Category Archives: Literature

Fortissimo

A friend of mine recently introduced me to the strange world of Forteana, suggesting that it was the sort of thing that would probably appeal to me. She was right in this belief – in fact, I’d come across the work of Mr Charles Fort before. I’d often passed the house in Bloomsbury where he lived in the 1920s while studying at the British Library (it’s on Marchmont Street, marked with a silver plaque, if you’re interested). I’d looked into the work of this fellow, and discovered that, unconsciously, I was already familiar with it.

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by weirdness – ghosts, alien abductions, monsters in lakes, the lot. Believed in most of it, too. It was only when I got a bit older, developed the ability to think critically and learnt the difference between “true” and “things you really want to be true” that I developed that healthy level of scepticism that has prevented me from, e.g., giving heinous amounts of money to a homeopath every time I get the sniffles.

Charles H Fort is legendary in the circles that take an interest in strange phenomena – in fact, he more-or-less invented the concept of paranormal studies (or Forteana, as such studies are often called in tribute to the man). It may come as little surprise to sceptics among you to learn that he was not a scientist himself – in fact, he was a writer by profession. As anyone who’s read Dianetics can tell you, few things are more irritating than a writer who acts like he has scientific expertise without any actual academic study.

However, he did read widely. From a young age he took a great deal of interest in science. Like Yr. Humble Chronicler, he would appear to have been a science groupie rather than an actual scientist. He was born in New York in 1874 and, from a fairly young age, showed an independent streak (which I think is a polite way of saying “obstinate little bugger”).

His interest in science, combined with his rebellious tendencies,logically led him to take an interest in anomalies that science couldn’t explain. Anything weird and paranormal seems to have entered this field of interest, from spontaneous human combustion to rains of fish to UFOs. The only thing uniting his collection of oddities was the fact that science did not have a definitive explanation for them.

This, disciples of Fort are keen to emphasise, was the point of his work – that science does not have all the answers, and we shouldn’t mindlessly accept the opinion of the scientific establishment. This, I think, is a very fair point. After all, some of the greatest scientific discoveries in history have come from going against what is generally accepted as truth. It used to be accepted that the sun revolved around the earth and that ants have eight legs, but now we know better. Similarly, what we now consider to be a scientific truth may tomorrow be equally discredited.

Unfortunately, it’s here that Fort’s lack of a scientific background makes itself evident. The trouble is that, for all his impish mischief, Fort’s assembly of strange phenomena doesn’t really say anything to the scientific establishment that the scientific establishment doesn’t already know. No legitimate scientist would claim to have absolutely all the answers. Even theories that are pretty well established are constantly being refined and modified as new evidence comes in – consider the effect that the discovery of DNA had on studies of evolution, for instance.

In fact, I’d argue that a lot of the time, it’s the Forteans themselves who more closely fulfil the stereotype of the stubborn and short-sighted student of science. There is a tendency among believers in paranormal phenomena to say “If not X then Y,”  e.g. “If those lights in the sky are not any of these things, they must be alien spacecraft!” That is to say, they have no evidence specifically for their conclusions and don’t admit to the possibility that there may be yet another explanation that hasn’t been considered. This, to me, is just as narrow-minded as outright denying the existence of flying saucers, sea serpents, the Duck Beast of Wincanton &c, &c.

One wonders how seriously Fort himself intended his theories to be taken. His sources were often very dubious, he seems to have simply taken every record of weirdness at face value with no discrimination between scientific studies and anecdotal evidence. Some of his followers view him as a genius shining a light on the falsehoods of the scientific establishment, others view him as a Swiftian satirist out to troll everyone. Perhaps the final word on the matter should come from the man himself.

My own notion is that it is very unsportsmanlike to ever mention fraud. Accept everything. Then explain it your own way.

Make of that what you will.

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London Lit: Neverwhere

I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to finally get around to writing this entry. If I’m going to be meta about it, this is actually one of the first entries I planned to write, and that must have been, what, two and a half years ago? Daaaamn.

So yeah, Neverwhere. One of the best-known works of urban fantasy and one of the best-known London novels, I think I’m being fair when I say these things. Neil Gaiman’s first novel and my personal favourite.

The story is fairly simple – our protagonist is the slightly Arthur Dent-esque Richard Mayhew, a relative newcomer to London. One day he comes across what he thinks is a wounded homeless girl and offers to help her, only to swiftly and unwittingly find himself drawn into a bizarre and fantastical version of the city existing below and around our own – London Below. Worse, the girl – Door – is being pursued by a couple of bizarre and apparently time-travelling assassins. And so we find outselves journeying through London-as-filtered-through-Neil-Gaiman’s-brain.

