Would be King.’ In 1907 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature the youngest recipient then and now. A hundred years ago Kipling was one of the literary worlds favourite writers. As the twentieth century moved on long-forgotten critics started to claim he was an imperialist, a racist, his stories were rubbish and so on and so forth. Strangely enough in India the criticism was not always against him. What the moronic critics could not get their small brains around was the fact that Kipling was a child of his time! 99.9 % of the Western World were racist in the latter half of the nineteenth century and beyond. The term was not even used. It was just their way of life. People really do need to stop judging the past by the politically-correct, risk-averse nonsense that passes for criticism in 2019! People will be reading Kipling for some time yet.

Another author who used the Asian continent for some of his most famous stories was one William Somerset Maugham. As the career of Kipling came to its end Maugham’s star was burning bright. His first novel in 1908 had been a best-seller and his plays matched any other playwright in turns of production on the West–end stage. In the 1930’s he was believed to be the country’s highest paid author. He is often criticised for his ‘plain prose’ but his plots and character descriptions are a joy to read. I think I had read most of his stories before I was 20 years old. Having gone to school in the Far East his stories set there held a certain resonance for me. He wrote most of his short-stories between 1920 and 1945. His Ashenden stories set in the world of intelligence provided Ian Fleming with the idea of creating his very own secret agent! His most famous story is ‘Rain’ set in Hong Kong and describes the collision of culture between a prostitute, ‘Sadie Thompson’ and a missionary. My own favourite is probably the ‘Book-Bag. ‘ It involves the taboo subject of incest and unrequited love on behalf of the lovelorn District Officer. The Bag in question is a laundry bag full of books which the narrator carries with him everywhere he goes. He is addicted to books and does not wish to run out of reading material. I quite like him!

Hector Hugh Munro was born in Burma in 1870. His father was a member of the Imperial Indian Police Force. Following the death of his mother he and his siblings returned to England and lived a morbid childhood with two maiden aunts. Hector became a journalist and this eventually led to his career as a writer, publishing novels, but mainly short-stories of which there were many. Writing under the pen-name ‘SAKI’ he is known for his satirical edge particular when describing politicians in his stories. He wrote 138 stories in all and his most famous collection is probably ‘Beasts and Super Beasts.’ ‘The Open Window’ remains at the top of most peoples lists as his most famous story. The First World War would bring it all to an end. He lied about his age to join up (He was 44 and did not have to go) He declined a commission and served as a trooper. He was in a shell-crater at Beaumont Hamel when he was shot in the head by a German sniper. Compared to O.Henry by many critics he remains one of the outstanding short-story writers of the twentieth century.

Following on the success of Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain came two American authors whose fame was probably even greater. F. Scott Fitzgerald (Photo below) was born in 1896. Brought up mainly in Buffalo New York although he was born in St Paul Minnesota. His family were not well off but rich enough to provide him with a good education although he dropped out of Princeton and joined the Army in 1917 but never finished training in time to take part in any action. His drinking and writing started around 1920 when his first novel ‘This Side of Paradise ‘ was published. The profits from the first year were good but Fitzgerald turned reluctantly to writing short-stories to supplement his income. He published four collections and had 164 stories published in various periodicals. His most famous story is probably ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.’ Renowned as a writer of ‘The Jazz Age’ in the twenties he met up with Ernest Hemingway while living in Paris. However Fitzgerald’s fame rested on two novels, ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘Tender is the Night.’ The latter being the better book in my humble opinion. His short-stories were written to maintain his income and are good but ‘Benjamin Button’ apart nothing great.

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 Hemingway on the other hand was a different kind of writer all together. Short-stories were invented for him! A writer who never used two words where one would do is sometimes claimed to be responsible for the most famous short short-story. “For sale, baby shoes. Never worn.” Much debate that in a slightly different form the words used pre-date Hemingway. Whoever wrote it the words are sad but brilliant.

Hemingway produced a number of great novels in his lifetime but in between his masterpieces he would publish collections of short-stories. ‘The First 49’ is probably his most famous collection and contains his best short-story. ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro.’ A story about a man on safari with his friend Helen towards whom he has a somewhat ambivalent attitude. The man has contracted gangrene but the party has run out of medicine and their truck has broken down. The story centres around Harry, the man in question, as he reminisces about his past life.

Hemingway published over a hundred short-stories in collections and single stories for magazines. A number of his collections were published posthumously. In 1952 he published what would be his final novel, ‘The Old Man and the Sea.’ In 1954 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Ernest Hemingway was born on 21 July 1899. On 2 July 1961 at his home in Ketchum Idaho he rose early. He sat in a chair in the doorway leading to the verandah facing the rising sun. He put the two barrels of his Bess rifle into his mouth and pulled both triggers. A sad and tragic end to a great career. His family tried to pass it off as a shooting accident. The post-mortem put paid to that suggestion. The Hemingways were a indeed a tragic family. His father, brother and sister committed suicide. Almost thirty-five years to the day of his suicide Hemingway’s grand-daughter Margaux committed suicide. How tragic can a family get? It is an awful legacy to hold. What we have to hold is the writing of Hemingway regarded by many as the greatest writer in American literary history.

Raymond Carver was born in Oregon in 1938. He wrote only short-stories or poems. A restless spirit he moved from place to place in the USA and occasionally travelled to England. He was an admirer of Hemingway but claimed not to be influenced by him. The brevity and anger in some of his stories tended to prove otherwise. He cited Lawrence Durrell as an influence which came as a surprise to me! Durrell’s style and content is far removed from that of Raymond Carver. However Raymond Carver invested a lot of his stories with humour and grit. Not for him the high wealth of the very rich but those down on their luck and short of a dime. His most famous stories are  ‘Will You Please be Quiet Please?’ And ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.’ Raymond Carver brought to the American short-story the world of the ordinary made extra-ordinary by the way he wrote. He is well remembered in American literary circles. Sadly the author was a heavy drinker until he was forty when a doctor warned him that he would be dead within months if he continued. He stopped drinking but carried on smoking and in 1988 aged just fifty he died of lung cancer.

As you can imagine some of the stories mentioned in this blog have had to be revisited and the authors researched. It is a labour of love I will admit. I read a lot of Ray Bradbury in my younger days. (Where did the time go!?) However I never knew that much about him. Reading up on his life story has made me elevate him to the status as one of the great writers of American Literature. I love this quote:

 ‘Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.’

 

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Ray Bradbury was born in Illinois in 1920. The family moved to Tucson Arizona before finally settling in Los Angeles. As a young child one of his aunts read short stories to him on a regular basis. He was 14 when the family arrived in L.A and he thought he had arrived in paradise. (aka: Hollywood!)  He soon made the right contacts and while still fourteen earned his first fee as a writer by selling a joke to George Burns for use on the Burns and Allen Radio Show.’ The young Bradbury made his way around Hollywood on roller-skates. He would head for the entrances of all the major studios in the hope of getting autographs from his heroes and heroines.

This quote from Google is worth reading: Ray Bradbury was an American fantasy and horror author who rejected being categorized as a science fiction author, claiming that his work was based on the fantastical and unreal. His best known novel is Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian study of future American society in which critical thought is outlawed.

‘Critical thought is outlawed?’ The way political correctness is going in this country we may not be too far away from that dystopian future? Meanwhile back at ‘Fahrenheit 451. ‘ For those who do not know, that is the temperature at which paper spontaneously combusts.  It is a brilliant story and much to everyone’s surprise the film mostly kept faith with the book. The book was written in a library study room where there were typewriters for rent. The rental costs were $9:80c! However that book and film were from the fifties. Bradbury published his first collection of short-stories, ‘Dark Carnival’ in 1947. Before that he had attended many various informal and formal gatherings of science-fiction writers in and around L.A. Following ‘the publication of ‘ Fahrenheit 451’ his fame became world -wide and he became richer by the day! ‘The Martian Chronicles’ soon followed. Ray Bradbury had a vivid imagination that was far- reaching and capable of producing an extraordinary vision of the future. Early in his career he proclaimed that he would write everyday and proceeded to do so for the next sixty-nine years! He produced writing for film and TV, over thirty novels and more than six hundred short- stories. It is difficult to name his best short-story. The one that is usually at the top of most lists is ‘I Sing the Body Electric.’ His short-stories were published in various journals and newspapers. Then the best ones would be assembled in a collection. ‘The Illustrated Man’ is one such collection featuring the title story and eighteen other excellent stories. ‘The Illustrated Man’ was made into a feature film starring Rod Steiger. Made back in 1969, a mere fifty years ago!

Sadly on 5 June 2012 Ray Bradbury died in his beloved Los Angeles at the age of 92. He left a remarkable legacy.

Stephen King! Say those two words and ‘The Shining, ‘Carrie,’ ‘ Misery, ’et al come to mind. He has sold over 350 million books! However he has also produced around 150 short-stories. His last collection, ‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams,’ was published in 2015. Nearly all of his stories are written in his usual horror genre. I have not read all his stories as I am not a fan of the genre. My favourite King story is ‘The Shawshank Redemption.’ More thriller than anything else it is a brilliant story. One short-story I have read is, ‘The Breathing Method.’ It concerns a doctor who has instructed a pregnant patient on a breathing method to adopt when the baby arrives. On his way home he comes across a road traffic accident involving his patient. To his horror he finds that his patient has been decapitated. But not only that, her head is still controlling her body! Read on……. (Do not read this story on your own in an isolated creaking cottage where there has been a power failure and the only light is by candles!). Stephen King has always been interested in the mechanics of writing and it is to his credit that he carries the banner for short-story writing in the 21stcentury.

There are so many writers I could have mentioned at length. D. H Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy, H.E.Bates, E.M. Forster, Joseph Conrad, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce; the list is endless!

But this is already a long piece of writing about Short– Stories! So it is time to give you my top three greatest writers of the short-story in my humble opinion.

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In third place I would put Anton Chekhov. More famous for his plays, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, the Cherry Orchard and The Seagull. All are regularly staged around the world in this century. Chekhov was born in Russia in 1860. He qualified as a doctor but it was never a rewarding profession as Dr Chekhov tended to treat the poor people in his care free of charge. He started writing while at university and in his early twenties started making connections that would advance his literary career. Also in his twenties he developed early signs of tuberculosis but managed to treat himself and hold it at bay. He is seen as a landmark playwright in that his characters spoke as normal people. Not for him the usual type of speech in other plays of the day with archaic language and long boring declamations. He brought changes to the writing of short-stories which would influence the writing style of future writers. He would lay the characters before the reader and provide their conversations but there was rarely a defining plot with a beginning, a middle and an end. More a start and a finish and the reader could work it all out! He wrote over two hundred stories all to a very high standard. Raymond Carver thought of him as the greatest writer of short-stories. Most lists of his stories would place ‘The Party’ and ‘The Lady with the Dog’ at the top. However choose any Chekhov story to read and you will be impressed. He married a lady called Olga in 1901. A strange arrangement in that she continued her acting career in Moscow and he his writing career in Yalta. In June 1904 they both travelled to a spa in Germany for rest and recuperation. His tuberculosis was now a serious issue. A month later he died at the age of 44. A great loss to the world of literature. In Russia he is placed second behind Leo Tolstoy on their list of great Russian writers. Chekhov had met Tolstoy when the great man came to stay with him on one occasion.

