On Certain Events Along the Shores of ‘Nnalubaale, Separated by a Century

History is almost always written by the victors and conquerors and gives their viewpoint.
Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India.
In his account of his circumnavigation of ‘Nnalubaale (now known as Lake Victoria), Henry Morton Stanley, furthering the explorations of Burton and Speke, describes a moment of tension and violence on the Lake. It is March 27th, 1875, somewhere along the south coast of the Island of Uvuma — now Buvuma — off what is now Uganda’s Lake Victoria coast. Perhaps interestingly, Stanley had sailed past the peninsula of Entebbe just a few days before.
The canoes astern clapped their hands gleefully, showing me a large bunch of Mutunda beads which had been surreptitiously abstracted from the stern of the boat. I seized my repeating rifle and fired in earnest, to right and left. The fellow with the beads was doubled up, and the boldest of those nearest us was disabled. The big rifle, aimed at the waterline of two or three of the canoes, perforated them through and through, which compelled the crews to pay attention to their sinking crafts, and permitted us to continue our voyage into Napoleon Channel and to examine the Ripon Falls.
Through the Dark Continent, Vol. I, chapter VIII.

In dispassionate legal terms, Claus Kreß and Benjamin K Nußberger describe an event that occurred about a hundred kilometers west of and about a hundred years after Stanley’s encounter on the lake:
Shortly after midnight on 4 July 1976, as ‘the sand in the hourglass [is] about to run out’ the Israeli machines land ‘by surprise and without any authority from the Ugandan Government’ at seven-minute intervals at Entebbe International Airport. Only fifty-three minutes later, they depart with the freed hostages. The Israel Defence Forces had stormed the airport terminal, killing seven hijackers and liberating the prisoners. Yet, the rescue operation also results in four casualties, three Israeli passengers and one Israeli officer, and a number of serious injuries. About twenty Ugandan soldiers are fatally wounded and the airport building is heavily damaged. Furthermore, allegedly in order to ensure their safe return flight, Israeli soldiers destroy a number of Ugandan aircrafts, which are parked nearby, and other military equipment. After a refuelling stop in Nairobi in Kenya, which is allowed ‘purely on humanitarian grounds’, Israel’s rescue mission safely returns to Israel
The Knesset of Israel also offers a description of this incident:
. . . Following the Government’s decision to go forward with the plan, four transport aircrafts took off from Sharm el-Sheikh en route to Entebbe. The raid on the airport resulted in five Israeli casualties: IDF officer Yonatan (Yoni) Netanyahu (brother of MK and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu); Dora Bloch, an elderly woman hospitalized during the raid and murdered after the raid (her remains were returned to Israel in June 1979); Ida Borochovitch, Jean Jacques Maimoni, and Pasko Cohen were killed during the Operation. On the return flight, the planes landed in Nairobi, Kenya for refueling to attend to the fatally wounded with medical care. IDF Chief of Staff Mordechai Gur announced it at first as an emergency landing, but it seemed to have been coordinated with Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta. . . .

Narrative. The Stories that get told. The Stories *we* tell. The Stories we tell each other and ourselves. Look at these stories.
We know Stanley’s name. We can look at photographs of him. Read his words. His Story.
The man holding the beads in the canoe and his uncounted and barely visible companions at the receiving end of Stanley’s “big rifle” are cyphers, placeholders, unknown tokens, indistinguishable but readily extinguishable pawns on the black side of History’s chessboard.
We know Yoni Netanyahu’s name. We can see his photograph with a few key strokes on Google. We can hardly fail to know about his kid brother Benyamin. We can find out about all the hostages and hijackers, about Mordechai Gur and Jomo Kenyatta and Idi Amin. But there are “about Twenty” Ugandan families who lost sons and husbands and fathers that day. What are their names? Where are their pictures? What did they have for their last meal that July day in 1976? Did they laugh in joy as they left their mothers/wives/children for their work? What are their stories?
Taking a crazy and ultimately pointless long view, what would have become of the man brandishing the beads in the canoe off the shore of Buvuma that March day in 1875? Would the flapping butterfly wings of his genes and his community influence his story — have led Uganda to a different 1976? And what of the unknown number of young Ugandan soldiers killed that July night at Entebbe? What did the world lose by their deaths, by history’s erasure of their very names?
And, because the victors, the conquerors have preserved his name for us, what would the story have been if Yoni Netanyahu had returned alive from Entebbe? What would his kid brother have been like under the influence of an older brother who, as a young man, had seen, who had been in command of the erasure of “about twenty” young men so very much like him?
We can never know.
Victory?

A Bread Recipe for Michael

My friend Michael in this time of plague isolation had a bit of trouble with one of Jamie Oliver’s bread recipies, so, I’m sending her my recipe that makes pretty much all of our bread at home, plague or no plague.

Feel free to try it yourself and let us all know in the comments how it worked out!