If any of you saw the superb Gaiman-penned Doctor Who episode, ‘The Doctor’s Wife,’ you’ll recognise the hallmarks. Strange people living in a thrown-together world and plenty of whiplash between scary and funny. If it was a movie, it would probably be directed by Tim Burton. Hence we get bizarre scenes like the visit to Earl’s Court. That is to say, an actual Court held by an Earl. A medieval court on an Underground train. There’s also an Angel called Islington and an order of Black Friars. Oh, and you get to learn the real reason why you should Mind the Gap.

For those of you familiar with the history and mythology surrounding the city, there’s even more. From abandoned Tube stations to a throwaway reference to Gog and Magog (blink and you’ll miss it), it’s very clear that Gaiman’s done his homework in researching his fantasy world.

My first exposure to the phenomenon, oddly enough, was not via the book. It was over a decade ago, on TV. You see, Neverwhere was originally developed as a fantasy TV series at the behest of none other than Lenny Henry. This was long before the revival of Doctor Who, and so the general attitude towards fantasy on TV was that it was all a little bit silly. As a result, the whole thing looks a bit cheap and naff. Which is a pity, because it’s really not. There is some superb location filming, including the use of Battersea Power Station, HMS Belfast, Down Street Station and the old Post Office Underground. The cast features some interesting before-they-were-famous faces, including Paterson Joseph, Tamsin Greig and Peter Capaldi (as the aforementioned Angel Islington). It was a bit weird, to be sure, but it piqued my curiosity and I went out and bought the book. And I was hooked. I’m told that the version in print today differs somewhat from that 1997 publication, so I should probably buy the new one as well. Not that I’m a fanboy or anything.

It’s not the only urban fantasy set in London, nor is it even the first. But it is perhaps the best-known and tends to be very highly rated – China Miéville, for instance, lists it as an influence on his own London fantasies.  I think the reason for its success is that it never takes itself too seriously.  The characters are strange, often scary, but strangely likeable – I want to see more of the sinister Croup and Vandemar, for a start.

As I say, Gaiman is clearly familiar with the folklore and history of London, but you don’t need to be in order to enjoy the book. It’s my experience that a lot of the more well-read authors want you to know just how clever they are and their work suffers as a result. In the case of Neverwhere, a passing familiarity with the city will see you just fine. And having read it, you may want to increase that familiarity.

That’s a thought – has anyone ever done a Neverwhere tour?

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Filed under 20th Century, Film and TV, Islington, Literature, London, London Underground, Occult, Paranormal, Psychogeography

Mine eyes dazzle

Now, I’m afraid I’m going to be a bit rubbish over the next two weeks, chums. The reason for this is that, as I have previously said, I’m going to be in Youth Action Theatre’s production of The Duchess of Malfi, this week in London and next week at the Edinburgh Fringe. This will, I fear, make updates on this blog sporadic at best.

Of course, if you’d like to see this play yourself, you’d be most welcome to come along. This week – from Tuesday 9th to Thursday 11th August – we will be performing at the Hampton Hill Playhouse as part of a double-bill with a rather exciting devised piece called Lost and Found. It’s a world premiere sort of thing, so I must confess to not knowing a huge amount about it – however, I can vouch for the talent of the author, cast and director. It’s made extra-exciting by the fact that Yr. Humble Chronicler is supplying some of the props.

The Duchess of Malfi follows, and in accordance with the limitations of the Edinburgh Fringe, is pared down to an hour long. What this means is that you can tell everyone you’ve seen Webster’s masterpiece, but you haven’t had to sit through the full-length version which is like six weeks long or something.

If this all sounds like your kind of thing, and frankly why wouldn’t it, more info can be found here. Or if I’ve excited you sufficiently with this blog entry alone, you can book tickets here.

Of course, it might be that you’re in Edinburgh the following week, in which case why not come to see us up there? We’ll be at The Space (venue 36) from August 15th-20th, and you can book tickets here or here.

So there we are. I hope you’re as excited as I am, and I hope to see you there. Until next time, chums.

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To Be A Pirate King

After the signing on Saturday, Izzi and I rushed off to complete my pirate costume. Pirate costume? Perhaps I should explain.

