Monday, November 20, 1995

The Flashman Papers

Written in 1995 for Forbes FYI magazine

“When all other trusts fail, turn to Flashman.”—Abraham Lincoln

Boys read different books than girls do: this is why there are soldiers, and freebooters, and pirates, and empires. It is why Sherlock Holmes and James Bond and Tarzan have nothing to fear from posterity, for every man has deep within him a shadow self dreaming of impossibly heroic lives he might have led.

All the same, at the end of this weary century what we need is a hero we can believe in, a hero worse than most of us: a cad, a liar, a bounder, a coward, a lecher, a bully, a cheat, a rogue with no illusions about fighting on the side of the angels; a man who survives to fool everyone except himself, whose many faults excuse our own. And naturally, he should always get the girls.

Any scoundrel should be allowed to introduce himself:

“For a well-decorated hero I’ve done a deal of surrendering in my time—which is doubtless why I remain a well-decorated hero . . . if there’s one thing I’ve learned . . . it’s that the foeman is generally as glad to accept your surrender as you are to give it. Mind you, he may turn spiteful later, when he’s got you snug and helpless (I often do), but that’s a risk you must run . . . .”

In 1969 a novel appeared in England to great accolades—P. G. Wodehouse remarked, “If ever there was a time when I felt that watcher-of-the-skies-when-a-new-planet stuff, it was when I read the first Flashman.” The novel, by a Scots newspaperman named George MacDonald Fraser, purported to be the first packet from a recently discovered trunk of oilskin-wrapped memoirs of a Victorian military hero, Sir Harry Flashman (1822-1915). British critics recognized Flashman as a brilliant literary conceit, for the character appeared as a boy in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857). He’s the drunken bully who’s expelled from Rugby, rendering the rest of the work dull by his absence.

Flashman begins where Hughes left off, but the brute tells the tale himself. In swift order (1839-42) our man Flashy has seduced his father’s mistress, joined the cavalry, been the target of a shotgun marriage, cheated in a duel, learned Hindustani from an Indian slave-girl, ridden alongside the toughest warrior-horsemen in Central Asia, and come through the First Afghan Wars as the hero of the fearful siege of Jallalabad, the only white man left breathing in the rubble—through his own relentless survival instinct (he calls it cowardice).

What made it all intoxicating was not just the humor, or the vivid prose and period slang, but the tone—praising and damning the British Empire while being pelted with its medals. And likewise condemning its finest leaders as incompetent while sparing no foreign barbarians either.

On our own drowsy shores the novel was taken by many at face value; a gleeful New York Times article pointed out how credulous reviewers—a third out of some thirty-odd—read it as authentic autobiography. (“The most important discovery since the Boswell papers,” said one.) Flashman was born, and now, a quarter century later, with the tenth volume in bookstores (Flashman And The Angel Of The Lord, 1858-9, in which Flash winds up quaking beside John Brown at Harper’s Ferry), the saga is far from over.

The novels are theoretically memoirs, written in Flashman’s old age. In fact they are history with the gloves off, as Fraser—an unsentimental ex-soldier with a scholar’s exhaustive sweep, a journalist’s nose for detail, and a superb comic instinct—roams through the confused pageant of the previous century on a blood-and-female-festooned Grand Tour. “Win gloriously—and the clever dicks forget all about the rickety ambulances that never came, and the rations that were rotten, and the boots that didn’t fit, and the generals who’d have been better employed hawking bedpans. . . .” Flashman is never running too fast to analyze what went wrong on a battlefield, to belittle a superior, or to show an amazed regard for the true heroes he meets, who frighten him.

All he truly wants is to be safe in England, spending his wife’s money drinking or wenching. But after Afghanistan, his military superiors and the English public regard him as a valiant hero and send him once more into the breach. Amid an unexpected liaison with Lola Montez he is kidnapped to Germany by Otto von Bismarck, there to impersonate an imprisoned prince (Royal Flash, 1842-3 & 1847-8). With customary misfortune he soon finds himself first chief of staff to the White Raja, Brooke of Sarawak, and then gets sold as slave, “military adviser and chief stud to a black she-devil”—Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar (Flashman’s Lady, 1842-5). In the Punjab he’s caught spying in the First Sikh War (Flashman And The Mountain Of Light, 1845-6) but manages to charm a nymphomaniacal Maharani and pocket the Koh-i-Noor diamond.

He is by turns a reluctant slaver in West Africa—shanghaied by a Latin-quoting, failed classics scholar across the Middle Passage—and a fugitive abolitionist agent in the U.S. (Flash For Freedom, 1848-9). He escorts a bordello by wagon across the Great Plains as a Forty-Niner and years later ends up as the sole “fleeing survivor” alongside Custer at the Little Big Horn (Flashman And The Redskins, 1849-50 & 1875-6).

Sent against his protestations to the Crimea, Flash becomes “unwilling leader of the Light Brigade” (Flashman At The Charge, 1854-5), farting so loudly his frightened horse plunges him in the wrong direction, straight at the guns. In India he’s a hapless hero in the Mutiny (Flashman In The Great Game, 1856-8). In China it’s the 1860 Taiping Rebellion (Flashman And The Dragon, 1860), running guns and opium and servicing difficult Oriental maidens. Poor Flash! His only hope is to reach home unscathed.