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In second place I would put a French author by the name of Guy de Maupassant. Named by many as the father of the modern short-story his three hundred plus short-stories inspired Somerset Maugham and O. Henry among many other writers of the twentieth century. He was born near Dieppe in 1850. By the time he had entered his teenage years his mother had obtained a separation from his father. A brave lady in a male dominated society! She would be the great influence on his life and provided guidance and advice to her son. His working life began in the Civil Service and he did not publish his first story until he was thirty. It proved to be his masterpiece. French is an elegant language and if I tell you the story was called ‘Boule de Suif’ it just rolls off the tongue? Then we translate it to English and it becomes  ‘Ball of Suet!’ Not quite rolling off the tongue! It is a brilliant story of the class system that operated in France during the Franco-Prussian war.  The title of the story is the name given to a prostitute who travels in a coach with people who see themselves as above talking to her. Until they have to! The published story was an immediate success and the author started to publish collections on an almost annual basis. Within twelve years he had written over three hundred stories. Yet at the age of just 42 he died from syphilis first contracted in his twenties. His last months of life were full of pain and madness and he died in Paris in 1893. Despite his short career his stories placed him in the pantheon of great writers and like Chekhov it would be hard to find a poorly written story.

And so to first place. In the non-English speaking world it is likely that Chekhov or de Maupassant would be in first place. In America every writer on the ‘greatest’ list would be American. But here in England on my list I give you Katherine Mansfield.

Katherine was born in Wellington New Zealand in 1888. A daughter of a well-off family she and her sisters attended school in London from 1903 until 1906 when she returned to New Zealand. Finding life there rather mundane she returned to London in 1908 where she found life more exciting. She had started writing while at school and had various articles published. Her tangled love life and fragile health provided an impetus to keep writing. She married a George Bowden and promptly left him within twenty-four hours!  It would take her nine years to obtain a divorce and marry John Murry with whom she had an on off, maybe, maybe not relationship! All in addition to tempestuous affairs with her female and male lovers.  Into this mix were added friendships with D H Lawrence and his wife not to mention Virginia and Leonard Woolf! Her first published collection was in 1911. ‘In a German Pension’ provided the reader with stories that reflected the time she had spent in Germany. In later years Katherine would describe this collection as ‘immature.’ Some critics accused her of plagiarizing Chekhov which was a little unfair. She may have copied his modernist style but the ideas for the stories were all her own.  Chekhov was indeed her inspiration but as she published individual stories in various magazines critics came to realise that here was a writer worth noting. She now travelled regularly between London and Paris usually to avoid the English winter. But tuberculosis is a pernicious and unrelenting disease. Various doctors did their best but their treatments proved futile. By the time her second collection ‘Bliss’ was published in 1920 the author must have known her life was coming to a premature end. The collection was well received and Katherine continued to write. Her collection ‘The Garden Party’ was published in 1922 to great acclaim. She moved to Fontainebleau near Paris in late 1922. On 9 January 1923 she died at the age of 34. Such a sad waste of a life. Along with de Maupassant and Chekhov they could have given us another hundred years of writing? What stories have we lost?  ‘The Garden Party’ is a masterpiece of writing. It deals with the class system and is beautifully observed. A marquee is being erected for the party when a young workman is killed by an accident with a falling pole. The dilemma for the family is do they cancel the party in memory of the young man? Or as he is not one of the family do they continue? Read on! Another of her stories about the class system is the ‘Life of Ma Parker.’ I had to write an analysis of this story as part of my O.U degree course. I must have another look at it some time! After her death John Murry published posthumous collections of his wife’s stories. He did much to make sure her name was enshrined in the history of short-story writing and I certainly did not need convincing!

                         Katherine Mansfield by day and by night

Much revered in New Zealand a statue of Katherine was finally erected in Wellington ninety years after her death. Much debate in New Zealand about whether she would ever have returned to the country of her birth. It is of little consequence to the reader as her work is available wherever you live. (Well maybe not North Korea!)

All that you have read is my subjective opinion and other people would probably compile a completely different list. If you have not been inclined to read short-stories before I hope this blog persuades you to try one or two. Most them can be found in charity bookshops and some websites publish them for free!

Recommended Reading List:

Katherine Mansfield – Selected Stories– OXFORD WORLD CLASSICS

Guy de Maupassant –   Bed 29 and other stories– available on Amazon

Anton Chekhov –  The Steppe and other stories –   Penguin Classics

Somerset Maugham – Collected Short Stories Vols 1 -4– Penguin Books

The Stories of Raymond Carver  –   Picador Books

Stephen King   –   Everything’s Eventual  – New English Library

Ernest Hemingway – The First Forty – Nine Stories  –  Arrow Classics

…and I could not let my recommended list be published without a mention of….

The Perfect Dinner Party and other Word Gatheringsby Rod Pickles!

Still available on Amazon Kindle!

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

 

 

A PLAYLIST FOR THE SNOWFLAKE GENERATION

Please do not read this if you are of a sensitive disposition.

 

News recently that a moron had complained to a radio station in the USA. Just one moron, mind. They did not think the radio station should be playing ‘Baby Its Cold Outside’ at Christmas. The metoo, youtoo, whotoo and all the other bandwagon chasers were soon on the case accusing this song of bringing civilization as we know it crashing to the ground. A couple of other spineless radio stations stopped playing it despite the majority of listeners opposing the decision. In the meantime Frank Loesser’s Academy Award winning song moved into the Billboard Top Ten for digital downloads in the week of 22 December!!! Just before Christmas on different days I was in a Garden Centre and ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside ‘ was playing over the speakers, ditto a few days later in Sainsburys. But of course the snowflakes were falling over themselves to find something else to moan about. This time they declared that ‘Fairytale of New York’ by the Pogues should be banned for evermore because of its naughty lyrics. As in the use of the word ‘Faggott!’ Now I could not name you another Pogues song and I think the particular song in question is a load of old rubbish. However I am aware that it is an iconic song of the eighties and should be left alone to air as and when a DJ feels like it.

So what other songs face the icy hands of the sensitive snowflakes around their lyrics. Try these for size:

First up we have Gary Puckett and the Union Gap with …… ‘Young Girl!

Well Gary how to defend this song? ‘That come on look is in your eyes!’ What were you thinking?  If the snowflakes hear this one they will melt!

Then we have the orgy song, AKA ‘Seven Little Girls (Sitting in the back seat kissing and a hugging with Fred!’)  Fred? Was that the best they could come up with? Fred! And then there is the message to the driver. Keep you mind on your driving, Keep you hands on the wheel, Keep your snoopy eyes on the road ahead. In reality the driver would have pulled into the nearest lay-by and joined Fred on the back seat!

A message here for the melting snowflakes. It is only a song, it did not really happen?

Then there is the Stalking Song by Glen Campbell. How did this one escape the recording studio?

Turnaround look at me!!!’ Here is the first verse:

‘There is someone walking behind you

Turn around, look at me

There is someone watching your footsteps

Turn around, look at me.’

Good grief! It is just as well dear old Glen is singing his songs in heaven, or somewhere?

Then of course there is the grooming song from Neil ‘Smiler’ Sedaka! ‘Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen.’ ‘You’ve grown up before my very eyes. I bet she has you little devil!

If I could only recommend one song for the Snowflakes it would be….. ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls’ by that French charmer and lover of little girls who get bigger every day, Maurice Chevalier. Dear me that one would be incinerated if the Snowflakes were capable of striking a match? For those of us of a less sensitive nature it is of course an innocent song from ‘Gigi.’

A close contender for first place on the list comes from South Pacific. That show stopping number ‘There aint Nothing Like a Dame’ is bound to come in for complaint sooner or later. Even money the next Broadway production of the musical leaves the song out?

There are so many songs capable of upsetting the snowflakes. What miserable lives these people must lead. ‘And today we are going to find songs which we can complain about!’ Get a life for goodness sake!

Ever day political correctness creeps across the world trying to restrict free speech and avoid anyone being upset. The recent BBC production of ‘Les Miserables’ was a case in point. It is essentially a story that ten or twenty years go would have featured an all white cast. But not in 2019. We had a black chief of police in the Paris of 1832! We had a black innkeeper married to a white Frenchwoman. This would never have happened! No one can fault their acting but it is colour-blind casting and turns a drama into a comedy. Next up a black Robinson Crusoe and a white Man Friday? You heard it here first!

In our universities the Snowflakes have their headquarters. More and more of these students are demanding ‘Safe Spaces.’ This is somewhere the poor darlings can go and not have to hear points of view that could upset their sensitive nature. Once upon a time Germaine Greer was one of the most rebellious of people and was in great demand as a speaker. How things have changed. Snowflakes were demanding that an invitation to her be withdrawn last year because they took exception to something she said about ‘transgender’ people. It was something along the lines of if you are born a woman then you stay a woman no matter what. Hands up those who would agree? Don’t worry your secret is safe with me!

I could go on but the thought police could well be on my trail. Remember the man who was visited by a snowflake policeman and told he needed to be careful about what he was thinking!!!

George Orwell you should be living at this hour

Franz Kafka should join him. Both would be thinking to themselves:

 ‘But it was meant to be fiction!’

Can you add to the playlist? Feel free to comment

Keep taking the tablets!

WHAT THE DICKENS!

           A beginners guide to the novels of Charles Dickens

………..or a refresher for those already familiar with his books?

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Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812. He was the son of John and Elizabeth Dickens. His father was a naval clerk in the pay office on average wages. This was something of problem as John Dickens spent as though he was earning a King’s ransome! By the time Charles was 12 years old the family had moved to London.  His father was sent to a debtors prison for his failure to pay money he owed. Debtors prisons were strange affairs. Privately owned those incarcerated could receive visitors more or less as and when they chose. Those with families able to afford it could bring in their own furniture and be provided with a larger room or cell in which to place it. Wives and children would usually accompany the impoverished head of the family. The problem with debtors prisons was that if you did not have a rich family or friends then the rest of your life would be spent in the prison. Those with rich friends were soon able to buy their way out. In John Dickens case he was sent to the Marshalsea the most famous of all debtors prisons. It would feature in future Dickens stories. As would his experience of working in a shoe blacking factory to help out the family income. It was in the factory that Charles met another boy whose surname was Fagin. Thus the formal education of the young Dickens came to a temporary end when he was 12; it would resume when he was 14. And yet he became the most famous novelist of Victorian England!

A few months after his imprisonment the mother of John Dickens died bequeathing him £450 which enabled him to pay his debt and leave the Marshalsea. (He owed a baker £40!) At this point there occurred an incident that would colour the view of Dickens towards his mother in particular, and women in general. She did not request his immediate removal from the blacking factory and Charles took a long time to forget and forgive. Like many a Victorian male he thought a women’s place was in the home, and such decisions about his employment should have been made by his father.

Once he became famous Dickens heard that his father was using his name as a means of underwriting his borrowing. At one time John Dickens even forged his son’s signature! He returned briefly to the Marshalsea but Charles Dickens had the money to buy him out. Undaunted John Dickens carried on behind his son’s back selling manuscript pages from his early novels! Nice man.

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The house in Portsmouth where Charles Dickens was born

I can remember the first time I came across Charles Dickens. My father had been posted to Northern Malaya in 1954. Our first year was spent on Penang Island where I had to suffer Batu Ferrenghi beach almost every day! Now people pay thousands to do the same! It was off that beach that I learnt to swim. It was tough but someone had to live there! Then off we went to the mainland and married quarters at RAF Butterworth.  We had a radio for company and every so often the Overseas Daily Mirror arrived to give you a months supply of papers to read! Other than that a visit to the cinema gave you Pathe News. For myself I discovered Classic Comics. They were a sort of graphic novel and portrayed famous books of the nineteenth century. They were published monthly I think and one particular month they featured ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ I was fascinated by the story. You need to bear in mind that I was almost two years ahead of my reading age as my parents had books in the house throughout my childhood. It helps!  David Copperfield followed a few months later. Although my favourite story was ‘Robinson Crusoe.’ The story of someone spending his life on the beach somehow chimed with my way of life!

   Back to England we came and I obtained a children’s edition of ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’  Then, in 1959 I think, the BBC produced the novel on television with Peter Wyngard in the starring role. Then in October the RAF decided to send us all back to the Far East and off to Singapore we went.