You see, on Wednesday, my good chum Tiny Emma, who is well versed in the ways of debauchery, invited me along to an event held by an organisation known as Corset and Diamonds. This, I was told, was a burlesque-and-electro-swing evening themed around Pirates of the Caribbean, which is a film that I understand enjoyed a certain amount of success a few years ago.

Unfortunately, I’m currently rehearsing for a play that is on next week (you should come and see it, it’s going to be awesome) and so the amount of time available to produce a suitable outfit was somewhat limited. So, a certain amount of improvisation was needed. I decided a little research was in order.

Of course, it almost goes without saying that most of what we think of as “piratical” is more-or-less BS, invented by fiction writers, based on misunderstandings and half-truths, reinforced by years of retelling. For -instance, you know the old pirate voice, the “ha-harrr, Jim lad, splice the mainsail, keelhaul the mizzen-mast, belike and by thunder!” accent? That dates all the way back to 1950, derived from Robert Newton’s performance as Long John Silver in Disney’s version of Treasure Island. Now, there was some truth in his performance – he was a Cornishman by birth and based the accent on the sailors he used to see. But the near-universal Mummerset growl of Hollywood movies was nowhere near as prevalent as you might think. Particularly given that so many pirates were, you know, not English.

And you know the Jolly Roger, the black flag with the skull-and-crossbones? Again, nowhere near as common as the movies would have you believe. More common was the plain black flag, or the plain red flag. They both indicated that this ship was not part of any navy and therefore not obliged to follow any niceties of international law, and if you’d like to surrender now then I’m sure you’ll save us all a lot of bother. Most common of all, however, was to simply fly the colours of whatever country you were pretending to be from until the other ship was too near to run. This would arouse less suspicion than having, you know, a flag that basically says “HELLO WE ARE PIRATES” from a distance. Of course, for the pirate with a sense of style, an off-the-peg skull-and-crossbones wouldn’t do, and many prominent buccaneers went with a custom design. I rather like Blackbeard’s one, pictured below. By the way, the red flag was also commonly known as the “jolie rouge,” from which we get the term “Jolly Roger.” So there you have it.

But what about clothes? Your basic pirate costume seems to come in two forms. You’ve either got the foppish Captain Hook-style outfit, very elaborate, lots of brass buttons, or you’ve got the raggedy seadog look.

The reality, in fact, lay somewhere between the two extremes. Pirates did indeed like to dress up, they were basically the pimps of the sea in sartorial terms. But commonly, the elaborate clothes they were able to get were stolen. So you might get a seadog acting the foppish macaroni in the coat several sizes too large, tottering along in shoes a size too small.

However, your average sailor was also pretty handy with a needle and thread – they had to be, with sail repairs to be made. So they could rustle up their own clothes if needs be. And if a recent haul included silk, lace or other fancy cloth, those clothes could be extremely… do people still say “bling?” Am I using that word correctly?

So the conclusions I drew:

1. There is a lot of freedom, the only limits on an authentic costume being period accuracy.

2. The party is tomorrow and I don’t have much money, throw something together.

So, what I went with:

Shirt: They all laughed at me when I bought a frilly white shirt at the Stables in Camden, but WHO’S LAUGHING NOW? It came from that basement stall run by that rather theatrical-looking woman.

Trousers: I don’t own any breeches, sadly. There is a shop in Camden that has a lot of theatrical costume, including several pairs of breeches, but these were around the £35-40 mark, which was a bit much for me. However, in the Paws charity shop in Tooting I found a pair of black trousers. I hacked the legs off below the knee to create a raggedy look that might, if you didn’t look too closely, pass for breeches.

Waistcoat: I have a rather elaborate and shiny red waistcoat with brass and mother-of-pearl buttons. The style is a bit too modern for the Golden Age of Piracy, but with it worn open this wasn’t too noticeable. Just the sort of thing a dandy sailing lad might steal from a fat unarmed merchantman.

Footwear: If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from years of amateur dramatics, it’s that if you wear a pair of breeches and a pair of long socks, nobody can tell you’re not wearing stockings. Shoe-wise, I just wore my trusty black Oxford brogues. Ideally I’d have liked a buckle, but I didn’t have any.

Headgear: At Izzi’s suggestion, I picked up a black bandanna from a stall in Oxford Street. I also managed to get a brown tricorn at So High Soho on Berwick Street which looked a lot more elaborate than its price tag would suggest. The shop was closing for the day, but they let me dash in, which was cool of them. Incidentally, do you have any idea how hard it is to get a decent pirate hat that is both affordable and doesn’t look crap? Very hard.

