June 23rd – London Assures

1970

As the story goes, Trevor Nunn spotted two young lovers among a cast of actors getting off a plane returning from Australia.

He liked the look of them so much that he cast them as the romantic leads in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s revival of Dion Boucicault’s “London Assurance” which opened today in 1970 at the Aldwych Theatre.

The show itself, directed by Ronald Eyre, was a huge success – transferring first to the New Theatre and then Broadway’s Palace Theatre.

And the young lovers?  Judi Dench and Michael Williams, who got married eight months later in February 1971.

Judi Dench & Michael Williams in the 1970 production of London Assurance

Judi Dench & Michael Williams in the 1970 production of London Assurance

May 30th – Murder in Deptford

1593

Tonight in a drinking house owned by a widow Eleanor Bull in Deptford , three miles from London, four men are spending the evening.

A witness would later testify that an argument broke out between two of the men over payment of the bill. One man grabbed a dagger and attacked the other giving him two head wounds. In retaliation the injured man stabbed the other straight through the right eye killing him instantly.

When the authorities arrived, the dead man was identified as the famous actor and playwright Christopher Marlowe.

An anonymous portrait in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, believed to show Christopher Marlowe

An anonymous portrait in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, believed to show Christopher Marlowe

Marlowe was hugely admired by his colleagues and critics alike, penning such long-standing works as Dr Faustus and The Jew of Malta, and was a contemporary and friend of Shakespeare.

Conspiracy theories still abound about his death, including that it might have been over a woman. It seems highly likely that Marlowe had been recruited by Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham to join his immense and complex network bent on protecting the Queen and her church from heresy and attack.

Marlowe was known to have a volatile temper and many of his escapades, including the production of counterfeit coins, had been brushed under the carpet or somehow “absolved” by the government.

A few weeks before his death he had even been arrested himself for possessing a heretical tract however he was murdered before any action was taken against him.

His body was buried in an unmarked grave in the church of St Nicholas in Deptford. In 2002 the Marlowe Society gifted a memorial window to be placed in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

 

May 19th – All the Kings Men

1603

Today a royal patent was issued by James I of England naming his official licenced troupe of actors, The Kings Men.

The company included such popular actors as “Richard Burbage, William Shakespeare, Augustine Phillips, John Heminges, Henry Condell, William Sly, Robert Armin, Richard Cowley… and the rest of their associates”.

The nine honoured names became Grooms of the Chambers and were presented with four and a half yards of red cloth each to wear for the Coronation procession the following year.

globe-theatre-london-mapAll players had to be licenced following a proclamation from Elizabeth I in 1559 and the groups of informal travelling players were replaced by official touring companies.

Shakespeare belonged to one or other of these troupes through most of his career, acting and writing at the Globe and the Rose theatres.

The Kings Men were a big hit working gruelling schedules in their first two seasons after which they had to take on more actors.

In 1642 during the Civil War, all the play houses were closed and the Kings Men disbanded. An attempt was made to reform after the Restoration but times had changed. Women were on the stage, open air theatres were out of fashion and the old ways and old actors were no longer needed.

May 15th – The New Covent Garden Opens

1858

The new building which still forms the nucleus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, but at the time was still the Covent Garden Theatre, reopened after being destroyed by fire two years earlier.

The first performance on May 15th was Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots which was an extremely popular work at the time and was performed to an overflowing house, reportedly with at least 300 more patrons than the seating could hold.

E M Barry's 1858 facade as it looks today

E M Barry’s 1858 facade as it looks today

The new theatre was said to be the same size as La Scala in Milan which was at the time the largest theatre in Europe. Designed by architect E. M. Barry, the grand new building sat next to the Floral Hall, and faced onto Bow Street and Hart Street. The costs went over budget, coming in at £70,000 which had been raised by loans from the great and good including the Duke of Bedford and even Barry himself.

