John Aubrey was a chronicler of 17th century England and shared with Pepys and Evelyn the curse of living in interesting times. Aubrey was, however, a biographer rather than a diarist. He wrote 100 or so pen portraits of the great and the good; some are mere scraps, others little gems of the biographer’s art. A few were published in his lifetime (but not by him) and caused scandal and lawsuits. Aubrey, in the tradition of all gossips, does tend to dwell on feet of clay rather than noble accomplishment.
In his play Patrick Garland has woven together the best bits of Aubrey's posthumous work, Brief Lives, with an affectionate portrait of the author at the end of his days. He is in reduced circumstances living in one room surrounded by the curiosities, the books and the memories of a compulsive hoarder. We are attempting an in the round or a deep thrust stage production. We will try and recreate a small piece of London town in 1695 and let you look through the half-timbered walls of his bed-sit whilst John gets on with his life. Patrick Garland allows Aubrey to interact very directly with his audience which fits well with his sociable nature. Old John Aubrey was no recluse and, in his last years, had neither the means or facilities to entertain as he would like. He will be delighted you have called round so that he can share with old friends his poignant, funny, insightful, and bawdy anecdotes from those interesting times.
As he says, "The retriving of these forgotten Things and Reminisenses from Oblivion in some sort resembles the Art of a Conjuror, who makes those walke and appeare that have layen in their graves many hundreds of yeares: and to represent as it were to the eie the Places, Customes and Fashions, that were of the old Times."
Medieval London boasted a dozen or more Dirty Lanes and Dirty Alleys. In 1696 most were still living up to their name. Yet a second floor room in Mistress Byerley's Lodging House in Dirty Lane, Bloomsbury, was a reasonable bolt-hole for a middle class gentleman down on his luck to pass his last days. Just a short stroll north of the old city wall, it was well inside the expanding metropolis. The slum clearances and gentrification (started in nearby Bloomsbury Square) were approaching but were yet to touch this teeming inner suburb. In 1665 John Evelyn wrote a pamphlet campaigning for a Clean Air Act and his description still applied: "In general the buildings are as deformed as the minds and confusions of the people, for if a whole street be fired (an accident not unfrequent in this wooden city) the Magistrate has either no power, or no care to make them build with any uniformity, which renders it, though a large, yet a very ugly Town, pestred with Hackney-Coaches, and insolent Carremen, Shops and Taverns, Noyse, and such a cloud of Sea-coal, as if there be a resemblance of Hell upon Earth, it is in this Vulcano in a foggy day."
On a clear, crisp, winter’s day (such as the day you have chosen to visit John) London Town with its thirst for new ideas and intellectual challenges is not such a bad place to be. You are just a few minutes from the Coffee Houses, the shops, the business heart at the Royal Exchange or a Royal Society meeting at Gresham House. Just be careful, as you scurry down the street towards Holborn, that you avoid the slops thrown from the upper windows of the overhanging three- and four-storey buildings lining your way.
At some point between the Tudor poets and Samuel Johnson, English vocabulary settled to a form we can easily recognise and follow. Patrick Garland sticks very closely to Aubrey's own words, yet I have found only a few where we might need help from Johnson’s Dictionary, e.g. UMBRAGE: shadow; appearance, GENIUS: the protecting or ruling power of men, places or things, INGENIOSE: witty; inventive.
From the introduction to Richard Barber’s selection of Aubrey’s Brief Lives published by The Folio Society in 1975
He was born in 1626, eldest son of a Wiltshire squire whose estates were fairly heavily encumbered with debt. He was given a good grammar education, but his university studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, and although he returned to Oxford in 1646, and also tried to study at the Middle Temple at the same time, he never took a degree or was called to the bar. Instead, at the end of 1648, he had to return home to help his father manage his estates during his illness. His father died four years later, and Aubrey was faced with fairly considerable debts. Handicapped by these and a subsequent series of lawsuits, over property in Wales and over an action brought by a lady whom he had once hoped to marry, his affairs went from bad to worse, ending in bankruptcy in the early 1670s. Aubrey put it all down to a bad horoscope at birth, evaded his creditors, and settled down to enjoy a happy delitescency or concealment, with the aid of his friends. This sociable, rootless existence suited him well, though it did not help him to complete any of the various antiquarian projects to which he now turned his hand.
Aubrey's chief interest was in the antiquarian tradition of Leland and Canmden, the collection of items which we should now classify as archaeology, topography and local history. His most ambitious scheme was to have been called Monumenta Britannica, and the parts that he completed include a fine study of Avebury and Stonehenge, while he came nearest to finishing his Natural History of Wiltshire, which covered much the same range of subjects. His only published work was the Miscellanies of 1696, a book of superstitions and strange happenings, which are really a kind of scholar's gossip, the fruits of a lifetime's interest in mere curiosities as well as more serious matters: it did his reputation no good at all.