Accessorising:  Primark really came through here. I found a cheapo pendant for £1.50 in the Tooting branch along with a battered-looking brown belt which was free because the guy on the till forgot to ring it through har har. I also added a couple of pocket watches and two more pendants to give the whole ensemble that more-plunder-than-sense look. The finishing touch was a sword from Escapade in Camden.

I met up with Anna K and we made our way to the party. I think the outfit was pretty successful, it was reacted to favourably at the event. It also seemed to make the hobo outside Colliers Wood Tube Station quite angry, but I don’t speak derelict so I couldn’t tell you why. On the way back I had a number of drunks shouting “Captain Jack Sparrow!” which would be quite witty, only I actually was deliberately dressed as a pirate, so not really.

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A League of their own

Now, get any group of comic book fans together and ask them which comic creator still living has had the greatest influence on the medium, and you’ll get a lot of different answers. My own answer would be Alan Moore. The only creator I can think of who’s had a comparable influence would be Stan Lee, but there’s a certain amount of dispute over the extent to which he “created” many of the characters credited to him.

Alan Moore, basically, has changed the face of comics. You may not know the name, but he was responsible for writing (among many other things) The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V for Vendetta, From Hell and – most famously of all – Watchmen. The latter, along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, took the superhero genre in a darker, more adult direction from which it has never returned – although none of the imitators has had quite the same success as those two.

My personal favourite of his works is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,  which is rather more fun than some of the works for which he’s best known. The basic concept is that every character within the fictional universe of this comic is from a pre-existing work of fiction. In the first volume, for instance, Mina Murray (from Dracula), Allan Quartermain (from King Solomon’s Mines), Dr Jekyll, Captain Nemo and the Invisible Man form a team under the supervision of James Bond’s grandfather and foil a gang war between Fu Manchu and Professor Moriarty. In the second, they participate in the events of War of the Worlds with the assistance of Dr Moreau and the father of the Wolf of Kabul. You get the idea. The number of works alluded to is immense, and much of the fun of the series comes from looking through to see how many allusions you can spot. Many of these come from artist Kevin O’Neill, whose manic and highly-detailed panels overflow with incidental characters and background references.

So you may imagine my excitement when I heard that the newest volume was due to be published and, not only that, but Moore and O’Neill were doing a signing in London at Gosh! Comics. Gosh! is, to my mind, about the best comic shop in London. It emphasises unusual and indie stuff,  and judging by the calibre of some of the creators they’ve had in to do signings (Gilbert Shelton and Dave McKean among them), it seems to be pretty well-respected. It’s based in Bloomsbury, but is about to up sticks to Berwick Street in Soho.

Yesterday, Succubusface, Izzi and I went up to indulge our inner geek at the signing. As you might imagine, if you know anything about comics culture, the event was huge. Succubusface nobly arrived an hour early and bagged us a spot – even so, we were queued right around the building. The line snaked considerably further than that, and God only knows how long the last fans in the queue were waiting. We were in line for several hours, in fact. We’re just that cool.

Eventually we got in. Now, you read interviews with Alan Moore, he comes across as a very grumpy man. He’s had public fall-outs with movie studios and comics publishers alike and is not afraid to express his feelings – combined with the often eclectic and obscure nature of his comics, the impression one gets is that he’d be this huge intimidating monster who’d have you thrown out for saying that you’d even seen the movie of V for Vendetta. And Kevin O’Neill’s scratchy, intense style leads one (well, me at least) to expect some sort of insane, wide-eyed boho who talks only in a stream of consciousness and reserves the right to bite you at any time.

This is Alan Moore.

Actually, they were both lovely. Very obliging, very willing to chat – Succubusface had a brief discussion with O’Neill about researching his artwork. The overall impression I got was that while Moore has his disputes with a lot of the men-in-suits, he has plenty of time for his genuine fans. Which is awesome. We left thoroughly pleased with our signed purchases.

The volume I was there to get was Century: 1969. Century is, officially, the third volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, although in practical terms it’s actually the fourth (Black Dossier, basically a series of supplemental material for the League universe framed by a shortish story, was published before Century but is not counted). It’s being published in three parts and is, as the title implies, a story spanning the twentieth century. In the first part, 1910, the League – now consisting of Mina, Allan, Raffles the Gentleman Thief, Carnacki the Ghost-Finder and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – attempts to foil an occult scheme by Aleister Crowley-analogue Oliver Haddo (of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Magician) and find themselves caught up in the events of The Threepenny Opera. In 1969, Haddo’s scheme resurfaces in Swinging London, where he has enlisted the help of Turner (from Performance) and Tom Riddle. Organised crime, the hippie movement, pop music and the occult clash, with the remains of the League and Jack Carter investigating the murder of Molesworth’s Fotherington-Tomas.

