THE DEVIL ON THE STAGE

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Courtyard of the Belsavage Inn

It is thanks to the rabid, theatre-bashing Puritan, William Prynne, that we know about an early performance of Christopher Marlowe’s masterpiece, Doctor Faustus.

It took place in the courtyard pictured above, one of the great inn-yard theatres of London, situated at the back of a public house called The Belsavage Inn, located on Ludgate Hill.

That the Belsavage ceased theatrical operations in 1589 means Marlowe’s play must have been performed there in that year, or even perhaps in 1588. It was the follow-up to his two-part Tamburlaine the Great of 1587.

Prynne’s fire and brimstone assault on English theatre was called Histriomastix  (i.e. chewer of the histrionics) but was every bit as histrionic as the art he was criticising.

“… the visible apparition of the devil on the Stage at the Bel-savage Playhouse in Queen Elizabeth’s days (to the great amazement both of the Actors and Spectators) whiles they were there profanely playing the History of Faustus (the truth of which I have heard from many now alive, who well remember it) there being some distracted with that fearful sight.”

Prynne is writing decades after the event, in 1633, and already the production is an urban legend. Prynne even suggests that members of the audience lost their sanity. It reminds us only of how powerful a work of art Doctor Faustus must have been, how antithetical to all orthodoxies it must have seemed, what a frisson it must have generated, dividing Elizabethans into hip and square.

The devil had always been on the stage, especially in the medieval morality plays. That would hardly be shocking. It is the sublimity of the poetry and philosophy of Christopher Marlowe, the great tones and cadences of his blank verse, the high seriousness of the tragedy newly attained by the poet, that caused the storm. Lucifer, Beelzebub and Mephistopheles were standing before thousand-strong audiences declaiming their abominations in Marlowe’s customised ‘mighty line’. As a piece of magickal theatre, it has never been surpassed. There are many imitations, in many media, notably The Litanies of Satan by Baudelaire or even Sympathy for the Devil by the Rolling Stones. The magnificence of Marlowe’s poetry in Faustus is unequalled even by Shakespeare because Shakespeare never explored the dark side of the occult with the profound immersion of Marlowe.

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.
O, I’ll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?
See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah my Christ —
Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ;
Yet will I call on him — O spare me, Lucifer!

I personally see Faustus as Marlowe’s elegy for his own soul. He had sold out to Satan in his own private life and the devils were coming to tear him limb from limb. Lucifer, Mephistopholis and Beelzebub seem like Walsingham, Poley, Baines and others from the informer’s underworld; the sympathetic scholars seem like such Shoreditch poets as Kyd, Watson, Shakespeare. Hell itself looms like the Tower of London and the torture chambers of Topcliffe. Working for the Queen’s spymaster – a truly Luciferic figure – had turned Marlowe into a demi-devil. He betrayed fellow students at Cambridge and was perhaps betraying his friends in the School of Atheism, selling information on Ralegh et al to the Privy Council.

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Prynne himself made enemies in high places. His ranting and pamphleteering caused him to be pilloried and to have his ears cut off. This seems a fair punishment for a Puritan, as their ears are wilfully deaf to the life-changing sound of poetry.

Marlowe’s punishment is surely the most unjust ever meted out to an English poet. Prynne would have felt it divinely providential: “Stage-Playes are the workes, and Pompes of Satan”.

Thanks to Prynne’s notes, however, we now have the charming vista of the possible stage debut of The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus occurring a stone’s throw from the epicentre of London Christianity at St Pauls Church.

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Coaches exiting the gatehouse of the Belsavage on Ludgate Hill

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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WALSINGHAM HOUSE

Walsingham House is a property located at 35 Seething Lane. It commemorates a former resident of the street, better known as the address of Samuel Pepys. The building is currently undergoing a major refurbishment, accumulating storeys.

Walsingham’s visage is obscured by a piece of piping.

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Walsingham House

Sir Francis Walsingham was Secretary of State for Queen Elizabeth I, better  known as the Queen’s ‘spymaster’. He was MI5 and MI6 combined, protecting the reign of Elizabeth from the Catholic threat at home and abroad. He did a brilliant job, culminating in two major triumphs at the twilight of his career: masterminding the entrapment and execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587, and helping to see off the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Frankly, I – as an Irishman, republican, and former Catholic – might wish he hadn’t succeeded so well.  He dashed myriad hopes, doused a thousand dreams of insurrection in preventing Elizabeth’s nightmares from coming true.

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Stained glass image in St Olaves

His final decade was lived at Seething Lane where he purchased a distinguished ‘capital messuage’ called Muscovy House in 1580. This house was situated between Tower Hill to the south and Crutched Friars to the north, and between the two parishes of St Olaves Hart Lane and All Hallows Barking. It was connected to a laneway called Muscovy Court.

His employment of Christopher Marlowe as an agent was doubtless helped by Marlowe’s friendship with Thomas Walsingham, a younger cousin of the spymaster and patron to the budding poet. Marlowe was a frequent guest at the Walsingham country seat at Scadbury in Kent, now rubble.

