by Brenda W. Clough
For the historical fictioneer there are two ways to research. One is of course through books. Paging through dusty tomes, plowing through period letters, digging up the original documents, oh yes. You can grow old this way.
But the other way is to go out. See and hear, touch and experience! I will visit ruins forever. I adore old houses, historical festivals, re-enactments, and period drama. Luckily, especially in December, the Victorians are much with us, and I’m writing a novel of the period. So I went to the MetroStage theater in old town Alexandria, VA to see Christmas at the Old Bush & Bull. This show is a time machine that takes you to the famous pub in Hampstead, the Old Bull & Bush, in December 1912 for their music-hall variety show. Old songs, jokes that must have been corny when Victoria sat on the throne, and costuming are more or less as they were in the day. You won’t hear (or get to sing along with!) numbers like “Wot Cher” or “The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God” or “Me Little Yo-Yo” very often these days.
This show was written and directed by Catherine Flye (see her in the picture, costumed for her touching and funny “Nobody Loves a Fairy”). She has perfectly bridged the historical gap; we can sit in the seats in our Nikes and polarfleece and enjoy songs that our grandparents loved. The audience had a heavy sprinkle of Anglos and Anglophiles, all well on in years, here to hear the songs of their youth.
And what does this get the humble researcher? Well it is plain that in the past jokes were just as dirty and the pleasure of sexual innuendo were every bit as present as they are today. It is not distant, the past. We are still the same people, in spite of our tooth fillings and Androids. Would I get the same effect if I sat in the stands in Arles and listened to a Roman farce, or is that too distant? They used the pentatonic scale; probably the music would sound odd. Why did my characters go to the Bird in Hand, the other Hampstead pub of the period, rather than the Bull & Bush? More research is clearly called for….