The Caesar of Britain
The Caesar of Britain
One of the things I love about writing historical fiction is stumbling on a snippet of information that fits exactly with what I am working on.
The opening of my novel “To The Fair Land”, for example, is set in a theatre. The main characters meet during the performance of a play about Captain Cook, which is watched by a rowdy audience. I made the stage action up, but the rest is rooted in fact. There were plays about Captain Cook – and eighteenth century audiences were boisterous. In fact, the theatre was a place of riots, prostitution, and audience misbehaviour on a mind-boggling scale. It wasn’t unknown for audiences to bring a performance to an end with their boos and catcalls – and sometimes this had more to do with theatrical rivalries than the merits of the production or performances themselves.
The theatre paid its tribute to Cook with a bizarre production called “Omai, or A Trip Around the World”. A pantomime (that is, a performance in song and mime with no spoken dialogue), it opened in Covent Garden on 20 December 1785. It was written by Irish playwright, John O’Keefe (1747 – 1833), author of “Wild Oats” (showing at Bristol Old Vic later this year). John Webber (1751–1793), the artist on Cook’s third voyage, advised on props and scenery, and the sets and special effects were devised by French artist Philippe de Loutherbourg (1740 – 1812).
De Loutherbourg, who had studied in Paris, was a member of the Académie Royale. He came to London in 1771 with a letter of introduction to Garrick at the Drury Lane Theatre. Within a few years he had revolutionised stage design with his use of lighting, perspective, and machinery to represent fires, storms and volcanos. By the time he devised “Omai” he had already worked on a production of the masque “Alfred” by David Mallett and James Thomson, which included a “Grand Naval Review” at Spithead. Here, rather than the traditional flat, painted backdrop, perfectly proportioned models of the ships were used. Loutherbourg then produced “The Wonders of Derbyshire”, also a pantomime, complete with mines, landscapes, Peak’s Hole and Mam Tor. He left Drury Lane and opened a miniature theatre, the Eidophusikon, at his London home. Here he presented a show based on moving pictures, music, coloured lights and automata, which included storms at sea, a water spout, and Niagara Falls.
“Omai” was based very loosely on the visit to Britain of Omai, who was brought from Tahiti in July 1774 by Captain Furneaux, commander of Cook’s sister ship the Adventure, and taken back to Tahiti by Cook in November 1777. The piece is a peculiar mingling of real-life Tahitian characters with a standard “crossed lovers” sub-plot featuring Don Struttolando, Londina, Harlequin, Colombine and Britannia – and much “comic business”. It included views of Plymouth Sound, a house in Kamchatka and ascending clouds. It ends with a view of the Bay of Tahiti with ships entering it and a grand procession of people from “the different quarters of the globe that have been visited by Capt. Cook”, during which a huge painting of Cook’s coronation by Britannia ascends to the stage.
Such performances were also popular in France. In fact there seems to have been a great deal of artistic cross-over between the two nations, for in 1785 the French King sent observers to London to view “Omai”. “The Death of Captain Cook” was later shown in Paris to “uncommon applause”. In 1789 the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden imported this “grand serious-pantomimic-ballet…with the original French music, new scenery, Machinery, and other Decorations”. During its performance there were “tears and hysterics” from the audience when Cook died.
Of course, none of these “interesting facts” go into my story, but they’re part of the background and texture to the work. And it’s nice to know when I imagine something that, yes, it could have happened that way…
Find out more about “To The Fair Land” at http://www.lucienneboyce.com/
Read more about Philippe de Loutherbourg and a fantastic project at the University of Sydney, where a replica of the Eidophusikon was constructed in 2005 – http://sydney.edu.au/arts/history/research/projects/mccalman_loutherbourg.shtml
You can see paintings by de Loutherbourg at the Tate (including some splendid naval battle scenes) (www.tate.org.uk) and the National Portrait Gallery (www.npg.org.uk)
You can read the South Seas journals of Captain Cook, Joseph Banks and Sydney Parkinson, with a wealth of supporting material, at the South Seas website set up by the National Library of Australia and the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research – and it also includes the text of “Omai, or a Trip Around the World” – http://southseas.nla.gov.au/research-about.html
John O’Keefe’s “Wild Oats” is on at Bristol Old Vic in September and October 2012 – for details see http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/wildoats.html
Lucienne's Banquet Guests
I was asked who I’d like to sit with on a table at the HNS banquet. I would invite my literary heroines, eighteenth-century writers
Frances Burney and Charlotte Smith. With their very different politics (one a conservative, the other a radical), the discussion could be interesting!
Mary Wollstonecraft, of course.
Aphra Behn, playwright, said to be the first woman to “live by the pen”.
Rebecca West, feisty suffragette, novelist and essayist – one of the sharpest of wits and loveliest of writers.
Witty Cicely Hamilton, suffragist, playwright, and novelist.
Mikhail Bulgakov, playwright and writer of one of my all-time favourite novels, “The Master and Margarita” (as long as he doesn’t smoke cigarettes during the meal!).
William Morris, socialist, poet and writer of sublime fantasies.
And Charles Dickens