There was a crooked king who had a crooked back

 

Richard

Well, you might have heard on the news or read in the paper a few years ago that they’ve found King Richard the Third.

I don’t know about you, but I was getting awfully worried.  After all, he’d been missing for over 500 years.  And they hadn’t even put out an Amber alert.

It turns out he’d been in the parking lot of a grocery store in Leicester, a small city in the English midlands, all this time.  Or actually under the parking lot, which was the site of a monastery when he was buried there.

DNA evidence and carbon dating apparently established the remains as almost certainly those of Richard, the cause of death likely a “large skull fracture behind the left ear that was consistent with a crushing blow from a halberd.”  A halberd, according to Webster, was a battle ax or pike mounted on a shaft about six feet long.  That would have done it, I’d think.  The spine of the skeleton is significantly crooked, which accounts for his trademark posture.

The freshly unearthed sovereign might not have been the worst monarch in British history – that dubious honor might have to go to King John, the despicable ruler who is best remembered from the Robin Hood tales and was so abysmally inept that no other king in the 800 years since has taken his name – but Richard has to win the prize for the meanest.

At least tradition and legend have made him that.  And the greatest literary voice in England, and arguably in the world, was largely responsible for it.

Leicester, where Richard has recently turned up in that parking lot, is just up the road from Stratford on Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare, who had yet to be born when King Richard died.  But Shakespeare would go on to write the play that would forever saddle the hunchbacked monarch with his vile reputation and revolting legacy.

In Richard III Shakespeare paints the portrait of a dastardly fellow who murdered his two nephews, princes aged about 10 and 13, by walling them up, still alive, in a castle in order to assume the throne.  He doesn’t pull any punches in his portrayal; his Richard is a real piece of work as a villain: scheming, scowling, snidely snickering. For half a millennium, famous actors (Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen in two of the best film adaptations) have pulled on heavy shoulder pads to affect the awkwardly jutting right hump and limped along, snarling out some of the poet’s best lines.

“Now is the winter of our discontent,” the grotesque cripple moans in the opening scene, “made glorious summer by this sun of York, and all the clouds that loured (loomed dark and threatening) upon our house in the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”

He goes on like that for five long acts, spitting out vile snippets and long speeches full of venom and cold calculation.  He even alludes to his own physical ugliness, lamenting that “dogs bark when I halt by them.”  And at the end, on the field of battle, he shakes his gnarled hand and, in a desperate clutching at straws to survive the day, shouts out what would become his epitaph:  “A horse!  A horse!  My kingdom for a horse!”

He didn’t get the horse.  He got the business end of that halberd instead during the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

Then he apparently got unceremoniously thrown into a hastily dug grave by some nervous monks in the monastery where his body was delivered after the battle.  The brothers wanted no association with the vile king so they covered his naked body up and kept their silence.  Being monks, they were probably very good at keeping their silence.

But rumors persisted.   The general site of the old monastery was always believed to be in a particular section of Leicester, and recent excavations hit the jackpot.

Richard was buried in royal splendor in a cathedral. And a group of historians hope the recent discovery can be what they’ve called “a springboard to a new age of scholarship” that might lead to a reappraisal of his life and legacy.

Just how they hope to do that with nothing more than a heap of 500 year old bones is beyond me.  But never underestimate the commitment of historical revisionists.  Before they’re through they might manage to dehobgoblinize the old rascal to such an extent that he could end up a saint.

Though there might be two little murdered princes tucked neatly away who would have likely had a thing or two to say about that.

 

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The night the fat lady finally sang for me

jones hall

Let me tell you about a love affair, other than the much more important one with my wife, that I’ve been involved in for a long time.

And it began with a blind date.

When I was a young teacher I did a favor for a colleague, who offered to reciprocate with a nice dinner with her and her husband, followed by a “surprise.”

The dinner was a good steak and trimmings at The Stables, a Houston culinary landmark that is now gone.  Over dessert, coffee and a snifter of brandy I must have tried hard to not look disappointed when I was told the surprise: I was being treated to a night at the … opera.

My life, prior to that evening, had been completely opera-free. There is a remote possibility that I could have, on a dare, come up with two or three titles, and maybe one composer.  I admit to having been confident that I was in for a long and boring ordeal.

When what I was in for was, in fact, a revelation.

We saw “Faust”, one of the grandest of grand operas, with rousing choruses, sweeping melodies, moral dilemmas, and an imposing finale with nothing less than one character ascending to heaven and another descending to hell.   Now that’s something you don’t see every day.

I came out of Jones Hall, which was then the home of Houston Grand Opera, humming.  In the car, I wanted to know about the composer, the story, the singers, and everything else. My hosts were probably glad to be rid of me after our hour drive.

I was caught: hook, line, and sinker.  And, like many fresh converts to anything new and fascinating, I dove in head first.  Within weeks I had seen another production in person, had subscribed to Opera News magazine, and was a faithful listener to the Saturday afternoon Texaco radio broadcasts of live performances from the Met in New York.

I was in an Astros group back then, which consisted of five of us who bought mini-season ticket packages and drove up to the Dome several times a month. On the way home one night I told the guys I’d have to miss the next game.  It was with the Cincinnati Reds, which was one of our favorite pairings because we loved to boo Pete Rose.  So the guys wanted to know what was up.

When I told them I had a ticket to “Rigaletto”, with a world-class baritone in the title role (maybe Sherrill Milnes; I can’t remember), they looked at me as if I had spoken in Swahili. And I was in for some ribbing after that.