He worked at these topics, as well as various other ingenious and equally incomplete projects, until his death in 1697. He lived mostly in London, with occasional visits to the country and to Oxford, which was still his favourite haunt. In London, he frequented the coffee houses, and went to the meetings of the newly formed Royal Society, of which he had been a member since 1664. Here he met the most distinguished men of science of his day, and indulged his interest in mathematics, which had always been one of his favourite studies. Like Evelyn and Pepys, he was one of the onlookers rather than contributors when it came to serious debates, but he had his own distinctive knowledge to draw on for the more general topics which were equally part of the Society's discussions.
Brief Lives was first produced in 1967. It was performed by Roy Dotrice and directed by the author, Patrick Garland. Its London run extended to more than three years. Roy Dotrice reprised the role in a UK tour in 2008. It is easy to confuse the play with Aubrey's actual writings. Over the last two hundred years there have been many selections of Aubrey's disorganised and unedited ramblings published. It was a stroke of brilliance on Garland’s part to see the dramatic possibilities of combining Aubrey's writing and his life. The play was performed at Lewes Little Theatre in 1973 by Martin Blyth. This memorable production was one of two that convinced me that I had to get involved in Lewes Theatre Club. (The other was Bill Smurthwaite’s production of Cabaret).
Patrick Garland calls for a naturalistic setting. There can be few other plays where French's Acting Edition uses 750 words to describe the set. Aubrey's room is the second character in this one-man play. The curiosities, the books, the momentos and the papers and unfinished manuscripts are both a metaphor for Aubrey's mind and a set of cues for yet more anecdotes. I am grateful to Victoria for suggesting we attempt a Foyer production. It creates an intimacy hard to achieve in a proscenium setting though it also produces additional challenges in designing and dressing the set. The audience should think of themselves both as observers looking in on this lost world, and as old friends who have dropped by to hear a few more anecdotes from, as Aubrey puts it, ”the old times”.
Dudley Ward, Production Director
Despite the lavender which was strewn generously around the floor, you could almost smell the foetid air in this squalid and overcrowded room with its small window overlooking the noisy street. Books, papers, manuscripts, busts of worthies, food, quill pens, crockery and cooking utensils filled all available space on the surfaces. Behind this clutter was a substantial, almost imposing, four-poster bed with faded red hangings closely drawn, hangings that had seen better days and probably better years. On the very top of the bed were tottering piles of books. Then the hangings were opened and an elderly figure slowly emerged. A day in the life of John Aubrey in 1696 had begun.
This shambles of the room matched the man’s lifestyle and was a suitable setting for the play. The confined space in the foyer was sadly fitting for a man born to wealth who was now ending his days in penury. But he still had his books, his writings, his memories and his alert intelligence: all so much more important to him than money. Aubrey chatted, giving us a picture of seventeenth century life in anecdotal form, including his own biographical details. His reputation as a gossip has been established by these tales, but they reveal him as a kindly, compassionate man, with an alert and inquiring mind and a wide range of acquaintances, as well as a man with a good ear for a story who is not afraid to use generous quantities of hearsay and embellishment. Walter Raleigh, William Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth featured, among many others.
This was a good evening in the theatre with an engaging performance by Dudley Ward. As the helpful and informative programme pointed out, Brief Lives was written by Patrick Garland as a conflation of Aubrey’s writings and his life. The script is cleverly structured to give the impression of an improvised ramble, with the physical action arising from the circumstantial detail of Aubrey’s day, a day he spent in his nightclothes and a less than immaculate gown. His chamber pot was used with discretion behind the hangings of the bed, though his emptying the contents through the window was less discreet and reminded one of the perils of London streets in the seventeenth century. A bread and milk breakfast was lost onto the floor by a gesture that accompanied the story being told at the time, a loss which Aubrey didn’t really notice because the talk was more important than mere sustenance.
But the actor made Aubrey’s priorities clear, devoting more attention to his actions when he considered them important, as when he shinned up the ladder attached to the bed to retrieve a Latin text from the pile on the bed canopy or when he was scribbling something at his desk with his splendid quill pen – though attention to detail lapsed here, in that most of the books looked newer than the seventeenth century and there didn’t seem to be an inkwell. The interval, during Aubrey’s afternoon nap when he remained dozing on stage, was ended when he stirred, awoke and launched directly into a story about Sir Walter Raleigh.
In his sound effects, Clive Vinall successfully created the pandemonium around these mean lodgings, with the squawking child in the adjacent room, the neighbouring lutenist, and the singing Irish woman, supplemented by the noises of revelling passers-by, the watchman and the rest of the seventeenth century street life.
Dudley Ward designed, directed and performed this production, though Joyce Fisher was credited as Assistant Director. To direct your own acting is potentially hazardous, so using an experienced director in this role was a good idea. The audiences enjoyed these questionable tales and meandering memories. So did I.