London Letter

How the Mermaid came back to life

BEVERLEY BAXTER August 1 1959
London Letter

How the Mermaid came back to life

BEVERLEY BAXTER August 1 1959

How the Mermaid came back to life

London Letter

BEVERLEY BAXTER

The Mermaid reopened with this adaptation of a bawdy old comedy.

This is the time of year when we who live in London wonder whether there are any Canadians left in Canada. On the streets, in the parks, in the shops, the theatres and the concert halls, to say nothing of the Houses of Parliament, the Canadians are everywhere.

We expatriates are delighted to hear the gossip of our native land and take a special pride in letting our kinsfolk gaze at the river from the terrace of the House of Commons or motor them through the luscious parks which were left to us by the profligate Charles 11 and, of course, the good Victoria.

The only objection to this annual invasion is that our Canadian visitors sometimes ask the impossible. For example when two friends of ours turned up from Toronto not long ago they coolly suggested that they and the Baxters should go that very evening to the Mermaid Theatre which had recently opened for business on that part of the north bank known as Puddle Dock.

Patiently we explained to them that the opening of the theatre by the lord mayor in all his robes had given the newborn theatre such a send-off that it would not be possible to get seats for a performance under a month at the very least. As these particular Canadians were from Toronto they probably pictured some kind of a lonely theatre

opening for business on something like Front Street, Toronto, just overlooking the Bay.

Next morning our Canadian friends telephoned us. “We have four seats for tonight at the Mermaid Theatre for Lock Up Your Daughters. We w'ill meet you at the entrance.” Some day in the future a bunch of Canadians will probably make a take-over bid for London!

Lock Up Your Daughters is showing twice nightly the first performance at 6.10 and the second at 8.40. So the two Baxters set off in their car and joined the swirling maelstrom of outgoing motors on their homeward way to the suburbs and the incoming tide of motorists en route to London for a night out in town.

Our Canadian friends had risen to the occasion. With that swift adaptability which characterizes Torontonians they had found a spot marked No Parking that could just take our two cars. Thus we were able to enter the theatre with no worries on our minds.

Once again the astonishing ingenuity of the Londoner was to be seen in the interior of the theatre. In the foreground was a circular stage such as they had in London when Will Shakespeare came to town from Stratford. Behind a glass partition was an orchestra where the players could gaze on the river when their instruments were mute. In the program we read the w'ords spoken on the opening night by the lord mayor in all his glory:

“A company of strolling players, we are told, seeks to entertain the people of this city here by Puddle Dock. We bring this Mermaid. Take her upon the stage so that you may give this theatre its right and proper name.”

That was the christening of the first theatre in the actual City of London for three hundred years — the city of course being that financial district of London w'hich is a whirlwind by day and a deserted mausoleum after dark. Now I must pause in my narrative while the actors prepare themselves for the play.

If we agree continued on page 42

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“The Puritans never ceased to attack the theatre for glorifying sex and ridiculing virtue”

that today is the parent of tomorrow then it must follow that yesterday was the parent of today. But in the world of the theatre we are apt to look back upon Shakespeare as the only dramatist of the past that really mattered.

The truth is that the Elizabethan era was so vibrant, so daring, so limitless in imagination and so consummate in the arts of war and peace that the overpowering glory of Spain was destroyed and she never recovered from it.

But also in that period there was a bawdy vulgarity which dominated the arts in general and continued long afterward when Henry Fielding not only wrote Tom Jones but also this play Lock lip Your Daughters, under its original title, Rape Upon Rape.

Fielding’s play at the Mermaid is so coarse yet so healthily vibrant that we roared with laughter and forgot to blush. No one could call the play a masterpiece but it had a vulgar buoyancy which was like a gust of wind from the sea.

But what we have to ask ourselves is whether the newly created Mermaid Theatre is a mere piece of showmanship to lure the tourists from abroad or whether it is an expression of London itself when the office workers have scattered to the suburbs and the crowded city can muse in quiet as night falls.

This is what the eminent painter Sir Albert Richardson has to say about it: "There is nothing more exciting in the whole range of pleasure than re-creating the scenes of other times. That is why the theatre has a fascination of its own, excelling by far the most recent mechanical substitutes.”

Then he goes on to say: "My father took me as a boy on one of his exploratory walks in the city and had explained that in the olden time Thames Street was noted for its almhouses as well as a theatre near Puddle Dock known to Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.”

Yet the Puritans never ceased in their attack on the theatre as an institution

which glorified sex, ridiculed virtue and drew the thoughts of men to grossness and lechery.

But the gentle Keats was moved to an almost robust rapture when he wrote:

Souls of poets dead and gone.

What Elysium have ye known. Happy field or mossy cavern C hoicer than the Mermaid Tavern, Have ye tippled drink more fine Than my host’s canary wine?

In trying to assess the historic and artistic value of this new' venture of the Mermaid Theatre I must not leave out the ponderings of Ivor Brown, who has not only been a deeply esteemed drama critic but has become an historian of the theatre in general.

When the Mermaid Theatre opened for business Brown wrote these words:

“What had they seen, those spectators who came away from the Bankside at the end of an afternoon in the playhouse three and a half centuries ago? Some of them would be walking back over London Bridge, others. Inns of Court men

and their company, rowed back by the wherrymen to landing steps at Puddle Dock or further west at the temple. There would be meetings for liquor and theatre gossip in Bread Street just east of the old St. Paul’s, for their master William Johnson became manager of the Mermaid Tavern in 1603.”

In fact all the contemporary historians, poets and critics seemed to be vying with each other to say something memorable in connection with the opening of the Mermaid Theatre when that irascible old bear. Gilbert Harding, let out a growl of sanity that nearly blew out the footlights.

"No phrase,” he roared, "no conception. no idea has irritated me so much or for so long as 'The Good Old Days!' Those that lived in the good old days are welcome to them—scrofula, stinks, scaffolds, poverty, filth. I’d rather have a whisky and soda at five shillings a time in a welfare state than a tainted pasty washed down by a draught of Malmsey any day. To hell with the good old days — and hey-nonny-no to you too!"

That is a good blast, even from a man who has specialized all his life in blast-

ing. But not even his stentorian trumpet voice can blast the sentimentalists and romanticists to silence.

Under the ruthless impact of television, following the long years of the silent and the talkie films, it seemed that the living theatre might become a mere echo of the past; but it will never die. The night when the Baxters were taken by their Canadian friends to the Mermaid the audience numbered probably five hundred, but we were a living audience in company with living actors.

It might have been a better or a worse performance than the previous one but the actors on the stage played for us alone. That is the lure and fascination of the living theatre and that is why it will never die.

There are disadvantages to living in so vast a metropolis as London yet somehow it holds the imagination just as it did with the ancient Romans who came up the Thames and declared that they w'ould build a city on the north bank where the Houses of Parliament now stand.

It may be too soon for Canada or Australia or New Zealand to look back upon the centuries. To them the glory is yet to come. Yet already the histories of these countries are rich in memory.

But the newly born Mermaid Theatre, nestling in Puddle Dock, brings the past to life. Dickens would have rejoiced in its hearty vulgarity, Shakespeare would have written plays especially for it, and even Bernard Shaw would have concocted something for it were he still alive.

The Thames is more than a river; it is liquid history. When the dark comes one hears strange shouts as a tugboat drags its rafts of lumber past the Mermaid and under Waterloo Bridge. The mist on the river lends a mystery to the moon as it looks from its lofty height upon the river that is London's main street.

Welcome, sweet, vulgar Mermaid! May you have many happy years in Puddle Dock! ★