Thursday, 30 September 2010

Victorian London, Shakespeare

I know I'm behind on the blogging, but I'll catch up eventually. We've been busy.

Last week on Wednesday 22 September we joined Professor Mike Fosdall and his SU students for a walk around Victorian London.
Our walk began at St. Giles-in-the-Field. There has been a chapel or church at this site since the 12th century when Mathilda, the queen of King Henry I, founded a leper hospital here outside the walls of London. St. Giles is the patron saint of lepers. Mathilda herself was the granddaughter of King Duncan of Scotland, the same Duncan who was murdered by Macbeth, the same Macbeth immortalized by Shakespeare.

Inside the present church, which was built in the 1730s in the Palladian style, is a pulpit from which John Welsey preached at a different church not far away. He often preached as St. Giles as well. The church is known as the Poet's Church because of its connection to some of England's most significant poets, including Byron and Shelley whose children were baptized here, as was a daughter of John Milton's. The important architect John Soane is buried here, as are a pair of 17th century poets, Andrew Marvell and George Chapman. Also buried in the church is Cecilius Calver, the second Lord Baltimore, who is of some significance for Americans. He owned Maryland by virtue of a charter granted to him by King Charles I.

But in Victorian England the area around St. Giles was populated by desparately poor people. The poverty and misery of those living there drove many of them to lives of  chronic crime and of the foulest degradation. Local authorities tore down some of the old slums and replaced them with structures like these across the street from St. Giles. Some, like Prof. Mike, do not see them as a great improvement over the slums.

Walking down this street near St. Giles, it's hard to imagine that at one time no one respectable was safe. Such people would be immediately robbed, beaten, and worse. The buildings have changed little in the last couple hundred years except they now house exclusive shops instead of housing what we would regard as the dregs of society.

This is Neal's Yard. Nice upscale shops circle the yard and the passageways into the yard today. But in Victorian England the local thugs brought newly commissioned police officers here and beat them up. It was like an initiation, and nothing could be done about. Thieves and murderers and worse controlled a large swath of London. Anyone who entered this yard who was not of the neighborhood could not be guaranteed of getting out alive, nevermind still in possession of wallet or purse. Unspeakable crimes were common.

Times have changed. The neighborhood shops sell exclusive designer clothes and other fancy stuff.

Neal's Yard is part of an area called Seven Dials for the seven streets that converge at this column. Seven sun dials circle the top of the column. The column itself replaces a similar column that disappeared many decades ago. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, for some obscure reason, unveiled this column in 1989.

Past the Seven Dials column on the left is the Cambridge Theatre. The area is now a small gem of a shopping area, but Victorian descriptions (by Dickens among others) of the few blocks surrounding this monument describe the notorious and degraded conditions people lived under.

Seven Dials also provides the title of a recent historical mystery novel set in Victorian London.

Cheek by jowl to the slums is the Royal Opera House, where the better parts of society converged.

On the way to the River Thames we saw this statue of Michael Farraday, an early pioneer in performing experiments that revealed some of the secrets of electromagnetic energy.

On the shores of the River Thames, Cleopatra's Needle.

One of the two bronze Victorian sphinxes guarding the Needle.

Signs of shrapnel.
The sphinx is getting a little help.

Thursday evening we attended a short talk about Shakespeare at the CAPA center in preparation for the play we were going to see the following day.

The next afternoon, Friday, we attended a magnificently hilarious performance of Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Globe Theatre. The Globe is on the south bank of the Thames and is the best-guess reconstruction of the original Globe. The original Globe was built from materials 'borrowed' from another theatre in 1598, burned down during a performance of Shakespeare's  Henry VIII  in 1614, rebuilt, then razed by Cromwell's Puritans in 1644. The grim spoil sports did not like the theatre. The foundations of the original Globe were discovered in 1989 and soon thereafter the construction of this version of the Globe near the site of the original followed in 1997.

We watched the play among the groundlings, those whose cheap tickets allowed them to stand in the 'yard'--the portion of the theatre in front of the stage without seats or protection from the elements. The weather service forecast rain for that afternoon, but the performance must go on regardless of the weather. Fortunately only a few drops fell and we managed to stay dry and warm enough. Frankly, standing near the stage, which for this play arced out into the middle of the yard and surrounded some of us groundlings, seemed to be a much better theatrical experience than occupying one of the covered seats. It was the best theatrical experience one can imagine. It was almost like being onstage with the performers. The performances were all first rate, incredibly funny, the play itself easy to follow and understand with such excellent interpretations given us by the actors. Given that the cost for standing in the yard is only 5 pounds and we had so much fun at this play, we bought tickets for a couple more plays, both parts of Shakespeare's Henry IV. We await the performances eagerly.

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