Thursday, August 13, 2009

Henslow's Rose

If you're a fan of the 1998 Oscar-winning film Shakespeare in Love, and if you're in London in the next few weeks, why not drop by the Rose Theatre? It's not a full reconstruction like The Globe (which is just around the block), but rather a real archaeological site. The Rose was built in 1587 by Philip Henslow. Who can forget Henslow (as immortalised by Geoffrey Rush) getting his feet toasted by a debt collector? Or some of his wonderful lines like: 'Love and a bit with a dog, that's what they like.' And: 'Strangely enough it all turns out well.' How? 'I don't know. It's a mystery.'

Henslow built the Rose and maintained it for two decades. For five of those years he even kept a diary. This diary, now at Dulwich College, is full of fascinating facts about the day-to-day running of an Elizabethan theatre. There are lots of delightful details like how much he spent on gold braid for the actors' costumes. Coincidentally, when archaeologists were digging on the site of the Rose, they found several lengths of gold braid. They also found a gold ring. And the thigh bone of a Russian bear! Apparently, as well as plays by Shakespeare and Marlowe, the Rose put on combats between bears and bulls, and sometimes mastiffs, too. Those Elizabethans loved a good bear-baiting!

Anyway, every Monday to Saturday evening at 6.00 for the rest of August, you can see a short film called 'The Genius of Chrisopher Marlowe'. Some of Britains best actors perform scenes from Marlowe's plays: Joseph Fiennes, Tobias Menzies, Alan Rickman, Ian McKellan, Rebecca Knight, Anthony Sher and Henry Goodman just to name a few. (above right: Alan Rickman as the Duke of Guise from Marlowe's Massacre at Paris)

After this delightful Marlowe-taster, one of the site historians will tell you something about the Rose and its history. Did you know it was only rediscovered in 1989? Did you know it was originally surrounded by canals for market gardens? Did you know that they didn't use blanks in prop guns but rather real bullets? In 1587 an actor waved his hand while firing a pistol on stage. The bullet killed a pregnant member of the audience and her baby, and it also wounded a man. Eek!

The 35 minute film and the talk only cost £4.50. Great value.

The Rose Theatre isn't hard to find. I went to Waterloo, then walked up to the river, going along the South Bank past the polka dot trees and the skateboard park and the second-hand bookstall outside the NFT and Gabriel's Wharf and the Millenium Bridge and the Tate Modern. Turn right at the reconstructed Globe and walk down New Globe Walk with The Globe on your right and Starbucks on your left.

Take the first left down Park Street (left) and walk for about a minute until you reached the door by the blue plaque (below). If you pass some stairs or go under the bridge, you've gone too far. The doors of The Rose usually open from 5.45pm on. (If the door isn't actually open, give it a push) The film starts at 6.00. While you're waiting for it to start you look down at the level of the original Rose which - like almost every building from the past - is below street level. The archaeologists have marked its outline out in red lights, so you can see how big it was and where the stage was. There's also literature about the Rose, a small model of it and info boards on the wall.

There are several productions planned over the next few months, all on a much more intimate scale than the Globe. From 17 - 29 August, the Carpe Diem Theatre Company will be performing Shakespeare's Othello. A performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream is also planned. For mid-winter! Unusual? Maybe. But I think it will turn out well. How do I know? 'I don't! It's a mystery.'

For information about The Rose Theatre, go to the official site: www.rosetheatre.org.uk. The address is: The Rose Theatre, 21 New Globe St, London SE1 9DT

Friday, August 07, 2009

Orpheus & Orphée

In Greek mythology, Orpheus was the Thracian musician who was so talented that he could charm wild animals and trees and even rocks with his music.

He went with Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece and had a novel way of deactivating the dangerous song of the Sirens: he played his music to drown out theirs.

One day Orpheus (pronounced or-fee-uss) fell in love with a beautiful girl called Eurydice, (pronounced yoor-id-iss-ee). On their wedding day she was running through the grass when a deadly viper bit her foot. She died in the arms of Orpheus, her betrothed. He was so distraught that he decided to go down to Hades and plead with Pluto to let her take him back.