Much of his time is spent escaping perilous women. “There’s a test which I apply to all my old flames, when I think back . . . if she’d been mine to sell, how long would I have kept her?” His geographically diverse list includes Lily Langtry, Duchess Irma of Russia, Takes-Away-Clouds-Woman of the Apaches, Ko Dali’s daughter the Silk One, Mrs. Mandeville the Mad Dwarf, and the dancing-girl Narreeman. There’s Yehonala Tzu-hsi, concubine of the Manchoo Emperor; the Indian mutineer Lakshmibai; and Lola Montez, la grande horizontale. (“An empress, a queen, and the greatest courtesan of her time; I dare say I’m just a snob.”)

He does the deed in a remarkable array of locales: in a Chinese oven, during a battle with Borneo pirates, on furs in a sleigh escaping pursuit on the Russian steppe. He never questions his magnetism to women (“I could see she fancied me; black or white, savage or duchess, they’re all alike”), but Fraser’s deftest irony is that Flashman’s feather-brained, golden-haired, beloved wife Elspeth is probably—certainly—happily cheating on him too. No wonder: he’s rarely home.

One of Fraser's cunning strokes is that the more of a poltroon Flashman seems, the more trustworthy and persuasive a narrator he becomes, since only an honest man would present himself so very unflatteringly. “This story will be completely truthful; I am breaking the habit of eighty years . . . I can look at the picture above my desk, of the young officer . . . it is the portrait of a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward—and, oh yes, a toady . . . But I am concerned with facts, and since many of them are discreditable to me, you can rest assured they are true.” A man with no illusions about himself, no humbug, no apologies, no excuses: it may be Flashman’s only real virtue.

And Flashman does gain wisdom. “There’s nothing so cheering as surviving a peril in which companions have perished . . . There is great pleasure in catastrophe that doesn’t touch you, and anyone who says there isn’t is a liar.” He sees firsthand how “the course of history is as often settled by someone’s having a belly-ache, or not sleeping well, or a sailor getting drunk, or some aristocratic harlot waggling her backside.” He learns how to look brave (“head up, jaw firm, eyes steady, bowels dissolving”). Ever open-minded, he knows “the heathen creeds, for all their nonsensical mumbo-jumbo, were as good as any for keeping the rabble in order, and what else is religion for?” He never forgets his place among “those to whom I could be rude with impunity—servants, tarts, bagmen, shopkeepers, and foreigners”—at least until he’s at their mercy as a cowering prisoner.

The novels are, in a sense, Bulldog Drummond turned topsy-turvy: the bulldog as fraidy-cat. Flash is the antithesis of 007 or Horatio Hornblower, ever stalwart and brave for England. (Ever terrified, Flashy does share one talent of the traditional British champion—a gift for foreign tongues and native disguise.) If he has a literary predecessor, it is probably Falstaff. As Fraser told me, “The Hornblowers, which I admire, were simply a product of the Thirties and Forties, while Flashman’s a product of the Swinging Sixties.”

The natural comparison is with the Patrick O’Brian novels, set like Hornblower around the Napoleonic Wars, and which have of late become a marketing phenomenon. The approach is entirely different, though. With Flashman you learn a lot about events, participating center stage with him in major battles or political intrigues. The battles in O’Brian, however, are peripheral to the history of the time, nor are they the real matter of the books; instead you're learning the state of medical arts, the social mores on land and sea, the flora and fauna, how people talked, the music they liked. They’re written in a more formal way, with no real comedy but rather a parlor wit, and the sexuality is very understated and offstage.

Apart from their obvious quality, part of O’Brian’s mass appeal may be that his books allow people to feel comfortably well-educated. They're delightful but serious-minded—adult Hornblower, less lively perhaps but a definite follow-on to him. (Flashman's a follow-on to no one.) O’Brian is benefitting from our unusually nostalgic era, in which the mores of another time seem more satisfying than our own; his books have echoes of a search for heroes and family values. Fraser’s Flashman simply doesn’t fit comfortably into any of this and, exploding the myths of that nostalgic past on every page, is knottier to deal with.

Here is Flashman on Scud East, a junior classmate he bullied at Rugby whom he later sees murdered in the Indian Mutiny. It is a revealing event: Flash calls Scud one of Rugby’s “sturdy fools, manly little chaps . . . full of virtue, the kind that schoolmasters love. Yes, he was a fool then, and a fool twenty years later, when he died in the dust at Cawnpore with a Sepoy’s bayonet in his back. Honest Scud East; that was all his gallant goodness did for him.” Later Flashman adds, “I’d hated the little bastard, man and boy, for his smug manly piety—but you don’t see a child you’ve known all your life die every day. Maybe that was why I wept . . . I felt it all the more sincerely for knowing that I was still alive myself.” We are a long way from Holmes and Hornblower here: the jingoistic historical fantasy of England is finished.

One strong echo is of Fraser himself. In 1992 he published his own war memoirs, Quartered Safe Out Here, from his guerrilla experiences in Burma in 1945 at age nineteen. Historian John Keegan called it “one of the great personal memoirs of World War II”. The similarity of Fraser’s voice and tone to Flash’s is evident. In it, almost as a statement of purpose, Fraser writes, “You cannot, you must not, judge the past by the present; you must try to see it in its own terms and values, if you are to have any inkling of it.”