About a tbsp of yeast in about a cup of warm water.
Two cups bread flour.
1/2 cup whole wheat flour.
About a tbsp of fat. I use bacon fat.
Some honey.
Some salt.
Add the yeast and water.
Stir.
Use hands.
Knead it a bit.
a bit more.
Cover and wait a bit.
It’s big and shaggy!
Knead it a bit more.
Cover it again and wait a bit.
It got big again! But not shaggy.
Make it into a loaf.
Maybe a tiny bit more flour.
Into a loaf pan, sprinkle with a little flour, and cover.
Uncover and bake at 500° for 5 minutes and then 10 to 15 more minutes at 450°. Spray water into the oven now and then while baking.

A Meditation on “The Ordinal of Alchemy”, A Real Book of Magic

It was a large room with three big windows and it was lined from floor to ceiling with books; more books than Lucy had ever seen before, tiny little books, fat and dumpy books, and books bigger than any church Bible you have ever see, all bound in leather and smelling old and learned and magical.  But she knew from her instructions that she need not bother about any of these.  For the Book, the Magic Book, was lying on a reading-desk in the very middle of the room. . .
– C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 10.

     The Ordinal of Alchemy is a text written by Thomas Norton, a Bristol gentleman just     below the rank of Knight, who lived about 1435 to somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1515.  The book is a long poem in rhymed couplets (in this similar to most of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) in which Norton gives instruction on the recommended course to follow to advance in the understanding and practice of Alchemy.  In the poem Norton tells us of his own progress, of his teacher, and of his own experiences as a gentleman of the court of a king (Edward IV) himself interested in Alchemical studies.  The burden of duties at court led Norton to abandon his alchemical studies until later in life when he composed The Ordinal

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Pauline Baynes’ illustration of Lucy approaching the Magician’s Library

While reading The Ordinal I found myself slowly realizing that I was quietly fulfilling a childhood dream that I might one day read actual books of magic in their original languages. Very early in my life I had read C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books and I have been quietly haunted by the scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – actually haunted by Pauline Baynes’ illustration of the chapter in which Lucy discovers the Magician’s Book of spells.  Later in life I had read silly New Age books of fake witchcraft and found them absurd, uninspired, and uninspiring.  And I have spent many years studying the twelve Old English metrical charms, which are in an authentic voice like that of Norton, but have tragically been appropriated by shallow crystalline herbal wiccans on neo-pagan websites.  It was only when reading The Ordinal of Alchemy, hidden behind it’s obscurity of language and image, that I came to realize that I was finally – had actually long been – truly in the Magician’s library.

     By no means is Norton’s Ordinal a guide to magic or alchemy that actually works, any more than the Old English charms have much other than an accidental or psychological efficacy.  While Norton’s description (in lines 2843 ff.) of the furnace he himself invented gives a very clear picture of a remarkable piece of engineering, the discussion of actual alchemical procedures is extremely obscure.  Much of the work, as would perhaps be expected, is moral and religious (Lewdnes to cese is bettir late then nevyre. [l. 3098]), but it is all seasoned with what must be termed truly scientific theory and moments of true experiment.  Surprisingly, the fundamental instruction to the aspiring alchemist is basic capitalist advice concerning how to retain good help in one’s employ:

Therefore if ye wil voyde alle dreede,
In the grose werke do bi my reede:
Take nevir thertoo no howsholde man,
Thei ben soone wery as I telle can;
Therfore take no man therto
But he be wagide, how evir ye do,
Not bi the monthe as nye as ye may,
Ne bi the weeke, but bi the daye;
And that your wagis be to theire mynde
Bettir then thei elsewere can fynde;
And that thei nede not for wagis sewe,
But that their payment be quyke & trewe.
ll. 1349-1360
That’s right — pay them a competitive, living wage!
      Much of what Norton discusses is, as he acknowledges, rehearsal of alchemical doctrine that has come down from his predecessors in the art:
Olde men wrote in avncyen tyme
How that of sapours there be fulli nyne:
Which ye may lerne within half an houre
As sharpe tase, vntuous, and sowre
Which iij to Meen mater testifye,
As byting taste, saltish, & werish alle-so;
Othir iij came thikke substance fro,
As bitter taste, undersowre, and dowce,
These ix be fownde in many a noble howse.
ll. 2107-2116
This model of nine fundamental tastes does not, of course, fit with modern conceptions of the mechanics of taste — four fundamental flavours when I was a boy; five now that I am a man — but the model is not inaccurate, simply in need of refinement. 
And Norton is not an undiscerning devotee of all things magical:
Trust not Geomancye, that supersticious arte,
For god made reason which yer is sett a-parte;
Trust not to all astrologyeris, I say why,
For that arte is as secrete as alchymye.
ll. 2973-2976
Even alchemy is an art, not quite a science, but