‘A Tale of Two Cities’ has always been the Dickens book I know best. However having spent the last few months researching and reading and re-reading Dickens I will run through the novels that are deemed to form the Dickens Canon.

So, to start at the very beginning…….

Dickens published numerous short- stories, plays, sketches, articles essays and of course numerous novels. Fifteen of these novels are considered his main body of work and it is those I will give you a flavour of here. I will then recommend five novels for you to read as you begin your journey to becoming a Dickensian scholar!

The Pickwick Paperswas published in 1836.

 Like all his novels it was published in episodic form. In this case monthly editions. It tells the story of the adventures of members of the Pickwick Club which has one Samuel Pickwick at its head. It is a series of vignettes told with a comic touch and introducing us to Nathaniel Winkle and Augustus Snodgrass. The unlikely names of his characters across all his novels is one outstanding feature of his writing. The episodes were slow to sell but in episode four Dickens, aware that he needed to introduce a livelier character, gives us Sam Weller. Or given Sam’s speech impediment,Veller! He brings much needed humour to the story. All is not sweetness and light though and drawing on his own experience Dickens has Samuel Pickwick find himself in the Marshalsea.

In Pickwick’s case it is refusal to pay a court order that lands him in trouble. While not a profound novel or one with a complex plot it established Charles Dickens on the literary scene. The gentle humour of the stories and the description of the English country life proved very popular. In Sam Weller Dickens had his first star character!

The story was published in book form the following year.

 And in that same year the story of Oliver Twistbegan its journey. It was published in twenty-four episodes between February 1837 and April 1839. The novel was published in book form in November 1838! Seems a strange marketing ploy but there you go! I have to confess this is my least favourite Dickens story. I know that the purpose of the author was to highlight the cruel and squalid lives of street children and the way they were driven into criminal activity. However poor old Oliver is captured not once but twice by Fagin’s gang. It seems as though Dickens has had writers block and decides to recycle the plot? It is one of those books that make you want to have a shower after you have read it? And yet the Victorians loved it! It was good versus evil with evil being conquered. What was not good was the portrayal of Fagin. In the first part of the

story Dickens is constantly referring to ‘The Jew.’ Protests from his friends and Jewish people affected him and in the second half of the story ‘Jew’ is not mentioned. But the damage had been done. Illustrations of Fagin showed him as the stereotypical Jewish villain. Over one hundred years later Alec Guinness would bring that villain to life in David Lean’s film. Much was made in 1948 of the time it took for Guinness to be made up to look like he did. I am sure that in later years Lean must have had some regret about how he depicted Fagin? Anti-semitism has never gone away.  There are many musicals out there that have great songs and daft plots but they provide enjoyment. I just wonder how Lionel Bart pitched his idea to would-be producers. ‘Well you see gov, all these kids is criminals, they are led by a Jewish criminal who sends them out to rob people. One of the main characters murders another of the main characters but not before she has sung one of my best songs, like.’ I really don’t get it. Never have. Yet for a while it made Mr Bart a very rich man. Not my favourite musical.

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George Cruikshank’s iconic illustration from ‘Oliver Twist.’  “More boy!”

Charles Dickens took various jobs before settling down to writing. At one time he was a House of Commons reporter. He had various jobs in journalism and edited a monthly magazine. All this helped him make the right contacts and quite soon he was combining his journalism with writing his first book. Following the publication of The Pickwick Papershe eased off his other work and soon became a full time author.

Moving right along….

While writing Oliver TwistDickens also started writing the Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby. And what adventures they were. One of the few novels that Dickens featured people living outside London. There are a multitude of characters in this book with some glorious names. Wackford Squeers the cruel schoolmaster is my favourite. His school was Dotheboys Hall which Dickens based on a school he had once visited in Yorkshire.  Then there is Newman Noggins and Peg Sliderskew! Mind you even Dickens ran out of names and one character is simply, ‘The Man Next door!’ Like a lot of Dickens stories you do need to read the book over continuous days otherwise you literally lose all of the plots! Of which there are many. Events take place in Yorkshire and Devon but most of the action is in London and provides a wonderful commentary on Victorian life for both rich and poor. Yet it lacks a solid core and when I finished reading the book for the first time in many years I was hard put to really understand what it had all been about. Worth a read though just to tick off all the character names! Of course nearly all of Dickens books contain his favourite character…. London. When it was published Oliver Twist still had a year to run so his readers were well served during that time.

They would have a break until May 1840 when The Old Curiosity Shopwas published in weekly parts quickly followed in February 1841 when Barnaby Rudgewas published in weekly parts until November of that year. Barnaby Rudge first!  This novel is one of two historical novels written by Dickens. It is set during the anti-Catholic riots of 1780. They were known as the Gordon Riots. The dubious honour belonged to Lord George Gordon who was considered to be the leader of the Protestant Association. Over 200 people were killed during the rioting across a few days in June. The situation was not helped by the Lord Mayor refusing to read the riot act which just encouraged the rioters to inflict more damage and violence on the Catholic population. And all because a bill enacted two years earlier in favour of Catholics was now the subject of dispute.  Into this melting pot of malevolence steps Barnaby Rudge, a simple soul with a pet raven called ‘Grip.’ Poor old Barnaby is led into trouble and almost finds himself on the executioner’s step. At the other end of the social scale rich men taunt each other, true love is vanquished albeit temporarily. On the way to a happyish ending there is trouble aplenty.

Worth a read for its historical background describing one of the more shameful episodes of English history. One of the least popular of all Dickens novels. It could be because memories of the Gordon riots would still be quite vivid for older members of the then population. One person who reviewed the novel was Edgar Allen Poe who thought more use could have been made of the raven. But then, as the scholars among you will know, Mr Poe had a thing about ravens.  His famous poem ‘The Raven’ was published in 1845. Did he derive inspiration from Grip? No one knows!

Dickens readers were not short of reading material during this time as ‘ The Old Curiosity Shop’was published at the same time. Now, just off Lincolns Inn Fields in Portsmouth Street you will find a sixteenth century building called ‘The Old Curiosity Shop.’ Charles Dickens lived for a while in the nearby Holborn/Bloomsbury area and may well have passed the building on a number of occasions. At this point you need to know that the building was christened ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ thirty years after publication of the novel. The shrewd owner cashing in on Little Nell! This is probably the most depressing of the Dickens Canon but was very popular. American readers waited at the wharves in New York docks anxious for the last episode to arrive! The novel of course contains a wonderful nasty villain in Daniel Quilp. It is a fairly straight- forward story with fewer sub-plots than other Dickens novels. But, once Nell and her grandfather are evicted from the shop by Quilp, the ending is not hard to guess. Oscar Wilde was not a Dickens fan. Of this book his comment was, ‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.’ But then it is easy to be brave when the person you are criticising has been dead for over twenty years?

In December 1842 ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’appeared in its first monthly part. Its final part would be published in July 1844. Thought by many to be one of Dickens favourites as far as his own work was concerned. Not so with the public. By October 1843 sales had slowed down so much that his publishers were threatening to reduce his monthly income. Time then to write another book?

If a quiz show were to ask their usually less than bright contestants to name a Dickens novel the likelihood is that the reply would be, ‘A ChristmasCarol.’ The novel is generally recognised as being instrumental in creating the traditional British Christmas along with Prince Albert and his introduction of the Christmas tree. Written in double quick time between October and December of 1843 ‘A Christmas Carol’is usually referred to as a novella as it is much shorter in length than all his other work. Published on the 19 December it had sold out all 6000 copies by Christmas Eve. There were a further eleven editions published in 1844. In the hundred years from publication in America it had sold two million copies. Far and away his most popular novel stateside. ‘A ChristmasCarol’ is a mixture of an old- fashioned ghost story and the trials and tribulations of Bob Cratchit as he strives to provide his family with a suitable Christmas celebration. Tiny Tim is the hero of the piece and, who else, (?) Ebenezer Scrooge the villain. Scrooge is a name of course that has passed into the English language. A number of literary people over the years have rated this book as the finest example of prose in Victorian literature. Some accolade!

In the meantime ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’continued its laborious sales. The Penguin edition runs to 920 pages before it reaches the appendices! There are just too may sub-plots. John Forster is generally regarded as Dickens closest confident on literary matters. Well if he did read the draft of MC then he really should have advised cutting it by a third! Just to confuse the reader there are two Martin Chuzzlewits and various other members of the family. The plot revolves around the senior Chuzzlewit safe guarding his will and pretending to be friends with one character and the enemy of another when the reverse is actually the case! It is well written and contains one of Dickens enduring characters, Mrs Gamp. A lady partial to a drink or three, and always seemingly carrying an umbrella. Although a minor character in terms of the story her umbrella made her famous. ‘Gamp’ became a Victorian nickname for an umbrella. Unfortunately for Charles Dickens the sales of the book did not really improve but his publishers could bask in the glory of ‘A Christmas Carol.’

The next novel published was ‘Dombey & Son.’ Generally rated as the most Victorian of the Dickens Canon. It was published in twenty monthly parts between 1846 & 1848. It features old Dombey who had always wanted a son but was presented with a daughter whom he chose to ignore. Along comes a sickly son who lives for only six years and whose mother dies along the way! Cheerful stuff. However the world as seen through the young boy’s eyes received critical acclaim for the sensitivity of its writing. Fear not, redemption and salvation are at hand. It is a novel that provided the reader with all they would expect from a Dickens story. Not too many character names that one could call memorable. My favourite is Polly Toodle! Is it an instrument or a dance!?

And then in 1849 over the usual twenty episodes comes the favourite Dickens novel of a good many people: ‘David Copperfield.’ It was an open secret that this was Dickens camouflaged autobiography. Child cruelty, villains, benefactors and of course, Wilkens Micawber. My favourite Dickensian character whose pecuniary advice echoes down the ages, ‘ Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery!’ Micawber was loosely based on John Dickens who could never heed his own financial advice! It is a story with two villains. In the first half we have Edward Murdstone, David’s cruel step-father. The second – half bring us the ever so ‘umble Uriah Heep. Along with Great Expectations perhaps the Dickens novel most adapted to the screen both large and small.

So there you are. The literary agent of Charles Dickens, fresh from his outstanding success with David Copperfield. There he is sitting across the desk from you. ‘So Charles, what do you have in mind for your next two novels?’

CD:  ‘ Bleak House and Hard Times!’

Can you think of two more uninviting titles for a novel? Hard Times was a rarity in that it was set wholly outside London. Bleak Housalso broke the mould by introducing the first female narrator in a Dickens novel.

Hard Times is as its title suggests hard going. But Bleak House was the first of the two to be published between March 1852 and September 1853. Esther Summerson is the heroine of the novel. She is taken into care by John Jarndyce following the death of her guardian. The novel is famous for its scathing satirical attack on the judicial system which operated in the House of Chancery. A case called Jarndyce & Jarndyce is the main feature as an argument about wills rolls on for years. Dickens would not live to see it but a law reform act in the 1870s was helped on its way by the outcry caused by the plot in Bleak House. Great character names abound; Lord and Lady Dedlock, Mr Tulkinghorn. William Guppy, Caddy Jelleby and many, many more. My favourite is the wonderful Inspector Bucket! An uninviting title but an outstanding book.

Hard Times gives us Thomas Gradgrind a name that makes you instantly dislike its owner! Set wholly outside London it is one of the shortest of the books written by Dickens. It is one of two books published originally without any illustrations. Published between April and August 1854 in Dickens own magazine, ‘ Household Words.’ Published alongside it in the same magazine was ‘North and South’by Mrs Gaskell. A novel with a similar theme. Hard Timesproved a successful book telling the tale of a school (Gradgrinds) and its pupils on the one hand and mill workers on the other. Dickens was not convinced that the industrial revolution was a total cause for good. His book is seen as a satire on that industrial society. I have always found it hard to read.