After Burma, Fraser trained as an officer in India and earned a commission, serving in North Africa and Palestine until 1947—a time he chronicled in a fine series of comic novels about the unrepentant McAuslan, the dirtiest soldier in the world. “I nearly stayed in,” he says, “but decided I wasn’t a peacetime soldier.” He became a reporter for a small newspaper in northern England, married a reporter on a rival paper, and went to the Glasgow Herald in 1953. After sixteen years as deputy editor, he quit just after the first Flashman debuted, to great success (“written in a few weeks, turned down by every publisher for three years”).

“I was always telling stories,” he says. “I used to tell bedtime stories to my parents rather than the other way around. But it’s like that in the Highlands. Everyone’s telling stories.” He began the second Flashman just before the first appeared. “I didn’t envisage more than three or four. Now they’ve been translated into every language in Western Europe except Greek.” In Who’s Who, as a recreation he lists “talking to my wife.”

Apart from ten Flashmans and the Burma memoir, Fraser has written seven other books, mostly fiction; among them is The Hollywood History Of The World, a survey of the cinema’s accuracy in presenting the past. Fraser has been a genre screenwriter, too—he did one Bond film, (Octopussy), Force 10 From Navarone, and fine versions of The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers with Oliver Reed, Michael York, and Faye Dunaway.

As the memoirs’ "editor" (a nice conceit), Fraser finds Flashy remarkably accurate, with rare slips of detail; the “editor’s” copious footnotes and appendices at the end of each meticulously-researched volume add greatly to the illusion. (This naturally makes his hero seem even more reliable.) Fraser, who has lived on the Isle of Man since the first Flashman was published, originally did most of his research at Trinity College in Dublin. "They were very enlightened librarians who just turned me loose and said help yourself. But about twelve years ago I joined the London Library, founded by Thomas Carlyle. They have a remarkable collection, and they'll actually send books to you. I get the facts, consider the course of a campaign, and try to fit Flashman into it. History itself does the work. The difficulty in dealing with a 19th century character is it takes so long to get him from point a to point b. For example, with the most recent book I was faced with the difficulty of getting Flashman from India at the end of the Mutiny to the States in time for Harper’s Ferry.”

One of the books’ pleasures is this opinionated witness bringing his era’s large personalities to life with flesh-and-blood candor. They’re all here: “cocky little” Disraeli “well into greasy middle age.” Congressman Lincoln had “the makings of as big a scoundrel as I am myself, but his appetites were different.” G. B. Shaw advances “the fatuous opinion that mental anguish was worse than physical.” The incomprehensible barbarians also come to life: Goolab Singh, Yakub Beg, Hsien Feng. Flashman even teaches the young Crazy Horse how to wink.

It is hard to say why the books (all ten in print) haven’t quite achieved bestseller-dom here, as they have in Britain—though Fraser’s U.S. audience is extremely avid and loyal. (A disappointing 1975 film, Royal Flash, with a screenplay by Fraser, starring Malcolm McDowell, has yet to appear here on video.) It may be that we have neither the British historical sense nor their self-scrutiny, though we have no shortage of famous scoundrels. Or it may be that 19th-century India, China, and Central Asia simply aren’t our favorite cup of java.

Still, I know one prominent historian who counts Flashman’s misadventures with the Sioux and Apaches as the single finest historical novel of the Wild West. Here’s how Flash puts it, having been scalped: “You see, it’s been the great illusion of our civilization that when the poor heathen saw our steamships and elections and drains and bottled beer, he’d realize what a benighted ass he’d been and come into the fold. But he don’t. Oh, he’ll take what he fancies, and can use (cheap booze and rifles, for example) but not on that account will he think we’re better. He knows different . . . And it doesn’t help when the two sides regard each other respectively as greedy, brutal white thieves and beastly, treacherous red vermin. I’m not saying either was wrong.”

What gives the books more torque than the very finest genre writing they apparently resemble? It’s partly that beneath that inspired voice roving the 19th century, beneath the ribald humor, the books remain remarkably even-handed and difficult to place politically. Fraser is a severe critic of empire as well as an admirer; Flashman has no illusions about so-called civilized Englishmen being any better morally than wild Apaches or Tajiks or mutinous Indian Sepoys. And as novels of war they are unromantic, probably because Fraser’s own hand-to-hand battle experience resembled a 19th-century conflict.

Thus Flashman has no patience with the preachiness that surrounds war. With him there can be no soapbox illusions or sham moralizing. It’s no surprise that Fraser calls the Victorians “mere amateurs in hypocrisy compared to our own brainwashed, sanctimonious, self-censoring and terrified generation.” He adds, “One review from the States pointed out that Flashman is politically incorrect—absolutely true, I’m glad to say. It astonishes me that people there are banning Huckleberry Finn—haven’t they got the sense to see Twain was writing truthfully and critically about his own time? It’s equally bad in this country—this tendency to refuse to recognize the past for what it was. Fortunately Flashman’s had a very intelligent American readership who don’t confuse the present and the past.”