No man is sure to haue his entent
With-owte ful concorde of arte with Instrument.
ll. 2897-2898
The proper tools are fundamental to success.
At times Norton seems to be saying something that makes a sort of sense to the modern reader, but we are not seeing his intent:
Liquour conioynyth male with female wyfe,
And causith dede thingis to resorte to lyfe;
Liquours clansith with their ablucion;
Liquours to oure stone be chief nutricion,
Without liquours no mete is goode,
Liquours conveith alle Alimente & fode
To euery parte of mannys bodie . . .
ll. 2189-2195
Although this may seem to be a celebration of the wonderful virtues of strong drink, this is actually a purely alchemical passage and the “liquours” in question are not such as we might tipple on a winter evening before the fire in our study.  Norton’s liquours are precursors to the manufacture of Elixer, which is itself necessary to the production of the final goal: The (Philosopher’s) Stone.
     In our post-Descartes world we often have discussions of the mind/body question.  Some will feel that we must understand them to be some sort of dualism, that there is a soulful ghost in the fleshly machine.  Others see things in a somewhat purely materialist sense, that what we think of as consciousness is just the cerebral flesh doing its thing, the software of the mind running on the wetware of the brain.  But Norton tantalizes with a different, tripartite model:
Therefore in oure werk, as auctours techith vs,
There must be Corpus, anima, & spiritus.
ll. 2397-2398
One part body, one part soul, and one part spirit.  This distinction between soul and spirit seems foreign to both the materialist and dualist modern mind, but, whatever it means, it is fundamental to the work Norton is trying to teach.  Anyone who wishes to grasp the foreign Medieval intellectual world that produced The Ordinal of Alchemy must wrestle with such different categories of experience and understanding. 

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Pauline Baynes’ illustration of the Magician’s Book

     As far as he testifies, Norton was never successful in reaching his alchemical goals.  But he has left to us a marvelous window into the Medieval alchemical world.  And he has made manifest to me the transformation of a naïve childhood goal into a happy adult awareness.     In this real, true Magician’s book Thomas Norton has given us is a challenging history of a difficult and lonely life spent trying (largely unsuccessfully) to understand the world and our relation to it, not the easy-reading text of a weekend workshop on “the practical and experiential knowledge that can help you manifest and change your life!
Thomas Norton’s The Ordinal Alchemy, edited by John Reidy, was published in 1975 by The Early English Text Society

Concerning a TEDxAntwerp Talk About the Global Monetary System

Two issues I will take with the Tedx talk a friend posted to Facebook a few days ago about the global monetary system is that:

a) Yes, the banks create fiat currency to finance loans/innovation seen as profitable and repayable. They don’t grant €100K to every potential furniture maker or web developer who may happen along. They finance good risks. The bet on sure things and by so doing they increase the wealth of the economy by collaborating with creative minds AKA entrepreneurs. The Tedx talk pretends that banks provide loans of fiat currency with no discrimination or discernment, with no consideration of the viability of the proposed enterprise. Even children know that banks don’t simply give out money for the asking. The talk also ignores the fact that the “growth” nurtured by the monetary system is the growth of individuals’ livelihoods, the financing of children’s’ educations, the building of homes, the replacement of furnaces, roofs, worn out clothes, food for families. And this growth is also, at its fundament, employment for a growing population.

b) The new algorithm proposed in the talk would provide everyone with a subsistence income but it would provide no seed money for major growth projects. If someone had an idea for a new furniture business, they would not be able to go to a bank and borrow €100K to purchase materials, rent manufacturing space, hire an apprentice . . . the idea would never leave the basement workshop. The result of such a monetary system would necessarily be stagnation at a “contented” level of well-being only slightly above the medieval. A healthy herd. Forever. No advancement. No improvement. No toys. Certainly no new toys. Nothing at all new, except rarely. As “excess” savings are explicitly to be clawed back by the totalitarian government of this hypothetical command economy, the furniture maker and the web developer and every other business, small or large would never be able to find the capital to start their businesses! All the little shops we love so much would be impossible.

What a terrifying, colourless, Orwellian future!

A Brief Note on Cordwainer Smith’s “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” & “Under Old Earth”, Raleigh’s “Pilgrimage”, and the Adjective in Biblical Hebrew.


But there was another voice somewhere, a voice which grated like the rasp of a saw cutting through bone, like the grind of a broken machine still working at ruinous top speed.  It was an evil voice, a terror-filling voice.
Perhaps this really was the “death” which the tunnel underpeople had mistaken her for.
The Hunter’s hand released hers.  She let go of D’joan.
There was a strange woman in the room.  She wore the baldric of authority and the leotards of a traveler.
Elaine stared at her.
“You’ll be punished,” said the terrible voice, which now was coming out of the woman.
– Cordwainer Smith, “The Dead Lady of Clown Town”, Galaxy Magazine, vol. 22, no. 6, August 1964, p.42.