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St Olaves

On occasion, Marlowe would have visited Francis Walsingham in Seething Lane. Much important interrogation and debriefing work was conducted there. The Tower of London was nearby if subjects proved reticent.

The ‘Seething’ seems sinisterly apt.

Walsingham was a masterful questioner. Only one person seemed to be able to withstand his subtleties, a dubious figure called Robert Poley, witness of Marlowe’s killing. Poley boasted that he never gave an inch to Sir Francis who tried to conceal his frustration by looking out the window and grinning like a dog.

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Another famous poet associated with the site is Sir Philip Sidney, husband of Walsingham’s daughter Frances. The Queen disapproved of the marriage but later attended the 1585 christening of Walsingham’s granddaughter at St Olaves. The child was called – tactfully – Elizabeth.

Sir Philip died in 1586 on the frontline of the Protestant vs Catholic struggle, fighting the Spanish in the Lowlands. It is unlikely he and Marlowe met.

Walsingham died at home, to be buried in Old St Pauls. His dying in 1590 exonerates him from any taint of the Marlowe assassination, but questions must surely be asked of Thomas Walsingham, who employed Ingram Frizer as a servant before and after the murder.

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The Walsingham Family crest

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DURHAM HOUSE

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My Christopher Marlowe studies have led me to Durham House, a regular and illustrious hangout for the poet in the late 1580s and early 1590s.

Durham House was a medieval palace gifted to Sir Walter Raleigh by Queen Elizabeth. It became his London townhouse from 1883 until the death of Elizabeth 20 years later. He spent a lot of money refurbishing it and had many fascinating visitors to admire the premises.

Raleigh, like Marlowe, came from humble origins. His piratical exploits at sea and colonial conquest of Ireland and Virginia made him one of the outstanding figures of his era. He had admirers from all fields of human activity. However, as Raleigh was also an accomplished poet and writer,  he would have felt a special affinity with the young Canterbury poet who had rocked London with Tamburlaine the Great, a poetic tragedy in two parts.

Sir Walter clearly took the brilliant writer under his wing, and invited him to meetings of one of the most enigmatic salons in English history, The School of Night, also known as The School of Atheism. Next to nothing is known about the membership. Its presiding genius was arguably Thomas Harriot, scientist and writer. Henry Percy, the Wizard Earl of Northumberland, and occult poet George Chapman are among the other suspected members of a high-achieving Renaissance cabal who were disillusioned with the sectarianism of Reformation vs. Counter-Reformation and whose solution was atheism.
In a political theocracy like Elizabeth’s, this was a dangerous heresy. Renouncing the church meant renouncing the head of the church i.e. the monarch herself.

Marlowe’s visits to Durham House would entail his walking from Norton Folgate to the Charing Cross end of Strand where the front door and gatehouse were located. He may also have arrived by skiff as the house looked out onto the Thames.

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In his unpublished play Killing Kit, poet Heathcote Williams imagines the interior of Raleigh’s study – with a little help from John Aubrey – as:

The room is filled with candles and has a magical quality: celestial mechanical devices; astrolabes; maps (Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum); marine charts; astronomical diagrams; chemical apparatus, and stuffed animals from Raleigh’s travels in the New World. A coat-of-arms with a bas-relief likeness of Raleigh is captioned ‘Dominus & Gubernator Virginiae’. 

According to an informer, Richard Cholmeley, Marlowe is also thought to have “read the Atheist Lecture to Sir Walter Raleigh and others”. If this really happened, it was surely at Durham House.

Another snoop, Robert Baines,  compiled a list of Christopher Marlowe’s alleged sayings which was shown as evidence to the Privy Council, almost certainly precipitating his murder shortly afterwards. http://www.rey.prestel.co.uk/baines1.htm

The property is long gone. Today the main clue to where the house used to stand is a street named after it. The RSA is cleverly tapping into the magical residue of the former ‘school’.

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There is a modern house with the same name, but it’s not worth photographing.

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I’m doing a walk for the wonderful Society Club on Saturday 18 February, but Durham House will fall outside the Shoreditch perimeters of that divagation.

http://www.thesocietyclub.com/events-1/2017/1/16/shoreditch-a-walk-with-christopher-marlowe

Further experiments and explorations are being conducted under the auspices of another mysterious ensemble known as Walkative. You have been warned.

https://walkative.wordpress.com/who-we-are/

 

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THOMAS DE QUINCEY AND ANN OF OXFORD STREET

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Two of Soho’s most legendary characters have been spotted again in the vicinity.
Romantic writer Thomas De Quincey and his tragic consort – a sex-worker known
to posterity as ‘Ann of Oxford Street’ – are on display in a shadowy W1 side-street,
close to the area’s red-light district.

The artist Julie Goldsmith, Member of the Royal British Society of Sculptors,
has created a tribute to their story and to Soho’s history. She has made imaginary
portraits of the 17-year-old De Quincey and the 15-year-old waif whom he
claimed saved his life.