And so we come to Little Dorritt. Published in monthly parts between December 1855 and June 1857. Here Dickens calls on his childhood experience as the first half of the book takes place in the Marshalsea Prison. William Dorritt has been incarcerated for over twenty years and his daughter Amy was born there. His two other children entered the prison with their parents. Her sister chooses to live outside the prison but Amy’s brother remains with her and her father. Amy’s mother has died many years previously. William Dorritt lives what he considers a normal life and makes no attempt to resolve his situation. Then Arthur Clenham appears. His investigations and adventures cause a seismic shift in the life of the Dorritt family as the Marshalsea is left behind and they spend some time in Rome. This is another of those books with an off-putting title. Little Dorritt? Do not be deceived, it is one of his best novels.

No less a personage than Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky thought highly of the book. It gives a wonderful evocation of life in a debtors prison. Not too many great names though, Minnie Meagles and Jeremiah Flintwich are about the best I can do! The book is also famous for Dickens attack on Victorian bureaucracy in the shape of the Circumlocution Office. This is a place where applications just go round and round and nothing gets done! (Sound familiar? Nothing changes!)

Published in 1859 in 31 weekly editions A Tale of Two Cities is reckoned to be the best selling Dickens book. Two hundred million is claimed in some cases but disputed by other experts. Given that book counting was not a primary concern in the nineteenth century it is doubtful if anyone has an accurate figure. What can be stated is that the book has sold a lot of copies! There are books with good opening lines, one or two with great end lines. But only this book can claim both. I would say it has the best beginning and ending of any other book ever published? And no I have not read them all! Here are the opening lines:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

All in one sentence!

And the ending spoken by Sydney Carton:

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

And in between all that you have a relatively peaceful London and the Reign of Terror in Paris as the lives of Sydney Carton and Charles Darney start to intertwine. One of my favourite books. A TV production a few years back was sadly lacking in production values. At the point where the Bastille is stormed it seemed you had about two dozen Parisians on the attack!

For his next novel Dickens returned to childhood and a first-person narrator. It is a companion novel to David Copperfieldin that both explore similar themes and both have same narration device. GreatExpectations received universal acclaim when it was published between December 1860 and August 1861. It has a dramatic opening scene beloved of television producers. The meeting with Magwich in the graveyard sends young children behind the sofa! By 1860 Dickens seems to have eased off on character names. Here Mr Pumblechook is the only one to raise a smile. The book takes us from childhood to manhood as Pip (Philip Pirrip) narrates his adventures. Love and betrayal, secrets revealed, violent enemies causing problems but in the end good friends who see him through. One of the most performed Dickens stories across all types of media. It is a story made for television.

Dickens was not to know it but ‘Our Mutual Friend’ would be his final completed novel. Published in monthly parts between May 1864 and November 1865 it was not one of the more popular novels.  It has rather too many sub-plots and a convoluted main plot. Its redeeming features are as always the characters; Georgiana Podsnap, Sophronia Lammie and Bradley Headstone to name but three!

The plot hinges on a will, or maybe two wills, or is it three, and the untimely death of the would-be heir? But just who is ‘Our Mutual Friend?’ You will work it out as the book draws to its close!

Time for a note about the various illustrators of the novels. Dickens worked closely with his artists and it is accepted that the illustrations in the books match those imagined by Dickens when writing the books. He had one or two illustrators (George Cruikshank for one) before Hablot Knight Brown took up residence. More commonly known by his nom-de-plume of ‘Phiz.’

This particular artist stayed with Dickens for twenty-three years although he did not do the illustrations for ‘A Christmas Carol.’ These were done by another friend of Dickens called John Leech. The last book illustrated by Browne was a Tale of Two Cities. They were not well received and Dickens sensed that Hablot Browne was losing his touch. He employed the son of a friend to illustrate Our Mutual Friend. Marcus Stone was the son of Frank Stone who had helped out with the illustrations on the earlier books.

So there you have the fifteen books. A mixture, most certainly. Any pick of five books is subjective but here are the five I would recommend to you if you have never read Dickens before:

In order of reading I would suggest you start with Pickwick Papers. It will be a gentle introduction to the way Dickens writes and the stories themselves are enjoyable. Follow that with David Copperfield. Without reading the book you may have seen a TV version of it. However it is wise to remember that television productions cut hugh chunks out of any book they adapt for television. Here Dickens will introduce you to child cruelty, devious characters and on the other side of the coin wonderful friends who see him through his difficult start in life. And as I mentioned before this book introduces you to Wilkins Micawber not to mention the equally delightful Betsy Trotwood.

It will be no surprise to you I am sure that the next book on my list is Great Expectations. A slightly different view of childhood to the previous book, and, perhaps, a little darker in places. Both books keep your attention and give a wonderful evocation of Victorian life. Dickens always used his books to satirise the class divisions of contemporary life. In Great Expectations Pip finds himself embarrassed by his Uncle Joe. He has risen in class but forgotten where he came from. It is a book for which Dickens wrote a number of final scenes. Did Pip marry Estella? Or not? Mmmm.

Having read two novels that started with childhood time to read about revolution! ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ alternates the action between London and Paris. As the revolution approaches a Doctor Manette is released from a Paris prison. Arrangements have been made for him to meet his daughter who thinks her father is long dead. This meeting and its consequences provide the central thread of the story.  Love, betrayal, revenge, and finally, redemption. It is all here. There is a wonderful villain in Madam Defarge who carries on with her knitting as the tumbrils roll and the guillotine falls! Sydney Carton is the dissolute hero who finally makes himself fatally useful. The number one Dickens best seller by a country mile!

However as much as I like ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ I have to admit that ‘Bleak House’in terms of its characters, main plot and sub-plots is the finer novel. Esther Summerson becomes the first female narrator of a Dickens novel alternating with an omniscient narrator later in the book.

Esther has a back story that is touched on in the book but never fully explored. An adopted child; her guardian has died. Her new guardian is the kindly John Jarndyce. It becomes obvious that Esther’s former guardian was not a very nice person and Esther sees her prospects improving. (Charlotte Bronte was unimpressed with Esther Summerson as a character. Well Jane Eyre was not exactly a bundle of fun Charlotte?) Various characters pass through the Jarndyce residence building the story. As the sub-plots drop in to the story we are introduced to Lord and Dedlock and their lawyer Mr Tulkinghorne. The sub-plots seem unrelated but as the novel progresses they start to become as one with the main plot. The Chancery case described in the book providing Dickens with a wonderful opportunity to attack the appalling justice system in place in Victorian England. Bleak House is one of those books you will read late into the night. Then look up and realise you should have been in bed an hour ago? If you only read one Dickens novel; read this one!

And there you have your novels. The Dickens stories lend themselves to television and there have been some outstanding productions over the years. Back in 2005 there was a superb production of Bleak House. It had a stellar cast. Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther, Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock. Charles Dance, Timothy West, Denis Lawson, Carey Mulligan all appeared in the production as did Alan Armstrong as Inspector Bucket. The production was shown in half hour episodes which at first seemed a strange approach. However it heightened the tension and turned out to be very clever idea! Great Expectations and David Copperfield are the most produced novels across all media and in the former Gillian Anderson starred as Miss Havisham in a 2011 production. Ray Winstone could be seen enjoying himself immensely as Abel Magwitch!

But if you only watch one television programme about Charles Dickens then make it ‘Dickensian.’ A masterpiece of television. I would read the books first before you watch as that will make it more enjoyable but it is worth watching as a stand-alone programme. The set is brilliant. Snow falling as Christmas approaches in a true Dickensian setting. Here you will find Miss Havisham preparing for her marriage. Here is the back -story of Esther Summerson. Bill Sykes and Nancy before they met Oliver. The Artful Dodger and Little Nell. (Both sadly showing the political correctness of the BBC extends even to Dickens as they are played by actors from an ethnic minority.) We have Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit. Fagin is there as are Mr and Mrs Bumble. Pauline Collins has the time of her life as Mrs Gamp. The stand-out performance for me was Stephen Rea as Inspector Bucket. Given free rein in this production Inspector Bucket is the central character as he seeks to find the murderer of Jacob Marley. It is a wonderful, crazy, Dickens fantasy! There was expected to be a second production but the BBC in their wisdom decided we were all enjoying ourselves far too much and cancelled!

Charles Dickens started work on ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ in April 1870. Sadly he would never live to finish it. He died on 9 June. He had set himself a punishing schedule giving a speaking tour in the USA and following it with another speaking tour on his return to England. He was ordered to rest by his doctor and did so for a few weeks. However he felt he had let down his sponsors and returned to the tour which would eventually lead to his death from sheer exhaustion despite what it may say on his death certificate. He must be one of the few people in the western world to die from overwork. (Isambard Kingdom Brunel is another one!)

Charles Dickens novels have never been out of print. He retains his place as the greatest novelist this country has ever produced. Only Shakespeare is ranked above him on the list of the all time greatest writers in this country. On the world list Shakespeare remains top of the list but in second place some see Dickens, others see Tolstoy. In America you might think a Victorian English author would be long forgotten but Charles Dickens remains one of their favourite writers along with Twain, Hemingway, Scott-Fitzgerald, Steinbeck and the more modern day American writers. When I visited the Dickens House in Portsmouth a few weeks ago I was the only English visitor. The others were Japanese, German, Indian and American.

Despite his earlier relations with both his parents when his father died Dickens paid off all his debts of which there were many. He also set up a trust fund that enabled his mother to live the life to which she had become accustomed!

I hope this rather long blog has encouraged you to re-read or read for the first time the novels of our greatest author?

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ENJOY!

 

 

THE HISTORY OF COMEDY

 

PART THREE …THE FINALE!

The story of music hall is best told I think through one performer. She was born in Hoxton just off the City Road in 1870. At the age of fifteen she gave her first public performance under the name of Belle Dellamere at the Eagle Public House on the City Road. She did not keep that name for long. She changed it soon after to Marie Lloyd. Then and now she is known as the Queen of the Music Hall. Before outlining her career back to the Eagle Public House.

 

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It is the only pub to feature in a nursery rhyme. Any ideas…………………..”Up and down the City road in and out of the Eagle, that’s the way the money goes pop goes the weasel!”   No nursery rhyme has been more analysed than this one. Mainly in regard to the word weasel. Well take my word for it the phrase pop goes the weasel is based on cockney rhyming slang. Which is always truncated. Thus weasel is weasel and stoat, coat. Pop was the expression used to pawn something. So you pawn your coat to be able to buy some food. And of course rhyming slang in the nineteenth century was much in use. It had originally been devised so that criminals could hold conversations if they ever found themselves together in police custody, as if there were such criminals in the East End! And of course you could go into an East End pub fifty years ago and the publican might say to you, “Ere mate take your bacon up the apples and tell the trouble she is wanted on the dog.” The translation? Could you take your bacon…and eggs, legs up the apples and pears, stairs and tell the trouble and strife, wife that she is wanted on the dog and bone, phone. Simple really! As a language it is long gone but a few of the phrases remain in use, “Lets have a butchers” is slang for butchers hook, look. Most of you will be familiar with Brahms and Liszt. Use your loaf? Of bread, head. Got any bread mate does not mean the questioner is hungry. Bread and honey, money. And unless you like hospital food never call anyone from the East End a “berk.” The full expression is Berkley Hunt and I will leave you to work out the rhyme! Quite so! That said I think we all may remember of one or two berks we have met along the way!