Lady Arabella Underwood’s appearance about one third of the way into Cordwainer Smith’s classic Science Fiction story, “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” comes with that brief but somehow remarkable description of her attire: “She wore the baldric of authority and the leotards of a traveler.”  Remarkable because it contains the somehow-evocative-of-something-deeply-meaningful parallel pair of  concrete nouns modified by genitive prepositional phrases.  The “leotards of a traveler” may simply be some sort of imagining of the sartorial preferences of a fictional future – although there is nothing in the story to suggest that Lady Arabella is in any real sense a traveller.  The “baldric of authority” is also unexplained (Smith’s fiction is rich with allusion to unexplained details of his richly imagined future), and may perhaps be taken as some sort of badge of office.  But this concrete “baldric” with its modifying phrase of qualitative genitive seems of a deeper rhetorical significance.
 Smith uses this construction a number of times in his stories, for example, in “Under Old Earth” (Galaxy Magazine, vol. 24 no 3 February 1966, pp. 6-48) the aged character Sto Odin stating “I wear the feathers of immunity” (p. 27) and, most charming:  “I am caught by the dry, drab enturtlement of old, old age”(p. 22).  What is Smith doing here?  Why does this construction seem so evocative to a discerning reader?
 Well, consider:
Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage;
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.”
– Sir Walter Raleigh “Pilgrimage”

What a pile of genitives of quality Sir Walter has collected here!  Every concrete item of the pilgrim’s simple equipage is qualified by an abstract. The scallop-shell (the symbol of the pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago), the staff (the physical support), the scrip (the pilgrim’s small satchel), the bottle (water for the journey), and the gown (simple clothing) are transformed with those genitive prepositional phrases into the abstract qualities which are the true sustainers of a successful pilgrim.
 Why does Raleigh use this construction, the concrete noun followed by the genitive of an abstract quality?  Why not just use an adjective – the quiet scallop shell, the faithful staff, the happy scrip, and so on?  Well, most obviously, because they don’t quite mean the same thing.  A quiet scallop shell is just a scallop shell that is not making noise.  A scallop shell of quiet is the concrete partaking of the abstract, of the transcendent, perhaps.  And, obviously for someone of Raleigh’s time, temper, and education, there is a consciousness of scriptural rhetorical forms, and the genitive of quality is decidedly an Old Testament rhetorical form.
 Jouon Paul and ‎Muraoka Tamitsu, in A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, speak of the “genitive of the quality expressed by an abstract noun”  referencing Exodus 29:29 : וּבִגְדֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ “garments of holiness”(p. 437 ), which is so clearly a parallel to Raleigh’s “gown of glory” and, perhaps, to Smith’s “baldric of authority” and “feathers of immunity”.  This construction in Biblical Hebrew has sometimes been described as a way of compensating for Biblical Hebrew’s “lack of genuine adjectives” (see, for example, Bill T. Arnold and John H. Choi,  A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, p. 10).  Cynthia L. Miller-Naudé and Jacobus A. Naudé, however, argue quite convincingly that Biblical Hebrew does, in fact, have true adjectives in “Is the adjective distinct from the noun as a grammatical category in biblical Hebrew?”, In die Skriflig 50(4), a2005.  Whatever the underlying reason for the development and use of the rhetorical pairing of a concrete noun with the genitive of quality of an abstract noun in Biblical Hebrew, the evocative construction certainly has had a continuing impact on English rhetoric, from Renaissance poetry to mid-Twentieth Century science fiction stories.

A Midwinter Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Malachite Company has been doing Shakespeare in Edmonton for four winters now, and what a treat it has been to have Old Strathcona’s grand old Holy Trinity Anglican Church filled up with light and laughter and warmth and a few bits of Elizabethan tragedy each January. Last night the fourth Malachite winter and the first Winter Shakespeare Festival got off to an uproarious laughfest of a start with the first performance of an out-of-season Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was fortunate to go to this perennial Shakespeare favourite with someone who had never seen the Dream before (and to sit a pew in front of “Meg”, who also had never seen the play before, and who somehow became dear to the heart of Nick Bottom over the course of the performance). If this Dream had been my first experience of A Midsummer Night’s Dream what a joy it would have been (instead of that fairly ordinary thing I saw as a teenager with a man named Patrick Stewart playing Oberon).

The Malachite Dream is a joyous party of dance and song, thanks to Musical Director and Titania/Hippolyta Danielle LaRose and a cast of twelve others that put their whole hearts into filling the sanctuary/stage to bursting with happiness.

The Titania/Hippolyta Oberon/Theseus (Brennan Campbell) split rolls are handled economically and effectively with simple costume changes. Campbell’s Oberon very satisfyingly combines an air of noble control over his fairy-pranks with a quiet sense of confusion as he sees Puck’s (Colin Matty) errors send the fairy king’s plans spiralling into (in the end, harmless) chaos (as they both sit watching and eating popcorn).

