Sunday, April 22, 2012

Happy Birthday, Will.

                                                 SHAKESPEARE’S LONDON

     John Shakespeare enrolled his seven-year old son William in The King’s New School of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1571.Latin was the most important subject taught and many children later became scholars at Oxford University but Will wanted to grow up to be just like the traveling players who performed medieval, religious and new pastymes (plays) in Stratford’s Gild Hall and the Bridge Street innyards. Stratford had amateur mummers (actors and mimes) and two touring companies, The Queen’s Men and the Earl of Worcester’s Men who played Gild Hall. Artificial light did not exist and spectacles and dramas took place during daylight hours. Limelight, gaslight, electricity, incandescent lamps and computer light boards, had not been invented in the 16th century. 
     Portrayals of Will’s life between school and the time he arrived in London differ  Some accounts state he was apprenticed to a butcher, others think he was a schoolmaster or believe he left Stratford because he was caught poaching in the deer park of Sir Thomas Lucy, a local justice of the peace.  Many are convinced a theatre company passed through Stratford and invited Will to join their troupe as a minor actor and scrivener (dramatist).  
     When William Shakespeare arrived in London in the late 1580s, he explored a vibrant and dramatic city of contrasts that stimulated his imagination. Shakespeare’s London had tall buildings and the majestic St. James Palace, the residence of kings and queens of England for over 300 years. Londoners shopped at Cheapside, a large market where country people displayed their goods, a butcher’s market in Eastcheap and a fish market on Fish Street Hill  People had to watch where they stepped in London; beggars and artful dodgers roamed; garbage, body wastes and dead animals were thrown into streets and alleyways and epidemics of plague often raged.
     The English navy scored a great victory over the Spanish Armada (an invasion fleet of about 130 ships) in the 1580s.  Francis Drake, the explorer and naval hero and Walter Raleigh, a navigator, writer and colonizer, had returned after their voyages of discovery which led to the expansion of trade in the Americas.  When Will crossed London Bridge on foot, the only crossing over the River Thames, he joined crowds of people (London had two hundred thousand inhabitants). On the bridge were houses (some over four stories high,) shops, a chapel and gatehouses on both ends. The bridge had been rebuilt many times and a nursery rhyme told its story.
London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down
London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady
     Shakespeare lived in a section of London called Bishopsgate in the gloom cast by the Tower of London. When he crossed the Thames, he could see coal barges moored in front of the Tower and wherries carrying passengers. The Tower was a prison for high ranking citizens. Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned in the Tower, suspected of participating in an assassination plot against the Queen, Elizabeth I. Elizabeth signed her death warrant and Mary was put to death on Feb. 8, 1587. Shakespeare mentioned the Tower in many of his plays such as Richard III, Henry VIII and Henry VI Part III.   There were 18 prisons around London, each held a special class of criminal. Newgate held felons, debtors and those awaiting execution. Ludgate held bankrupts and the Fleet held offenders waiting for their day in the Courts of Chancery. 
     Shakespeare worked with many theatre companies before joining James Burbage and his sons as an actor and dramatist. He soon became a charter member of a new company known as The Lord Chamberlain’s Men that appeared by royal command. Shakespeare became one of the most popular playwrights of the day. 
     London’s Lord Mayors disapproved of plays believing they encouraged irreverence, and idleness; when trumpets blasted the air and flags were raised announcing a performance, workers were lured away from jobs. To avoid restrictions imposed by the authorities, theatres were built outside the walls of the city; across the Thames in Southwark, easily reached by boat or bridge and close to bear-baiting rings, prisons and cockpits.
