Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Illegitimate Theatre and Theatre Slang from the 1800s

I'm revisiting a previous work, Merely Players which I originally completed back in 2011. I was thrilled to find that it's in pretty good shape - or at least the last two thirds are. The first third is a bit of a cringe a minute, but with the clarity brought by the passage of *gulp* five years, I think I can see exactly where it needs to be fixed.

Excellent. Merely Players is set in 1814 London, in the world of non-patent illegitimate theatres. Thanks to the 1737 licensing act, theatres required a patent from the Lord Chancellor in order to perform serious, spoken word drama--in particular, Shakespeare. The purpose of this was, of course, to censor what went on stage.

The creative arts being, well, creative actors and theatre managers soon found a loophole and non-patent or illegitimate theatres sprang up in all the major cities in England. These were commercial outfits putting on non-serious productions which included a strong musical element - comedy, pantomime and melodrama.

My two protagonists are both writers. One, a dramatist who has lost his writing mojo, the other a pamphleteer who has to hide her light under a bushel. As soon as they meet, creative sparks fly and the two end up partnering on a production... until it all goes wrong of course.

I'm trying to introduce a stronger voice into this draft, getting more deeply into the protagonists point of view. This includes working out how they think and speak. I was delighted to stumble across a whole repository of theatre slang from the 1800s in Eric Patridge's rather wonderful Slang Today and Yesterday--an essential for ye olde historical romance writer.

Actors performing for my poor failing playwright Ghis might have got the big bird (been hissed at) when performing in The Lane (Drury Lane theatre), The Garden (Covent Garden theatre), the Dusthole (the Prince of Wales Theatre). Those venues might be managed by a "cully-gorger" - theatre manager (1860).

I love "back-hair parts" - roles in which the "agony of the performance at one point in the drama admits of the feminine tresses in question floating over the shoulders." Admittedly, it was cited in 1884 but it's going in. I don't know how, I don't know where, but it has to go in.

"Blood-tub" (1885) - a "theatre specializing in the worst sort of blood-and-thunder melodrama" is also pretty special.

Monday, 9 January 2017

The Selkie's Child

My friend Laura , a wonderfully talented photographer, has been working on a new collection. She calls it Serpents. I've been drinking it in, letting it soak into my imagination. To me, the images are wild, intimate and distant, a little painful. Things are close but shimmering just beyond reach. There are monsters lurking in the mist. There is longing hidden in the waves. And there are tears smeared across the lens and tumult fading into soft, grey calm.  
The images make me think of selkies and the conflict inherent in motherhood. Selkies were mythical creatures who resembled seals when they were in the water but shed their skins on land to take on the appearance of a beautiful human. If a man could find a selkie woman's skin she would be forced to become his wife, and bear his children. But she would never lose her longing for the sea and if she found her skin, she would return leaving her human family behind. 
This is just one response to those images... more to follow. 
By Laura Ward. 