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Back to Miss Marie Lloyd. After her performance in the Eagle word spread and within the year she was taking more bookings than she could manage. It would not be unusual for her and other music hall stars to be booked at four theatres in one evening. So 7 30 at one, 8 20 at another, 9 15 at the next and 10 at the last one. They would usually be within walking distance of each other but stars like Marie Lloyd would be able to afford a pony and trap and would travel further afield. However once she became top of the bill she would stay contracted to one theatre for a week or maybe two. She was without doubt a hard worker. After initial success in London she would tour the provinces and maintain a punishing schedule, Lincoln one night, Plymouth the next then Birmingham, Newcastle and back to Bristol. Must have had a sadist for a manager! Although I guess in the 1890’s the trains ran on time! Once she had made enough money she looked after her family and gave regularly to children’s charities in the Hoxton area, paying the bills for clothes, lighting and heating. She was also very helpful to her fellow artistes. In one particular case she heard of a young impersonator who was including Marie Lloyd in his performance. The young lad was summoned to the presence, no doubt thinking his career was about to end! But no. Marie listened to his impersonation and then pointed out where he was going wrong! If you are going to impersonate me sonny get it right! But surely this paragon of virtue must have had some faults? Well yes. Her private life was a shambles. Her choice of husbands one and three were an unmitigated disaster. She married Percy Courtney when she was seventeen. He was a man without any visible means of support who lived always on credit and gambling. Always seen in the best restaurants and always the best seats in the theatre. He saw Marie Lloyd as his own private bank. The marriage lasted long enough to see the birth of a daughter but after seven years of never ending argument they separated. This did not please Mr Courtney who suddenly found himself in serious debt. They divorced in 1905.

In the meantime Marie was going from strength to strength on the stage and had made a reputation for her saucy songs and her repartee with the audience. There were many stars by now performing at hundreds of halls and theatres. There were Empires, Hippodromes, Alhambras, Royals all across the country. One of the biggest music halls in London was the Oxford. If you were in London around twenty years ago you may have seen the Virgin Megastore on the corner of Piccadilly? That is the site of the Oxford Music Hall. Another big theatre was the Holborn Empire. If you turn right out of Holborn Underground and walk up Kingsway there is a road off to the left. Only about two hundred yards long it looks like an Italian architect has been let loose. That is where the Empire was.

Marie Lloyd was undoubtedly the star attraction but Dan Leno and Harry Relph, better known as Little Tich ran her close. Little Tich was famous for his over size boots which extended out in front of him and he achieved an amazing balance on the tips of the boots. He was four foot six in height. Had five fingers and a thumb on each hand and six toes on each foot! Dan Leno started working in the halls on an almost daily basis from the age of eight. At the age of forty -four he suffered a nervous breakdown and died. He was hailed as the greatest comedian of the music hall in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In 1891 the three stars performed at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in the pantomime “Humpty Dumpty.” Tickets were like gold dust because it was not often that all three would perform at the same theatre.

If there is one song that Marie Lloyd was famous for it was this one, “My Old Man Said Follow The Van!”

Fifty odd years ago you could go into a pub and there would likely be a piano in it and at least one person in the place who could play it. Feel free to sing it to yourself!

The song is about a moonlight flit. The rent they couldn’t pay so off they went loading all their worldly goods into a cart, the van in the song. He tells his wife not to hang about otherwise she will not find her way to the lodgings. It is generally supposed that the cock linnet is a bird in a cage being carried by the wife. However cock linnet is rhyming slang for a minute. So did she say she would follow on in a minute and get lost as a consequence? It was one song she never recorded on the old wax cylinders. Other songs from Marie Lloyd included the “The Boy I Love Is Up in Gallery.” Oh Mr Porter, A Little Bit of What You Fancy Does you good. And of course the less than subtle “She Never Had Her Ticket Punched Before!”

Marie Lloyd performed in America, South Africa and Australia. By 1907 music hall was at its zenith and there was money to be made. The managers decided that there would be extra performances but the supporting players would not be paid any extra for this. The supporting players went on strike. This did not worry the managers as they knew there were always out of work actors and performers looking for work and they reckoned they would break the strike within a matter of days if not weeks. They reckoned without Marie Lloyd. By this time Marie had married husband number two, Alec Hurley. One of life’s gentlemen, in every sense. A cockney barrow-boy made good. They offered their home as a meeting place for the strikers and contributed to the strike fund. This encouraged other major stars to boycott the theatres. The theatres were now closing at a rapid rate of knots and the management capitulated. But they would not forget Marie Lloyd’s involvement and they would have their revenge.

Sadly Marie did not realise when she was on to a good thing and her relationship with Alec deteriorated and by 1910 they had separated and Marie was living with one Bernard Dillon. Dillon’s claim to fame was that as a jockey he had won the 1910 Derby in record time on a horse called Lemburg. For those of you who like to know this sort of thing….it came in at 11 to 4!!! His racing days were short lived as he spent most of his time drunk or gambling and physically abusing Marie Lloyd.

In 1912 it was proposed that there would be the first ever Royal Command performance to celebrate the history of Music Hall. Who else would you expect to top the bill? Well not Marie Lloyd. This was the theatre managers revenge. She was not invited. The excuse was put about that she was too vulgar for the Royal ears. Which is a bit rich when you consider that the previous King Edward the seventh was a regular member of the audience at any given performance! Marie answered back by hiring a theatre for the same evening and performing to a sell-out audience. The posters at the front of house proclaimed “Every Performance from Marie Lloyd is a Command Performance.”

In 1913 Marie arrived in New York accompanied by Dillon. They were refused entry on the grounds of “moral turpitude.” Only in America! Apparently our American cousins did not take kindly to the fact that they had shared a cabin on the way over. Despite the fact that a British ship is not within American jurisdiction. Marie argued the case and after spending the night at the Immigration House on Ellis Island they were allowed to stay on the understanding that they lived apart. Amazing! Marie was very popular in America but not as popular as her sister Alice. In Britain the reverse was true,

While on this tour of the US Marie heard that Alec Hurley had died of pleurisy at the age of 42. It is an expression of the esteem in which he was held that the whole of Marie’s family turned out for the funeral. Marie lost a few friends that year as within a short time after the funeral she married Dillon in Portland, Oregon.

1914 saw the outbreak of the First World War and with many stars of the music hall Marie raised money for various charities and performed for the troops home on leave all for free. Here she put in a prodigious amount of charity work while at the same time continuing her performances around the country. Her husband Dillon did his best to avoid conscription but was eventually signed up and then did his best to desert. Nice chap!

Marie Lloyd paid the price for her hard work and the constant abuse by Dillon. Things finally came to a head when he was arrested for assaulting her father who must have been in his seventies by then. So a separation was finally granted but it was too little too late. Not surprisingly she had consoled herself with alcohol to the further detriment of her health. She still had a sense of humour though and introduced a song entitled “I’m a bit of a ruin that Cromwell Knocked About a Bit.!” Everyone knew that Cromwell had had very little to do with it! In early October 1922 she was on the stage of Edmonton Empire singing that song and as she came to the last line she started to fall and as the curtain came down she collapsed in the wings. Three days later she died at home surrounded by her family. Over fifty thousand people lined the route from Hoxton to the cemetery in Hampstead where she is buried. Her brother commented after the funeral that during her life she had earned more than a quarter of million pounds and given most of it away. Known to her close family as “Tilly” her real name was……… Matilda Alice Victoria Wood.

While Marie Lloyd was a good choice of name; for a lady singing funny songs and cracking the odd joke or two “Victoria Wood” might have worked?

Many theatre historians see the year 1922 as the point at which musical hall started to decline. It was all ready coming under pressure from the silent movies and Marconi’s invention of the wireless was about to bear fruit. Strangely enough the theatre managers did not see the movies as a major threat and indeed the films were shown at the interval or the end of a performance. The first acknowledged movie was shot by DW Griffith in 1910. For the next seventeen years the output from film studios around the world was tremendous but none more so then in the sleepy little town of Hollywood. A place more used to tending the lime groves than anything else. The Keystone Cops, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin are all names of the silent era. And you will hear various claims as to who was the best. We will concentrate on Chaplin because he was born in this country and did his apprenticeship in music hall. He appeared on the same bill as Marie Lloyd in 1900 aged eleven as a member of a Lancashire clog-dancing troupe! He then joined Fred Karno and his ensemble. Dear old Fred tends to be used as a derogatory term these days but he was instrumental in giving talented youngsters their start in show business.

Charlie

Chaplin did a number of tours in this country with Karno as did one Stanley Jefferson who was born in Ulverston in Cumbria. Fred then decided it was time to conquer America which he truly did. So popular was the troupe that Chaplin was poached by Mack Sennett for his Hollywood studio. Stanley Jefferson had been understudy to Chaplin for most of the tour and decided that he too would remain in America. At this time he changed his surname to Laurel. He then met up with a certain Oliver Hardy. Meanwhile Chaplin went from strength to strength with some of the most iconic silent movies ever made. The Marx brothers were emerging onto film at this time having evolved from the American equivalent of Music hall known as Vaudville. Chaplin was to see his old colleague Stan Laurel in competition with him as Laurel and Hardy produced a series of films that matched Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. The silent movies were mainly slapstick routines that many of them would have perfected on stage. Then someone said to the studios. I think I can put sound on your film!!!! More of that later…..

If the Music Hall managers accepted silent movies wireless would be different. Suddenly you could have millions of people listening to one song, at home!! A month after the death of Marie Lloyd the British Broadcasting Company as they were then known was granted a licence to operate. By the following year wireless transmitting stations were opening up in all parts of the country.

A few years later the BBC would be granted its full licence and radio broadcasting would be in full swing. In the early years the theatre managers managed to broker a deal that allowed them compensation for the use of their stars but it did not last long. Music Hall had become variety and was to be found mainly at seaside resorts. There would still be shows in London but Music Hall had seen its best days. In 1958 playwright John Osborne would bemoan the passing of Music Hall but really he was talking about variety.

Through the 1930’s radio broadcasting was matched in expansion by the talkies. If the death knell for Music Hall had been sounded in 1922 then the coming of sound to movie theatres heard the funeral rites for a form of entertainment that had served the British public well. Its stars would find success on radio and film. Strangely enough Chaplin never took to sound and became more involved with production and composing. He was by this time a very rich man. For Laurel and Hardy it just helped their careers move onwards and upwards. They had been a success on stage and then the silent movies. The talkies seemed to be made for them. Unlike some of their colleagues from the silent era in all its forms who were found wanting when they had to speak. Many of them fell by the wayside. And as if that wasn’t enough serious actors started to appear in comedy roles in the movies

And yet for all that you could still see live performances. The theatre was still going strong and the arrival on the scene of playwrights such as Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw over the past thirty years had encouraged other writers to try their luck. There may not have been as many theatres but there were still some good performers out there. One such performer in the thirties was Max Miller. The Cheeky Chappie. He had a very successful career but I can’t help feeling he was born twenty years too late. He was made for Music Hall.

 

Max

His patter went something like this. I’m not suggesting he used this rhyme but it serves to illustrate his act:

Mary had a little lamb

She also had a bear

I’ve often seen her little lamb

But hey have you heard the one about?

Max had that habit of missing off the last line and leaving it to the audience to imagine it. Thus when challenged about his dodgy jokes he would blame the audience for imagining the worst. For Max Miller there was no such thing as bad publicity. In 1934 he went too far on the BBC and was banned for what would be the first of many times from broadcasting. Result? Mr Miller was never out of work again! And indeed that would be the case until he died in 1963. He worked on radio, the stage and television. And he made about fourteen of films. Whenever he worked in London his contract would always stipulate that the show must finish in time for him to catch the last train home to Brighton the place where he was born, lived all   his life and the place where he died.

Another star to match that of Miller in the thirties and forties was Gracie Fields. Many theatrical historians place her higher than Marie Lloyd as the greatest female star this country has ever produced. She appeared on the stage, in films and television and was most certainly a star of the radio. Both of these stars used the Holborn Empire as their “home” theatre when in London. That is until the Luftwaffe rearranged it in 1941! Radio programmes originating in this country were always through the BBC up until the mid sixties. Radio in the 1930’s was still finding its way but it gave many up and coming comedians their first chance at performing.