Until the 1840s, Her Majestys Theatre in the Haymarket had been the centre of ballet and opera but after some management disputes, the conductor and his company transferred their allegiance to Covent Garden. In 1858, the Royal English Opera Company also transferred from Drury Lane to Covent Garden and in 1892 the theatre official became the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

March 17th – Dear Liar

1960

Opening today in New York at the Billy Rose Theatre is “Dear Liar” – a play based on the fiercely passionate, yet unconsummated, relationship between Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw and English stage actress Mrs Patricia Campbell.

Mrs Patricia Campbell as Eliza Doolittle

Mrs Patricia Campbell as Eliza Doolittle

Written by Jerome Kilty and starring Brian Aherne and Katharine Cornell, the play is based on Shaw and Campbell’s prolific letter writing.

Despite having already been his muse in several instances, the pair did not meet until 1897 and in 1912, while negotiations were underway for her to star as Eliza Doolittle in “Pygmalion” (a role he had written especially for her despite her age of 49 when it debuted), Shaw developed an intense infatuation which resulted in a love affair of great passion.

When she ended things in shortly before rehearsals for “Pygmalion” commenced, they remained friends however Shaw forbade an impoverished Campbell in later years from selling or publishing any of their letters, except heavily edited, for fear of upsetting his wife.

“Dear Liar” had a successful run in New York and has been revived many times.

“I want my dark lady. I want my angel. I want my tempter. I want my Freia with her apples. I want the lighter of my seven lamps of beauty, honour, laughter, music, love, life and immortality. I want my inspiration, my folly, my happiness, my divinity, my madness, my selfishness, my final sanity and sanctification, my transfiguration, my purification, my light across the sea, my palm across the desert, my garden of lovely flowers, my million nameless joys, my day’s wage, my night’s dream, my darling and my star.” – George Bernard Shaw in a letter to Campbell, publ. in “George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century” by Archibald Henderson

May 1st – Junius Brutus Booth

1796

Born today in St Pancras, London is Junius Brutus Booth.

If the name sounds oddly familiar, it could be because he became a popular actor at Drury Lane before emigrating to America in 1821 with a flower girl (abandoning his young wife and son). In America he was even more successful, compared favourably with Edmund Kean, and remained at the top of his profession for over thirty years.

Junius Brutus Booth

Junius Brutus Booth

It could also be because he had a turbulent personality, depending increasingly on alcohol and becoming notoriously unpredictable, often tumbling over the line into madness. He wrote a letter threatening to assassinate President Jackson, and surely enough his first marriage caught up with him towards the end of his life.

His name might be familiar because he was named after Marcus Junius Brutus, one of the lead assassins in “Julius Caesar”.

But it’s probably because he was the father of John Wilkes Booth, the man who (continuing his father’s legacy) assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, Washington DC.

March 23rd – Wyndham

1837

Charles Wyndham aged 22 as US Army Surgeon

Charles Wyndham aged 22 as US Army Surgeon

Today, born to Liverpool doctor Robert James Culverwell, a son Charles.

Despite being educated for a medical career, young Charles was to ultimately change his surname to Wyndham and become one of the best known actor-managers in British theatre history.

Lured to the stage by performing in local amateur dramatics, he made his professional debut alongside Ellen Terry in 1862. After moving to America he struggled to find work and returned to medicine. With America in the throes of the Civil War, surgeons were heavily in demand and he served in several of the major battles.

The stage however was too strong a draw and he returned to England to develop a solid career in the popular comedies and melodramas of the mid-late 19th century. He was best known for his roles as Charles Surface in Sheridan’s “School for Scandal” and in James Albery’s “Pink Dominoes” .

In 1876 he took over the Criterion Theatre to much success and in 1899 built his own, the Wyndham’s Theatre. In 1903 his New Theatre completed the trio.

In 1916 after the death of his first wife he married his leading lady and business partner of 30 years, Mary Moore, and is buried with them both in Hampstead Cemetery.

Wyndham's Theatre

Wyndham’s Theatre