Wednesday, 16 February 2011

George Inn Yard

The young man could hardly wait to get to his friend’s house in Blackfriars, to tell him the good news. He had known Richard Field since childhood, when they had lived near each other in the same village in Warwickshire. Field was the elder of the two boys and had moved to London two years earlier, and set up as a printer and publisher in Blackfriars.

From Southwark to Blackfriars, was only a twenty minute walk, but it seemed to the young man that day, as if every obstacle that could possibly be put in his way, in one way or another, was being placed there to dampen his enthusiasm. Noisy, crowded, bawdy, bustling and busy streets, filled with gossiping old ladies blocking his path on every corner. Men leading herds of cattle and sheep through the narrow streets, depositing non stop mounds of excrement as they went, which the young man, with his best new shoes, had to carefully manoeuvre his way around. Young boys running and shouting, some wheeling metal hoops, which they had stolen from barrel maker’s workshops, and which, if one was not careful, could cause severe damage to a young man’s pride, if nothing else!

The young man finally made it through the streets of Southwark, and crossed the River Thames, just as two small children were throwing a sack full of struggling kittens into the murky waters, and a beggar attacked him with his crutch for refusing to ‘spare him a penny for some food’.

“I have done it,” yelled the excited young man as Richard Field opened his street door to him. A somewhat puzzled and amazed Field, invited his young friend in, and over a drink, asked him what it was exactly that he had done. A huge smile came over the young man’s face as he started to describe, in great detail, the deal he had made with the landlord of the George Inn, which was a coaching inn, just off Borough High Street, not far from where he was living.

He described how another very good friend of his, the Earl of Southampton, had suggested that he should go to see the landlord of the George Inn, on behalf of the band of travelling actors, he was then working with. The George Inn had a very large courtyard, where a temporary stage would be erected on trestles, and various acts would be performed. Sometimes even bear baiting and various forms of gambling took place there, but the main attraction of the day, was undoubtedly performances of plays.

The landlord had agreed to let the young man and his travelling troupe of actors, use the courtyard for a two week period, where they would perform up to ten different plays. The landlord would charge the public four pennies each, to stand in the yard and watch the performance, or six pennies, to watch from the balconies. The takings would be divided equally between the landlord and the actors; with an audience capacity of up to 500, that could add up to a decent wage each night for everyone involved.

Richard Field congratulated his young friend, and asked him, since he had taken up acting, did that mean he would no longer be writing then? “No longer be writing?” replied the young man, “I have written two new plays since I last spoke to you, and I can assure you that not only did I write them, but I will also be performing them next week at the George Inn, you must come and see them, the first is called the Comedy of Errors, and the second is the Taming of the Shrew”.

The following week, 1st April 1592, when Field arrived at The George Inn, it was raining so heavily that he could hardly see the flag fluttering limply from the flagpole at the top of the courtyard entrance, which advertised the play. He paused for a moment to make sure he had the right day and venue, and sure enough there it was, printed on the flag, “Comedy of Errors, a play by William Shakespeare”.

Needless to say, Field paid the higher price of six pennies, and took his seat in one of the balconies overlooking the makeshift stage, which at least sheltered him, and the few other people who were there, from the torrential rain. The few who did defy the elements, and who paid to stand in the courtyard below, were desperately trying to stay dry by standing as close as they possible could to the wall.

Because of the lack of a roof over the stage, it was also the performers, including William Shakespeare himself, who were getting soaked as well as the spectators. Stage make-up was in its infancy, and tended to run and smudge at the slightest hint of anything amiss, so imagine the scene when the actors, now absolutely dripping with water, and their faces resembling clowns, trying to act seriously on stage, in front of an ever increasingly hostile audience, who began to shout, boo, and hiss, as well as throwing rotten fruit and even pieces of mud from the ground. At one point, the stage became so slippery that one of the actors, slipped and fell off it, onto the ground, and broke a leg in the process. It is alleged that this fall, could have been the grounds for the old actor’s metaphor of saying, “break a leg” before taking on a new role, in order to ward off bad luck.

Luck certainly wasn’t with Shakespeare and his troupe that day. Maybe he should have known better than to start a new play on April Fool’s Day, for this was also the start of the wettest April for many years, which meant even less customers every day, and not enough money to pay the troupe’s rent, let alone put food on their tables.

Having never played at the George Inn before, or indeed any of the London courtyard theatres, Shakespeare did not know that they normally only opened during the summer months, starting in May and ending in September. It was only out of pure greed, that the landlord of the George Inn had decided to give April a try, much to the detriment of Shakespeare and his troupe.

Shakespeare felt as if he had been duped by the wily landlord. “How could anyone” he fumed, “put on their best performance under such conditions?” It was a very difficult time during this period for actors; they were considered no better than vagabonds, and were even imprisoned unless they had the protection of a wealthy patron, which Shakespeare did have, with the patronage of the Earl of Southampton.

But patronage alone did not spell success. Writers and actors still needed good reviews, which they were unlikely to get working in conditions such as he had been working in, at the George Inn.