The Selkie
Dread woke him. He lay stiff under his scratchy, eyes tight shut. If he didn’t open his eyes, he could pretend the black Things on the ceiling weren’t there. Wriggling, writhing, moving shadow things.  Reaching for him.
Not there. You’re not there.
You need to be brave for me, darling. You’re a big boy now.
His heart sounded loud in his ears. Boom. Boom. Boom.
The Things would hear it.
They would smell him.
Chill breath on his skin, stirring his hair.
“Ma!” he sat up, not brave, not caring, reaching out.
The air was empty.
Brave boys didn’t cry, but the black things were everywhere, sliding up the walls, whispering in the driftwood cupboards his Da had built. Going to get him. This time they would. His eyes prickled.
The air was empty.
No palm on his forehead, no arms around him.  
It was loud in the room. She’d come. She always came.
She didn’t.
His stomach went tight. The black Things had got her. Smothered her in tentacles and tails. Dragged her into the sea.
A seagull cried over the cliffs.
Da had been away three nights with the fleet but Ma never went away. When Da was away she let him curl up against her in the big bed, tuck his cold feet between her knees, hold her hand against his cheek. She smelt warm, salty, like the harbour in summer and something else too, something soft and sweet.
Sometimes when he woke she wasn’t there. She was walking around the house singing her song, the strange, sighing song she never sang when Da was there. It was their secret, the song. She sang as she opened doors, trailed her pale hands along the walls.
Are you chasing the Things away?
She stopped then. Looked at him. Smiled, a little sad around the edges. Her eyes had looked dark, like secrets.
Do you want me to?
Yes. They’re scary.
You have nothing to be afraid of, little fish.
The Things…
They aren’t real, she said. It’s just your imagination.
Why are you chasing them away then?
I’m not. I’m just looking for something, she said. A treasure. No need to tell your Da. It can be our secret. Shall I sing to you?
And she had sung, her voice sweet and low, like the whisper of the sea when they walked the shoreline. Ma loved the sea, but it made her sad too. He saw her cry, once. It was the seals that did it, staring at her with their big shining eyes as if they were trying to say something. Staring and staring. He hadn’t liked it, had tugged on her hand.
Let’s go now!
Soon, little fish.
Da was away that night too and her walking was faster, more urgent. He heard her whisper choked words under her breath and she sounded watery, like she had been crying.
He called out that night, and she came.
Her arms were warm. She held him tighter than usual and when she pressed her cheek against his hair, it was wet.
He wanted her arms around him. He wanted to hear her sing.
“Ma?” he asked and his voice sounded thin, a little wisp in the night. Not brave. Not tough like the men on the trawlers.
He didn’t look at the ceiling.
He’d looked once and seen a gaping mouth, ready to swallow him whole.
Didn’t look at the half open cupboard.
Didn’t look at the loose floorboard in the corner.
Didn’t look at the dead embers in the fireplace or the peat ash trodden into the hearthrug.
He pulled the covers around his shoulders and ran to the door of the cottage, bare feet slapping the rough floorboards. Pulled open the door.
It was supposed to be a full moon, that’s why Da had gone out. You could see by a full moon, well enough to drive a horse and cart along the cliff top paths, so Da said.
But tonight a haar had rolled in from the sea. It clung to his skin and hair, thick and wet and cloying. Fog, stew thick, surrounded him, a solid, billowing mass. He couldn’t see the path. Couldn’t see the way to the shore. Couldn’t see the dark cliffs.
He was blind, in the darkness.
And the Things were coming.
The fog shifted, as if his cry was a knife cutting it like butter. He thought he saw a shape, further down the path. Grey skirts. A woman with a bundle. His heart thudded. Boom. Boom. Boom.
“Ma? Is that you?” The haar distorted everything. Made things sound too close or too far away. She wouldn’t hear him, not from where she was.
The fog shifted again and noises drifted on the air, sounds like a sighing song.
His legs moved. Clutching the blanket tight he ran into the darkness and the thick fog towards the soft music. Stumbled down the path, towards the shore. In the clinging darkness he followed touch and smell. Pebbles dug into his feet, hard and slippery but he pushed on, hands held out against the choking fog. The smells of peat and sea holly from the garden faded into seaweed and cold, dry sand. Music again and then the quiet thunder of the waves crashing on the rocks.
He stopped, panting. She was here, somewhere in the darkness. He had to get her before the Things took her. They were here too, curling around him. Whispers on the back of his neck. Eyes watching.
The haar was painting the blanket with wet. It felt heavy on his shoulders, cold. He hugged it close anyway. Feet were lumps of ice now. Could hardly feel the sand oozing between his toes. Where was the sea?
A seagull cried nearby and fog shivered, parting. He saw the moon, suddenly, huge and low in the sky, framed by the hole in the fog. The rocks too, black and jagged, knives cutting up the sky. And on them, a shape. A too familiar shape, her skirts fluttering and her arms raised, something shapeless and dark in her hands.
Then he saw them. The seals. A thousand it looked to him. Heads bobbing in the water, bodies crowded on the rocks. Huge, black eyes, glistening in the moonlight, staring up at her, at his Ma, like she was a queen. Her song hung in the air. Their song, the one she sang for him, not them. She was his. His Ma. Not theirs. His.
His stomach was pins and darkness. Empty and churning and sore.
It was them. Them that sent the Things. They wanted her, wanted to take his Ma.
And he was running, running, running across the wet sand, sea spray on his bare legs, a silent scream catching in his throat. Ma! My Ma!
For a moment, it seemed like she heard him.
Face white in the darkness. Dark hair whipping around her shoulder.
His Ma. Warm, soft, salt smelling. Wool and skin. Safe.
Her arms around him.
Her hand against his cheek.
He reached out, out into the darkness, out to the woman on the rocks.
Don’t let them take you!
He thought he heard his name, a whisper on the wind.
Fog drifted and the moon was gone. The rocks. The woman. Ma!
His toes hit slippery rock and he stumbled, grabbing at slick seaweed. Blood on the heel of his hand. The mist sighed away and it was just him and the moon.
Ma was gone.
In the sea, he thought he saw a pale face, one more head bobbing in the inky waves.