Sunday, 11 March 2012

Oliver Goldsmith,The National Theatre, and a splash of Charles Dickens

The programme for the current National Theatre production of She Stoops to Conquer (piece by Frank Delaney) describes Goldsmith as “born with a grossly protruding forehead and upper lip, while his chin receded like a man aghast”.


The River Thames at Waterloo Bridge, looking across to the National Theatre

In today’s society, Goldsmith might have masked the latter feature with a tell-tale growth of beard, but that was not an option in his day – born 1728 or 1730 and died 1774 - and so he resorted to the personality traits of wit and affability, coupled with  literary talent, to make his mark on the world.

She Stoops to Conquer premiered at the Covent Garden Theatre in 1773, only a year before Goldsmith’s death, and was an immediate commercial success. It tells the story of Charles Marlow and George Hastings, two London dandies, who travel to the country to pursue their love interests and become embroiled over a night in a story of mistaken identities that ultimately resolves itself in joy and happiness all round.

One of the indicators of the play’s enduring popularity is that it has become established as a school text for GCSE study.

It’s recorded that the Covent Garden Theatre was destroyed in 1808. There are some indications that it stood on what is now the site of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, although the evidence I’ve seen is not conclusive.

Although the National does its share of including "name" performers – also on the repertoire of the present company is Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors with Lenny Henry in the lead role – one of the joys of seeing a show there is confidence in the strength of the company without having to look for an obvious star. Reviews of She Stoops, including 4* from the Guardian and the same from The Daily Telegraph, support the strength of this theory.

If there was one stand-out in the performance I saw, it was Sophie Thompson as Mrs Hardcastle, the hyper and often hysterical mother of Kate Hardcastle, the object of Charles Marlow’s desires, with her elongated vowels that produced a rustic version of the voices in that cultural TV masterpiece, The Only Way is Essex. But also David Fynn delivered a fine Tony Lumpkin in a role that might have gone to James Corden not that long back (and, of course, Corden’s emergence was assisted by playing in the National production of Alan Bennett’s
The History Boys in 2004, and in the subsequent film).

Also Katherine Kelly impressed greatly as Kate Hardcastle. It’s a shame that when you check out her record and see she was doing Royal Shakespeare Company work in 2004/5, that there was any popular wonderment as to whether she could hack an NT lead role after playing a barmaid in Coronation Street.

What about The Temple connection, though? If you asked the question which literary figure do you most associate with that enclave of barristers, the Inns of Court, you would likely get the answer Charles Dickens. And by all accounts Dickens was influenced by Goldsmith in his choice of characters and scenes.

However, Goldsmith also has his right to be acknowledged in the world of lawyers, as he lived in various parts of The Temple from 1764 onwards, and indeed died there and is buried there in the graveyard of The Temple Church.

The graveyard of Temple Church

From this connection come the name of the adjacent barristers’ set, Goldsmith Chambers, which prides itself on associations stretching back to the 19th century.

Goldsmith Building, containing Goldsmith Chambers
Moreover, in his time as a doyen of London arts society Goldsmith gave dinners in his apparently extravagantly furnished chambers, then in Brick Court, for luminaries Dr Samuel Johnson (best known for his Dictionary of the English Language) and Dr Thomas Arne (best known as the composer of Rule Britannia).

What might be seen as one attribute uniting Goldsmith and Dickens is power of observation. Goldsmith’s essay, On National Prejudices, opens:

“ As I am one of that sauntering tribe of mortals, who spend the greatest part of their time in taverns, coffee houses, and other places of public resort, I have thereby an opportunity of observing an infinite variety of characters, which, to a person of a contemplative turn, is a much higher entertainment than a view of all the curiosities of art and nature.”

Dickens might possibly have spent more time than Goldsmith in pounding the pavements in search of subject-matter, but there is something of both of them in the quotation.

The author is a City of London and City of Westminster Guide, and former law firm partner, who does guided walks in the City and in Westminster. For further information see tabs. On Thursday 5th April he is doing a Legal London walk.






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