You know the story. With his beautiful music Orpheus charms the ferryman who guides souls across the River Styx. With his beautiful music Orpheus charms Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog. With his beautiful music Orpheus even charms Pluto and Persephone, the King and Queen of the Underworld. They tell him he can take Eurydice back to the land of the living. But there is one condition. He must lead the way and not look back at her until they have safely arrived.

Orpheus sets out on the upward-sloping path, groping his way because it is so dark and silent. As he ascends, he becomes more and more worried. He can’t hear his beloved Eurydice behind him. He begins to wonder if it could be a trick of Pluto to get him to leave peacefully. When the light from the exit up ahead begins to dimly light the way, he is desperate to glance back, just to reassure himself that she is behind him. But he does not dare. He tells himself to be strong and to resist the temptation to look. Just a little longer!

Finally he steps into bright sunshine. Immediately he turns to see if his beloved Eurydice is behind him. She is! But she is still in the passage, still in the underworld. Even as he watches, she recedes from sight, her arms stretched out hopelessly and helplessly towards him. In some versions the messenger god Mercury sadly takes her arm and stops Orpheus from following.

Orpheus is stunned by his wife’s double death. He is in a torment of guilt and grief. If only he had waited a few more moments! Some say he renounced music. Others say he renounced women. For whatever reason, the frenzied followers of Dionysus called ‘maenads’ (pronounced mee-nadz), become angry with Orpheus and eventually kill him and tear him limb from limb.

Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus 1900

According to some accounts his head rolls into a stream and floats away, singing as it goes. The artist J.W. Waterhouse has chosen to paint the moment when two startled nymphs discover the beautiful, almost effeminate head with the long hair tangled in the chords of the lyre. Were these two among the crazed women of the night before? Or are they innocent?

We don’t really know. All we know is that Orpheus is finally reunited with his beloved Eurydice. In death.


Another artist fascinated by the myth of Orpheus was a multi-talented French genius named Jean Cocteau who flourished in the 50’s. He was not only a filmmaker but also a brilliant artist (see his head of Orpheus at the top right of this post) and poet. His black and white film Orphée, made from 1949-1950 soon after WWII, is considered a classic. (Orphée, pronounced or-fay, is the French for Orpheus) In Cocteau’s retelling of the myth, Orphée is a handsome poet who is adored by all. He is married to a pretty blonde named Eurydice, whom he loves, but in a twist to the tale, he also falls in love with Death, who is personified as a beautiful almost vampirical woman in black. Death is in love with him, too. When Eurydice dies, Orpheus goes to the underworld with a version of Mercury called Heurtebise, (pronounced... no, there is no way I can transliterate that!). A nice twist is that Heurtebise is in love with Eurydice. The scenes of the underworld were filmed in parts of Paris still in ruins from German bombing. They are some of the most haunting and dreamlike footage you will ever see. Orphée and Heurtebise bring Eurydice back from the underworld, but Orphée is forbidden to look at her ever again. Not just on the way back, but FOR EVER. (see above)

This is too much to ask, of course, and one day he accidentally catches sight of her in the rear view mirror of his car. She instantly returns to the underworld. Orphée goes back a second time and, in a poignant twist, Death decides to give him back Eurydice, even though she must suffer a punishment for this, and even though it means Orphée will not even remember her.

Cocteau introduces elements of other myths. For example, Death is like Persephone, who loved Adonis. Cocteau also likes the Narcissus myth. He uses mirrors a lot, in particular as the entrance to the underworld. These are some of the most breathtaking sequences. My favourite scene is where Orphée must put on magic gloves to pass through the mirror to the underworld. For this effect, Cocteau used a vat of mercury, because the actor’s fingers would have been visible beneath the surface of water. In this sequence there are several tricks. First, the footage of Orphée putting on the gloves is reversed. Second, the cameraman filmed his own gloved hands approaching those of the actor Jean Marais, who is in an identical room on the other side of the ‘mirror’. Third, the camera was tilted 90% to film the hands going into the vat of mercury. You can see the mirror sequence HERE.

The strongest reference to the Narcissus myth is in a sequence where Orphée awakens and hovers over a mirror-like pool. (below)

For me this is especially fascinating as I’m currently working on my own reworking of the Narcissus myth.