But it would be the Second World War that would be the making of the BBC. At first they approached it with mainly classical programmes and very sombre discussions. Someone somewhere advised them that there was enough depression around without them adding to it and that they should lighten up! ITMA! This was one of the programmes that did it, along with Much-Binding –In-The- Marsh and yes that man again Max Miller, although he did manage to get himself banned in 1944! The comedy output combined with their news reporting from far and wide served to place the BBC at the head of the world’s broadcasting organisations in the 1940’s. Workers Playtime, Music while you Work would continue to be broadcast well into the sixties. But comedians would still be appearing on the stage and in films. Television which had been invented some ten years before would not come to production until after the war had ended. This time it would be the film -makers turn to be worried as they would see television as a direct challenge to their productions. Before we leave the Second World War we must mention the Windmill Theatre. Famous for its ladies in various states of undress or no dress at all it was also the proving ground for many a would be comedian. Among those off its production line would be Bruce Forsyth, Harry Secombe, Jimmy Edwards, Tony Hancock and Peter Sellers. The comedians who would be on first had a difficult job because the all male audience had not come to listen to jokes! Incidentally it is not strictly true that the Windmill never closed during the war. For the first fourteen days in September 1939 all public meeting places were closed.

Radio would continue to foster the careers of comedians after the war and in certain cases combine with the theatre to produce variety shows. This is a bill that illustrates the point. And of course shows that Peter Sellers was starting to progress his career.

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There at the bottom of the bill are two names which would become equally famous in this country. For a moment I wondered if the above gentleman could be Jose’ Dad!!!

If I had to pick the work of one comedian to take with me to the proverbial Desert Island it would probably be this man. His films and radio work alone in the 1950’s were outstanding. Along with Woody Allen, Shelley Berman and Bob Newhart he produced comedy records in the late fifties and early sixties. Woody Allen started out in his working life as a stand up comedian as did all the others mentioned. I would not have wanted to be part of Peter Sellers shambolic private life but he has made an outstanding contribution to British comedy. Peter Sellers would join up with Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan to produce The Goon Show. Without doubt the most innovative radio programme in the history of comedy. Michael Bentine was along for the first two series but script arguments with Milligan saw him leave the production. A quote from Milligan to Secombe on the question of who would die first. “I hope you go first I don’t want you singing at my funeral!” Plus of course the epitaph on his gravestone; “I told you I was ill!!!” It was anarchic, bizarre but most of all funny! It ran until 1960 as by then the careers of all of them were involving more and more work.

Also around the time of The Goons a programme started on the radio called “Educating Archie.” As a child I quite enjoyed it. But years later looking back you think; “A ventriloquist………on the radio!?” You might as well have had a trapeze artist! And of course when Peter Brough took his act on to television it became apparent why the show belonged to radio!!!! However this is another programme that advanced the careers of a number of comedians, Bruce Forsyth, Tony Hancock, Alfred Marks, Beryl Reid to name but a few. By now comedy was becoming a staple of radio. The 1950’s would see Rays A Laugh, The Navy Lark and the lad himself in Hancocks Half Hour. Beyond our Ken and Round the Horne became essential listening. Not least for Kenneth Williams and his Julian and Sandy routine with Hugh Paddick!

But stage performances were still to be seen and enjoyed.

laurel-and-hardy

Laurel and Hardy were still around. If you have to judge an act by its CV then Laurel and Hardy figure as the most outstanding comedy act in history. Music Hall and then variety performances. Films and television. They conquered them all. They did radio work but their approach was always a visual one and they I think realised that. Their last performance in this country was here in Plymouth at the Palace in May 1954. Sadly they only did the first night as Hardy all ready ill could not go on and the last show of the tour in Swansea was taken over by another performer as was the one in Plymouth. The duo stayed at the Grand Hotel for a few days until Hardy had recovered enough to make the journey home. Three years later he would die back home in America. They were unusual in show business in that by all accounts they were two of the nicest people you could ever meet. They never had a bad word to say about anyone. Oliver Hardy kept a guest book from his earliest days. All the acts they ever shared a stage with were asked to sign the book. Wherever the book is now it must be worth a small fortune.

Here in this country variety was proving itself to be still going strong and on radio the Billy Cotton Band Show provided a outlet for upcoming comedians. BBC television was now well established and settled into its nice cosy ways. Then in 1955 came the wake up call. Independent Television was introduced and was soon challenging the BBC for a share of the market. Tapping in to the enthusiasm of the times ITV introduced Sunday Night at the London Palladium.

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Somewhere among that lot are Morecambe and Wise! No guesses as to this chap with the long chin is!? It made him a star along with Jimmy Tarbuck who took over as compere a few years later. The show ran until 1967 and despite the odd special never featured again on the TV schedules.

The BBC looked to its laurels and transferred the lad himself from the radio to television. It was an instant hit. A couple of years ago one of the questions on Millionaire was “Who lived at 23 Railway Cuttings?” Yer man. His most famous sketch is probably the ‘Blood Donor.’ Hancock arrives expecting just a pinprick in his finger but is informed that he will be required to provide a pint. Hence the reply…”A pint? That is very nearly an armful!”

And now to the one and only. There have been many comedians who inspire laughter just by walking on the stage but none more so than Tommy Cooper. That look of terror on his face as if he had forgotten what was supposed to happen. It was of course a craft perfected over many years. He was a member of the Magic Circle and an excellent magician but he chose to make his tricks appear to go wrong. I remember seeing him in Robinson Crusoe with Arthur Askey at the London Palladium sixty years ago. He was doing his solo spot. Right; now I ‘ll do a tap dance he says. Out of his pocket he brings an ordinary domestic tap attached to a piece of string and bounces it on the table! I’m still smiling at it now. Why is it funny? I guess you had to be there. He then did the disappearing rabbit trick. Shows rabbit in the hat, abra cadabra. Turns hat upside down and shows inside of hat. No rabbit. He then accidentally pulls the cloth off the small table and there beneath is the rabbit! Groan. But of course if the rabbit was there all the time where was the rabbit from the hat? Tommy Cooper had made appearances on various TV programmes during the fifties and on the radio. By the end of the decade he had his own TV show and he never looked back from that time as his stage and TV performances became ever more popular. It was fitting that he died live on television performing on the stage of Her Majestys Theatre in 1984. There are so many Cooper jokes and stories but here are a couple. Tommy was in the line up at the Royal Command Performance when the Queen stopped in front of him and exchanged the usual pleasantries. “Excuse me ma’am,” said Tommy, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” “No,” replies a brave lady, “Well,” said Tommy,” Do you like football?” “No,” replies the Queen. “Well in that case can I have your Cup Final tickets!” Another one I like happened in Egypt. Tommy had spent his wartime there in the Army and he liked to revisit with his wife the place where they had met. They were looking round a market in downtown Cairo when they came upon a stall that among other things was selling the Fez. Tommy put one on and looked in the mirror and turned round to show his wife whereupon the stallholder said “Just like that!” Tommy was amazed. “How do you know my catchphrase?” The stallholder shrugged, “I don’t know catchphrase but English people come here put on fez turn round and say “Just like that!” Much missed but still remembered. And it comes as no surprise to learn that his favourite comedians were Laurel and Hardy.

While Tommy was finding his way in the early sixties the political scene was about to face a revolution. If you ever see a newsreel of a political interview in the fifties it is always very deferential, “And how was your trip Minister “ sort of thing…Well this programme changed all that! That Was The Week That Was! It revolutionised political interviewing. It pulled no punches and went after its targets with a vengeance. Indeed it is hard to believe that the man who lead that revolution is the same David Frost who became very much part of the establishment. It only lasted two series for reasons never fully explained until a few years ago. Apparently the oh so brave BBC caved into government pressure. Much good it did because ITV came up with a number of similar programs and since then politicians more often than not do not get an easy ride. The main thing about TW3 was that it was very funny and had a host of comedians such as Willie Rushton on the team.

Undaunted David Frost moved on to other things including the “Frost Report “ This was the show that gave John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett their break into the big time. Again it was not afraid to take the mickey out of the great and the good. The class sketch is brilliant: Cleese looks to his left and says “I look down on him because he is middle class. Barker looks to his right and says “I look up to him because he is upper class.” He then looks to his left and says “I look down on him because he is working class.” Corbett looks straight ahead and says “I know my place!” The show featured some of the best writers around and gave a start to others. It is considered along with TW3 to be one of the ground breaking programmes of television comedy.

There was still room for the single comedian to make his mark and no one did it better than this man. Dave Allen was an Irish comedian who started his career in Australia. His ideas on religion saw him banned by one Australian network. He then had the dubious honour of being banned by the Irish television station RTE. His shows always featured him sitting on a stool and going through his monologue before introducing the film clips.

Dave_Allen_1968

One of his jokes went like this: “Man goes to heaven and meets St Peter who agrees to show him around. They come to the first door and St Peter says the Methodists are in there.” At the second door he says, “In there are the Anglicans.” He then asks the man to be very quiet as they walk past the third door. “Why did we have to be quiet,” asks the man. “Ah well,” says St Peter, “In there are the Catholics and they think they are the only ones up here!”

Sadly Dave Allen died a good few years ago at the age of 68. I was fortunate enough to see him at the Palace Theatre here in Plymouth back in 1980 just before the place changed to a disco or whatever it was! Another quote I like from him, “I’m an atheist thank God!”

We have mentioned a few comedians along the way each in their own particular way responsible for advancing the cause of comedy. There are some of course who seem to think their act should include the audience as the butt of their humour. One such was Bernard Manning. Even his worst enemies would admit that as a stand up comedian his technique was perfect. But he had this habit of picking on people in the audience. In one famous incident when he was the cabaret at a private dinner he started picking on the waiters and waitresses who of course were in no position to answer back. A cheap way of getting laughs as was his use of racist jokes. That said he did have some good jokes like the one he told about his Uncle who was having sex at 74 which was good for him as he lived at number 73! But he and others found their own little niche in the comedy market. Any stand up comedian these days derives from all those who have gone before. Those with the minimum of talent tend to resort to constant obscene language. And then of course there were the so -called Alternative Comedians who came along in the 1980’s. Never my cup of tea and I found the perfect description of them on one particular website. “The alternative comedians seemed to think they were the first ones to have discovered comedy.” Perfect!

The one staple of television comedy is the sitcom. It is estimated there have been at least 800 shown on TV since 1945. And no I have not watched them all. They started to come to prominence in the 1960’s with programmes such as “Til Death Do Us Part and Steptoe and Son and The Likely Lads.” Til Death was written by Johnny Speight a noted left wing writer. His declared aim in writing the series was to show up the bigoted racists for what they were. A worthy objective you would think? Unfortunately Alf Garnett the main character became something of a cult figure. There was much discussion at the BBC about the programme and there was a four year gap between the second and third series. In my view the series was based on one joke which was wearing a bit thin by the end of series one!

I was living in Malta when Monty Python was first shown and by the time I returned it was well into its second series. I had read all the fuss and looked forward to watching it. I have to say I was not impressed. Yes there are some good gags across the series. And so there should have been as the whole cast had been part of the writing team on the Frost Report. But all those proclaiming it as ground breaking and innovative had obviously never listened to the Goon Show. But of course Cleese and Palin in particular went on to fame and fortune.

Morecambe and Wise became an institution and I think probably went on a series too far on ITV. Hard to pick a best moment but the piano sketch with Andre Previn must be up there. And of course it often featured two grown men in bed together and no one batted an eyelid. I remember one scene with Eric puffing on his pipe, looking out of the window as an ambulance goes by with its siren screaming. Says Eric, “ He’ll never sell any ice creams going at that speed!”

Faulty Towers. Based apparently on a dodgy hotel in Torquay. So many good lines. Well remembered of course and there were only ever 12 episodes. If there is an example of perfect casting this series was on a par with any of the others shown here.