     The Queen’s Privy Council protected the actor/managers because the Queen enjoyed being entertained. Elizabeth I wrote poetry and music and took pleasure in drama, plays at Christmas and masques (a dramatic entertainment based on mythological or allegorical themes). She appointed a Master of the Revels, who acted as a producer/director and guardian of morals, in addition to providing costumes and a hall to be used for performances. Composers worked at the Chapel Royal in St. James Palace.
     Beginning in 1598, the first Globe Theatre was raised in Southwark and the plays Henry the Fifth, and As You Like It were written for the theatre in 1599. Considered the glory of the Banke, the Globe had a central “discovery place.” Double doors, covered with finely embroidered hangings, a curtain or both allowed the actor to reach the upper level for balcony scenes. Above that was a room with machinery for special effects – cannon were fired, angels or ghosts descended and a trap door in the floor led to hell.  Wooden stage posts, painted to look like marble, supported a canopy representing heaven filled with clouds, stars, moon and the sun; the canopy also protected the actors and their costumes from the sun. 
     Groundlings (commoners) paid one English penny to stand in the open yard of the Globe, two pennies would purchase a seat on a bench in the gallery, protected from sun and rain by a thatched roof made of water reed. A cushioned seat close to the stage cost three pennies and six pennies bought the most prestigious seats of all – the Lord’s rooms – behind and above the stage. Music underscored Shakespeare’s plays – the audience entered the theatre to the faint throb of a drum then the musicians of the Globe would   begin playing trumpet, cornet, sackbut and percussion. The players filled the stage and a stave pounded the floor. The music gradually increased in volume and intensity, adding to the excitement until every onlooker felt a part of the drama as it developed.
     Commoners, known as stinkards because they rarely washed themselves or their clothes, stood in a yard covered with a mixture of hazelnut shells, cinders, ash and silt. They fought amongst themselves and critiqued the actors with rousing cheers, hisses or a missile of fruit, often an orange. A useful piece of fruit, the orange could be used protect the nose from the stench of the unwashed or eaten to stave off pangs of hunger.
     Shakespeare describes the Globe in his prologue to Henry the Fifth when the chorus asks the audience to use their imagination, Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?   Or may we cram Within this wooden O the very casques That did affright the air at Agincourt?
     When Elizabeth I died in 1603, she was succeeded by James VI of Scotland who became James I of England. James valued the arts, particularly theatre and the Chamberlain’s Men. He demanded they come under his patronage and granted a royal patent. Their name changed to the King’s Men.
     Shakespeare’s company played the Globe in winter and summer. When epidemics of the plague caused the Privy Council to close the theatre, they became traveling players.    Fire destroyed the first Globe theatre in 1612. During a performance of Henry VIII, a piece of wadding fired from one of the stage cannons, landed on the thatched roof, smoldered, smoked – the audience was too engrossed in the play to notice – and burst into flame. In less than an hour, the fire consumed the Globe but the three thousand spectators managed to escape through the two exits. One patron’s pants began to burn but his companion, used his wits, and doused the flames with a bottle of ale. Quickly rebuilt, the second Globe, was built on the foundations of the first, and protected by a tiled roof.  It was said to be the fairest that ever was seen in England.
     In 1949, the Shakespeare Globe Trust was founded and the new Globe, modeled after the first, was inaugurated in 1997 with Henry the fifth. It stands today, as a living memorial to the greatest playwright of all time.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012



