VOLUME ONE: A HISTORY OF THE STROLLING PLAYER
Samples from Chapter Two: Shanks’s Pony
Easy, that’s what strollin’ was when Bud Flanagan, leader of “The Crazy Gang”, sang of it at the London Palladium.
Strollin’, just strollin’,
In the cool of the evening air.
I don’t envy the rich in their automobiles,
For a motor car is phoney –
I’d rather have Shanks’ pony,
When I’m strollin’, just strollin’ …
Slow tempo, feet hardly touching the ground, more like floating than walking. I was there. I can’t remember how old I was, maybe eight, but anyway it was my birthday treat to be taken backstage before the show. Venturing into a dressing room I was introduced to Flanagan, whose partner Chesney Allen had long since retired: Bud was now a solo act, sandwiched between the duos of Nervo and Knox and Naughton and Gold, the five of them together making up ‘The Crazy Gang’. They seemed to me as improbably old as the chorus girls’ legs were long. Apparently I’d written to them, telling them they were my comedic heroes, though my mother had omitted to inform me of this, and I didn’t have a clue who they were. Fortunately my blushes were misconstrued as backstage fright, and they fooled around for my benefit (and flirted with my mother) until “Beginners” were called and we were ushered through the pass door into front row seats.
But Flanagan was using a soft-shoe shuffle to conceal holes in his soles. Hard, that’s what strolling is, as he well knew having once travelled by number 11 bus from London to Glasgow without a bean in his pocket in search of employment. Maybe that’s why he didn’t pronounce the “g”. In 1812 Edmund Kean, also before he became famous, found himself on his uppers in Exeter and obliged to walk to Dorchester for his next engagement. During that ‘stroll’ his eldest son, Howard, died from exhaustion. […]
When roads were merely track ways, often following prehistoric sacred routes, the places where they met and crossed developed commercial importance, and pilgrims gradually gave way to traders. Such trading then developed into a secular calendar rite, the fair, which in turn became surrounded by ritual entertainments. Today we think of fairgrounds merely as places of entertainment, but originally they were of fundamental commercial importance, and the side-shows and booths would only come into their own in the last couple of days when the important transactions – the hiring of hands or the sale of cloth or horses, etc., had taken place. The annual round of such trading fairs provided a basic circuit for many strolling troupes, as well as other itinerants such as chapmen and peddlers (not to mention pickpockets and con-men).
Top notch troupes did not stroll, however, but travelled in hired coaches. In January 1577, for example, the famed commedia dell’arte company, the Gelosi, are said to have crossed the Alps in thirteen golden carriages on their way to perform before Henri III of France. In England, any conveyance there might be was not for the actors. The young John Bernard was one such:
At Chew, when our short lived season of four weeks concluded, my peregrinations commenced. Kainesome was the next town: scenery, wardrobe, and manager to proceed thither by waggon; company, conformably to the model of our great archetype, Thespis1, on foot.
Sometimes there might be but one in the company, walking a solo stony path to stardom – or oblivion. John Edwin2, on deciding to join the sons of Roscius, strolled forth from Manchester with his belongings tied in a handkerchief to a stick over his shoulder in Dick Whittington fashion and
… when he had journeyed peaceably, if not joyously, about twenty miles, in the hope of getting an engagement as an actor, he discovered that he had made a small mistake, which had nearly proved ruinous, being so restricted in point of cash. This error originated in his forgetting the name of the town where the company of comedians were; and an evil star governing the hour, the unlucky infant of Momus went to NORTHWICH instead of Nantwich, both being equally distant from Manchester, though they were not equally welcome to his expectations. This disappointment, added to his weak state of body, disheartened Edwin very much; however he crossed a forest in the vicinity the next day, and got to Chester; and in a day or two afterwards he got to Wrexham, in Wales. At this place he heard Mr. Heaton’s company were performing at Oswestry.
When he reached Oswestry the troupe had already left for Bewdley in Worcestershire. With great difficulty he reached Shrewsbury and thence on to Bridgnorth, where ‘he was left without a penny in his purse.’ After rambling many miles, ‘frequently up to the knees in snow, with no other defence for his legs but a pair of white silk stockings, darned three inches above the shoe’, he eventually ‘saw with inconceivable delight the spires of Bewdley rising above the circumvolving smoke’.
Edwin continued for three weeks at Bewdley, without being able to put a single shilling in his pocket. ‘The auditors in the barn became every evening less in point of numbers, the state of the company’s treasury was truly lamentable, the countenance of every performer was lengthened an inch by desperation’.