It’s been a long wait for this second part, but again, I feel it was worth it. Following Century, which often felt obscure to the point of self-indulgence in Yr. Humble Chronicler’s opinion, Century is a return to the kind of storytelling that made the first two volumes so enjoyable. While it’s not essential that you know that, e.g., this character is from The Long Firm or that character is from Round the Horne in order to understand the story, it adds immensely to your enjoyment if you do. Cameos abound, with such diverse personalities as the Second Doctor, Andy Capp and Dame Edna Everage all putting in background appearances.

The characters, particularly Mina, are developed and expanded in Moore’s usual thoughtful fashion – the implications of the characters’ extended lifespans (long story if you’ve not read the previous volumes) are considered in some detail, but without the irritating navel-gazing that bedevils many comics that try to be mature. There are lots of callbacks to previous episodes and, knowing Moore, plenty of elements that will become significant in the next.

The art, too, is up to Kevin O’Neill’s usual high standards. As I mentioned, his style is very weird, so much so that the Comics Code Authority banned it simply because they found it too freaky. 1969, which contains many psychedelic and generally bizarre sequences which allow him to unleash his full freakiness. I don’t think there’s another artist who could have done this quite as much justice as he.

Overall, it’s a worthy addition to the League canon, and I look forward to 2009 eagerly.

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Science Fiction Single Feature

I love science fiction. I was first introduced to it at the tender age of 8, via the glorious medium of Thunderbirds repeats on Friday afternoons. From there, I discovered Doctor Who and Star Trek. Then, a couple of years later, I was directed to the works of Asimov and Clarke (and Douglas Adams, of course). And from there, things just sorta grew. Despite the best efforts of secondary school to wean me off this juvenile nonsense, it’s an interest I maintained into adulthood and, indeed, even had the opportunity to study at university.

So when my good chum Succubusface drew my attention to the Out of This World exhibition at the British Library, I figured it had to be worth seeing. One of my flatmates recommended it, and so the decision was made. On Saturday, Succubusface and I made our way to St Pancras.

I tend to be a little wary when serious literary folk start talking about science fiction because, as I suggested in the intro, there’s a tendency to be rather snobby about it, to assume that it’s a juvenile genre of square-jawed space heroes firing ray guns at marauding robots. I once came across a critical essay which suggested that Nineteen Eighty-Four wasn’t science fiction because it was too good.

I couldn’t disagree more – I believe that science fiction is as valid a literary genre as any other. It grants the licence to explore questions that could not easily be answered in other genres. What does it mean to be human? How do we know what’s real? What if humanity isn’t superior in the universe? What responsibility do we have to that which we create? How might political systems work when played out over centuries? One of my favourite novels is Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man, the story of a man who struggles with Christian faith all his life, only to find himself transported to first century Galilee and the reality of the beliefs he’s fought – a story that inherently relies on time travel, but whose subject matter (religion and idealism) is universal. Another is, as I said above, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which Douglas Adams uses the broad canvas of space opera to satirise and absurdify (is that a word?) our society.

Of course, there’s a lot of junk lit out there, and this was particularly prevalent before the 1960s and the rise of the New Wave sci-fi movement. The picture on the right is a fine example. However, I am reminded Sturgeon’s Law. Science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon was once confronted with the suggestion that ninety-nine per cent of science fiction was crap. His response was to look at the interviewer with an expression of mild bewilderment and say, “Ninety-nine per cent of everything is crap.”

The exhibition takes a more enlightened view than many critics, and as such would be enjoyable both to hardened geeks and relative newcomers. It describes itself as “science fiction, but not as you know it,” a mission statement which it fulfils admirably. A lot of the works covered therein are not what one would traditionally consider science fiction (although, when you think about it, they are). Things like Thomas More’s Utopia, J. G. Ballard’s High Rise or Stanley Kubrick’s film Doctor Strangelove. The classics you would expect to see are in there – Childhood’s End, Foundation, Flatland, Metropolis, Doctor Who, War of the Worlds, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (spoiler: yes) and the like. There were also quite a few of the less widely known and yet equally worthy works, like Jane Loudon’s The Mummy and Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker.