Towering mountains, the Cyclops Coast and the sparkling Mediterranean have beckoned seafarers, conquerors and tourists to Sicily since Neolithic times. By the 5th century BC, the Greek colonies, the city-states called Magna Graecia, encompassed the southern part of Italy and half of Sicily. Every Tyrant—Hieron, Dionysius the Elder, Dionysius II and Gelo of Syracuse—paid equal tribute to war and the arts during his reign and legends of the Minetour, Ariadne and Dionysus, Zeus, Hades, Ulysses have been told and retold though the ages.
My husband Bob and I indulged our passion for drama as we traveled through Sicily. In addition to Ortygia Island’s Temple of Apollo, our itinerary included visits to Sicily’s largest and oldest Greek theatre, Teatro Greco in Syracuse, and the island’s second largest, the Greco-Roman Theatre in Taormina. In these ancient theatres, the words of playwrights from Euripides, Sophicles and Aristophanes to Epicharmus, the “Father of Greek Comedy,” and Aeschylus, the “Father of Tragedy,” have been heard for more than two millenniums.
Syracuse, founded in 733 BC, became the region’s capital and was considered the third most important city in the Mediterranean. On the north side, in the archeological park, the Teatro Greco lives on Temenite Hill in the ancient district of Neapolis. Designed by the architect, Damocopos, the theatre was hewn from rock with hammer and chisel, during the reign of Hieron I, in the 5th century. The first performances were tragedies performed in groups of three (trilogies) united by a common theme. Each play was followed and ridiculed by a satyr drama, a low comedy with a mythological hero and a chorus of satyrs. The chorus, a group of actors, recited in concert and commented on the play’s action. Dance movements were sometimes performed to the accompaniment of musical instruments.
The city, under Hieron’s rule, was widely honored for its arts and letters; odes celebrated Hieron’s victories—one a tribute to his triumph at the horse races in the Olympic Games held in 476 BC. Hieron’s court invited and played host to two rivals, Pinder, the Greek lyric poet, and Aeschylus, the first of the great Greek dramatists, who preceded Sophicles and Euripides.
Aeschylus added a second actor to interact with the first creating dialogue and involved the chorus in the action of the play. Twelve years after fighting the Persians at Marathon in 472 BC, he wrote “The Persians,” a war story told from the perspective of the defeated. At the invitation of King Hieron, in 471 and again in 469, Aeschylus, traveled to Syracuse where he produced and stage-managed his highly acclaimed play. He is believed to have written ninety plays, seven have survived including “The Persians,” “Prometheus Bound,” and the “Orestie” trilogy. In 476 BC, he wrote “The Women of Etna,” to celebrate the founding of Etna by Hieron I. Legend tells us death claimed Aeschylus, on his final visit to Sicily, when an eagle mistook his bald head for a rock and dropped a tortoise on his pate. A monument was erected in his honor; the memorial mentions the battle at Marathon but not his plays.
The dramas were presented as part of religious celebrations held in the spring and fall that lasted from sunrise to sunset. The entire population attended, socialized, gossiped and exchanged the latest news before the performances.
Restored and enlarged by Hieron II in the 3rd century BC, the theater could seat 16,000. Nine sections with names of rulers and Gods etched into stone enabled the audience to find their seats. Our sneakered feet trod the stage where sandal-clad actors dedicated their performances to Greek Gods and performed for an audience that included tyrants and philosophers.
I take Bob’s hand and we climb to the theatre’s summit—a breeze cools my flushed cheeks. Greek theaters were built facing the ocean or a valley where the gentle wind amplified the actor’s voice and a stage whisper carried to the last row of spectators. The all-male casts used masks with large mouths to augment the sound; the masks designed to illustrate the temperament and spirit of the characters portrayed. We rest our bottoms on the hard stone and project ourselves back in time—a time when Hellenes ruled the land.
Close to the theatre, on the southern edge of the area, is the Ear of Dionysius, the most famous stone quarry in the Lotomie del Paradiso – 65 meters long and 23 meters in height. Caravaggio, the artist, gave the cavern its name when he visited in 1586 and noted the ear-shaped entrance. Renowned for its acoustics—the inner chamber resounds with fragments of near-forgotten poetry and prose declaimed by visitors. Our guide tells of Dionysius, a tyrant and dramatist, eavesdropping as political prisoners, entombed in the Ear, conspired against his reign.
Dionysius, once his patron, imprisoned the poet, Philoxenos, when he mocked the despot with his writing of “Cyclops.” After a time, Dionysius composed a new poem and had Philoxenos brought to court; the tyrant’s entourage lauded the work but when Dionysius turned to Philoxenos and asked his opinion, the poet said, “Take me back to prison.”
Damocles, a courtier, tried to curry favor with Dionysius by saying the tyrant was the luckiest man on earth. Dionysius suggested Damocles take his place for a day and sit in his seat; Damocles, we’re told, was terrified to see a sword suspended by a hair, just above his head.
More spectacular entertainment was offered in the Colisseum, an oval-shaped amphitheater constructed by the Romans during the time of Augustus, in the 4th to 3rd century BC, The Romans built the “Salt Road,” transported salt, cut down trees, planted wheat and used Sicily as Rome’s grainery offering the citizenry feasts of bread and circuses in return. A central cistern, supplied by two canals, was used for water games; a parapet surrounds the arena and underneath, a passageway with entrances for gladiators and wild animals can be seen. The gladiators, condemned criminals, prisoners of war and slaves, would honor the Tyrant with the famous greeting, “We who are about to die, salute you,” then engage in mortal combat with tridents, daggers or double-sided, two foot stabbing swords known as Gladium. In Lord Byron’s poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” a dying gladiator reflects that he has been “butchered to make a Roman holiday.”
