Friday, 13 April 2018

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 7 - "The Marlowe Papers," by Ros Barber

It has sometimes been said that England, in contrast to Italy, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, never really had a "Renaissance." To the extent that this is true at all (questionable in itself), it applies only to the visual arts, and most particularly not to literature, drama, or philosophy. In fact, it can be argued that the institution of the commercial theatre, which, in the Sixteenth and early Seventeenth Centuries, was almost uniquely English, and, more specifically, London-based, brought some of the key themes of the Renaissance to a far wider audience than had been the case in most of the countries of continental Europe. If it is true that there was never an English Leonardo or Michelangelo, then it is equally true that Italy (at least, not in this time period) never produced an equivalent to Christopher Marlowe or William Shakespeare.

Portrait, believed to be of Christopher Marlowe, Corpus Christi College Cambridge (image is in the Public Domain).

Even in terms of the visual arts, the aesthetics of the European Renaissance were brought to London by continental artists, such as the Florentine sculptor, Pietro Torrigiano, and the German painter, Hans Holbein. Printed texts circulated widely, if not always freely, and these included original works in Italian, French, and German; as well as the Latin classics; and Latin translations of ancient Greek texts (in England, as elsewhere in Europe, many more people could read Latin than Greek). With no effective copyright laws in operation, anyone was free to translate these works into English, and Saint Paul's Churchyard was the place where most London booksellers kept their stalls. It was here that the dramatists of the day found much of the inspiration for their stories.

London's first commercial theatre was established by James Burbage in Shoreditch in 1576, and, in the decades that followed, many more were established around the outskirts of The City, including The Globe, The Rose, and The Swan, on Southwark's Bankside.

James Burbage's Theatre in Shoreditch (image is in the Public Domain).

London's early play-houses (image is in the Public Domain).

Excavation of The Rose Theatre, Southwark, where many of Marlowe's plays were performed. 

Despite his humble background (his father was a shoemaker in Canterbury), the poet and dramatist, Christopher Marlowe, had taken a degree at Cambridge, and, unlike his broad contemporaries, William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, was probably literate in Greek, as well as Latin (Greek plays were performed in the original in Cambridge colleges, and Marlowe may well have acted in these). His apparently short life (1564-93) is shrouded in mysteries: including his possible involvement in espionage; and the circumstances of his violent death.

Ros Barber's The Marlowe Papers is a novel in verse, exploring the possibility that his life did not end with a "great reckoning in a little room," in Deptford in 1593, but that his death was, rather, staged, and that he subsequently escaped into exile on the continent (this suggestion has been made many times over the years, and there are documented examples of fugitives escaping under similar circumstances). As such, the novel not only takes the reader into the heart of London's first theatre-land; and into the dangerous world of late Tudor England, with all of its religious and political tensions; but also into the soul of a troubled man, facing permanent separation from the world that he loves, and even the loss of his identity itself. 

"Church-dead. And not a headstone in my name.
no brassy plaque, no monument, no tomb,
no whittled initials on a makeshift cross,
no pile of stones upon a mountain top.
The plague is the excuse; the age's curse
that swells to life as spring gives way to summer,
to sun, unconscious kisser of a warmth
that wakens canker as it wakens bloom.

Now fear infects the wind, and every breath
that neighbour breathes on neighbour in the street
brings death so close you smell it on the stairs.
Rats multiply, as God would have them do.
And fear infects like mould; like fungus, spreads -
Folks catch it from the chopped-off ears and thumbs,
the burning heretics and eyeless heads
that slow-revolve the poles on London Bridge ... "

" ... This banished man is writing you a poem,
the only code I know that tells the truth,
though truth was both my glory, and my ruin,
the laurel, and the handcuff, of my youth.

London seduced me. Beckoned me her way
and spread herself beneath me, for a play."

Edward Alleyn was one of the greatest actors on the London stage, and made many of Marlowe's theatrical roles his own (c 1626, image is in the Public Domain).

"'They've never seen the like before.' Applause
a clapping swell like starlings after grain
and Edward Alleyn's striding off the stage
dressed as the thunderous Tamburlaine. 'Some beer!'
He claps me on the back. 'Look what you've made.
It seems they love a monster. As do I.'"

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

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