With one of those strange vagaries that happen with an aging mind as I choose a title for this post a phrase from Lewis Carroll sprang to mind: Jam yesterday and jam tomorrow but never jam today. However I am not here to write about the strange workings of my mind, though come to think of it that is what this blog has always been.
But I digress. An event past (Yesterday) and one to come (Tomorrow) called to mind two theatrical experiences of a different sort: one as audience and one as, sort of, participant.
January 15th marked the 400th anniversary of the baptism of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin better known by his stage name as Molière. The exact date of his birth is not known but his baptism on January 15th 1622 is recorded in his family’s parish church in Paris.
La Comédie-Française, the 342 year old company whose artistic foundations were laid by Molière and his troupe, celebrated the day with a new production of Tartuffe, his most controversial play. And the performance ended with a traditional ceremony: Hommage à Molière. A bust of the playwright and actor was placed centre stage and the entire company assembled to pay their respects by reciting a favourite passage or line from one of his works. They performed this ceremony along with the playwright’s Amphitryon when they visited Toronto in the 1970s. The two or three scheduled performances had been sold out in that great barn known as the O’Keefe Centre but I was able to get standing room at the last minute. I watched a broadcast of that ceremony from 2017 and it seems that it has become less formal than it was that evening – though that may well have been put on for the tour.
When the curtain went up the bust was centre stage and a chair was ceremoniously carried on and placed beside it. We were told that this was the chair he had sat in while performing in La Malade Imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid) just hours before his death on Febraury 17th, 1673. The 51 year old Molière had suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis most of his adult life and was unwell at the start of the performance. Half way through he began to cough and hemorrhaged but insisted on continuing. As the curtain came down he had another more serious attack that proved fatal. Unlike Argan, the character he played, his illness was not an imaginary one. The chair from that last performance has been preserved by the Comèdie-Française to this day. The only performer who has been allowed to sit in it in modern times was Charlie Chaplin.
As a sidebar I was surprised to read that at our Stratford Festival Molière is the second most performed playwright after Shakespeare. They are including a production of L’Avare (The Miser) in their upcoming season to celebrate his 400th anniversary.
My friend Richard has an uncanny way of finding things that I will be interested in and sending them on to me. Saturday morning he flagged an online talk sponsored by the Gotham Early Music Scene that got my attention. Nicholas McGegan, a renowned conductor and Baroque music specialist, is giving a lecture on Baroque Opera Set Design. Yes I know faithful reader it’s hard to contain your excitement; I understand that feeling and signed up immediately.
I’ve been fascinated by stage design and techniques since I was very young and one of the items on my bucket list was a visit to the Drottningholm Palace Theatre outside Stockholm. Built in 1765-66 it is one of the most perfect examples of Baroque theatre and stage machinery in the world today. It came to it’s full glory when Gustav III ascended to the throne but declined after his assassination in 1792. It fell into disuse and became a forgotten store room for unused furniture for nearly two centuries.
When the theatre was unearthed in 1921 it was discovered that all the stage machinery was intact and operational. Some changes were made, including the addition of electric lights designed to flicker like candles, the replacement of the original ropes that moved the machinery, and the substitution of replicas for delicate backdrops and flats. The complex system of windlasses, capstans, ropes, and pulleys allowed scenery changes to be made in a matter of seconds as witnessed in this video.
At the 0.57 mark in this little video the gentleman is turning a wind machine: a drum with a strip of leather stretched over it. When the crank is turned a very realistic sound of wind is made. And I am proud to say that I once turned that crank and made the wind howl. In 2014 I finally made a “pilgrimage” to Drottningholm and had a chance to see the theatre – though sadly it was too late in the season to attend a performance. I mentioned to the guide that I had waited over 50 years for that visit and she said she had a little surprise for me. When it came time to show-off the storm effect she took me backstage and with her manning the thunder box and me on wind machine we created quite the tempest. Laurent insists it was a proper Category 4.
The word for January 16th is:
Windlass /ˈwin(d)ləs/: [1. noun 2. verb]
1. A type of winch used especially on ships to hoist anchors and haul on mooring lines and, especially formerly, to lower buckets into and hoist them up from wells.
2. To haul or raise something using a windlass.
Late Middle English: probably an alteration of obsolete windas, via Anglo-Norman French from Old Norse vindáss, literally ‘winding pole’.
Stage machinery of the time was based on rigging on sailing ships and often the stagehands were sailors. In the Drottningholm Theatre they would have been men of the Royal Navy.