Emily Howard & Owen Bishop and Sarah Louise & Liam Coady as the two pairs of young lovers, the material of the fairy-made confusion, do a remarkable job of making what are in large measure stock characters into individuals that we remember very distinctly the morning after the play. Very charming, each in their own way.

Of course, the play-within-a-play of the Rude Mechanicals is at the centre of the production, whatever the nobles and fairies may try to do. And, again, each cast member manages to take a very conventional character and bring out a very human individuality and even a bit of pathos. Chance Heck’s performance as Snout playing “Wall” is a surprising piece of dramatic eloquence. And the moment when the Nobles, now a part of the audience, poke fun at Anna MacAuley’s Starveling playing the Man in the Moon — a moment that could be a bit of painful cruelty, is turned around nicely, there is a moment of empathy across classes between Theseus the King and Robin Starveling, the young tailor.

All the above makes the Malachite Midwinter Midsummer Night’s Dream worthwhile, but . . .

Monica Maddaford’s Bottom is absolutely to die for! Clutching a copy of Melvin Bragg’s biography of Laurence Olivier, Maddaford rolls her eyes and chews the scenery and milks each scene both over-the-top and to just the perfect extent. Her performance is —  by itself —  a very worthwhile play-within-the-play-within the play. A fine and winding line between going to far and not going far enough is walked here by Maddaford, and she walks it perfectly without a slip. And on opening night, for goodness sake!

Much more could be written about this opening night, but better to just tell you to get down to Old Strathcona and enjoy the real deal!

The Winter Shakespeare Festival continues until the beginning of February. Julius Caesar will join A Midsummer Night’s Dream on January 9th. As well, the Festival will include two staged readings of a pair of little-known Elizabethan plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, The Witch of Edmonton and The Merry Devil of Edmonton. These readings will occur on the evenings of January 22 and January 29 at 7:30. Full disclosure: I have had the pleasure of adapting the Witch and the Devil specifically for the Winter Shakespeare Festival.

The “Merry Devil of Edmonton” and “The Witch of Edmonton”

The following is adapted from the introduction to my adaptations of The Merry Devil of Edmonton and The Witch of Edmonton.

Out of Shakespeare’s Shadow

     That fellow from Stratford casts a long, virtually impenetrable shadow over the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage. Few today would be able to think of another playwright from the period — I hear a few of you shout “Marlowe”. Fewer still would be able to name a non-Shakespearean play from the period — “Dr. Faustus” one or two yell, as Marlowe peeks out of Shakespeare’s shadow again. But Shakespeare and Marlowe were just two of a multitude of playwrights of the period, and many, many plays of varying quality have come down to us that have nothing to do with Bill the Bard. But how many of those plays ever see a stage today? And how many of those plays have you seen performed? I confess, apart from an occasional bit of trans-Atlantic leakage from the BBC, I’ve never seen a production of a non-Shakespearean Elizabethan play. On the other hand, I’ve lost count of the number of Midsummer Night’s Dreams I’ve tripped over, from Patrick Stewart in a loincloth as Oberon at Stratford in 1977 to Edmonton’s Winter Shakespeare Festival’s production in 2020.

     I don’t think it in anyway diminishes Shakespeare’s genius to suggest that the time is long past for him to yield the stage for an evening or two to some of his illustrious but neglected colleagues. There is so much good and great theatre out there in the world (And I don’t mean just the English Language stage tradition – I dream of seeing a production of Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño !): I can’t help thinking that it is the responsibility of theatre artists to provide, and theatre audiences to demand, a broader view of our shared inheritance of great drama. I am so very grateful that Benjamin Blyth and Danielle La Rose of the Malachites feel the same way and are bringing The Merry Devil of Edmonton and The Witch of Edmonton to the place these plays truly belong: a stage in Edmonton.

The Merry Devil of Edmonton

     The Merry Devil of Edmonton first came into my life as an accidental side benefit of my (possibly) pathological book collecting. A few years ago I was walking home from The Bookseller (96th Street and Whyte Avenue in East Strathcona, hard by the Mill Creek Bridge) examining my latest finds with happiness, when my eye fell with startlement on a title in a small volume of Elizabethan Tragedies: The Merry Devil of Edmonton. “Why have I never heard of this?!” I exclaimed, perhaps aloud. There and then began a decade or so of study, writing, and mild badgering of the Edmonton theatre community about the need to somehow bring the Merry Devil (and, later, The Witch of Edmonton) to the stage in their namesake city in the distant woods of Rupert’s Land. A passing mention of the plays to Danielle La Rose of the Malachites (over frozen haggis, if I remember) about a year ago, led to a staged reading of the two plays at Edmonton’s first Winter Shakespeare Festival in 2020.