The works are part of a solo exhibition called Soho Faery hosted by rare book dealers
and literary cocktail bar The Society Club. Most of the works are housed inside the club
but a few – including Thomas and Ann – are on show in the adjoining Door, London’s
smallest art gallery.

As Soho is renowned as a vice zone, De Quincey and Ann seem to embody the spirit
of the place, one a drug addict, the other a prostitute. But the relationship had an innocence that has proved captivating. In 1802, De Quincey was not yet an ‘opium-eater’, merely a runaway schoolboy roughing it in the capital, hungry and homeless, nocturnal denizen of a derelict townhouse on Greek Street.

Recounting the friendship in his famous 1821 memoir Confessions of an English
Opium-Eater, his tone is very much ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’. It was a brotherly
sisterly passion. Anyway, he insinuates to readers, he could not have afforded Ann’s services. At their final parting in Golden Square there was much hugging and kissing and tears. Though they expected to meet again after De Quincey returned to London from
a short sojourn away, they never did. She didn’t turn up at their Oxford Street rendezvous,
and he had no luck trying to trace her address, or finding her among the crowd on the
“great Mediterranean of Oxford Street”.

The artist – a ceramicist and sculptor – has painted her miniature portraits onto clay, glazed them in a kiln, and mounted them in 19th century gilt-edged frames.

Goldsmith’s image of the young man, who was from a well-to-do Manchester family,
is baby-faced – but with bat-winged shoulders – perhaps suggestive of the gothic horrors
to come. The historian and critic Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf, saw De Quincey as flying like “a bat on the wings of prose… to the true poetic region”. Physically, De Quincey was less than five feet tall, a leprechaun of a man, but a giant of letters. His biographer Frances Wilson sees him as a Peter Pan figure who never grew up.

Goldsmith’s Ann is very modern and sultry, dark-haired and dark-eyed. You could imagine her as a Soho ‘model’ and/or as a ‘goth’ having a drink at the Intrepid Fox in its heyday. Her melancholy is not masked by heavily made-up eyes, one partially hidden, or her sexual allure.

De Quincey offered no physical description of Ann in his memoir. Her surname is unknown and she is thought to have died of TB. They met on Oxford Street, both streetwalkers, flaneur and kerb-crawler. Once, when he had fallen gravely ill on a doorstep in Soho Square, she ran to a nearby shop and bought him a reviving drink of spiced port. Had she not done so, he would not have lived to write his classic tale.

The Society Club – a supporter of pressure group The English Collective of Prostitutes –
has also commissioned a walk by the Irish poet Niall McDevitt. A Walk in Soho
with Thomas De Quincey takes place this Saturday 14 January, meeting 3pm at The Society Club, Ingestre Place, W1F OJF.

There is no permanent monument to De Quincey and Ann in Soho. Don’t miss this passing homage.

http://www.thesocietyclub.com/events-1/2017/1/14/a-walk-with-de-quincey-in-soho

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A DAVID GASGOYNE CENTENNIAL

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David Gascoyne, one of England’s greatest 20th century poets, was born 100 years ago on Oct 10 1916.

A David Gascoyne Centennial is a free and open forum event to mark the occasion.

It is taking place at The Junction pub in Harrow-on-the-Hill, Gayton Road, the street that Gascoyne was born on.

Anyone who cares about Gascoyne is invited to participate. Just turn up on the night and a slot will be alloted.

The function room at the Junction has been booked from 8pm to midnight. At about 11pm we can stroll down Gayton Road to the house where Gascoyne was born.

Gascoyne is an enduring poet who will become a big presence in the 21st century. Public homages such as this are helpful, as they were helpful to Blake in 1927 (the 100th anniversary of his death).

Harrow on the Hill is not difficult to get to and from. It’s only a few minutes from Baker Street, and the pub is very near the train station.

Proceedings will commence at 8pm. Please forward to interested parties.

The Junction, 9 Gayton Road, HA1 2DH http://www.thejunctionharrow.co.uk/findus

 

 

 

 

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A LONDON CHAUCER PILGRIMAGE

Chaucer mural

An inaugural Chaucer walk through the 600-year-ago London of England’s most celebrated medieval poet.

The route begins at Aldgate and ends at Southwark, the departure point for his own imagined Canterbury pilgrims.

Learn how Chaucer survived the Black Death, the Peasant’s Revolt and miscellaneous regime changes.

Meetimg at Aldgate tube, Sat 30 July, 1pm. (NB Not Aldgate East). 5 Groats

With Niall McDevitt.

The poet Robert Montgomery will read a new poem – THE KILLING OF ENGLAND ITSELF (BREXIT POEM FOR CHAUCER) – at a suitable point en route.

Sey forth thy tale, and tarie nat the tyme,
Lo, Depeford! and it is half-way pryme.
Lo, Grenewich, ther many a shrewe is inne;
It were al tyme thy tale to biginne.’

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RSVP BABYLON

call of participation (Mr. Niall)

https://www.facebook.com/babilfestival/

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