London Letters #2: “O for a Muse of Fire”

By Adam Katz

Yesterday I walked past the Globe Theater. It was intense. Just walking past it.

I’ve been in London now for over a week. I’ve seen a bunch of the tourist things you’re supposed to see, and not seen others. I saw the treasures of the Sutton Hoo excavation at the British Museum. I saw all the old manuscripts on display at the British Library. I’ve had fish and chips 3 times. And yes there have been things that made me stop and stare. Most of those moments occurred in Kew Gardens.

But to understand why just seeing the outside of the Globe was such a moment, I think we need to establish something. London is not cute, and it’s not quaint. If you’ve ever been to the center of London, you know this. There’s a street called “London Wall.” It’s a street, not a wall. It follows the path of the old Roman Wall (built around the year 200; torn down around the year 1800) but the two sides of the street are lined by modern office buildings. South of the Thames, particularly in the Southwark and Elephant-and-Castle neighborhoods, I get a similar vibe to certain parts of Queens: cute, little, old buildings with apartments on the top floors and immigrant-run restaurants and shops on the bottom floors. It’s the closest I’ve come to feeling at home since I got here. Ok fine. That part feels homey and comfortable—the part where the immigrants live. But most of the rest of central London that I’ve seen is aggressively angular. The old world charm that suffuses other European cities is so conspicuously absent from even the tiniest corner of most parts of the city that even the occasional Tudor-style beam-and-stucco pub comes off as the Disney-ish fakery it so obviously is.

The only thing cute or quaint about London is the naming. When I was a kid, I used to say things like “Massachussetts? More like ASSachussets!” And it seems to me that the “more like” guy got to name all the things in London. Because when you try to play that game in London, you find the work has already been done. “Cockfosters? More like…” nope, that one’s good already. “Newington Butts? More like…” Nope, there’s nowhere to go. And you need that kind of amusement, just like you need parks, because the physical experience of the city is mostly hard edges.

Now. I’m not faulting a city for modernizing. Nor am I faulting a city that was literally leveled by fire for taking the opportunity to Build Back Better (something American cities could use some advice on how to do). But I won’t pretend something of the charm and beauty of an older city, of an older pattern of architecture, isn’t lost. What would be the point of pretending? And so, across the Thames from St. Paul’s Cathedral, accessible by way of the spare, modern Millennium Bridge (a footbridge, to be specific) and right next to the Tate Modern, which looks like an abandoned factory, is this round building of plaster panels framed by wooden beams and covered by a thatched roof. A thatched frigging roof. 

That roof… I bet they put some sort of fire-resistant resin on it. They have to, right? The great fire of London was in 1666, but the Globe burned down in 1613, a victim of the sparks from its own stage-magic. It was rebuilt a few years later and then torn down again in the 1640s, a casualty of the Civil War.

But from when it was built in the 1590s until the day it was torn down, a Londoner with a free afternoon and a penny (a bit more than the price of a loaf of bread—about ten dollars in modern American currency) could go there (or to the Curtain, the Swan, the Rose, the Bear Garden…) and see a play by William Goddamn Shakespeare. I don’t believe in magic… but that’s magic, isn’t it? And it’s still there. It’s been there for about thirty years now, and the price for groundlings is, in constant dollars, or rather pounds, the same as it was in the 1590s. The idea of that much beauty and grace and artistry; of that many dirty jokes and human-spirit-affirming speeches being nearly free for nearly everyone in the city. And that’s to say nothing of the beautiful affirmations of queer and interracial love that many of those playwrights crafted… The feeling I experienced standing on that bridge looking at that theater was nearly religious.

Just seeing it, it was like a door opened. I was walking with Anuja at the time and stories just started pouring out of me. About how before there was the Globe, there was the Theater, founded by James Burbage (his son, Richard Burbage, originated the roles of Hamlet and Richard III and a bunch of others). There was a dispute over the ownership of the Theater, though, and so James and his cronies literally dismantled the Theater, timber by timber, and used the disputed materiel to build a new one on a plot of land they were more secure in their ownership of. Stories poured out about how people, when they visited the theater, cracked nuts and ate the meat as they watched the plays, and how that cracking sound must have echoed off the wooden interior. About how, then as now, the theater-folk were constantly living under the threat of closing down due to plague. About how even though the 16th century Christian divines were ignorant of modern germ theory (as opposed to wilfully ignorant but that’s a rant for another o’clock) they somehow knew that closing down the place where people went to congregate was a good idea. About how the first permanent, purpose-built theater in England, the Red Lion, was built in Whitechapel, which was a tannery district outside the walls of London. How it must have smelled when the Londoners walked or rode the distance outside the walls to see the plays! The Red Lion went out of business in about fifteen years.

It all just came pouring out. I wonder if I would have felt the same way had I not had pieces by Shakespeare memorized. It felt as though they were inside me, clamoring to come out:

Alas! Poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio
A fellow of infinite jest…

Nay, I can smile and murder whiles I smile

Thou, Nature, art my goddess

The places in my body where those memorized lines and speeches are lodged were buzzing with the same mixture of anticipation and contentment that all of me felt when I was getting off the plane in London-Heathrow, on the cusp of seeing Anuja for the first time in 18 months. Every muscle alternated between tense and relaxed, except the ones I was smiling with, and my whole being was suffused with one thought: I’m almost home.

Read London Letters #1: I’m having a Great Trip

Read London Letters #3: “The Rain it Raineth Everyday”

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