Category Archives: Charles Dickens

Julius Caesar and me

JULIUS CAESAR AND ME

In my last blog post (“Marlon, Tony, and Cyd,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2022/10/26/marlon-tony-and-cyd/), I noted Marlon Brando’s performance in the 1954 film version of Shakepeare’s Julius Caesar, a film that had a tremendous impact on a very young version of me.  As I recall, I saw it with classmates at my junior high school, which declared a special day at the movies for some reason.  I always wanted to see it performed live.

Years later, that finally happened.

In May 1972, my husband Marv and I took our long-delayed honeymoon. We’d married one year earlier in LA, but we weren’t able to take off more than a weekend (spent in beautiful Santa Barbara) until we arrived in Ann Arbor in the fall of 1971.  We found life in AA somewhat restricting, and we began to ponder trips outside of Michigan and my hometown of Chicago. 

Our first foray took us to the tropical paradise of Nassau on a bargain charter trip from the U. of M. that we thoroughly relished.  But we hungered for more.  We soon aimed at the fabled cities of London, Paris, Florence, and Rome, and decided to visit them in our upcoming three-week vacation/honeymoon.

We landed in our first city, London, in early May.  We reveled in the British history and literature that leaped out at us:  Touring Charles Dickens’s home; making the essential trip to the Tower of London; viewing the paintings at the National Gallery…. 

We were also theater buffs, and we made sure to get tickets for plays on the London stage.  I remember our first night in London.  Even though we sat in the first row of the theater where Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing appeared, Marv had such vicious jet lag that he fell asleep and missed The Whole Thing. We loved the musical version of Canterbury Tales (which never seemed to be offered in any US city we ever lived in) and we roared at Robert Morley’s antics in his hilarious comedy in the West End. 

But one thing was missing.  We weren’t able to get tickets at any theater offering the plays of William Shakespeare. Whatever may have been playing was sold out or otherwise unavailable.

We racked our brains trying to solve this problem.  Suddenly an idea popped into mine.  We’d briefly shopped in the famed Harrod’s department store, mostly to see the place, and I thought I’d seen an advert for its travel service.  So we made our way back to Harrod’s and, sure enough, we discovered that its travel service offered a bus tour that encompassed an overnight stay in Stratford-upon-Avon and included two tickets to the Shakespeare play being performed on the date we’d arrive.  Voila! 

We immediately signed up for the tour, which also would make brief stops in a few other places:  Oxford, Blenheim Palace, and a town called Leamington Spa.  The only hitch was that we had to cancel the rest of our stay in our Sloane Square hotel and scramble to find another spot when we returned to London.  But Shakespeare was worth it.

Early the next morning we took off on our bus tour.  We discovered that our tour included theater tickets for a performance of Julius CaesarDestiny?

Soon we arrived at our first stop:  Oxford and its world-recognized university.  After viewing the university from our bus, we briefly walked around the campus.  I recall strolling around Christ Church College and noting its elegant architecture. 

Whenever I watch “Inspector Morse” on PBS, the crime drama starring John Thaw as Oxford police detective Morse, I’m always reminded of our brief stop at Oxford. The prizewinning series was produced from 1987 to 2000 and occasionally still pops up on PBS-TV channels.  The setting for each episode is invariably Oxford and nearby locations. 

Christ Church College has even more recently loomed into public view. Decades after our visit, Christ Church College has become famous because a number of campus locations were used as settings in the Harry Potter films.

Next we headed for our most desired stop:  Stratford-upon-Avon.  We found ourselves booked at the city’s White Swan Inn.  This historic inn, first used as an inn as far back as 1560, struck us immediately as a classic example of Tudor architecture, with a half-timbered exterior typical of that era.  When we checked in, we discovered that its framework of wooden beams extended into our bedroom, creating a memorable place to lay our heads during our stay in Stratford.

At the hotel’s restaurant, we shared dinner with our fellow tour-mates.  One other American couple shared our last name, and we chatted happily with them and others.  But we hardly noticed the food because we were eagerly anticipating our evening at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, an eight-minute walk away.

Excitedly, we arrived at the theater and took our seats, located not far behind the first row.  The other Alexanders were seated a couple of rows behind us.  The program listed the cast and included only one semi-familiar name.  Corin Redgrave, presumably the son of notable British actor Michael Redgrave (and notable British actress Rachel Kempson) and brother of Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, would play the part of Octavius Caesar.