     The Merry Devil as it has come down to us is what would be termed a “bad” text. Many passages seem garbled and whole scenes appear to be missing. I have emended one speech, in Act IV, Scene ii, to remedy a generally recognized corruption of the text. Three scenes, those of Fabell disguised as Hildersham meeting the knights in the Rectory of Holy Trinity, of Sir John’s singing in the woods of the Mill Creek Ravine with his friends (the songs themselves are traditional), and of Smug and the Tavern Signs are my own creations. I have added these scenes to clarify very apparent inconsistencies in the play as it has survived. The events in my added scenes are hinted at in the play and the latter two survive in a chapbook version of the adventures of Peter Fabell, Smug the Smith, and his friends. I have little doubt that in some Elizabethan performances of The Merry Devil of Edmonton similar scenes would have been performed.

     Peter Fabell (like most of the characters in The Merry Devil of Edmonton) is a folkloric figure with perhaps some basis in fact. He bears resemblance to the Faust legends, but, unlike Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, Fabell traditionally outwits the Devil, saving his own soul (by being buried in the exterior wall of the Church in the Village of Edmonton, in the space between consecrated and unconsecrated ground) while having enjoyed the benefits of his Demonic contract.

     In our play, Fabell is still a young man, just beginning on his magical career of outwitting demons and the older generation. But he is already a powerful trickster figure. With his tricks Fabell helps his young friends overturn the plans of their parents. In fact, Fabell works to effect the transition of his society from the Medieval to Modern — in Marshall McLuhan’s words, “out of the world of roles into the new world of jobs” (The Gutenberg Galaxy, p. 22 in my old Signet paperback copy). Young Raymond, Millicent and their friends, and particularly Fabell, are not willing to quietly submit to the roles prescribed to them by their elders. Instead they set about, with the help of Fabell’s wit and magic, the job of creating their own future, and, in the end, they draw their elders into that world as well.

The Witch of Edmonton

This natural infirmity is most eminent in old women, and such as are poor, solitary, live in most base esteeem and beggary, or such as are witches; insomuch that Wierus, Baptista Porta, Ulricus Molitor, Edwicus, do refer all that witches are said to do, to imagination alone, and this humour of melancholy.
Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Pt. I, Sec. 2.

     The story of Elizabeth Sawyer, the Witch of The Witch of Edmonton, is a most quintessential tragedy, made even more tragic by the fact that Elizabeth Sawyer was a real woman tried and executed just a few years before the play was first performed. Mother Sawyer was scapegoated and killed for witchcraft. This in spite of the fact that the educated of her time, such as the real-life scholar Robert Burton, writing about what we might term “geriatric depression” in 1621 above were quite convinced that witchcraft was not really a “thing”. Mother Sawyer is a woman far more sinned against than sinning. She is condemned as a witch by neighbours who project their own fundamental ugliness onto her truly superficial ugliness. She wishes nothing else than to cling to her meagre existence, to be left alone, but she is condemned, beaten, and killed by the wealthy and the privileged, while those same wealthy and privileged go about their sinful business. Mother Sawyer so rightly describes that business of the privileged as actual “witchcraft”. Mother Sawyer is a tragic and pitifully realistic counterbalance to the educated and urbane Fabell. Both Fabell and Sawyer deal with the Devil, but it is only in poverty that the Devil truly has full, unrestrained power to do his damage.

     For the Winter Shakespeare Festival, I very heavily abridged the text of The Witch of Edmonton to bring it within the time constraints of the staged readings. This was a quite painful process: there is much poetry in this telling of the true-life tragedy of Elizabeth Sawyer. Much of the abridgement came down to the removal of single words, often of lines or brief speeches, but once of a large portion of a scene. The process was very opposite to that of adapting The Merry Devil, which largely involved adding my feeble creations rather than vandalizing a wonderful and coherent piece of art.

A Note on Locations

     The localities mentioned in the original text of the plays — Edmonton, Waltham, Enfield, Cheston (Cheshunt) — are now neighbourhoods of North London, but in Elizabethan times they were rural towns and villages in their own right. Just so, many neighbourhoods of our Edmonton were their own towns and villages not so very long ago. My own neighbourhood, Strathcona, was once a city in its own right. Since truly human truths are true wherever their story is told, I felt it would be both true and entertaining for modern Edmonton, Canada audiences if I quietly replaced the localities of London, England, circa 1600 with names of neighbourhoods, churches, and other landmarks around my home in 21st century Edmonton.
The Village of Edmonton in the plays, Fabell’s and Mother Sawyer’s home, is the namesake of our City of Edmonton, where so many today are energetically working like Fabell’s cohort, or tragically struggling like Mother Sawyer, to use imagination and wit to invent and reinvent themselves and their home. It has been small but enjoyable work to move the localities from the banks of the Thames to the banks of the North Saskatchewan.

