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20 April 2011

When Did You Become a History Hoyden?








I was thinking last Sunday as I was getting ready to watch the new Upstairs Downstairs series on Masterpiece (who else remembers when it was called Masterpiece Theatre?) on PBS that the original series from the 1970s as well as other Masterpiece Theatre series such as Poldark and The Pallisers, probably mark that point when I well and truly fell madly in love with period drama, (not to mention men in poufy shirts, buff-colored breeches and shiny boots, with swords at their hips, and the full-skirted and full-bosomed women who loved them).



The Three Musketeers















I was also mad about the Victorian and Edwardian eras.



A Glorious Day, a musical adaptation of GB Shaw's Getting Married









And from earliest childhood I drew pictures of princesses with flowing tresses and flowing gowns. So I caught the royalty bug early on, too.

Guinevere and Lancelot in King Arthur


Some years ago in NYC, before I started writing, I founded a nonprofit professional theatre company dedicated to performing "neglected classics of the 19th c. English stage." We mixed it up a bit with plays from other centuries, and not-so-neglected classics as well, but I think the work I did with Survivor Productions fulfilled the history hoyden in me. Not only was I the producing artistic director, but I performed in most of the shows -- and I insisted on costuming them. I have never heard so many grown women whine than when I insisted that they wear corsets and petticoats, not just in performance but in rehearsal, because it changes everything about your deportment.



The Taming of the Shrew

This post is filled with photos from shows I produced and performed in with Survivor. I look at them now and clearly see the trajectory toward becoming a historical novelist.



James R. Bianchi as King Arthur



This post is also a tribute to a dear friend and one of my favorite costars, James R. Bianchi, who passed away suddenly last week at the age of 61. Jim played King Arthur to my Guinevere (in an 1895 iambic pentameter version of the story with underscoring by Sir Arthur Sullivan; we got the score from the Morgan Library); we were the first professional performers to play it in New York since it was first performed in the city by the original cast -- starring Henry Irving and Ellen Terry in January 1896! A few months after we did the show I brought Jim down to The Players club on Gramercy Park and showed him around the famous theatrical social club founded by American theatre luminary Edwin Booth. [In the interest of full disclosure, fellow hoydens Lauren and Isobel helped me murder a bottle or two of Prosecco at The Players one night.]


The Players club is like a living museum of American theatre history and as Jim and I were looking at some of the memorabilia we noticed a silver urn inscribed to The Players from Henry Irving in January 1896. They must have honored him when he was in NYC performing King Arthur. Unfortunately, they would not have feted his costar, Miss Terry, as the club was all male at the time and admitted women into the club house only on the rarest of occasions. In fact it took a petition just to have an honorary evening for Sarah Bernhardt!



Jim also played Reverend Morell to my Candida (Shaw's Candida),


and Chasuble to my Cecily (Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest).






He was a gentle spirit and the most generous of actors. He had all the talent in the world to be a star of the first magnitude but lacked the requisite steeliness that it all-too-often takes to make it to the top. But he was a success on his own terms and for that he was deeply admired and loved.

All of these shows, and many more, (I produced between 30 and 40 productions in about 8 seasons), not only fed my passion for acting, but my love of the past and my desire to recreate those eras and share those creations with the public. Sometimes I adapted novels (like Ivanhoe and The Prisoner of Zenda), taking them from the page to the stage. But not until now did I begin to realize how much my artistic career was shaped by going in the other direction as well -- from the stage to the page.

So, readers and authors, what was the spark for you? How did you become a history hoyden/geek/buff/aficionado?


10 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I was born a lover of history. As you know, I share my birthday with Marie Antoinette (and Warren G. Harding, one of the worst Presidents in US History), so how could I not be? From the moment that I first read Little House on the Prairie as a child, I've been enthralled by history. I should to read history books for fun as a child, so when I became an actress it was only natural that I perform the plays of dead white playwrights who don't get funding! It's partly why I'm such an ardent Anglophile, I just know that I've lived in England during the late Victorian period. I studied acting in England, seeing as many plays at the RSC and the National as possible. I too became enthralled with period drama, not with Masterpiece Theater, but all the mini-series like Captains and the Kings, East of Eden and movies like GTWT and Wuthering Heights. I didn't discover Masterpiece Theatre until I Claudius.

Sorry to hear about Jim Bianchi, he was such a sweet man, very quiet but with a slighly devilish glint in his eye.

5:54 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

What an awesome tribute.

I'd have to say I grew up as a hoyden, LOL! Costume dramas and historical fiction dominated my childhood. Not mention all those historical re-enactments and fancy dress parties.

7:40 AM  
Blogger Jane O said...

Does anyone else remember The Little Girl of Old New York/ Virginia/Connecticut/etc. series? They were for elementary grades, and I adored them. History adventures for the little ones.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Elizabeth and Isobel, I think it's so intriguing how what we've always loved has shaped who we became and what still drives our passions. When it comes to costume dramas and dressing up, as a girl I always put on my mother's old petticoats from the 1950s and danced around the living room to show tunes or classical music (for the former, I was re-enacting the leading lady's role; for the latter I was imagining myself choreographing a ballet).

Jane, I am not familiar with that series. Tell us more!

2:16 PM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

Two books I read as a preteen: A Wolf by the Ears by Ann Rinaldi and The Ramsay Scallop by Frances Temple. They seriously interrupted my love for the Sweet Valley series and the Baby-Sitters Club, but as the pickings for YA historicals were slim when I was growing up, I lost sight of my love for history. It returned full-force when I discovered Edith Wharton in high school, and ever since then, history has been a major part of my life and interests.

3:23 PM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

I forgot to add that the books that accompanied the American Girl dolls and a little book on Western outlaws and sheriffs (was raised in Kansas for a bit), also shaped my interest in history.

3:26 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

For me it was the movies. As a kid in Brooklyn in the 50s, I went to screaming, popcorn-throwing Tarzan/HouseOfWax Saturday cartoon extravaganzas with the rest of the kids. But 2 coming attractions absolutely fascinated me, and when I was about 7 or 8, I saved my allowance for 2 midweek shows, BEAU BRUMMELL, with Stewart Granger, and CALAMITY JANE, with Doris Day. Which pretty much set my obsessions going...

4:53 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I mostly skipped over YA as a kid. I went from reading Rosemary Sutcliff's historical YA and Robert Heinlein’s science fiction YA when I was 7-8 straight into adult historical fiction and science fiction. The only YA book I remember reading after that was THE GROUNDING OF GROUP 6, which a friend gave me in Junior High.

6:45 AM  
Blogger Leslie said...

I don't remember YA as a genre per se, when I was a kid, unless we're referring to books like "Johnny Tremaine," which I would consider YA, but it's really a kids classic. I cut my costume drama literary teeth on books like "Little Women" and "Jane Eyre" or fantasies like "The Castle of Llyr" series. Anyone remember that last series?

For the other costume mavens out there (this means you, Isobel) and whoever else wants to weigh in... how old would you say you were when you started noticing that costumes in movies were inaccurate?

4:24 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Love the post, Leslie, and love the pictures. Wish I could have seen those productions! For me it was seeing Elizabeth R with Glenda Jackson and the Garson/Olivier Pride and Prejudice. Both of which must have been when I was six, because I went to Britain with my parents when I was not quite seven, and I'd already seen both. The trip to England and Scotland (seeing a lot of real life locations from Elizabeth R and P&P) cemented my love of history, particularly British history.

11:49 PM  

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