The exhibition is ordered by subgenre – dystopia, apocalypsealien invasion, time travel, steampunk etc,which I think serves to make it all more approachable to the casual non-geek. It also showed the many different approaches to different concepts – the utopia/dystopia section featured works as diverse as The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, Utopia, Nineteen Eighty-Four and V for Vendetta. The displays explained the basics of each subgenre in an understandable and non-patronising way.

Speaking as a geek, I found it utterly absorbing, and might even make another visit. I found a load of titles that weren’t familiar to me, but which are now firmly on my reading list.

The only caution I would give is that it’s not really a great exhibition for young children. There’s the funny sleepy robot and the draw-an-alien activity, but the displays are very wordy and I suspect that boredom would quickly set in for a child. For everyone else, though, I can’t recommend it enough.

Further Viewing

Here, the subject of Yr Humble Chronicler’s literary mancrush, China Miéville, takes us on a tour of the exhibition for the BBC.

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Brush up your Webster

I don’t think I’ve yet mentioned that I’m doing another play. We’re currently in rehearsals for John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. I do like me a bit of Jacobean tragedy, particularly when it’s as stabbalicious as this.

The play is a highly abridged version, for the simple reason that we’re taking it up to the Edinburgh Fringe, where performance slots are short. I went up there back in 2005, and I therefore speak from experience when I say that the chance to go to the festival is not to be passed up. It was a haze of bohemian drunkenness and attacking Vanessa Feltz in the street (long story). The play that time was Philip Ridley’s The Pitchfork Disney, which is right up my street, and we were honoured to have Mr Ridley himself attend some of the rehearsals.

One of my enduring memories was when our extremely drama-student-stereotype lead actor attempted to grovel to Ridley, saying “I feel a bit weird with the author here, like there’s this little dwarf of authorial intent saying, ‘That’s not how it should be performed!'” Ridley’s reply, with an entirely straight face, was, “Yes, but what you have to remember is that you can rape the dwarf.” Good times.

But enough wallowing in the past. The Duchess of Malfi, or Malfi as it’s known to friends, is a rather splendid tale of forbidden love, greed, corruption, Machiavellian plotting and lots of imaginative death, with undercurrents of incest and xenophobia. Everything you’d want from a Jacobean tragedy, really. It’s also notable in that the best lines go to the Duchess, which is rather unusual for the era – women in Jacobean drama either tend to be boring or evil. Yr. Humble Chronicler is playing the Cardinal, brother of the titular Duchess and mastermind of the various plots. Once again, I’ve been cast as the psychotic agent of a corrupt theocracy. There’s obviously something about me that suggests that quality. Maybe it’s all the blasphemy.

The play was premiered at some point in the early 1610s at the Blackfriars Theatre, one of Wm. Shakespeare’s old stomping grounds – indeed, the company that staged it, the King’s Men, was Mr Shakespeare’s. And speaking of Shakespeare, it was apparently also performed at the Globe.

 Unfortunately, we can’t be too precise about the dates. One of the most irritating things about Jacobean drama is how very little we know about some of its key figures. Even the life of Shakespeare is heavily based on speculation, educated guesses and the study discipline that historians call “making shit up.” About Webster, who is one of the best-known and most highly regarded Jacobean dramatists after the Bard, we know very little indeed. We think he studied law and we’re pretty sure he was born and raised in London, but a lot of this comes from survivng documents from about the right period that feature the name “John Webster.” According to T. S. Eliot, “Webster was much possessed by death/And saw the skull beneath the skin,” but no surviving documents indicate that he had any form of X-ray vision, so Eliot’s sources for this frankly astonishing claim are unclear.

Still, as Bill Bryson notes in his highly-readable Shakespeare, even Webster has been fortunate in historical terms. A lot of dramatists are only known as names on posters. Some of them, not even that. There are plenty of authors whose identities have been lost to us – we can only speculate educatedly on the authorship of my favourite Jacobean work, The Revenger’s Tragedy, for instance. Sucks to be those guys.

Webster’s best known plays are The White Devil and, of course, the aforementioned Duchess of Malfi. These are both rather grim and stabtastic, regarded today as outstanding examples of their genre, so it’s perhaps surprising to learn that the vast majority of his work was actually comedy. I suppose Webster gots to pay the rent.

Anyway, I’ll let you know how it goes. Hurricane Jack is coming over for beer and movies, so I must depart.

Exit.

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