On happier note, William Hazlitt, remembered
…one who overtook us loitering by “Severn’s sedgy side,” on a fine May morning, with a score of playbills streaming from his pockets, for the use of the neighbouring villages, and a music score in his hand, which he sang blithe and clear, advancing with light steps and a loud voice. With a sprightly bon jour he passed on, carolling to the echo of the babbling stream, brisk as a bird, as an arrow from a twanging bow, heartwhole, and with a shining face that shone back the sun’s bright rays. […]
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, managers often had to send established actors their travelling expenses as an advance against their putative income. Charlotte Charke recalls asking the manager Richard Elrington for three guineas to pay for her journey from Corsham in Wiltshire to Tiverton in Devon to make up his company, and being sent two and a half guineas by horseback messenger to cover her coaching costs only. On another occasion, though, she had to get from Holborn in London to Dartford, about fifteen miles, for an engagement and
… set out about three o’clock in the afternoon on foot, in a dreadful shower of rain, and reached the town by eight in the evening. I played that night, for it is losing their charter to begin before nine or ten, but my pumps being thin and the rain heavy, I was next day turned off with half-a-crown as rendered incapable. An excellent demonstration of the humanity of those low-lived wretches, who have no further regard to the persons they employ but while they are immediately serving them, and look upon players like packhorses, though they live by them.
And at another time she journeyed for three days from Devizes to Romsey with but four shillings to her name, ‘through intricate roads and terrible showers of rain’ mostly on foot, though she did get a lift in a wagon for the last five miles, which cost her her last three half pence ‘to the great relief of our overtired legs’. Male actors receiving advances against their ‘share’ often hired horses. With the advent of the railways, however, even the poorest individual travelling player could usually muster third-class rail fare. Sore feet were replaced by sore posteriors. […]
We have already encountered Hazlitt’s merry stroller distributing playbills around the surrounding villages of the town where the performances are to take place. The manager would often take it upon himself to go cold-calling in the burg itself:
It is no insignificant thing in one’s life that first time that odd-looking thing a playbill, is left at our door in a little market town in the country (say Wem in Shropshire). The manager, somewhat fatter and more erect “as manager beseems,” than the rest of his company, with more of the man of business, and less of the air of coxcomb, in his strut and manner, knocks at the door with the end of a walking cane (his badge of office!), and a bundle of papers under his arm; presents one of them, printed in large capitals, with a respectful bow and a familiar shrug, hopes to give satisfaction in the town; hints at the liberal encouragement they received at the last place they stopped at; had every possible facility afforded by the magistrates, supped one evening with the Rev. Mr. Jenkins…
Why is Mr. Manager so anxious to establish his respectability before us? The next chapter will reveal all.
1Greek actor of the 6th century B.C. said by Aristotle to have been the first to portray characters on stage. He toured his effects, including masks, by a horse and cart in which he may have ridden rather than strolling.
2 1749-90. Later a highly successful comic actor at the Haymarket.
31686-1755. French Rococo painter, engraver, and tapestry designer.
41695-1736. French rococo painter, inspired and, briefly, taught by Jean Watteau.
5 By the end of the nineteenth century the term parade in France no longer referred to the outdoor performance of a come-on for a tenting show, but to short sketches or farces, the equivalent, in fact of the English drolls – see Chapter Six, The Humour of John Swabber.
VOLUME TWO: A FAIR EXCHANGE
Medium Fair Theatre Company was founded in 1972 by myself and a group of graduates from the drama course at Exeter University. Our ambition was to bring the medium of live performance to people in remote or socially excluded areas, who would not otherwise have access to it, with the same sense of occasional excitement as the visit of the fair. We toured all over the county of Devon, and sometimes into Cornwall and Somerset, with an extensive repertoire designed to contain ‘something for everyone’. We rarely performed in theatres, but often (as many as 250 times a year) in village halls, on village greens and other outdoor spaces, in schools, youth clubs, pubs, bandstands, retirement homes, handicapped centres and even made regular visits to a mental institution. It would be fair to say that our remit was a social, but not a Socialist one, and for it we were under-funded by the Regional Arts Association and the relevant County and District Councils. When Margaret Thatcher came to power, her government immediately (1980) kicked away the financial prop that we and other such small companies had been relying on – the top up grant from the Arts Council of Great Britain (as it then was), given at the end of the financial year to work of proven excellence and equally obvious financial deficit. The only solution was to go into liquidation, whilst semi-surreptitiously carrying on with a less ambitious enterprise, which we named Fair Exchange. I mention this not because I wish to castigate Tory inability to distinguish between caps and lower case (part of the monetarist credo was that they are both baptised in the same font), but in order to introduce the fact that our continued espousing of the cabotin tradition consequently became at least as pragmatic as it had previously been philosophical. We did, incidentally, always avoid making political statements, since we considered that such theatrical proselytising divides audiences rather than unites them (unless one is preaching to the converted, that is). Extreme left and extreme right are both forms of prejudice and by accommodating both, by seeing them as opposite ends of the same stick, our community actors’ role was to assimilate and reconcile.