I was inspired to write this after visiting a Waterhouse exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. You can watch Orphée on the Criterion DVD (US) and in Europe and the UK there is an excellent DVD produced by the BFI with extras including an audio commentary and booklet about the making and makers of the film.

P.S. Thanks to Rod McKie, my twitterpal, for recommending that I re-visit Cocteau's 1950 masterpiece!

P.P.S. I was so inspired by this painting that I wrote my own Ode to Orpheus called Thracian O.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Thracian O

(inspired by J.W. Waterhouse's Nymphs finding the Head of Orpheus)

Thracian O
by Caroline Lawrence

My tears are small and bitter and hard to squeeze out.
What do you expect? I’m a raccoon.
I half resent him for making me feel this way…
Half love him, too. I want to rub up against his calf,
To kiss his ankle with my small wet nose.
But something in his manner keeps us at all a distance
Even though his music ensnares and attracts us,
We are held in his Thracian thrall. Gripped by his woodland notes.
Those rainbow chords strummed out on his lyre.
That throbbing net of music that holds me – paralysed – next to
Brother Wolf. (The Grey One will probably gobble me whole
The moment O puts down his lyre. More of embarrassment
Than instinct, I suspect - a desire to eliminate
any creature who witnessed his tears.)
O’s fingers pluck the dried stretched entrails of my pal,
A mountain lynx who perked his tufted ears and came too close
‘Pluck me,’ squeals my dead amigo. ‘Pluck me, baby!’

He fell in love once, our Thracian bard,
But she was one of those ethereal types: too beautiful to last long.
You know the type. Marble skin, laughing eyes, pillowy lips.
The kind of girl the cosmos likes to snuff out
Between its forefinger and thumb?
Brother Snake snacked on her heel one afternoon,
Trading her sweet blood for his poisoned saliva.
Not such a good deal if you ask me.
But she was running barefoot and carefree at the time,
All annoying with her slo-mo flying hair and backward glances,
luring O on, making him put down his lyre, taking him from us.
Serves her right for being all carefree and happy and barefoot.
Besides, he didn’t play as much when he was with her.
They did other things instead. Like get grass stains on their tunics.
Selfish O. Selfish E. We craved his music, like a drug.
But she kept him from us. So she had to go.
Even Brother Wolf hoped that now E was dead and gone
O would get back to his Woodland Tour.

The maenads felt the same way. They really resented E,
That groupie par excellence. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised
To learn that one of them had planted that snake in the grass
Just so he’d come back to us, his fans. But he didn’t come back.
He went away. And the woods were dark and rank
And empty and dank without him. For a long time.
We missed him. Missed his music. How dare he?
We never asked for his lachrymose music. But it was like
A drug. We craved it. He got us hooked. And then to just leave us?
Like a dealer leaves his junkie hanging around?
When we could be getting some useful scavenging done?

We skulked and moped and did some half-hearted foraging
The carnivores forced themselves to swallow a few herbivores.
I tell you: the latter went willingly. The pleasure had gone out of life
For us all. Then one day the trees themselves whispered the rumour
With rejoicing leaves; ‘He’s back! Back from death.
Back from the underworld!’ The aspen shuddered with pleasure.
The oak stood frozen with joy. The trees clapped.
See? Even they love his music. Hell, even the rocks like his music.

And then… Then he does nothing but mope. Come on, O!
Snap out of it! We’re waiting, man. We bought our tickets last year.
We’ve all been waiting. I camped out in line for three days
So I could get this seat near the front.
And now you say you’re retiring? I’m sorry, but no. That won’t do.
The maenads start the rave without him and then he appears
All sulky and in an artistic funk, saying his manager betrayed him.
And he refuses to play! Those crazy nymphs are furious.
Incandescent. One of them starts to beat him
With her thyrsus. The others join in. They just want to be noticed.
They all want a piece of him. Odi et amo, baby. They love him
And they hate him. One of them is kissing him while
Another bites off his toe. One nibbles his ear. Literally.
Then they get carried away and tear him limb from limb.
The fingers that plucked the strings? Scattered and bloody in the grass.
The arms that cradled the lyre? Pulled out of their shoulder sockets
And tossed away. One arm up a tree, the other down a ravine.
It was too hard to pull the legs from the torso.
So they left that. And trust me, there are some bits
You don’t even want to know about. And what about his head?
His beautiful rock-star head that we loved to gaze upon?
Floating down the stream, dude. Floating down the stream.