The play began!  Marv and I knew the plot well, having seen the 1954 film more than once.  We certainly had no problem watching the violent murder of Julius Caesar by Brutus and the others.  But during that scene, we could hear cries of anguish coming from the other Alexanders.  At intermission, they exited, loudly declaring how unhappy they were.

I was astonished by their reaction to a brilliant performance of one of Shakespeare’s classic plays.  What exactly did they expect?  Much of Shakespeare is loaded with acts of violence and death.  Were they expecting one of the comedies?  If so, I was torn between feeling sorry for them and laughing at their foolishness. They’d probably been excited about seeing Shakespeare in Stratford, and they’d shelled out some of their pricey tourist budget to be there.  But they were apparently not very knowledgeable about the Bard or they’d have had an inkling of what could be on the stage that night.

I lost further respect for our fellow theater-goers when I overheard a woman (with a pronounced British accent) mutter, “Corin Redgrave.  Isn’t she Vanessa’s sister?”  Marv and I were both aware of Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, two women who’d already played prominent film roles.  So even though we weren’t entirely sure who Corin Redgrave was, we could easily tell from the program that he played a male role, and he would therefore be Vanessa’s brother, not another sister.  We Americans seemed to know a lot more about the British theater than the locals did.

Although we didn’t recognize the names of any of the other actors at the time, I’ve been able to find (on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s website) the names of the members of the cast that night.  I discovered that we saw a number of outstanding British actors who later achieved great fame. They included Patrick Stewart (as Cassius), John Wood (as Brutus), Richard Johnson (as Mark Antony), Margaret Tyzack (as Portia), and Tim Pigott-Smith.  Further, the director that night was the much acclaimed Trevor Nunn.  No wonder we were thrilled to witness this extraordinary performance.

Marv and I stayed till the very end and reveled in the brilliant performances of these talented actors.  We’d happily achieved our goal of seeing Shakespeare in Stratford, performed by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and we’d seen a spectacular new version of Julius Caesar to boot.  Back at the White Swan Inn, we celebrated our thanks-to-Harrod’s coup with a romp in our very feathery English bed, Marv first showing off his manly strength by hanging from one of the overhead wooden beams.

By the way, the White Swan Inn has been renovated and still exists as a hostelry in Stratford, now dubbed the White Swan Hotel.

En route back to London, we made two more stops.  First, we visited historic Bleinheim Palace, where we toured the glorious interior.  The palace has been in the Churchill family since the 1770s (its history is fascinating), and Winston Churchill, who was born and often lived there, is buried just outside the palace grounds.  His grave is accessible to anyone. (You don’t need to visit Blenheim Palace first.)  Five years earlier, I briefly witnessed some of Churchill’s state funeral (the last state funeral before Queen Elizabeth II’s in September 2022) on a small black-and-white TV in the basement of Wyeth Hall during my first year as a student at Harvard Law School.  I was doing my laundry in an adjacent room and, when I glanced at the TV, I was suitably impressed by the pageantry on display in London in January 1965.

The tour’s final stop was a charming tea shop in a town called Leamington Spa. As our group gathered for tea, we learned the history of Leamington Spa, a beautiful but largely unknown town not far from our earlier stops.  (On a trip to countryside England with a friend in 2012, my friend and I met someone working in the Somerset area who confided that she was moving to take a new job in…Leamington Spa!  So, forty years after my visit to its tea shop, I surprisingly heard mention of it again.)

Marv and I returned to Stratford-upon-Avon with our daughters in 1995, in the middle of a jam-packed trip to the U.K. and France [please see “Down and Hot in Paris and London,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2014/11/%5D.  We stayed in nearby Cheltenham, visited other towns in the Cotswolds, and toured some sites in Stratford.  But we weren’t able to see a Shakespeare play together (I think the theatre was closed just then). 

So the time Marv and I were able to spend in Stratford in 1972, and our chance to see the Royal Shakespeare Company give a spectacular performance of Julius Caesar, gleam even more as a glittering memory, still burning brightly.

Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas!  That’s what the Brits say, right?  I’m thinking in Brit-speak right now, thanks to recently immersing myself in the world of Victorian London, and I haven’t shaken it off just yet.

The occasion? I showed up at this year’s Great Dickens Christmas Fair & Victorian Holiday Party, held every year at San Francisco’s Cow Palace.

I’ve always associated the Cow Palace with the Republican convention held there in 1964.  The one where Barry Goldwater gave his famous acceptance speech, including the memorable line, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”  I remember watching him say those words on TV while I was at home with a high fever.  The whole experience seemed like a feverish nightmare.  A candidate for the presidency of the United States saying those words!  To a Democratically-inclined young person in 1964, Goldwater’s words were shocking.  (Fast forward to 2016, when much more inflammatory speech was hurled at the nation almost every day by another candidate for the presidency.  One, unlike Goldwater, who got himself elected.)

