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Literature, Poetry, and Books

Letter from London

London
April 27, 2009

Old Friend,

The world turns. Here, let it turn around the Globe, where the season of "Young Hearts" is under weigh. For a few days now, beginning with a closed rehearsal on the afternoon of Shakespeare's birthday--not even staff admitted (to reveal any truth or beauty, you must conceal some!)--the players have submitted to being the instrument twice a day of the revelation of The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

Young hearts! It still breaks my old heart a little with sympathy to be reminded again that Juliet is ... thirteen! I mentioned that Shakespeare's brother Edmund was granted burial in what is now Southwark Cathedral, down the street from the Globe--the sort of stories told by local street musicians and jugglers say that he might have been the first boy to play Juliet. The boys, remember, still played the girls back then. He died when he was 27--still a boy!--and his big brother seems to have arranged for him to have the honor of being buried in the church, rather than outside.

I asked a local authority whether the (open air) Globe Season always opened with Shakespeare's birthday. He said no, that this had been done only the past two seasons, which opened on April 23 and ended in mid to late October, and that originally and for the first ten seasons they had opened in mid-May and ended in mid to late September. "It's too cold in April and October!" he said. "You have to wear three layers of clothes in the evenings. Sitting down is the coldest. Go to the matinee!"

I go to a matinee in a few days. In the meantime, I carry my little Yale Romeo and Juliet around London with me. My older sister Linda gave me the set when I was in college. Remember her? She was high school friends with Natalie Wood, who came over to our house one time that I remember, and stayed behind the closed door of my sister's room down the hall while the two of them giggled, and my heart broke a thousand times. Or that's how I remember it, but I was only seven, and my heart was too young for lamentable tragedy. Linda was prettier anyway!

On Saturday, I carried R & J over to Regent's Park, spread, as ever, along the northern horizon of the old haunt at 10 York Terrace East where you and I lived and listened to IRA bombs going off in those more innocent days. Lunch unfolded at an effortless pace al fresco in the park at the Garden Terrace Café, where the goat cheese and spring onion tarte with toasted pine nuts was like Anatole's best. Everything about the scene and the moment offered anecdotal proof (the only kind available!) that perfection is constantly repeated in infinite variety and irreducibly particular places and times, and always has been and always will be. The day was so stunning it stopped you in your tracks like a beautiful girl walking by, except it didn't walk by--it surrounded you and was everywhere. The temperature was probably 18 or 19 (as they say here in the world of Celsius--mid-60s Fahrenheit), gentle pampering breezes, thick white cotton clouds scudding in a celestial hush across skies so blue they make you squint, shade and sunshine rolling and breaking like silent waves across the landscape. And the park--an English paradise of spring-blooming flowers and trees arranged as if by nature's gardener on a majestic scale. OK. I won't start naming flowers. But I could! What does one do in paradise? I open my Shakespeare at random, like a man of endless leisure, a man of scholê with a timeless book, a schoolman forever.

Juliet:

Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus' lodging: such a wagoner
As Phaethon would whip you to the west,
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaway's eyes may wink and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalk'd of and unseen.
Lovers can see to do their amorous rites
By their own beauties; or, if love be blind,
It best agrees with night. Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron, all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match,
Play'd for a pair of stainless maidenhoods:
Hood my unmann'd blood, bating in my cheeks,
With thy black mantle; till strange love, grown bold,
Think true love acted simple modesty.
Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in night;
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow on a raven's back.
Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow'd night,
Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
O, I have bought the mansion of a love,
But not possess'd it, and, though I am sold,
Not yet enjoy'd: so tedious is this day
As is the night before some festival
To an impatient child that hath new robes
And may not wear them. O, here comes my nurse ...

There are no clocks in the Paradise Café. Some measureless time later, still at school, maybe because of the Havana cigar that is sending rich aromas from the table next door, I put down my Shakespeare and muse of Hemingway's cafés in Paris. One café is for writing. This café is inviolable. Each writer has his own. A man who intrudes on you there is either ill bred or drunk. It is inconceivable that he would be just misinformed. Then there is the café where you meet your mistress. This too is inviolable. A man who descends upon you there is a fool. Even a beating will not improve him. Then there is a neutral café where you might go with your mistress to meet friends with their mistresses. I make this up from bad memory (note to self: re-read A Moveable Feast, after memorizing Shakespeare). Having no mistress, I need only one café. In any case, I'm in the café, without a mistress. What does one do in the Paradise Café without a mistress? I sigh and pick up my Shakespeare again and ask my wife if she would like coffee. She is reading Emma right next to me and sends her warm regards.

CF

Discussions - 2 Comments

You are lucky to have such a friend.
Is the "Anatole's best" line a reference to Wodehouse?

So glad to see that Kate has not lost her head in the heady aromas of a London spring. So appropriate of her to be reading a cautionary tale of the hazards of doing women's presumed business (arranging love matches)while Chris reads R & J, totally heedless of its disastrous end.

On Romeo and Juliet--here in CA I recently saw what may be my favorite production of it. The drama teacher at York High School (our local academy for eccentrics and nerds) wanted to put together a quick-and-dirty production of it, so she constructed a narrative frame involving a drama teacher directing a rowdy high school group in a production of R & J, who shows up at a rehearsal where a bunch of the kids are jeering at a girl who is rumored to have allowed herself to be "sold and [already] enjoyed", while she desperately shouts back at them. In the course of the production the drama teacher meets with the unfairly maligned girl and gets to the bottom of what is roiling the cast (oddly, she's more disturbed about disunity on the set than about threats to maidenly reputations--times do change!). But what I liked best was the emphasis the production put on two characters who are normally just bit players in the drama: the Nurse and the Friar/Priest. These roles were played by the strongest actors in the cast, and the whole play came off as a cautionary tale about how the older generation colludes with rash youth to get them into deep trouble.

Keep an eye on that handsome romantic rogue, Kate.

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