If the books weren’t so well written—Fraser (b. 1925) handles action as well as Stevenson or Graham Greene—the Literary Establishment could dismiss them as mere entertainments. But there is something deeper, a peculiarly autumnal feeling as the old charlatan ranges back in memory across a world long gone. Here is Flashman recalling the destruction of the Summer Palace of the Empress of China (with whom he’s had a love affair) by British soldiers set loose at the end of the Taiping Rebellion:

“I’m a bad man. I've done most wickedness, and I'd do it again, for the pleasure it gave me . . . and I don’t feel regret enough to keep me awake at nights. I guess, if drink and the devil were in me, I could ruin a Summer Palace in my own way . . . breaking windows and heaving vases downstairs for the joy of hearing ’em smash, and stuffing my pockets with whatever I could lay my hands on . . . But I couldn’t do it as it was done that day—methodically . . . It burned for almost a week, with a vast pillar of smoke. . . like some great brooding genie from a bottle . . . Pekin was a city in twilight, its people awestricken to silence . . . with the Summer Palace in flames they couldn’t doubt the truth—the barbarians had won, the Son of Heaven had been humbled to the dust, and there was the funeral pyre to prove it. . . .”

“But didn’t a tear mist my eye, or a lump rise in my throat; didn’t I turn away at last with a manly sob? Well, no . . . it was a shame so many pretty things were spoiled—but I'm no great admirer of objets d’art, myself . . . But even you, Flashman, surely to God, must have been moved at the destruction of so much beauty, in a spot where you had spent so many idyllic hours? Well, again, no. You see, I don’t live there; I’m here, in Berkeley Square, and when I want to visit the Summer Palace, I can close my eyes, and there it is, and so is she.”

And what next? Fraser promises more Flashmans, and at age seventy he seems to be going strong. He has completed a novelette, Flashman And The Tiger, which takes place in South Africa and England and may grow into a book; there should also be a volume recounting Flashman’s role in the Civil War, purportedly fighting for both sides.

Meanwhile, some readers refuse to accept that Flashman wasn’t an actual person—or at least go along with Fraser’s game. “Often people write me to say they’re descendants of his—so I write back and congratulate them. And a few correspondents even claim that Flashman borrowed $50 from their grandfather and would I . . .? Then I reply that I simply can’t assume his debts.”

[George MacDonald Fraser died in 2008.]

Friday, July 7, 1995

Shakespeare's London

Written in 1995 for Gourmet magazine

Great cities seem almost unimaginable without great writers. We cannot stroll today's London without Dickens, but where is the ghost of Shakespeare in that labyrinth—especially since most of the city burned a half-century after his death, in the Great Fire of 1666? London made Shakespeare; he came to it as ambitious young Will fresh from the country, and retired as our greatest writer. London gave Will stages to fill and gifted players to write for; his career (alongside colleagues like Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe) fired the few decades of London's theatrical explosion which we take for granted today. Shakespeare's words are immortal, have entered the subconscious of the language, but can we still walk in his Elizabethan footsteps? With a new Globe Theater (begun in 1989) rising on the south bank of the Thames in his honor—a loving, meticulous replica complete at last—I decided to try.

Odd as it seems, Shakespeare's immortality had been almost taken for granted by Londoners for ages. It took an American actor, Sam Wanamaker (1919-93), to make rebuilding the Globe a lifetime goal. On visiting London in the 1950s, Wanamaker was dismayed to find no monument to Shakespeare's theater save a plaque near its original location—a moment's walk from the new Globe. This painstaking reconstruction became Wanamaker's dream and personal battle for four decades; it is now his testament.

The plan is an ambitious one: not only to reconstruct the Globe as accurately as possible, but to build an entire complex around it. This will include a never-built small indoor theater designed by Inigo Jones, the 17th century architectural genius. There'll be shops, a cafe and pub, and a museum. Best of all, the Jones theater will make plays feasible year-round.

Anyone imagining Shakespeare's London must first set aside the idea of a huge modern city. The Tower of London, St. Paul's, and the Globe Theater form a compact triangle which bounds nearly his whole London world. His first book, a poem, was published out of St. Paul's churchyard. Just across the river, the Tower crops up in his historical plays; a Globe audience would've had a sense of the real events happening nearby. This lone square mile really was London back then, with a population of about 200,000. Will came here from Warwickshire near the end of the 1580s, probably as a small-parts actor in a passing company. He spent virtually all of his professional life here, as poet, as actor, shareholder in a theater, and author of thirty-seven plays.

Sixteenth-century London was still medieval, built mainly from timbers. Houses were three crowded stories, stenches were powerful, streets were narrow; you could reach across and shake hands with your neighbor. With a hundred churches, bells were going off constantly. London Bridge, eighteen feet wide, was the only bridge on the Thames, with houses, a chapel, shops, and a palace. It lasted from 1157 until 1831 and survived the Great Fire, which wiped out four hundred streets, 13,000 wooden houses, and three-quarters of the city.

Will never had a permanent London residence; he was usually a lodger, or lived in theatrical digs. At one point he resided with a jeweller or wig-maker on Silver Street, and appeared as a character witness for his landlord's apprentice, who was in love with the man's daughter. In a sense it's remarkable Will survived as long as he did. Marlowe died at twenty-nine, knifed in a tavern brawl; Jonson went to prison for killing a man; London was beset by five plague outbreaks during Will's life, with 100,000 dead. His brother Edmund, an actor in his company, died of it in 1607—he'd kept a home near the theater, a common law wife and an illegitimate child. Shakespeare probably lived with him, and paid for the burial (an unmarked grave) at Southwark Cathedral.

