Yesterday and Tomorrow

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.

Hours before his death on February 17th 1673 Molière was on stage slumped in this chair as Argan the hypochondriac. Sadly his illness was anything but imagined.

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.

Picnic at Orly

I was sad to read in Sunday morning’s Guardian of the death of Nicola Pagett. A wonderful actress who many will remember from her Elizabeth Belamey (Miss Lizzie) in Upstairs Downstairs and the title role in the BBC Anna Karenina. After a series of breakdowns she retired from performing and later wrote a book about her battle with mental illness. I have an indelible memory of her striding on stage at the Queen’s Theatre in an emerald green gown flourishing a riding crop to confront Alec Guinness’s Jonathan Swift in an “entertainment” called Yahoo!

Nicola Pagett as Stella in “Yahoo!” an entertainment based on the life of Jonathan Swift (Alec Guinness) which I saw at the Queen’s Theatre, London in December of 1976. While searching for this photo I recalled her in this emerald green gown and carrying a riding whip.

But I also have a wonderful memory of a few brief hours I spent with her at Orly Airport back in 1974. I was taking an early morning flight from Paris to London and our flight had one of those creeping delays caused by London fog in February. After three hours Air France decided to give us something to eat – yes airlines did that in those days – and offered us baguette sandwiches with a small split of wine or water. Every bench and seat in the hold room was taken and it was going to be awkward to manage. However a very beautiful lady put her fur coat down on the floor, turned to me and the couple I was chatting with and asked “would you like to join me for a picnic?” When we settled in I realized it was Miss Lizzie! So there we sat on a mink coat in a departure room at Orly picnicking, chatting, laughing, and making the best of a bad situation for the next hour or so. She was charming, funny, and gracious. I’ve never enjoyed a flight delay more.

May she rest in the peace that eluded her for much of her life.

The word for March 9th is:
Picnic /ˈpɪknɪk/: [1. noun 2. verb]
1.1 An occasion when a packed meal is eaten outdoors, especially during an outing to the countryside.
1.2 A packed meal to be eaten outdoors.
2. The action of consuming a packed meal out of doors.
Mid 18th century (denoting a social event at which each guest contributes a share of the food): from French pique-nique, of unknown origin.
Well it wasn’t outdoors but it was the most memorable picnic I’ve every had.

Reawakened Beauty

Prima Ballerina Assoluta Margot Fonteny framed in a doorway overlooking Grenada. A left click will take you to a photographic retrospective of the dancer and her career.

Today marks the birth, one hundred years ago, of the great Margaret Evelyn Hookham. Well okay you might have heard of her as Dame Margot Fonteyn. Arguably she was the most famous English ballerina of the mid-20th century. Her career began with the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1935 and she was it’s acknowledge prima ballerina when it became the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. She retired as prima ballerina assoluta from what had become the Royal Ballet in 1979: an almost unprecedented – surely challenged only by Alicia Alonso, but that is another story – 44 years as one of the leading dancers of the century.

If you hover your mouse over Oliver Messel’s original design for Aurora in Act I of The Sleeping Beauty (1946) you can catch a glimpse of Margot Fonteyn’s original costume from this iconic role.

I only had the joy of seeing her dance once in 1962: it was in her iconic role of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. To this day I recall her gliding through the colonnade of Oliver Messel’s gloriously baroque palace in that subtle but stunning rose, pink and silver costume. By the time she reached centre stage she had transformed herself from a 43 year old ballerina into a glowing teenager at her 16th birthday party. I was to see other Aurora’s after that (Alla Sizova, Veronica Tennant, Karen Kain, Ashley Bouder) but none captured that moment with quite the magic of Fonteyn.

There are various clips of her performing the Rose Adagio from Act I sadly none of them are entirely satisfactory however (despite the odd aspect ratio setting) the excerpt below from a film of the Royal Ballet production in 1969 when she was 50 years old captures much of the magic of her performance. It was filmed one Sunday afternoon at a theatre in Bournemouth with a touring company of the Royal Ballet. The stage was smaller than Covent Garden which accounts for a few changes in the choreography. Ironically producer Keith Money ran out of money and the rest was left unfinished. The film was stored in cans in the attic of a barn in rural England until they were unearthed many years later. It was broadcast as part of a documentary in 1990.

