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25 July 2011

Shakespeare and Saloons


Readers, are you a bit like me? Did you ever long to attend the premiere of a Shakespeare play? You know, the REAL premiere at the original Globe Theatre when the words were still wet from Shakespeare’s pen and nobody knew what would happen next? How would Macbeth and his wife end up – dead or alive? Would Prospero ever escape that island?

Or how about the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with the composer himself conducting it even though he was deaf? Or maybe the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring when an upper-crust 1910 Parisian audience rioted inside the theater over such a scandalous ballet?

Or how about coming to London for The Season and visiting Vauxhaull Gardens in person? Oh, to actually see the mixture of high and low society, hear the popular dance tunes – and see the formal gardens with their dark corners for illicit assignations?

Or perhaps you dream that a great author entrusted you to premiere his work – Shakespeare or Chekhov. I admit that the thought of being a member of Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church choir and waiting for J.S. Bach to deliver his latest – brand new! – composition to learn makes me tremble with anticipation and nerves.

My parents’ idea of a great vacation was always to explore history. Visit a nineteenth century opera house in a historic mining town? Great! Better yet if they could go onstage and explore how the footlights work. (The lesson I took away? Don’t get too close if they’re lit with candles and you’re wearing a long dress.)

We traipsed through a lot of saloons. Some of them were alive with laughter and music – and booze. Others were draped in cobwebs and ghosts. Surprisingly, there were more pianos in the saloons with cobwebs and ghosts, than the ones who still survived to sell drinks. Some of those old pianos still sounded pretty good, which was probably due to the low humidity and surprisingly light hand of time. We’d sing along with them and imagine ourselves back in the days when they were new and the saloon was full of gamblers, cowboys, and respectable folks who’d come to see the best show in town.

Time passed and I needed to write a historical novella. I wanted to write something very, very western this time. About gunfighters and poker players, with a gunfight on an isolated town’s main street. I knew I needed an unusual job for my hero, something where skill with guns with highly valuable but murder wasn’t required. Then somewhere in the back of my head I could hear a piano’s music filling an old saloon.

There were many different types of saloons. For example, some saloons only served beer. Interestingly, most towns distinguished between saloons and dance halls, gambling halls, hotels, houses of ill repute (which might overlap with hotels), and concert saloons. All of these served liquor.

Most of them were open twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. The décor featured candles, not gaslight, since candles were more fire-safe. The bars were a dream of carved wood and cut glass, while the bartenders were efficient, sober, and possessors of spectacular mustaches.

Respectable women, depending on the town and era, were only likely to enter a concert saloon, not one of the others. Many of the more notorious saloons, however, flaunted curtained booths on their upper-levels which could be rented for rendezvous between gentlemen and their paramours.

The top of the ladder was a concert saloon, with gambling tables and bar on the lower levels and tiered seats above. The saloons were usually so narrow that a trapeze act could pass close enough for the audience to touch.

Given the continuous hours, scheduling acts could be an issue but some shows were favorites. For example, a troupe played Gilbert & Sullivan operettas for decades in some of the toughest mining towns. Their Deadwood run celebrated far fewer deaths in gunfights than usual at that theater. Oliver Wilde’s American tour was very successful in the mining towns. Somewhere, somehow, somebody seems to have been reciting Poe’s The Raven, while contortionists and various musical acts fit somewhere on the bill of fare.

And, of course, proprietors welcomed preachers to give sermons about the wages of sin – although usually in a quiet afternoon hour.

I started to picture a tough, violent world that Justin Talbot, my Southern aristocrat of a gunfighter in "Talbot's Ace" for IMPROPER GENTLEMEN, can rule with an iron fist. Someplace where unusual ways of keeping his word would be understood and valued. Someplace infused by an old saloon piano’s achingly sweet song…

Have you ever wanted to go back in time to see or hear a performance? Authors, have you ever used that wish in a story?

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6 Comments:

Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Diane! I've always loved anything that feels like stepping back in history. As a child, I loved Williamsburg, Columbia (a restored Gold Rush town), the Renaissance and Dickens Faires. It would be amazing to see the premiere of a classic, not knowing how it would end. The denouement of "Vienna Waltz" takes place at an actual concert where Beethoven's 7th was played (along with "Wellington's Victory" and some other pieces) for only the second time. And in "The Mask of Night," my characters attend the London premiere of "La Cenerentola". (I saw "La Cenrentola" when I was in London researching the book and learned the London premiere took place in the time frame of my story). It was fun having characters react to the music in both "Cenerentola" and the 7th as something new.

3:20 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Tracy, La Cenerentola is one of my favorite operas to sing. It really is a lovely, fun piece!

I would love to have been there when Beethoven premiered his Ninth and had to be turned around to see the audience on their feet.

5:38 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Oh, Tracy, it would have been awesome to see (bounce? ) one's way through La Cenerentola for the first time, not knowing what would happen next. I love operas like that!

Louise - I didn't know that Beethoven needed to be turned around to see his standing ovation for the Ninth Symphony. Now I really wish I'd been there.

5:54 PM  
Blogger Susanna Fraser said...

I would SO jump at the opportunity to go back in time and see the premiere of one of Shakespeare's plays. Especially one of the lost ones!

9:12 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Susanna - oh, now you've got me definitely drooling!

5:42 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Yes, Diane, reports from more than one source say Beethoven stood on the box next to the conductor throughout the performance. When it was over he is said to have stood there, hands behind his back, head down looking at the orchestra. The conductor turned him around to see the audience on their feet in applause so thunderous it frightened horses outside on the street. What a great and terrible moment for a great composer.

7:40 PM  

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