And then the next day they see his head and they’re like: ‘Ohmygod!
What happened?’ Stupid nymphs. Still, now I can get back to business.



J.W.Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite was on at the Royal Academy in 2009 but it has NOW FINISHED. You can read some of my thoughts about this painting at my blog called Orpheus & Orphée. And you can read my takes on these other paintings by Waterhouse: AriadneHylasAdonisNarcissus and Circe.

[Despite the slightly risqué flavour of this poem, Caroline Lawrence's Roman Mysteries are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as an interactive game.]

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Who Mourns Adonis?

I am currently writing a book about the most beautiful boy in the world in the year AD 96. In my book, everyone keeps calling him ‘Adonis’. That's because in the Graeco-Roman world that name was synonymous for a beautiful youth. We still call a very good-looking young man 'an Adonis' today. In Greek mythology, Adonis was so beautiful that he was loved by the Queen of the Underworld (Persephone), by Hercules(!) and by the goddess of love herself: Aphrodite (AKA Venus).

Have a look at the painting by J.W. Waterhouse, below. What do you think is happening?


At first glance it looks like Sleeping Beauty with the genders reversed, doesn't it? As if a beautiful youth is stretching and waking up having just been kissed by a pink-clad nymph. But the painting is telling a much sadder story. The youth is Adonis and he is dying. The woman crouching over him is Aphrodite herself and her Cupids are giving us clues. Ovid wrote about Adonis in his Metamorphoses, but it seems Waterhouse found more inspiration from a Greek poet named Bion who probably lived in the first century BC.

Bion's Lament for Adonis also inspired Percy Bysse Shelley, the famous Romantic poet, whose poem Adonaïs may have influenced the writers of Star Trek when they called episode 31 'Who Mourns for Adonais' (below)


There are several versions and variations of the original Adonis myth, but here is the basic story. The beautiful youth Adonis loves to hunt and when Aphrodite begs him not to go, he just laughs. But Aphrodite’s worst fears are realised one day when a fierce boar gores Adonis in his upper thigh. Ovid, never one to pull his punches, tells us he was pierced in the groin. (ouch!) As Adonis lies bleeding to death, Aphrodite hears his groans and comes running. As she bends down to kiss him, she catches his dying breath.

'Wake up, Adonis, for just a moment more, and kiss me one last time! Your briefest kiss will last my lifetime. I want to taste your inmost soul in my mouth and my heart, to breathe your last breath, to drain your sweet love-potion, to inhale all your love.'

Bion describes Adonis's purple garments, his white thigh struck by the white tooth, the cries of Echo, and the crowd of mourners - hunting dogs, nymphs and Loves (Cupids) - who attend the dying youth. According to Bion, one Cupid treads on Adonis' arrows, another on his bow, one loosens his sandals, one brings water in a golden bowl and one fans him with his wings. Waterhouse has left out Echo and the other the nymphs, as well as the hunting dogs, but he has included the Cupids with a few changes. For example, in Waterhouse’s painting the only winged Cupid is shown blowing out a torch, to symbolize the extinguishing of life.

Bion says the drops of blood become roses and Aphrodite’s tears become anemones. That is another clue that Waterhouse was reading Bion as well as Ovid, who only mentions anemones. (If you don't know what an anemone looks like, just look at Waterhouse's painting. They are red and pale lavender.)

It's too bad this was not one of the paintings on display at the Royal Academy. I would love to see it up close.

P.S. I have also blogged about Waterhouse's interpretation of the myths of Narcissus, Hylas, AriadneCirce, Odysseus and also about Orpheus and the French film Orphée by Jean Cocteau. I have also penned an Ode to Orpheus inspired by the Waterhouse painting Orpheus & the Nymphs. I even found out that the model for Adonis might have been an Anglo-Italian teenager living in Fulham London in the late 1800s.

[My Roman Mysteries books are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Greeks & Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. The glossy BBC Roman Mysteries TV series did adaptations of some of these books. They are available in the UK and Europe on DVD.]