A few Shakespeare associations are in the St. Paul's area, and I saw these before venturing south across the Thames. Across from the Chancery Lane tube stop stands the Staple Inn (1545), a half-timbered Tudor inn which Shakespeare must've known (it's also in Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood). The simple black-and-white vertical stripes, the gables, the small leaded windows, render it a visitor from another age amid modern storefronts. Playhouse Yard, off Friar Street, is a tiny flagstoned back square with bare trees and 18th century gravestones. Originally Blackfriars, a house of Dominican fathers suppressed by Henry VIII, the building eventually became a theater—all that's left is a pile of grey stones in one corner. Here James I saw The Tempest at the time of his daughter's wedding, mirrored in the play by Miranda's.

A rare indoor theater, warm and well-lit, the Blackfriars differed radically from outdoor theaters like the Globe or the Rose. It was smaller, with an audience of maybe five hundred; much more expensive (top tickets cost two shillings); candles made night scenes realistic, and protection from all weathers gave sets a more important role. Scenery could slide on or off the elaborate stage. Music was more important too. An orchestra might play for an hour before a performance, and intermissions were filled by masques (musical entertainments). Will owned a house nearby, but it's unclear if he ever lived there.

More compelling, just in from the Thames, was the Middle Temple Hall. This Inn of Court (a private gentlemen's club for barristers) is where Twelfth Night was first performed (February 2, 1602) by the Lord Chamberlain's Company including Shakespeare. An enormous vaulted hall in dark wood and white stone, with a many-chambered ceiling, stained glass windows (one dated 1570), royal coats-of-arms, and portraits of Queens Elizabeth and Anne, it was the place most evocative of the Bard's era that I saw.

On crossing the river I found my way to the George Inn, near the Bridge tube stop. This late 16th century galleried inn (the last such surviving in London), rebuilt in 1677, now a pub, with Tudor galleries looking down onto an enclosed courtyard, suggests how English theater began outdoors, with the actors on a central platform and the spectators either seated or standing.

A few more blocks' walk brought me to Southwark Cathedral—probably the city's finest Gothic architecture after Westminster Abbey—and where Shakespeare doubtless worshipped since he was for several years an inhabitant of this parish. A fine stained-glass window portrays the famous "Seven Ages of Man" from As You Like It, along with assorted characters from the plays. Though most of the cathedral is from 1875, there's a dubiously restored patch of wood roof from 1400, much original stone interior wall, and displayed inside, a dozen wooden "roof bosses" elaborately carved—a golden pelican and the devil's moon-face, with tongue out.

Here, too, is the tomb of a father of English poetry, John Gower (d. 1408). As poet laureate to both Richard II and Henry IV, Gower was the first poet to write in English (not just Latin and French). Even by Shakespeare's day, the language as a vessel of literature was only about one-hundred-seventy years old.

Theater-wise, the age telescopes easily. In 1558 Elizabeth takes the throne; a year later the first acting company appears. In 1567 the first theater is created at Stepway by James Burbage, who in 1576 builds London's first playhouse, the Theatre at Shoreditch, followed a year later by the Curtain. (The Burbages acted in most of Will's plays; Richard Burbage was the first Hamlet, Othello, and Lear.)

In 1587 the Rose goes up, the first theater in Southwark—the area just across the Thames from St. Paul's—followed by the Swan in 1595.

After Burbage's death his two sons, plus five more of the Lord Chamberlain's Men including a now-successful Shakespeare, dismantle their home Theatre and use its timbers to build the Globe in 1599. Thus this single building's timbers held two different dawns of English theater.

By 1608, when performances at Blackfriars were re-allowed, the Globe had become so popular with actors and audience that from then on the company used indoor Blackfriars in winter and the Globe in summer. When the Globe burned down on 17 July 1613, after a spark onstage reached the thatch roof during Henry VIII, the company rebuilt it with a safer tiled roof and a more ornate interior. Along with all other London theaters, it was closed in 1642 and dismantled in 1644 under orders of Parliament.

The Globe ("this wooden O") was going up as Shakespeare was finishing Henry V. Soon after, Julius Caesar premiered there in 1599, followed by a decade of hits that made it London's most popular playhouse: As You Like It, Troilus and Cressida, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, All's Well That Ends Well, Othello, Measure for Measure, Timon of Athens, King Lear, Macbeth, Pericles, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest (which also ran indoors at Blackfriars), and lastly Henry VIII in 1613. Three years later our man was dead, age fifty-two.

Puns about the Globe run through the plays, as in Jaques' famous "All the world's a stage" speech (As You Like It). Hamlet, which opened in late 1600, jokes about "this distracted globe."

Southwark was full of distractions; it was not, legally or psychologically, part of the City of London. The Globe, Swan, and Rose Theatres, due south across London Bridge, lay in the part of Southwark called Bankside, a suburb near a playgoing public but away from the city fathers—rather like London's Soho today, a place for leisure and pleasure. The disorder following several political plays had set city authorities against theaters. Plays meant crowds, therefore pickpockets, vice, politics, pestilence—plague was so common that playhouses were closed in 1594 for health reasons.