Vanessa and the Mob

     There is a lady who lives in my neighbourhood– let’s call her “Vanessa”. She has a small dog, and she sells slim street newspapers each Saturday outside the “Farmers’” Market just down the Avenue from my house. If you live in Old Strathcona, you probably recognize Vanessa. The vast majority of the shoppers who pass by Vanessa drive cars from the suburbs each Saturday to get their little bit of “local” stuff before driving back to their distant homes. They can afford to shop at the Market. Vanessa can’t afford to buy her groceries at the “Farmers’” Market.

     Vanessa’s dog looks anxious, perhaps anxious to please. She is very calm, but when you talk to Vanessa– really talk to her — you get to know that she has — with reason – plenty of anger in her.

But Vanessa is kind.

     I help Vanessa out sometimes – less than I am able. And Vanessa has helped me, too, out of all proportion to the occasional twenty or collection of empties I’ve given her. She’s a “Street Person”, perhaps, but she’s definitely not “down and out”. Vanessa has a home. I have seen Vanessa survive surgery, eviction, alcoholism, and stuff I suspect but hesitate to imagine. Vanessa and her little dog are survivors.

     This evening, as I sit thinking about The Merry Devil of Edmonton and The Witch of Edmonton in my comfortable home in a comfortable neighbourhood of a comfortable Canadian city in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century — a time when all statistical indicators tell us unequivocally that I live in the best of times ever for humans on this planet (despite the quite apparent coming climate apocalypse) — I think of Vanessa and her little dog. And I see that I am Fabell — little but fortunate, not a survivor — and Vanessa is Mother Sawyer, gathering sticks just to survive. I wish so much Fabell had been a totally real person, not largely myth, and that he had used his cunning to help the tragically real Mother Sawyer, even if only with a shilling, or a few sticks, or nothing more than a kind word.

     And if, as it came for Elizabeth Sawyer, the mob ever were to come for Vanessa, in this modern time, in this Gilded Age of (anti-)Social Media in which it seems so easy for mobs to appear, I hope that I would help her, that the whole neighbourhood would help her, that Edmonton would help her, somehow.

     But I wonder . . .

Twin wishes, for these Plays, and for the Reader

     I wish that through my small efforts of adaptation, through the creativity of the actors performing the staged readings at the Winter Shakespeare Festival, and through the publication of my adaptations in a little volume, The Merry Devil of Edmonton and The Witch of Edmonton will have been, first of all, appreciated, if only for an evening, by an audience in Edmonton; and secondly, that at some point in the not too distant future these two plays will be taken up and be given a fuller production — and a new home — by Edmonton’s wonderful community of theatre artists.

     Foibles afflict all of our lives, and we all need distractions from the little and the big things that disrupt our days and nights. I hope you, Reader and Theatre-goer find these two undeservedly unknown plays at least a small, pleasant diversion. Most importantly, may all your future foibles be nothing like Mother Sawyer’s tragedy, and much, much more like Smug’s comedy.

     And if you see Vanessa anywhere in your travels, say “Hello. I hope you’re doing okay.”

     And give her a fiver, for her paper.

On Larry Niven’s “Flash Crowd” and the internet mob.

I like to reread the science fiction I first read when I was a teenager.  I find interesting the perspective a life lived in history gives to the artifacts of youth.  Recently I reread Larry Niven’s collection of short stories The Flight of the Horse and was particularly struck by “Flash Crowd”, a description, originally published in 1973, of an imagined future world in which personal teleportation has recently become ubiquitous and inexpensive, much like public telephone booths became in the last century.

The story follows an investigative reporter (we might call him a videographer today), first as he scouts stories by flitting between displacement booths, and later, for most of the story, as he tries to find a way to convince the world that he is not to blame for an ongoing, teleportation driven riot that began as he recorded it.  In the end he demonstrates that it is not he, as a representative of the free press, but rather the new technology of unregulated transfer booths that is responsible for what threatens to be a plague of floating flash riots around the world.  As one part of his investigation, he takes a booth to Tahiti and discovers that already there are permanent lawless crowds plaguing parts of the world, that the riot back home in Los Angeles is what parts of the world have been dealing with since shortly after the first displacement booths were installed.  In the end a plan is suggested which will see police having control of an emergency switch which will quickly bring any flash mobbed area back under the rule of law.

The details of the plan Niven comes up with are not of much interest to me at the moment.  My interest, rather, is in what I find to be striking parallels between our world and Niven’s Flash Crowd world, in which everyone with an axe to grind, a protest to make, a chip on their shoulder, a product to hawk, a fraud or theft to commit, a conspiracy to postulate, or even a book to review, can simply dial a code in a displacement booth and find themselves before the eyes of the world in an instant piled-on flash mob.  In Niven’s world, displacement booths allow individuals to actually go into the thick of the mob.  In our world, like so much else, the mob has become virtual.

