Sunday, May 10, 2009

EXCURSION: Stratford-Upon-Avon, England

As it does not appear I will be reading any more Shakespeare plays in the next few years, by which time I will hopefully have finally convinced myself to put the blog to rest, it seems as good a time as any to reminisce about my visit to Stratford back in 2001. This was my 3rd time in England. The first time I was there I stuck to London exclusively. The second time I went around to a few towns in the south, Canterbury, Chichester, Portsmouth, etc. On this last trip--which is the last time I was anywhere overseas, and will be for who knows how long now--I made my first venture up into the heartland of the country. It was on this same trip that I made the visit to Lichfield that I began a post on a couple of years ago, though at that time I mercifully was not able to figure out how to scan and post old film photographs to the web. Since then we have apparently gotten some new software, since I was able to click three buttons, with absolutely no understanding of the underlying processes whatsoever, and an operation which had flummoxed me utterly for ten years has suddenly been overcome.

Stratford-upon-Avon is not held in very high esteem these days as a destination by the serious travel community. It's kitschy, and its sites are not all that impressive in themselves. Its high street has a good number of well-preserved ancient buildings, and especially several fine and attractive taverns, though these are mainly frequented by tourists, the vast majority of the visitors, by the way, seem to be British. Apart from a few school groups coming to see the birthplace and a play, I did not notice as many Americans as I expected, given the dire warnings of most of the travel literature regarding their oppressive presence; and I heard very few people speaking foreign languages, if any. One odd circumstance is that the town seems to be a popular gathering spot for British motorcycle enthusiasts, who were all over the place when we were there.

So the question is, I guess, why did I choose to go there when there were, and are, so many more interesting cities and sites in Britain that I have not gone to yet, such as Oxford, Cambridge, York, Bath, the Lake District, Durham, anywhere in Scotland, and on and on? The answer is, there was no good reason, it happened to be how the arrangement of the system, the numbers, and so on I had devised to determine where to go happened to land, on this occasion, on Stratford. I was contented with this, I thought at the time I should return many, many times to England and that these other great literary cities would in due course of time establish their primacy in the system, and that it was good to leave a few exciting places as yet unglimpsed for the future. Also I was pleased to be going anywhere in that general area of the world, the place had evidently some magic about it, which might rub off on me, and before recent times lots of great literary figures made pilgrimages there, Dickens, Johnson and Garrick, Carlyle, Irving and Hawthorne and James and all the nineteenth-century Americans. So this too helped to assuage my doubts that the trip might be a waste of time.

Door of Shakespeare's House, With Cultist. Statue of Prince Hal, Gower Memorial. The Gower Memorial is a Victorian (1882) homage to the poet, as well as the great nation, people, language that arose in no small part out of his singular understanding of these notions. As you can see, there are four character statues--Falstaff, Hamlet and Lady Macbeth are the other three--placed at the corners of a square with a seated, rather bemused looking likeness of Shakespeare himself on top of the quotation-filled pedestal in the center. It isn't very challenging--it's kind of peaceful even--and certainly too comfortable in its assurance of the exact nature of the greatness of both Shakespeare and the English Protestant empire-building way of life to be interesting to mentally active people as a work of art, but naturally I liked it.

The Royal Shakespeare Theater, built in the 1930s after the previous one had burnt down. I like this too--it has a kind of melding of 30s social-realist architecture with lingering visions about olde England that even depraved socialist types of that era would still have been attuned to--but I seem to be alone in this, as when I was there there was much talk of tearing this down and building something more daring and exciting, which almost certainly translates as "something I'm not going to like". As I wrote in an earlier post, I believe one of the ones about Brecht, I find attending live theater, especially at the big-time professional level, to be quite stressful. I really prefer a shabbier company most of the time, if I am going to go, assuming they aren't totally incompetent. I will confess I enjoyed seeing a play at the totally tourist-aimed reconstruction of the Globe Theatre in London, which apparently brings out the haters in the serious theater world in full force. But as I say, live theater is not one of my cherished pastimes anyway.

The multitude of ducks and swans in the vicinity keep the grass shown here, and all over Stratford and other similar English towns, putting-green soft (as well as covered with feathers, like at the end of this song).

The Famous River Avon. The steeple of the church where Shakespeare is buried in the right background. The forlorn-appearing figure in the foreground obviously is me. As I noted in the old Lichfield post, now that global warming has come on the scene, England has heat waves in the summer, when I was there 2 solid weeks of humid 80-85 heat with no rain, and the kind of industrial strength air conditioning we have in the U.S. is virtually unknown there, whether it be in trains, hotels, museums, stores, whatever, so I was wilting quite a bit, especially as I did not want to put shorts on in these places, having never seen photos of Dickens or Henry James doing so. Graham Greene might have put shorts on after the dress code of Western Civilization collapsed in the late 60s--Sartre did at least--but when he was my age in the 30s and 40s you wouldn't have seen him out and about without a tie and smart shoes any less than anyone else. One positive I will note is that I haven't physically aged too badly in the 8 years since this picture was taken (I was 31 then). Between 28 and 30 I finally gained the 40-50 pounds that my high school basketball coaches had been counting on me to put on by junior or senior year, and then it took my features and bones a few years to settle into all that new weight, but I appear to have stabilized here lately, though I am probably jinxing myself by writing this. I am unfortunately very superstitious, as is probably obvious by now.

Yes, We Are in England. This was near the train station.

Of course if you are of the school who thinks the Earl of Oxford or Neville or whomever is the real author of the plays, then going to Stratford is really approaching the apex of suckerhood, but if I cannot prove conclusively that the author really was Shakespeare, I am pretty confident that the author was somebody like Shakespeare at least as much as he was someone of more aristocratic birth and training. The lack of surviving correspondence or a library from 500 years ago does not strike me as that unusual. Do we have correspondence from Rabelais or Cervantes, their personal books? Perhaps we do, but I haven't seen it referred to much. To me the innovative English style and immersion in the spoken word is more characteristic of a commoner than of a classically educated aristocrat of the time, whose reading and intellectual discourse would have been more Latin-heavy. But these are my arguments to myself, and can not pretend to persaude those who know far more about these subjects than I do.

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