Bankside also was home to bordellos, cockfighting, and bear-baiting arenas—a bear chained to posts was attacked by mastiffs while a crowd ate, drank, cheered. This dank, dirty, illicit setting became the womb of Elizabethan theater; the overworked air of its motley taverns encouraged immortal beauty.

No construction plans remain of the original Globe. The new one is based on recent excavations at the original site which indicate twenty sides. Back then there weren't architects, only master carpenters, and the new Globe has meant a revival of old techniques. Each joint is individually fitted, held in place by pegs, using green oak that seasons as it wears: an Elizabethan pre-fab. A plaster of sand, lime, and cow-hair was applied in many coats, the biggest plastering job in Europe in two centuries. The main roof is thatch, of water, reed, and sedge. The first Globe's thatch had been long banned in London as a fire hazard, but this law wasn't enforced outside the City. As originally, the new Globe's exterior will be painted white.

Walking around the new Globe, it's easy to imagine oneself back in time. A flag flying, visible across the Thames, meant a performance that afternoon, from 2 till 4:30. (Never Sundays.) Beer and hazelnuts were served throughout. If you could afford a seat in the gallery you were well-covered; if you stood you got rained on. The area around the stage was raked so those standing ("groundlings") in back could see; the stage itself was raised to guard against patrons who got carried away during a battle scene and jumped down to join the battle, but wielding real swords. The stage was shaded for the actors' benefit; a squinting audience sat or stood in the sun.

The most expensive seats were in a gallery in the backstage wall, even though their view was of the actors' backs. Back then, it was more important to show your face than to see an actor's. Hearing the lines clearly was most important of all.

In Shakespeare's day ticket prices were simple. A penny allowed you to stand in the area around the stage. Two pennies got you a seat in a gallery. Three on up to six pence got you a cushioned, choicer seat. You paid on entering by one of the two doors. Each money-gatherer had a box, and took the money to an office backstage before the performance: hence the box office.

Scenery was rudimentary, resulting in a customary richness of language; audiences were used to conjuring fields, castles, cliffs, or wondrous isles. Costumes could, however, be fairly sumptuous—aristocrats' castoffs. Female roles were played by adolescent boys before their voices broke. Companies generally had less than two dozen members and most actors played several parts in a play. Productions changed frequently; one company put on 38 plays in a single season, 21 of which were entirely new.

Seats were probably a series of high steps, and an audience could be squeezed in without restrictions. The new Globe's seating will reduce by half the original, which could pack in about 3000 people: 2000 sitting, 1000 standing. The theater had three stories, and its stage roof was an engineering feat that ranked alongside London's major hall roofs of the period, because it sprang from just two "Herculean" pillars on the stage itself. Its ceiling was blue, with signs of the zodiac—in a superstitious age, most houses still kept images to guard against the evil eye.

It is tremendously moving to explore the rebuilt Globe, as if witnessing a rectification of a great wrong; surely this is where, though he belongs everywhere, Shakespeare most belongs.

For now sits Expectation
In the air . . . .

Shakespeare wrote in Henry V in 1599, while the first Globe was being built. Now, four hundred years later, having tirelessly honored his birthplace, we are at last rebuilding his home. As frustrating as the lack of biographical material is, it's perhaps appropriate that we should be sent back to the plays by all we don't know about the life. Entering our new Globe, we try to conjure Will's London; traipsing after a ghost, we find his fading footfalls, the vast humane richness of his words, an anagram in his name (William Shakespeare! We all make his praise!), then only wonder.

Saturday, January 28, 1995

Is That A Remote Control In Your Croissant?

For over a decade now I have been a frequent traveller and part-time resident overseas, and nothing has startled me more over the miles and years—in Paris, London, Amsterdam, Rome, even Delhi, Papeete, and Kuala Lumpur—than to see how crowded European and Asian television is with bad American programs. Say what you like about foreigners stepping on our toes in certain marketplaces; on the other side of the big water, life is not all Masterpiece Theater. On many a distant foreign strand, the Marines have landed once again, but this time with reruns and a vengeance.

It is a global phenomenon. People have joked for ages about the Japanese hunger for American jazz, baseball, and cowboy films; this hunger now includes The A-Team. In Morocco, children living in the ruins of three-hundred-year-old casbahs watch Spider-Man and Transformers just like children everywhere else. On Fiji and Rarotonga people rent weekly episodes, on video-cassette, of Knight Rider. A few years ago in Bahrain I saw on the Saudi channel (where a double execution had been broadcast live moments before) an episode of Dallas, dubbed into Arabic. J.R. as desert sheikh, ruthless head of his tribe: it makes sense.

The most well-travelled show is Baywatch, seen every week in 140 countries by nearly 20% of Earth’s population. So what if we can’t convince the world to buy our hatchbacks? At least we can still sell them the all-American beach gal; we must be doing something right.

This is an awfully bland candy we are hawking internationally, doing more than our fair share to homogenize the world into a boring place. Foreigners have long looked to movies as the best of U.S. culture: Hollywood has been arguably our most persuasive, popular ambassador in the 20th century. But Orson Welles or John Wayne are one thing, Hardcastle and McCormick another.