The “Two Ronnies” developed out of the Frost Report and had a host of writers. I remember talking to someone in Lincoln, some forty years ago now. He was a Greek Classics scholar and knew almost as much about Roman history. Turned out that in his spare time he wrote for the Two Ronnies. His name appears on the credits, Ken McLeish. He was my OU tutor during my first semester! Stick his name into Google and you will see the extent of his scholarship. Sadly he is no longer with us. And of course the fork handles joke was one of the best.

Delboy

The caped crusaders. Hard to think that the BBC considered dropping Only Fools and Horses after the first series so poor was the audience response. That was back in 1981. Fortunately they decided to do another series. And another and another!

Del Boy’s favourite saying “This time next year we will all be millionaires” came true in the 1998 series. That is really where they should have left the plot. But no, back they came Del and Rodney five years later to less than critical acclaim having lost all their money.   The strain was showing not least because two of the actors in the previous series had died! Still there are great moments to remember. My favourite is the one with the chandeliers. “OK, let it go!”

I’m not a fan of Ben Elton’s stand up routine but I have to admire his writing. The Blackadder series was surreal, satirical and superb. None more so than the last ever episode. I think the final scene was a perfect ending to the series.

lastcharge

Well we have come to the end of the trail I guess. Most of the good ideas have been and gone and just about any sitcom or stand up routine in modern times will trace its ancestry through the timeline I have described in this missive.

Everyone reading this will have different favourites to me and to each other. Comedy has many facets but in reading this part of my blog you have found out what I like. Feel free to comment and please share this blog with your friends. Thankyou for reading!

One more time!

This is more of a quote from Tommy Cooper:

“I was complimented on my driving the other day. I went up to the car and someone had stuck a note on saying “Parking Fine.” I thought that was very nice!”

 

 

 

 

 

THE HISTORY OF COMEDY

         WELCOME TO ACT TWO 

A one liner from Tommy Cooper to get us on our way:

“They always say start at the bottom if you want to learn something. But suppose you want to learn to swim?”

We ended Act One with the fall of the Roman Empire. Hardly a laugh a year at the best of times, but drama whether tragic or comic disappeared.

But all empires come to an end. That of the Roman Empire is put at around 476AD. After that the former empire was subject to fights and battles, treaties made, treaties broken. But it would be around 1400 years from Terence to the writing of the next comedy play anywhere.

Nothing appears to have been written for performance. Royal households appear in various countries. We hear of the Court Jester or The Fool appearing at certain times but much of it is anecdotal evidence. There is a certain amount of evidence to suggest that in Saxon times mentally disabled people were plied with alcohol and allowed to wonder around the Banqueting Hall to the amusement of the guests. Not for nothing were they called the Dark Ages!

Over a thousand years there is nothing to show of any written word intended for entertainment. Only in religious orders does any form of “play” take place. Eventually these will become the “Mystery” plays performed at York and one or two other places. There may have been “Fools” and “Court Jesters” in the Royal courts of Europe but outside the palaces and castles the ordinary people would have to find their own amusement until around the 15th century. This would usually be in the form of a “Mummers Play.” This would be a masked performance normally based on old folk tales but usually performed around a notable date in the Christian calendar. But nothing was written down! The first notes for such plays would not appear until the early nineteenth century.

The first comedy written in English – Ralph Roister Doister.” Was written in about 1553 by one Norman Udall. A comedy about the failed attempt of the hero to woo a lady. Udall was a tutor at Westminster College and the play would be performed by the pupils some eleven years after his death in 1566. Udall has his place in theatrical history but would never have known it! It all seems very odd indeed. Shortly after another comedy appeared with the wonderful title of Gammer Gurton’s Needle. Author unknown. Again performed by schoolboys. The story revolves around a missing needle. No prizes for guessing how the needle is discovered!

This neatly places us in the year 1564. On Sunday 23 April in Stratford-Upon-Avon Mr and Mrs Shakespeare become the proud parents of a son. They decide to call him William. Within thirty years a theatre-writing renaissance would be in full swing. It would match the Athenian theatrical era but unlike Greece this particular period of writing would ensure that theatrical performances would continue until the present day. In Florence of course their Renaissance had begun some time before. Leonardo da Vinchi was born in 1452 and died in 1519. Michelangelo was born in 1475 and appropriately enough died in 1564. Culture had finally arrived in Western Europe!

Even before Shakespeare was born the green shoots of theatre were starting slowly but surely to emerge. Back in Henry the Eighth’s court there were “Fools” working in court and the first indication we have of an appointed Court Jester. The first one we can name that is. He was called Will Somers and survived the reign of one of the most temperamental kings of England. He must have been very good! Henry also had his own acting and dancing troupe attached to court. This would develop as the in thing across Tudor England. Those with money and large houses would have a minstrels gallery above the dining hall. At the time the travelling players and musicians were becoming evident. There were no theatres to perform in. Their usual stage would be the courtyards of large inns.

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The George Inn at Southwark.

An example of early Elizabethan  theatre

The players would use the courtyard and the audience such as it was would stand in the galleries around the upper floor. The stage would be a few planks of wood thrown across a couple of trestles. But what they said or sung is not known. However someone, somewhere must have upset the authorities because in 1572 the strolling players were banned. The excuse being that by constantly moving to and fro across the country they were likely to spread the plague. I think the more likely reason is that they were taking the mickey out of their elders and betters and those in authority were quick to stamp on it. However the pressure for entertainment was growing and in 1574 the Earl of Leicester was allowed to build an outdoor theatre. From that point theatres both indoor and outdoor would be built.

Shakespeare could of course fill a whole evening of discussion. His plays continue to be performed around the world. Comedy or tragedy the language and imagery used in his plays remain unmatched. Every so often over the last five hundred years some bright spark comes up with the suggestion that only a few of the lesser plays were written by Shakespeare and that the majority of them were written by Marlow or Bacon or who ever. It has provoked endless discussion over the years. The best response I have read is this: It is all about intellectual snobbery. Bacon and Marlowe were university educated. Shakespeare only went to a Grammar School. How could he possibly have the ability to write these plays. “And he was brought up in Stratford for goodness sake!” The arguments have tended to fade in recent years. But here we are concerned with the comedies. The first one of Shakespeare’s comedies to be performed was “A Comedy of Errors.” This is the direct link between the Elizabethan theatre and that of the Roman theatre. Shakespeare took his plot from a play called “Menaechmi” by Plautus. In the Roman play the plot revolves around a set of twins and mistaken identity. In A Comedy of Errors the plot revolves around two sets of twins and mistaken identity. The play was first performed in 1594. Shakespeare wrote fourteen comedies. The final one to be performed was A Winters Tale. Although I find the play more tragic than comic it does contain the classic stage direction. Exit pursued by a bear!

These plays would be performed in daylight and the theatres would be structures of wood and it would more than likely be theatre in the round until bigger theatres were built. It was not until 1574 that plays were allowed to be performed on weekdays. The expensive seats were up in the galleries down to the cheap seats for the “groundlings” who sat on the floor! They would pay a penny to get in. As they came through a doorway they would be expected to put a penny in the box on the floor alongside the doorway. It soon became apparent that the number of people sitting on the floor did not always equal the amount of pennies in the box. So a recess was made by the doorway and the box placed on a shelf with someone from the theatre keeping an eye on it. From this simple operation we derive the term “Box Office!” This is the stage of the original Globe Theatre. Its modern replica is well worth a visitthe-globe-theatre4

Shakespeare’s main rival and friend at this time was Ben Jonson. Jonson wrote the Alchemist, Volpone, and Bartholmew Fair among others. He was imprisoned for sedition for writing his first play, after that he fought a duel with an actor and was found guilty of murder. He escaped hanging by persuading the authorities that as the son of a clergyman he had what was known as “benefit of clergy.” This apparently gets you off a hanging! He did not stay in prison for too long and his first play on release numbered William Shakespeare among the cast. Volpone is the play most performed in modern times. All the characters are named after animals, Volpone being the Fox. He pretends to be about to die just so he can hear what people have to say about him. It all goes badly wrong!

Shakespeare died in 1616*, allegedly on the same day that he was born, 23 April. Jonson died in 1632. Between them they had established comedy as one of the driving forces of the London theatre.

Queen Elizabeth the First had died in 1603. She was a strong monarch and gave active support to the Tudor theatre. Not so some of her courtiers who saw the theatre as a threat to good order. During the reign of James the First theatre went on without any outstanding events. The plays of Johnson and Shakespeare tending to hold sway. Charles the First did little to encourage the theatre and although plays were still performed in public more and more tended to be performed in private houses. Then came the Civil War, and Oliver Cromwell, who immediately banned all theatrical performances in public theatres. This was not, as may be thought, just out of puritan dislike for people having fun but a purely practical decision. Theatres could hold up to 2000 people. A theatre audience could easily become a mob and mob could easily cause a riot. Cromwell died and so did the puritan movement as his successors lacked his skill and resolution. Charles the Second was restored to the throne in 1660.

Well you might think after all those years of puritan misery all the theatres would be opened and enjoyment would be the order of the day. Not so. Like Cromwell Charles and his followers were scared that large gatherings of people could cause problems. They did however allow theatrical performance. Letters patent were issued to two men who were allowed to operate a theatre each. This became known as legitimate theatre. Other theatres were used for musical gatherings, impromptu readings and the like. They were not allowed to charge for the performance of say Shakespeare. One of the patent theatres was at Drury Lane. The one you see now is the fourth one built on the site the other three having burnt down! The latest was built in 1822 and the last structural re-altering was in 1901. The other theatre was a converted Real tennis court in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In the mid-seventeenth century the area was a field although Portugal Street was in existence, indeed that was the address of the theatre. That is the street that runs behind the old Land Registry building. The theatre was located more or less where the College of Surgeons now stands. It was built to the latest specifications internally and contained all the up-to-date scenery and effects that money could buy. It operated for about sixty years. During the reign of Charles the Second actresses appeared on the stage for the first time. One of whom was probably famous more for her name than her acting, Nell Gwyn was her name.

What is amazing about this period is that the letters patent were not revoked until 1843! In the restoration period there were plays by Dryden, Wycherley, Goldsmith and Sheridan. Government interference continued. So much so that theatre audiences dropped off. The two high points of theatre attendance in this country set against population are during the reign of Elizabeth the First and the period of a few years before the start of World War Two. Shakespeare went out of fashion due in no small measure to someone called Colley Cibber producing his own adaptations of Shakespeares work. It would be well into the second half of the nineteenth century before Shakespeare regained his place as the most performed playwright. In 1737 Prime Minister Walpole felt offended by a play written by Henry Fielding and it is believed orchestrated the production of a play which he claimed insulted the royal family. He then enacted a bill which instructed that in future all plays had to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for approval before they could be performed. Bad news all round and for the next two hundred years or so! The law was not repealed until 1968! There are playwrights living today who have had to submit their work to the Lord Chamberlain.

The 18th century saw the spread of theatre to the provinces and the establishment of repertory companies. The end of the eighteenth century saw the first versions of pantomime performed in the country. This particular form originated in Italy where the main characters were Harlequin, Columbine, Pantalone and clown. The performances were called Harliquinades. Into the nineteenth century and the theatres were bigger, by this time no notice was taken of the letters patent. Audiences were becoming more rowdy and theatre going was starting to become an unpleasant experience. Theatres were becoming grubby, shabby buildings. The actors profession was becoming one to disdain. The remedy was to improve the theatres, the lighting, the décor the onstage scenery, and the standards of performance. It worked.

However in the East End of London and in other major cities communities were setting up their own entertainment. The larger public houses would fit in a makeshift stage at one end and encourage their customers to do a turn. Thus we have the beginning of music hall. Before this comedy had been presented in a theatre and always the play would have been written by a rich middle class man. Yes people of all classes would attend depending on the play but music hall was comedy for the working class because the performers were from the same streets where they the audience lived. If we trace the birth of comedy plays back to Ancient Greece then the birth of modern comedy took place in the music halls of London and all the other major cities in the Untied Kingdom. Here for the first time someone would stand up in front of an audience and tell jokes. The audience would have paid to see them and the performer would be paid. Very quickly music hall moved out of the public houses.