But I didn’t care.  I was a bona fide opera fan, complete with strong binoculars rather than those little wimpy opera glasses.  And it was a good thing, given the nosebleed section seats which were the only ones I could afford.

As time went by, I discovered that I am a neophyte fan at best.  I don’t understand any foreign languages, don’t know an E minor from an F sharp, and much of opera is beyond me.  I fully understand that Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and “The Marriage of Figaro” are supposed to be two of the best compositions ever, but after the soaring overtures there is just too much harpsichord plucking for me. And Wagner’s Ring cycle is too thunderously loud and so full of mythic characters flying around that I can’t keep up with all of them.

My admittedly provincial tastes run to stories with pleasing melodies throughout, a triumphal march or two and a good bit of melodrama, usually resulting in a beautiful young girl (who might, depending on the performance, be played by a rotund and not so very young soprano) who almost certainly dies in the final scene.  In other words, I am an Italian, perhaps specifically a Sicilian, at heart when it comes to opera. Give me Puccini’s “Tosca”, “Turandot”, and “La Boheme”.  Or Verdi’s “La Traviata” and “Aida”.  Or Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana”, which might just be my favorite.

I think I like opera – or the relatively few operas that I know anything about – because it combines several theatrical genres into one artistic vehicle. As someone once famously said: “If you end up in a performance of a Puccini opera where the acting and singing are bad and the sets are uninteresting, you can just close your eyes and let the music wash over you.”

And as a writer I appreciate how operatic composers bring into play a balanced variety of useful tools to tell a story: plot, melody, dialogue, staging, and the full sweep of human emotions, from lively festivity in the Christmas Eve Paris street cafe scene complete with a children’s’ chorus and a snowfall in the second act of “La Boheme” to the tender last moments of little Mimi, whose “little hands will never be cold again” two acts later.  If we writers can blend and employ our various tools and manipulations that successfully then we’ll have gone a long way toward telling the stories we want to tell.

The steak dinner I was given a long time ago was very nice indeed.  But that night at the opera was the first kiss, so to speak, of a love affair that has endured nicely.

[Part of this first appeared as a newspaper article many opera performances ago]

 

 

As days go, this is a special one

flag

Every year about this time a few lyrics of a song wander through my mind: “Firecrackers poppin’, lighting up the sky; hail to the flag, it’s the Fourth of July.”

It’s from an old record album I bought in the PX of the army base I was stationed at in Illesheim, Germany in 1973.  The composer and singer was Roger Miller, the King of the Road himself, and the title of the album was Dear Folks, Sorry I Haven’t Written Lately.

I still have that record, stored away in a trunk with a hundred or so others that I can finally listen to again since my good wife surprised me with a turntable a couple of Christmases ago. I truly missed those big platters of wax for a long time, and took them out on occasion just to look at their covers; I even missed the crackling sound that always came when the needle sank down into the grooves.  I’m of a generation that still refers to a place where CDs can be purchased as a “record store.”

That Roger Miller LP must have contained other good tunes, but the one that got caught in my brain and is still there was the short, simple ditty about Independence Day.

I guess that’s because it’s basically a simple holiday.  Coming, as it does, in the hottest part of the year, it’s given over pretty much to picnics and fireworks and outdoor concerts.  There’s no telling how many hot dogs and hamburgers get gobbled down on that day, washed down with considerable tonnage of soft drinks and beer.

Amid all that hoopla and food and drink a little patriotism works its way in, chiefly of the flag-waving variety.  Probably the closest we’ve come to a commemoration worthy of the event was in 1976, the Bicentennial, which – as those of you who remember it will probably agree – was one heck of a party.  What with church bells tolling, the Hudson River full of hundreds of tall ships, and the world’s great orchestras blaring out “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

That year we actually reflected, I think, on the handful of men who put their lives on the line one hot long-ago summer night in Philadelphia and transformed themselves into both traitors and patriots with the stoke of a pen.

Eleven years after that night the crafters of the Constitution emerged exhausted from the same building, having sufficiently corralled their strong wills – though not quite tightly enough, leaving the abolition of slavery out of their factoring – into a single document that would become the new nation’s bedrock and backbone. That night, somebody called out to Benjamin Franklin, asking him “Well, Doctor, what did we get – a Republic or a Monarchy?”  The old man – weary, weak, and deciding whether sleep or a drink should come first – responded with seven words which found their way into history: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

We’ve somehow managed, amid wars and tragedies and political bickering, to keep it.

I’ve never been to Independence Hall.  The only time I was ever in Philadelphia was when I was nineteen and flew in there on my way to Fort Dix, New Jersey where I would be shipped out to Germany, where I bought that Roger Miller record that I can finally listen to again.

But I intend to go to that building; it’s on my agenda.  I want to stand in the very room that is, by any measure, the birthplace of the United States. Because, like most folks, I tend to take what happened there in 1776 and 1787 for granted, and lose the pure glory and bravery of it in my everyday life.

That little snippet of a song is on my mind, making its annual visit.  “Firecrackers poppin’, lighting up the sky; hail to the flag, it’s the Fourth of July.” And it’s fitting, I think, that it’s such a simple little bit of wordsmithing.

Because there’s not really anything so very complicated about loving your country and celebrating its founding.

And there shouldn’t be.

 

(This was first a newspaper column sometime or another, then part of a collection of some of those musings published by TCU Press )