The Arabs crushed Syracuse in 878 and retained power until the 11th century when the Normans conquered only to lose to the Angevins in the 14th. The Aragons followed then the House of Savoy, the Austrians and the Bourbons. Military bases occupied the city during both World Wars but in 1913, thoughts of reviving ancient Greek Drama in Syracuse began to develop and by April 16, 1914, Aeschylus’ Agammemnon inaugurated the first cycle of classical plays. Since 1929, The Instituto Nazionale del Dramma Antico has organized and staged the works of Aristophanes, Sophicles and Euripedes throughout Italy. From May 14 through June 20, 2004, audiences attended Sophicles’ Oedipus Rex and Euripedes’ Medea.
Ortygia Island is next on our itinerary; here we can see the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, the earliest example of monumental stone architecture, dating from 565 BC, and the oldest Doric temple in Sicily. There are seventeen narrowly spaced columns on the long sides and six on the fronts. Apollo was a major deity in Greek and Roman mythology; the divine patron of arts, leader of the Muses and God of music and poetry. In Byzantine times, the Temple became a Christian church; under Muslim rule—a Mosque—and a Norman Basilica during the Middle Ages.
After Ortygia, we board our modern-day chariot (the tour bus) and head east towards Taormina, Sicily’s most famous resort. Romantic and magnificent, Taormina is a feast for the senses. The scent of citrus from nearby groves of oranges, lemons and mandarins waft through the open windows of the bus and the sight of palm, evergreen, cactus and silvery-olive trees, every olive tree believed to have a character of its own, lend an air of tranquility to the surroundings.
As we drive, a brief history of the region is narrated. Taormina, overlooking the translucent blue of the Ionian Sea from the Strait of Messina and the coasts of Calabria, and carved out of Mt. Tauro, was settled when the Greek inhabitants of Naxos fled the tyranny of Dionysius, the Elder in 392 BC. Artists, painters, writers and photographers began coming to Taormina in the 18th century.
The Greco-Roman Amphitheater is Taormina’s most visited site. The theatre, carved out of limestone rock, lives on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Ionian Sea, 200 meters above sea level with breathtaking, panoramic views of Mt. Etna, the Bay of Naxos and the Calabrian coast. Greek theatres usually faced east for light but this theatre faces south. Built in the 3rd century BC, the teatro is divided into three sections. The orchestra—which means dancing—was and is used by dancers, musicians and the chorus. Behind the orchestra, the skene or scene represents the fa├žade of a palace, temple or house with three doors through which the actor makes his exit or entrance. On the sides of the stage are the actor’s changing rooms. In the 5th century, about 5,400 spectators were seated on the cavea or steps. One inscribed seat bears the name of Philistide, Hieron II’s wife.
In the 2nd century AD, the Romans remodeled and enlarged the theatre and built trenches to accommodate gladiatorial contests, naval battles and hunting spectacles; the archeological remains date from that period. Frieze, fresco paintings, and sculptures once adorned the section of the theatre facing Taormina. When the Romans were driven from the city, the theatre was abandoned; the niches that once held vases and ornate statues of politicians emptied and marble and columns disappeared—some to decorate other city buildings. Many of the churches and palaces, built in medieval times, recycled materials garnered from the site.
Celebrities have often retreated to Taormina for rest and relaxation. Theatrical personalities from Garbo to Capote to Tennessee Williams to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton have made themselves at home here. Woody Allen filmed “Mighty Aphrodite” in the theatre. The film parodied Greek tragedy, using a Greek chorus who mouthed informal jargon in between lyrical verse.
Hailed for its superb acoustics and fine performances, the theatre’s history of culture and myth still lives. Restored, it plays host to a festival of music, film and dance and The Europe Prize for Theatre, begun in 1986 by the Taormina Arts Committee, honors the world’s finest artists. The theatre’s construction, glorious views and magnificent past and future still dazzle after more than 2,000 years.



My cozy eBook mystery titled Scene Stealer is available wherever eBooks are sold. An audio version has been produced by

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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Time and Place

I have the travel bug. I've always love travel through the United States and Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand. I find it exciting to learn history, meet people, gaze at mountains and oceans and let my mind wander. It leads to non-fiction articles and stirs my imagination leading to fiction.

Articles have been written about the monasteries in Greece, the amphitheatres in Syracuse, and the Gelato in Rome, Italy, Shakespeare Globe in London, and Gillette's Castle in Connecticut. My eBook cozy, Scene Stealer, takes place, here at home, in New York, short stories on Manhattan's streets and one influenced by a garden that was in the back of my apartment building. A mystery takes place in an affluent community in New Jersey and another in an abandoned mill in Sorrento many centuries ago.

Does travel and a sense of time and place influence your writing?



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