It is cold comfort to think that tastes most provincially American, like Johnny Carson, were for a long time not exported at all—Carson, anonymous, could enjoy an annual vacation, going unrecognized in the stands at Wimbledon every summer. Those days are long gone. Oprah (her diets, her subtle reportial style, her easy charm) is exported now all over the place, almost as well known on the Leidseplein as on Main Street.

To live abroad, in the middle of this American tsunami—a true imperialism—is different than catching it on a hotel set: you can watch the wave hit. In Holland, for example, nearly everyone under fifty speaks English; anyone under thirty-five is fluent. One major reason is undoubtedly that their most popular programs have long been ours, broadcast with Dutch subtitles. When I lived there in the mid-’80s, Magnum P.I., Twilight Zone, Webster, The Smurfs, The Muppets, Murder She Wrote, Simon & Simon, and The Love Boat dominated Nederlands TV.

It was disconcerting to balance the televised British contribution (BBC Shakespeare, three plays a week) versus those more sobering U.S. offerings. Holland’s two channels went on the air in mid-afternoon and shut down at midnight—which may partially explain why the Dutch are avid readers. Dutch TV sets also received Belgium (Hotel) with only one channel, and West Germany (Dynasty) with three. The situation struck me as comically quaint; three of Europe’s most prosperous countries had as many channels put together as, say, Boston.

That has all changed. The new Germany has fifteen channels, but with that much time to fill, we still maintain our stranglehold. The unified people who gave us not only two world wars but also Goethe, Beethoven, and the foundations of modern philosophical thought now are being repaid with Matlock, Daktari, Dr. Quinn, Superman, Doogie Howser, Airwolf, the ubiquitous Baywatch (“Die Rettungschwimmer von Malibu”) and Sesamstrasse—one, at least, to be proud of. Our typical film offering, on Sunday night just before Kojak? Germans can choose Caddyshack or Raise the Titanic! It would be kinder and gentler to lower the Atlantic.

Very well, you might argue. It’s not our fault; they don’t have to buy this rubbish. Of course, neither do we. My objection is that by virtue of all these shows being ready-made, cheaply available for dubbing and distribution, the low common denominator of the U.S. public—the mud of the American creative unconscious—has now established itself as the terra infirma of the rest of the plugged-in world. It should stop us believing that (despite Monty Python and Masterpiece Theater) European TV is so much better. The fact is, most of their shows were our shows first.

This obvious truth didn’t penetrate my starving imagination until I actually moved overseas and settled, first in Amsterdam, then Paris. I remember that first year abroad: a highly informal poll among my Dutch friends showed that Hill St. Blues, Cheers, and The Bill Cosby Show were the most popular imports. (The Dutch still offer endless soccer matches and well-made documentaries of every sort to fill the interstices of time between U.S. shows). Miami Vice sauntered ashore on the continent without making much splash anywhere. Dutch women seemed immune to Don Johnson; as one blonde Amsterdammer told me, “He doesn’t shave, so what? Neither does my boyfriend, and Hans has better taste in clothes.”

Back then the show that, oddly, seemed to cut across all European frontiers in terms of popularity—the Baywatch, or even, if you will, the Don Quixote of its era—was Starsky & Hutch. In some indefinable way it seemed to sum up Americans for everybody else—“it’s the States, it’s not real anyway.” In Rome I knew an international welfare worker (a Brit, an Oxford graduate) who loved to take a long bath and then, wrapped in a towel, watch Starsky & Hutch with the sound turned up so loud he couldn’t hear that the United Nations was calling him on the phone. Clearly a show as innocuous and awful as Starsky & Hutch could be so popular all over Europe only because it seemed to offer the world, totally, America as it imagines itself.

For over the last couple of decades, a sea-change has taken place: popular culture, once overwhelmingly local, has become the same American soup warmed up everywhere. More than Rambo’s Hollywood, or the multinational rock world, it’s TV shows that have done this. The foreign obsession with all things American has settled into a condition less noticeable but more dangerous: an addiction.

The Germanic situation grips other countries. The Brits, with about twenty-five channels and the best TV programming in Europe, also still watch (among many others) Falcon Crest, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Time Tunnel, Happy Days, My Three Sons, Lassie, The Beverly Hillbillies, Hogan’s Heroes, Young and the Restless, thirtysomething, Death Valley Days, Buck Rogers, and (last and irrefutably least) not Troilus and Cressida, but Donny and Marie.

The Spanish, with eleven channels, like to come up with their own bad programs; from us they rely on Burke’s Law, Matlock, Get Smart (“El superagente 86”), L.A. Law (“La ley de Los Angeles”), Knight Rider (“El coche fantastico”), Roseanne, Santa Barbara, and, you guessed it, “Beavis y Butt-head”. Given twenty-three channels, the Italian love for opera involves mainly soaps (Paradise Beach, Santa Barbara, Dynasty, Dallas, Melrose Place) and crime (Perry Mason, Dragnet, Mannix, T.J. Hooker, the F.B.I.), with a dash of science fiction (Superman, The Love Boat). The Turks still follow Bonanza, Columbo, Zorro, and that ideal harem-girl, I Dream of Jeannie. All these countries overnight multiplied tenfold their original two or three channels, overwhelming an innocent population.