So, instead of Medium Fair’s really quite prestigious summer seaside circuit round such resorts as Lyme Regis, Seaton, Exmouth, Dawlish and Torquay, (using a minibus and a three-ton truck, which turned into a mobile dressing-room when it had disgorged the stage and scenery), the Fair Exchange players, like their impoverished predecessors, took to the road on foot, strolling for four summers, not in Devon but in Northamptonshire. The change of county was not on account of the fact that Northampton is the centre of the English shoemaking industry, but because Northamptonshire is flat, whereas the word ‘Devon’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon root meaning ‘deep and secret valleys’; also in Northants it is never far to the next village, whereas in Devon they can be few and far between.
Walter Wilkinson’s little book The Peepshow (a diary of his wanderings with a glove puppet booth through Gloucestershire, Devon and Somerset in 1929) was one of our original inspirations. He found the task of getting his ‘Old Encumbrance’ – as he called his cart – up some Devon hills almost too much for him:
To the holiday-maker walking from hotel to hotel, hills may be picturesque and add piquancy to his travels, but as I zigzagged up Dean Steep with frequent halts I found myself engaged in a grim struggle with this beautiful Nature. She was offering a weighty resistance to the progress of The Peep Show. Every yard was a stiff tug against her powers, and it was not until I stood in triumph on the summit of Dean Steep, eighteen hundred feet above sea-level, that I was at liberty to admire and worship her.
Our purpose in Northamptonshire was to embody the idea that it is not the artefact in itself which is important in such theatre but the continuum of strolling, arriving, putting up for the night, parading, performing, interacting after the performance and, finally, leaving and strolling on again. That process created a sense of make-believe where past could inter-penetrate with present and performers interact with public. Everyone could play, not just the players, because time was made liminal. Synthetic modern media were left blinking in empty front rooms, while a live catalysis took place outside between our volatile performers and the, initially stable, elements – the spectators. From a starting point in Stony Stratford (a small coaching town in the process of being swallowed up by the new city of Milton Keynes) to final performance in the village of Clipston, it was as if we had never been away: everyone we met seemed to pride themselves on knowing, for better or worse, what a strolling player was.
Indeed we sometimes discovered that we were treading along old paths; in Silverstone, for example, not far from the Formula One racetrack, we played in the yard of a former inn called The Compasses – now a private house. Old inhabitants recalled a tenting company using it in the early 1900s: the Scottish Play was particularly remembered. The yard was cobbled and the owner was concerned that she didn’t have enough chairs – and, hey presto!, straw bales accordingly arrived in a trailer, courtesy of a farmer friend.
The Northants Development Commission was most supportive of the strolls, and their officers actually understood the principles of rural cultural animation; financial support from East Midlands Arts was no bad thing, either. However, after four summers, Fair Exchange were replaced by a scratch troupe from a local building-based Repertory Company, who turned up in minibus, did their show then went home again, never to return. The distinction between strolling and touring had, to our chagrin, been misunderstood after all. One of the purposes of this little book is to put the record, if not straight, at least down – as an admittedly winding track along which others might choose to wander.
Rolling the end credits of the four Fair Exchange strolls reveals the following:
1983 The Humour of John Swabber (Anon.) + The Ninnies (for primary schools)
John Swabber – Chris Brown; Parnel – Sarah Wilson; The Barber – Tony Humphreys; Francisco – John Rudlin; Trainee – Marian Gray.
1984 Here We Are Again (Devised by the company) + A Day at the Seaside (for primary schools)
The Pierrots: Rod Burnett; Shirley Pegner; Neil Canham; Tony Humphreys. Directed by John Rudlin. Costumes by Maria. Set by Diana Howse. Singing coach – Tony Yates. Choreographer – Joan Baker. Administration – Becky Penze, Helen Canham.
1985 A Feast of Fools (Devised by the company)
Lord of Misrule – Ciaran McIntyre; Patch – Colin Tarrant; Prince – Simon Crane; Herald – Anthony Richards; Grim Reaper – Tony Humphreys. Directed by John Rudlin assisted by Nick Sales and Tony Humphreys; Voice coach – Steven Langridge; Costumes by Jane Plaistow. Administrator – Tony Humphreys.
1986 Death to Tragedy, or The Strollers’ Revenge
Meretrics – Anthony Richards; Leonadics – Ciaran MacIntyre/John Rudlin; Nutapolitics – Simon Crane; Bel Imperial – Becca Johns; Costumes by Jane Price; Set by Debbie Mitchel; Devil mask by Ollie Double; Circle dance instructor – Fiona Parr; Voice coach – Dorinda Hulton. Text by Simon Crane and John Rudlin. Directed by John Rudlin. (Stroll extended for the first time into Huntingdonshire.)