Back to the Cow Palace.  It’s an indoor arena known as a venue for dog shows, sporting events, rodeos, and gun shows.  The Beatles appeared there twice in the ‘60s (and U2 at a special event in October 2016).  I’d never been there before.  But there I was, along with my two daughters and two granddaughters, entering the world of Dickens’s London.

Dickens was an early favorite of mine.  During my teen years, I read David Copperfield and Oliver Twist and became totally enamored of the characters and plot development in both.  (I also read, or tried to read, A Tale of Two Cities, during sophomore year, thanks to Mr. Hurley.  Every girl in our class, including me, had a major crush on him, the only good-looking under-40 male teacher at our high school.  But the book was a poor choice, even for the best readers among us, because it demanded a knowledge of history we hadn’t yet acquired.  When I returned to it years later, knowing something about the history of that time, I found it quite wonderful.  Still, it was and is very different from any of Dickens’s other works.)

Later I moved on to reading more and more Dickens. Bleak House, an indictment of the law as practiced in Dickens’s London, was a favorite.  I saw Oliver performed on stage and in the movies and saw countless dramatizations of his other stories, including the perennial A Christmas Carol.  The 1982 BBC mini-series of Nicholas Nickleby, starring Roger Rees, was especially memorable.

In short, I was—and am—a Dickens fan.

So off I went to the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, not quite sure what to expect.

What I discovered was a whole world of people who turned out to enjoy dancing, music, and theatrical performances inspired by Dickens and the culture of his time.  At least half, possibly more, were dressed in the Victorian fashions they would have worn when meeting Dickens himself.  Perhaps many of these fair-goers like the theatricality of dressing up this way, pretending to be in a different time and place, no doubt escaping the reality of their everyday lives.

A host of vendors offered Victorian-style clothing and hats; many Victorian-clad fair-goers may have purchased theirs at earlier fairs.  Vendors also sold things like second-hand books (some by Dickens), jewelry, vintage photos, and scented items, along with food and drink.  My granddaughters were taken with the stunning dresses, and their mother bought one for each of them on the condition that they wear them as often as possible.

We headed for a few of the performances, including a charming version of traditional Christmas carols (yes, the singers were in Victorian garb), Irish and Scottish dancing, and a typically-British “music hall” comedy.  An over-18 version began after ours and attracted a lot of people waiting in line outside the music hall as we departed (we had two under-18 girls among us).  Finally, we were treated to Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball, where fair-goers could themselves get on the dance floor and twirl to the music of Victorian London.  Just before we left, a beautifully-costumed Queen Victoria showed up, along with her retinue, to wish us all a Happy Christmas and a Good New Year.

The Dickens Fair was tremendous fun.  And it had a bonus:  it reminded me of two special times in my past.  When my husband-to-be Herb and I first began dating, we discovered that we not only lived in the same apartment building near UCLA (where we were working) but we both were also great fans of Charles Dickens.  (In London years later, Herb and I made a beeline for the only house still standing where Dickens lived and wrote.)

Herb somehow garnered tickets for a live performance at UCLA by the British (specifically Welsh) writer and actor Emlyn Williams.  Best known for his plays Night Must Fall and The Corn is Green (both frequently revived on stage and made into notable films), Williams also worked on screenplays for directors like Alfred Hitchcock and acted himself in a number of films.

When we encountered Williams in early 1971, he was touring with his one-man show, in which he portrayed Charles Dickens, bearded and outfitted in Victorian attire, reading excerpts from his famous novels.  (Some say he began the whole genre of one-man and one-woman performances. He appeared in New York as early as 1953 and no doubt appeared in London even earlier. Probably best-known to Americans is Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain.)  Herb and I were entranced by Williams’s stellar performance, and I followed it up by giving Herb a new biography of Dickens as his Valentine’s Day gift.  (Not very romantic, but Herb loved it.)

Ten years later, we learned that Williams-as-Dickens would be performing close to our then-home on the North Shore of Chicago.  At the Northlight Theatre production in Evanston, Illinois, we reveled once again in his zestful reading of Dickens’s writing.

The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is perhaps Dickens’s most memorable character.  Let’s remember what Dickens wrote toward the end of A Christmas Carol.  When Scrooge discovered the joy of helping others, “His own heart laughed.”

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, I send you this wish:  May you have a laughing heart today, and every day to come.