And there we end Act Two … the final Act will tell the story of the Queen of Music Hall

I leave you in the tender care of Mr Tommy Cooper:

Tommy was leaving the theatre and just getting into his car when a man came running up to him, “Mr Cooper, Mr Cooper, please Mr Cooper can you give me lift please Mr Cooper can you give me lift?” Tommy took one step back looked the man up and down and said: “ You look great, the world is your oyster, go for it!”

 

* I commend the novel ‘Fools and Mortals’ by Bernard Cornwell for a wonderful description of life in Shakesperean England. The title is taken from Pucks line in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”

 

 

 

 

 

A HISTORY OF COMEDY

Back in 2008 I gave a talk to the Land Registry History Society called ‘A History of Comedy.’ This is the amended script. My talk was over an hour long and so before you now is Act One.     Enjoy…                                           tragedy-comedy-icons

                          ACT ONE

To be more precise it is really my history of comedy. It will be biased, politically incorrect and probably xenophobic! As we get to modern times your favourite comedians may or may not get a mention but I cannot discuss every comedy act there has ever been otherwise I would be writing forever! What I hope to do is show you the landmarks of comedy from how it evolved in Ancient Greece to more modern times. Also I hope to show you how performed comedy has made the journey across two thousand years or more. Performed comedy as we know it is written down, the script learned and then staged. Of course visual comedy has been around since Neanderthal times. The caveman on his way back from a hunting trip falls over a rock and lands face down in a puddle. Cue laughter from his fellow cavemen! The fact that the victim then tries to club his mates to death need not concern us here!

Before we head for Ancient Greece I thought I would set the tone for this blog with an item from the Tommy Cooper joke book.

“Blind man and his dog walk into a department store. The man picks up the dog and starts to whirl it around his head. A horrified shop assistant rushes over to him and asks: “Excuse me sir, is everything all right?”   “YEP,” replies the blind man, “Just looking.”

Just like that! More from Mr Cooper in a couple of thousand years. And so to Ancient Greece, or rather Ancient Athens.

 

Parthenon1

This is the Parthenon. Or as Eric Morecombe might have said, “That won’t keep the rain out!” And it is the Parthenon, not the Acropolis. The Acropolis, the translation of which is “High City” is the large rocky area on which the Parthenon stands. It was the seat of administration for the city of Athens. Below the Acropolis would live the slaves, criminals and workers. Those with money lived well above it all!

The origins of Theatre began in Athens. Performances may well have taken place in other parts of Greece but all the historical evidence available shows that Athens was the starting point. And of course Athens was the starting point for civilisation in Western Europe. Here was born democracy, the art of political debate, trial by jury, literature, language, and the beauty of art in sculpture and design. Democracy in Athens was for a very select band of citizens. To be able to vote you had to be rich and male. Thus, Athens was controlled by those who had a vested interest in its prosperity. But they still voted and adopted principles of discussion that have survived the centuries. Athens in particular and Greece in general would come under all sorts of pressure from forces outside and inside the country. If it wasn’t the Persians, it was the Spartans, if not them it was the Macedonians and then along came the bloody Romans to nick all their ideas! There were various other petty squabbles too numerous to mention. The one thing I omitted when mentioning what the city of Athens had been responsible for was of course theatre. From out of this theatrical tradition was born comedy. Greek scholars seem to think from the various documentary sources they have consulted that there may well have been at least eighty playwrights over the period we are looking at. However we only have the works of three dramatists and two writers of comedy available to read. I thought I would show you a time line to put all of the above into context. Education, education, education! (The only good words ever issued by the idiot Blair!)

 

timeline

I thought the Romans should be allowed in as they stole all the Greek plots anyway!

Across this timeline we have the birth of Socrates (470) who had Plato (428) as a pupil. Plato in turn was the tutor to Aristotle (384) who in turn was the tutor of Alexander the Great! Got all that? And just to add to the mix there were various wars and battles raging around the Mediterranean.

Greek theatre was born out of idol worship, fertility rites and poetry readings which fused into theatre. The early plays would have consisted of a chorus of say twelve men chanting the lines. In the fifth century BC Thespis comes along. He is the playwright credited with introducing the first actor into the proceedings and the use of the masks of tragedy and comedy which now adorn most theatres in one way or another. Thespis was the first actor to actually play a character rather than someone just reading out statements. Thespis is well remembered by his followers. You will find a good few of them along Shaftesbury Avenue around 7:30 on most evenings. They are known as Thespians! So now you know!

In between the battles and wars you will see the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Say that after a glass or two! And I’ve still got Aristophanes to come! But a chorus and one actor was hard work for the one actor. Thus by the time Euripides came along it was the chorus and three actors! The actors would play all the characters, hence the masks. The mask as such is still in use today of course. Though it is now called make-up and costume. The plays of the three I mentioned were all tragedies based on Greek mythology. No playwright at that time would have had the nerve to portray contemporary issues. They would be all male casts. No violence would take place on stage. And in Greek mythology there is quite a bit of violence! Any one due to be killed as part of the play would be taken off stage. Suitable cries of anguish would be heard and the “dead” body carried back onto the stage.

A couple of play titles you may be familiar with that are still performed today, The Oresteia, Oedipus the King and Elektra. The Oresteia by Aeschylus gets an airing every ten years or so on BBC2!!! This is the one about Clytemnestra and her lover plotting to kill her husband Agememnon.   Then her son plots to kill her and someone plots to kill him and there is blood everywhere! One thing to come out of the Oresteia is that at the trial of Orestes, the son mentioned above, is found not guilty by virtue of the fact that the jury cannot agree. In the play the goddess Athena states that in any other future trial whenever the jury cannot agree the defendant must be found not guilty. The Oresteia is a trilogy and can be hard to follow.

So with all this gloom and doom around the Athenian play going public must have been in desperate need of a good laugh!So along came Aristophanes overlapping Sophocles and Euripides. He would use some of his work to take the mickey out of his predecessors but the play that tends to be performed the most today is one beloved of amateur theatre groups. Lysistrata. Why so popular? Well the plot centres around a central theme. The ladies of a particular Greek town inform their menfolk that unless they stop constantly going off to fight there will be no more sex when they return home. It sells tickets! Though I would guess that back in Ancient Athens it was seen as an anti-war play. Comedies were far more daring in that they dealt with contemporary issues and were not afraid to satirize the great and the good. Although that would come to end when Athens came under the domination of Macedonia. Then as now people from that area are sadly lacking in humour! Mind you it is not just the Macedonians. We do of course  have the laugh a minute Germans. I’m not sure but whenever I hear a German man speaking for all I know they could be giving the weather forecast; why then does it always sound as if they are declaring war on Poland? But given the choice between German and Afrikaans give me German. That South African accent can cut plated steel at fifty paces. I believe the white South Africans are descended from the Dutch whom I have always thought of as a friendly lot. I  regard white South Africans as sort of Germans with sun tans!

 

Now where were we……………………The Greek plays yes……

The plays were acted out on the stage of the classic Greek theatre.

Theatre

The terms used for various parts of the theatre have passed onto us in translation. The rear area would be known as the “Theatron.” From which we get theatre. Theatron translates as “seeing place.” Not to be confused with the Latin word Auditorium which translates as “hearing place!” The flat area in front of the audience was known as the orchestra. The large wall at the rear was known as the skene and behind that another wall which came around both sides of the raised area was known as the “Proskenion.” This word translated to “Proscenium. As in arch which is now the standard outline in all theatres at the front of the stage. Theatres were normally built into hillsides to allow the terracing to be supported and shaped to ensure the acoustics were at their best.

Aristophanes died in 380BC. After that there is another name mentioned in the Greek theatre, Menander. He is generally accepted as the link between the Greek Theatre and the start of theatre in this country some 1500 years later. He became the first Greek writer to use everyday domestic situations as the themes for his plays. Mistaken identity, father does not like the look of future son-in-law, romance going wrong, you might say it was the start of situation comedy! Menander had a rival playwright called Philemon about whom not much is known. Other than they appeared to vie for the affections of the same lady in their life!

Menander is believed to have written over 100 plays but only a couple survive plus fragments of others. In the first decade of the 20th century a hugh pile of ancient manuscripts was discovered in the ruins of an ancient settlement about 100 miles south of Cairo. Known as the Cairo Codex they found fairly mundane things among the papyrus but they also found a number of ancient Greek items which included some of Menanders work. Most of the excavated paper went to Oxford and some of it is still waiting for translation! Some of it was of course in a dire state and only recently with modern techniques have researchers been able to read the original writing which has been burnt by the sun, buried in the sand and generally mistreated! In 1957, again in Egypt one complete play of Menanders was discovered. Menander lived and worked during Macedonian rule. That would probably explain why he chose ordinary people for his characters, not wishing to offend the ruling elite. However for historians he epitomises Greek New Comedy.

He drowned while swimming of Piraeus in 291 BC. After that date there are no records of any other Greek playwrights. Although undoubtedly the plays of the writers we have mentioned would have been performed. The Romans conquered Greece in 146BC.

In Rome the works of the Greek playwrights would have been performed and would have been the inspiration to Roman playwrights. While the works of a number of Roman writers have come down to us only two playwrights have survived the Roman Empire. Titus Maccius Plautus was born in 254BC and started out on a career as a merchant. He was quite successful until a number of ships carrying valuable cargo belonging to him were sunk without trace. This bankrupted him and he took a job working in a grain mill. He had been involved in the embryonic Roman stage as a youth and what spare time he had from the mill he put to writing. Depends who you read but the number of plays that have come down that are accredited to him is anywhere between one hundred down to twenty-one. The majority seem to favour twenty-one. All of them derivative of Greece and all of them set in Athens. Roman rulers did not take kindly to theatrical productions and plays were performed on temporary stages. The work of Plautus would be used by Stephen Sondheim in his musical, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

“Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone, a comedy tonight!”

The second Roman playwright was one Publius Terentius Afer. Known to history simply as Terence. He was born in Carthage in 190BC. Captured and taken as a slave to Rome. There his master made sure the boy was educated. Seeing that he undoubtedly had talent he was encouraged to write by his master. His first play was produced when he was nineteen. His master rewarded him with his freedom and allowed him to take the name by which he became famous. Sadly his life was cut short when he was drowned at sea on his way to Greece. An identical death to that of his hero and inspiration Menander. He was thirty-one. All his plays were Latin adaptations of the works of Menander. But this ensured his place in history and most theatrical histories place Menander and Terence as the main influences on early theatrical writing in Western Europe.

The first theatre in Rome was built by Pompey in about 55BC. The objections to theatre building were overcome by naming it the Temple of Venus. It just happened to have a stage and seating for thousands of people! Excavations on the site where it was built indicate that it was probably the largest theatre ever built.

 

TheatrePompey.png

However the two playwrights whose names we have were long gone by the time it was built.

For the average Roman theatre did not provide enough thrills. By the time the Republic had ended and Rome was ruled by an Emperor there was little evidence of any sort of dramatic writing, comedy or otherwise. The theatres would be used for acrobats, jugglers, mime shows but even they gave way in the end to the live show at the Coliseum. Here of course gladiatorial contests were fought to the death. With the coming of Christianity the shows in the Coliseum became even more gruesome. The Roman population never tired of the result “Lions Three Christians nil!

But all empires come to an end. That of the Roman Empire is put at around 476AD. After that the former empire was subject to fights and battles, treaties made, treaties broken. But it would be around 1400 years from Terence to the writing of the next comedy play anywhere.

END OF PART THE FIRST … PART THE SECOND COMING SOON!

 

                            STAY TUNED!