The Sorrows of Satan
I am still hugely enjoying the Greenwich Theatre Book which is currently on loan to me. Rather than go into the theatre’s history or an account of the rebuild today, though, my eye was drawn to an illustration in the back pages. I have no idea where it’s from – whether it’s a playbill in a private collection, whether it’s one of the framed bills from the stairs at the theatre itself (if memory serves, they were recovered during the building work in the 60s and make fascinating reading) or from somewhere like the Heritage Centre. I’m probably hugely offending someone by reproducing it here – but it is a wonderful document and I just can’t resist it this morning.
It opens a world almost totally lost to us now. What did Alf Davis, the descriptive vocalist, actually do? Who lost their trousers in the ‘screaming farce’ Checkmated? What did Carl Minto, the ‘eccentric musician’, play? And whatever happened to Maude Distin, ‘the only female baritone extant?’
Even the year of this old playbill, which promises four hours of amusement for a thru’penny bit, is uncertain. We know it’s for the week beginning Monday Jan 5th but which year? We know the theatre was called Barnard’s Palace at that time – which narrows it down a bit – it underwent a spruce-up in 1895 and from then, for a few years at least it was known first as Barnard’s Palace (after the promoter, Sam Barnard), then the Greenwich Hippodrome. If I was particularly nerdy and had more time that I do on a Monday morning I’d find some website dedicated to telling us which years in the late 1890s had the 5th January on a Monday. But although I’m definitely nerdy enough, time presses.
I am, of course, delighted to see that even well over a hundred years ago, they were still doing Aladdin – this year’s panto – which gives it all a wonderful symmetry, though despite the fact that we’re promised some pretty fab special effects over the coming weeks, I’m willing to bet that there won’t be any scenes containing ‘an entirely fresh series of animated subjects’ on the amazing EraScope (about which I can find nothing other than it might have been invented by a chap named Lacey, presumably a rival of Greenwich’s own Incredible Noakesoscope ).
But the entry that really caught my eye was the finale – the fabulously-titled Sorrows of Satan. What on earth could it be about, I wondered. Of course my images of Lucifer wracked in existential guilt were way off mark. This was the naughty nineties, not the angst-ridden twenty-first century.
It was actually a dramatisation of the novel by the Dan Brown of her day, Maria Corelli. Corelli, apparently, despite being snubbed by critics across the land, outsold H.G.Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling whenever she released her latest blockbuster. I somehow suspect none of the three chaps would be troubled by the relative sales figures today.
She sounds brilliant though. I mean – who couldn’t love a woman who was born into poverty (as the slightly more prosaic Mary Mackay) but, when her novels sold by the shedload, spent the cash on a real Venetian gondola and attendant gondolier to punt her up and down the river Avon – and on campaigns trying to save the 17th Century buildings in Stratford? My kind of woman…
The critics hated it but it had its admirers – not least of whom was Oscar Wilde (though he may have felt a kindred spirit in Corelli who was openly living with a woman at the time) and it was one of the first bestsellers (some churls reckon that was due to a change in the way libraries logged and bought books).
Basically, a penniless author called Geoffrey Tempest one day receives three letters. One is from a friend in Australia, inviting him to join him and start a new life, one telling him a relative has died and left him a fortune, and one a letter of introduction from mysterious fellow called Lucio…
I don’t really need to go into much more of the plot. I’m sure you can work it out. But it was a sure-solid hit with the public and it was not only made into a play but, in the 1920s, a film – by D W Griffith.
The only other thing worth mentioning about the story, BTW, is that the name Mavis was invented for the novel and was, I suspect, rather more glamorous at the time.
I have no idea what would have gone on in the theatrical version, but I’m guessing lots of saucy scenes of wretched excess followed by some lurid punishment (looks like there might have been a particularly juicy shipwreck scene) ending with a moralistic coda – but who can tell. It was bottom of the bill at Greenwich, which makes me think that it’s later rather than earlier – that it had probably already done the rounds once or twice. Maybe that can help date the bill itself.
More fun from The Greenwich Theatre Book another day…
Okay – so the Monday 5th-thing was like red rag to a bull for The Phantom Webmaster P.I..
1895: 5th Jan was a Saturday
1896: 5th Jan was a Sunday
1897: 5th Jan was a Tuesday
1898: 5th Jan was a Wednesday
1899: 5th Jan was a Thursday
1900: 5th Jan was a Friday
1901: 5th Jan was a Saturday (1900 not being a leap year)
1902: 5th Jan was a Sunday
1903: 5th Jan was a Monday
So – given that 1903 is the first year since The Sorrows of Satan was written, and that it wasn’t longe before Barnard’s Palace turned into the Hippodrome, I’m guessing that’s the year this bill’s from…
Another case closed for The Phantom Webmaster…
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