One review, written at the time, was in a pamphlet called the 'Groatsworth of Wit', written by a well-known poet and playwright named Robert Greene, who saw himself as something of a university wit; a member of the Oxford/Cambridge trained literary scholars of the era alongside such contemporaries as Christopher Marlowe and Sir Walter Raleigh.

Robert Greene attacked Shakespeare, calling him an “Upstart Crow”, meaning someone who has risen economically or socially but lacks the social skills appropriate for this new position, and one who acts like a crow, or a scavenger who steals from others. Greene insinuated that Shakespeare was a poor actor, and an even poorer writer, who believed he could write as well as the best scholars. From Greene’s point of view, the 'University Set' was considered as being the only authors of any note with the ability to write poetry. William Shakespeare was not of the 'University Set'. All in all not a very nice review at all

Three months after the death of Robert Greene, in December 1592, his publisher and printer, Henry Chettle issued a public apology for the 'Groatsworth of Wit' and to the "Upstart Crow"!

All this however, was much too late to appease William Shakespeare, for he had suffered long and hard through his appearance at the George Inn during that rainy April in 1592. He vowed there and then, to do something positive to counteract the injustice he felt had befallen him that year, and when he was offered, not long after, a share in the Globe Theatre, he jumped at the chance. For the Globe was one of the first purpose built Elizabethan Amphitheatres in London, which meant no more worries about the weather, just put on a good play, and the audiences could come to see it day or night, fair weather or foul.

William Shakespeare, along with five others, invested in the Globe Theatre. His initial investment eventually made him a wealthy and successful man due to his share of the large profits, which were made at the Theatre, and also partly due to his bad experience at the George Inn.

Today, George Inn Yard is alive and well, and attracting almost as many customers to the famous Inn as it did in Shakespeare’s day, although they now consist mainly of tourists, who come more for the beer, food, and the experience, than for the plays, which sadly, are no longer performed there. Walking from Borough High Street, which is in Southwark, into this cobbled courtyard, is like stepping back in time. The George Inn hits you, with its magnificent galleries, and an abundance of oak beams and leaden lattice windows everywhere. The ground floor is divided into several connecting bars, the bar, which is now known, as the ‘Old Bar’ was originally the waiting room, for coachmen and their passengers. The ‘Middle Bar’ was originally the coffee room, which was a regular haunt of Charles Dickens. The bedchambers were in the galleried part, above the main entrances, and are now home to the restaurant.

The courtyard itself, where Shakespeare would have performed his plays, is now used as an outdoor seating area for the pub. The only thing to mar this dream of those far off days, is the modern office building, which lies to the left, but one can always sit with one’s back to this monstrosity, and have a wonderful view of London’s only surviving galleried inn. The original George where Shakespeare performed in was burnt down in 1676 but was immediately rebuilt, using its original design. It remained unchanged for over two hundred years, when it was partly demolished by the Great Northern Railway, to be used as a goods office, warehousing, and depot. They pulled down two of its sides, leaving just the south side standing, which is what we see today when we enter the yard from Borough High Street. The inn was eventually presented to the National Trust in 1937, so it is safe to say that no more changes will be made in the foreseeable future.

Charles Dickens used the Middle Bar of the George quite frequently, as he spent a good deal of his time in Southwark, where he lived for a period, and which was also home to the Marshalsea Prison, where his father was imprisoned in 1824. The Middle Bar of the George was the Coffee Room, where Dickens would often meet friends and discuss politics and literature. Dickens featured the George in ‘Little Dorrit’, where Maggy tells young Tip he has to go to the George to write a begging letter.

Borough High Street was once the route between Canterbury, England's major centre of pilgrimage, and London Bridge, which was the only bridge to get in and out of London at this time. London Bridge had gates that were locked each night at a certain time, when the curfew bell was rung. This meant that any travellers arriving after this time had to find accommodation for the night in Southwark, before continuing on their way the following morning.

Records taken in 1619 show that the population of Southwark consisted of more innkeepers than any other trade. This in turn, meant that Southwark at this particular time was richer in historic inns and taverns than any other part of London. As well as the George, there was also the White Hart, the Queen's Head, the King's Head, the Bell, the Catherine Wheel, and probably the most famous of them all, The Tabard, which was almost next door to the George and used by Chaucer at the start of his pilgrimage, and in his book, ‘The Canterbury Tales’. The Tabard was pulled down in 1874 to make way for modern developments.

The inns of Southwark might well have flourished, but not so the theatre inns, for in 1594 the City of London started regulating the various inns activities, which they said attracted the wrong type of clientele, including thieves, vagabonds and loose women. This led to the development and licensing of the covered Playhouses and open Amphitheatres, which in turn led to the ultimate replacement of the Inns as venues for Elizabethan plays and theatres.

Most of old Southwark’s galleried inns are long gone, in their place are now shops and commercial premises, leaving what remains of the George Inn a lasting testament to the history of this fascinating borough.

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