I’ve written a bit elsewhere about what I see to be one of the dangers of our modern ability to travel virtually to virtually any spot on earth: that there are virtues and benefits for an individual in taking time and effort to experience things.  It is better to trek on foot to Everest  than it is to simply helicopter into Base Camp before climbing.  I think Niven’s story points out that there is also a danger to society in the instant gratification available to us in our digitally interwoven world.  Especially when our baser urges — what are traditionally known in some cultures as the Seven Deadly Sins — are allowed to be indulged instantly, the danger of the virtual mob is every bit as real as the danger Niven imagined in his world of displacement booths and physical flash mobs.

There is no need, I think, to rehearse the list of people who have had lives ruined by social media mobbing.  I’m sure there are few who are not aware, even if they’ve never visited them,  that there are permanently dangerous and unpleasant places in the underbelly of the online world.  But I do think there is a great need for thoughtful people to seriously consider the implications of this world we’ve created, to not simply live in a happy online bubble of cat gifs and instant links to family and friends.  Behind the cartoons are countless virtual floating flash riots which are causing and will continue to cause very real pain and loss to very real people.

I don’t have any answers, but I can suggest that a reading of Larry Niven’s “Flash Crowd” can offer some perspective from an unexpected half-century old source.

“The Two Gentlemen of Verona”: wherein the Freewill Players demonstrate how to properly “tweak” a problematic Shakespearean play.

No spoilers here.

Like the texts of a number of Shakespeare’s plays (The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew, Othello), The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a little uncomfortable for audiences today.  How can one respond to a happy ending that sees the victim of attempted rape reconciled to her attempted rapist just a few moments after the crime? How can we accept the whole cast going off to celebrate a wedding just after the Bride was almost raped by the Best Man?  Well, as the Freewill Players warn us in the playbill for this year’s production, “we have tweaked Shakespeare’s ending”, and the tweak is, I feel, a profound success.  By means of a final repetition (with slight modification) of a line spoken earlier in the play, the women of the play find freedom in the only way possible: as outsiders, exiles, outlaws from the male social structure of the play.

Much is often made of images of transformation in The Two Gentleman of Verona, of references to Ovid’s Metamorphoses — this thread is made obvious in the name of one of the two Gentlemen, Proteus.  But in this Freewill production, the transformation is wonderfully turned away from the men who are textually the centre of the play, in the final moment — which I hope I haven’t spoiled — in which the ever-present Shakespearean crossdressing female character embraces her femaleness and offers escape to the trapped-in-their-gender-roles women of the play.

The “tweaking” of the ending is textually subtle (unlike the bitter, savage mess the Citadel recently made of The Tempest), just a repetition of a few words from earlier in the play which reveal a wonderful new depth of meaning perhaps inherent in the text.  Certainly, the repeated line serves only to emphasize meanings already conveyed by the body language of the actors.

If I go on, there will be spoilers, so I will end by saying, the performers were uniformly delightful, the sound system had it’s usual glitches, and,

go see Freewill’s Two Gentlemen of Verona!

On the thing called “Traditional Knowledge” and the current seeming worship of that thing

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you
can understand.

— Yeats, from The Stolen Child

I came across an article today called “It’s taken thousands of years, but Western science is finally catching up to Traditional Knowledge”.

Really. Really?

So, an anecdote about the behaviour of some birds is being investigated by “Western Scientists” and they’re finding there might be some truth to the anecdote. So . . . Western Science is catching up to traditional knowledge?

No. Some scientists are investigating an hypothesis formulated on the basis of a traditional understanding of a certain behaviour of a certain type of bird. Western Science is, as it most often has, considering traditions and weighing the actual evidence in support of or against the validity of those traditions. “Traditional knowledge” has little to teach “Western Science” about vast areas of research and discovery. One might argue that “traditional knowledge” has a lot of catching up to do.

It would be foolish to accept uncritically, as the mentioned article seems to suggest, all or even most, or even some or even any traditional knowledge. That road leads to an acceptance that the Flood covered the Earth, the Ark is on Ararat, The walls of Jericho fell at a trumpet blast, Troy burned because of a woman named Helen, St. Brendan sailed a hide boat to a sleeping whale’s back and woke the beast with his campfire, Beowulf slew Grendel, Arthur will return at the time of England’s greatest need, a man can have visions of his ancestors by sticking a stingray spine through his penis, Mohammed split the moon, and there’s a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow.

Science offers us the tools to discriminate between traditions that truly reflect the world on the one hand and, on the other,traditions that may rather reflect the symbolic world of society or of psychology or of something else or of simple fancy. To dismiss “Western Science” as “finally catching up” is disingenuous at best. Science isn’t “catching up” to traditional knowledge of “firehawks”; scientists have gotten around to investigating one hypothesis among an infinitude of hypotheses waiting to be investigated.

I would rather celebrate the wonderful world “Western Science” shows us every day, a world far more full of wonder than any world offerred us by traditional systems of ordering things.