Fonteyn’s style is of an earlier school of dancing that grew out of Russian roots in mid-century Britain. Though very much an athlete (what dancer isn’t?) her’s is never an athletic display. She is softer, more lyrical, more musical than today’s dancers tend to be. The technique is there but never openly pushed to the front, it is at the service of the character and the music. The pauses when she reaches a position are almost imperceptible but those pauses focus on the drama and the mood. It is dancing at its most elegant, most dramatic and finest. And I count myself as privileged to have experienced it.

May 18th is No Dirty Dishes Day! I do wish the people who create these days would mind their own damned business!

There is Nothing Like This Dame

Dame Katherine Patricia Routledge proudly displays the insignia of her newly – and so justly – awarded DBE.  March 24, 2017.

I have never made any secret of my love for Patricia Routledge who I consider one of the great performers in my lifetime of theatre going.  I first saw her in 1967 at Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre in the Broadway bound Darling of the Day (though it may have been called Married Alive at that point).  It was a show that changed titles almost as often as it changed directors and sadly folded after 31 performances in New York.  Blame for its failure was laid at many door steps – leading man Vincent Price, the work of five various book writers, even Jule Styne’s music and Yip Harburg’s lyrics came in for some criticism.  But the praise for Patricia Routledge was unanimous and she was – howbeit briefly – the toast of Broadway.  Her next Broadway appearance was to repeat the story:  Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Learner’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was savaged by the critics and lasted seven performances after a tortuous try-out period.  But on opening night  Patricia Routledge received a mid-show standing ovation for her performance of “Duet for One (The First Lady of the Land)”. And on closing night the orchestra stopped the show to give standing-voice to their delight and approval. Flop or not that’s one show I wish I had seen.  Routledge was to receive Tony Awards for both these shows.

I was to see her again the summer of 1969 on stage at Chichester in Pinero’s The Magistrate   holding her own with Alastair Sim who was  giving what was considered by many as his greatest onstage performance. It was one of those theatrical events that stays in my mind until today.   For Routledge it was only the first of her many appearances at the Festival in comedy, musicals and drama.

She makes Chichester her home and works tirelessly for local and national charities both church and theatre related.  It was for these efforts as well as her theatrical work that her name appeared on the 2017 New Year’s Honours List.  On Friday a very smartly attired Patricia Routledge arrived at Buckingham Palace and was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire for her services to the theatre and charity work.  At her investiture Prince Charles recognized that it was an long overdue honour for the 88 year performer.

Though she is best know for the widely-viewed Keeping Up Appearances her television career has included the proto-type for what was to become Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues, murder mysteries, drama and comedy.  On stage most of her initial successes were in musicals – which comes as a surprise to anyone who every heard her Hyacinth Bucket vocalize for poor Emmett.  In a recent interview she said that you have to be a good singer to be able to sing off key.  Anyone who has listened to that episode would draw the conclusion that she must be a great singer.

Here she is giving proof of what had the critics and audiences on their feet back in 1967-68 in the eleven o’clock number from the ill-fated Darling of the Day:  Not On Your Nellie!

Around the same time she appeared as the Mother Superior in a studio recording of The Sound of Music.   Where the previous clip showed a bit of the Broadway belter this excerpt is almost operatic.

Though she has slowed down a bit she is still tours doing two shows:  Admission: One Shilling about the Wartime concert pianist Myra Hess and Facing The Music – reminiscing about her career on the musical theatre stage.

Congratulations Dame Patricia – there truly isn’t nothing like a Dame!

Some other appearances by Dame Patricia on Willy Or Won’t He:
As the very opinionated and not at all shy Kitty on Victoria Wood:  Lunedi Lunacy
A very rare early recording of popular songs: Mercoledi Musicale

On this day in 1807:  The Swansea and Mumbles Railway, then known as the Oystermouth Railway, becomes the first passenger-carrying railway in the world.

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