The French like to keep matters complex, contradictory, and French. With six regular channels and twenty-odd satellite and cable alternatives, they’re particular about which interlopers to admit. TNT isn’t allowed in “out of fear that the French love of all those old movies would take away business from the French channels,” as one longtime U.S. diplomat told me diplomatically.

Peace is only war with evening gloves on. BBC-1, highly popular, got thrown out while CNN was allowed to remain; it’s OK presumably for the French to learn American but not English. Only one channel, Canal Plus, shows films or series in the original language (subtitled not dubbed)—Fermez cette porte! And each network has a limit on how many foreign shows are permitted.

Even so, the French see NYPD Blue, Mission Impossible, Perry Mason, Tarzan, The Untouchables (“Les Incorruptibles”); Cannon, Chips, Streets of San Francisco, Twin Peaks, Moonlighting, and Highlander. There’s “Docteur Quinn,” “Deux Flics a Miami,” “Dans la chaleur de la nuit,” “Dream On” plus The A-Team (“Agence Tous Risques”) and every weekday, along with our usual lavish soap operas, Magnum and The Love Boat (“La Croisière S’Amuse”). And the French adore U.S. basketball; as my faithful diplomat put it, “The Froggies love to watch any game played by tall blacks whom Americans are still oppressing at $10 million a year.”

MTV and CNN have penetrated most everywhere. And everybody, but everybody, sees Baywatch. A leading London literary agent, a woman, told me, “After a hard day fighting for high prices for books I haven’t read, I love to come home, drink, and watch those California people dragging that red thing all over the beach.”

Many of these shows are nearly current. Stranger, throughout Europe, is to observe the ongoing phenomenon of the Sky Channel. This was for most of Western Europe their first equivalent of cable, so inexpensive (and with practically no alternatives) that virtually everyone subscribed. It continues to flourish, even as Nickelodeon, Bravo, The Children’s Channel, the Family Channel, AsiaNet, TLC, and many others appeared on the scene (depending on which country).

Based in England, like some mental ray-gun, Sky beams over to the continent twenty-four hours a day of sports (including NFL, NBA, & skateboard action), children’s cartoons, rock videos, and antique American reruns. When I moved to Amsterdam, the Sky broadcast only from mid-afternoon until one a.m.; Europe hadn’t yet learned the pleasures of all-day TV. Just enough of a bad thing, you say. Trash I thought I’d escaped forever—who remembers The Magician, with Bill Bixby? or The Millionaire?—had, thanks to Sky, been granted a second coming, a leasehold on the Old World.

So an eight-year-old Dutch friend of mine named Pieter could watch Lost In Space and Daniel Boone on weekends. Every night he watched Green Acres, The Brady Bunch, The Lucy Show, The Flying Nun, Dennis the Menace, and Wells Fargo. Like many of us, he first glimpsed Ronald Reagan on the prairie, hat in hand. Today an eight-year-old Sky fan gets Rin Tin Tin, Family Ties, Kung Fu, The Rifleman, Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, Barney Miller, Night Court, Peyton Place, As the World Turns, and Knots Landing. Thus do dodos rise again as phoenixes.

What amazed me most back then was not that Pieter was being brought up on the same empty-headed dreck as many American children, assuring an aversion to something as demanding as reading a book on both sides of the Atlantic, but that these shows’ creaky black-and-white outdatedness seemed not to matter to him at all. I didn’t expect Pieter to experience the same frisson of recognition that I felt on seeing Will Robinson and Dr. Smith wandering across the identical bushy stretch of California soundstage desert that turns up light-years later beneath Mr. Spock’s boots. But I was surprised that to a boy weaned on the Star Wars series’ special effects, the Robot never seemed clunky or the wobbly spaceship laughable.

To Pieter, and to many European adults accustomed for years to watching these creaky relics, the United States exists in a Rod Serling time warp in which, to their eyes, shows made thirty years apart (Eisenhower to Bush, say) seem part of the same eternal American television landscape. In the way that the Alps or Paris exist as a myth to many Americans who haven’t visited—and even many who have—“TV America” has acquired an Oz-like allure.

Our cities are full of high-speed car chases, cheek by jowl with suburban homes run by sarcastic warm-hearted maids, sometimes non-Caucasian; the parents are happy together, in a brother-sister way; no one drinks, except in the most lavish settings; nonetheless, cocaine dealers, cowboys and cheap gunsels abound. And perhaps such a unified, diverse TV nation is correct. Sister Bertrille and Arnold Ziffel the Pig and Lucy and obese immobile detectives and sunstruck superstarlets all come from the same Never-Neverland, or at least carry similar passports.

And yet these shows, rendered into nostalgia by the dim glow of childhood (I watched them sometimes, and still read a lot) now make me angry, and even a bit ashamed. It embarrasses me to see foreign children passing their time on U.S. junk that seems more cut-rate and secondhand for being so old and mildewed. I have nothing against Star Trek, but it sends shivers up my spine to know Calcuttans follow its episodes as avidly as those of the Ramayana.

Perhaps I’m simply being grumpy; but seeing how popular all these old and new shows are worldwide has reduced my wonder at why, specifically, so many foreigners consider Americans not only naive but a bit stupid as well. Is it any wonder, when these shows are the daily image we send them of ourselves? The final wonder is not that when American television empties its garbage cans, it does so in, say, Europe’s direction; but that Europeans, like us, holler for more and more.