His Shoes Were Far Too Tight

By Philip Pearce

HOWARD BURNHAM and the Monterey Peninsula Theater Alliance came up with another bright, funny and attractive-looking hour of online theater last weekend. The subject of His Shoes Were Far Too Tight is Edward Lear of Owl and Pussy-Cat fame. It made for a diverting diptych of 19th century literary eccentrics with last month’s piece on Lewis Carroll.

Burnham starts at his dressing table as he attaches a big blob of facial hair that introduces Lear, like one of his nonsense characters, as an old man with a beard.  Free of larks and wrens, ducks and hens, he starts with an account of his beardless days as the 21st child of a stockbroker who, like Amy Dorrit’s dad, went bust and moved into a debtors’ prison.

Despite epilepsy and a bad chest, young Edward moves out of middle class poverty with an early commission from the British Zoological Society to do accurate water color illustrations of birds and animals, foreign and domestic. He begins to get the nod from aristocratic patrons like the Earl of Derby as he develops a gift for landscape painting and for nonsense rhymes for children. His upward mobility hits new heights when he is invited to spend some time tutoring Queen Victoria in the rudiments of watercolor.

So, if you’re thinking artist starving in a garret, think again. Best-selling children’s books and lucrative patronage make it possible for the sometimes-depressed comic to move into a lavish pied-à-terre in San Remo. When an ambitious entrepreneur announces plans for a popular-priced tourist hotel next door, Lear has the wherewithal to tear down his beloved Mediterranean mansion and have it copied, board by board, brick by brick, to a new location unpolluted by Teutonic tourists.

As always, Howard Burnham latches on to the moments of comedy, irony and an impressive succession of dialects, foreign and domestic. He speculates as to whether Lear’s doting sister and substitute-mother Ann’s interest in instrumental music influenced her baby brother’s later limerick about a young lady whose chin resembled the point of a pin with which she plucked the strings of a harp.

He wonders whether the lifelong embarrassment about his epilepsy which bachelor Lear acknowledged stood in the path of his matrimonial prospects and then influenced the social agonies he wrote into The Courtship of the Yongy-Bongy-Bo.

Then there’s the weird and wonderful scene in an Italian railway carriage that was my favorite moment of the afternoon. The diffident humorist listens silently as a pompous English tourist explains to a child reading one of Lear’s nonsense books that no such person as Edward Lear actually exists. The real author, he explains, is Lear’s longtime patron Edward Smith-Stanley, who has cleverly combined his first name with an anagram of his title as Earl of Derby to produce the pseudonym Edward Lear under which he writes funny poems.

Often sickly, occasionally depressed, Lear emerges as a more unhappy personality than Dobson, whose playful charm pervades Burnham’s study of Lewis Carroll, giving it an immediacy that is sometimes lacking in the more guarded and private Lear. But that’s a quality to be found in the subject, not the actor. Burnham is true to his sources and his comic imagination and visual taste produced an appealing and thought-provoking afternoon.

 

In a Dream within a Dream

By Philip Pearce

WE LIVE IN a Zoom society these days and last Saturday the talented and resourceful Howard Burnham proved that even pandemic lockdown digital theatre can be exciting, funny and beautiful to see. Written and acted by Burnham, In a Dream within a Dream is an affectionate portrait of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the stuttering Oxford mathematician, don and cleric who wrote the Alice books and became Lewis Carroll.

Like any actor you care to name Howard Burnham says he misses direct contact with a live audience. But his specialty is dramatized biography and Saturday’s performance showed that, with a little bit of know-how, research and finesse, it’s a genre that works well on the computer screen.

At first we see him full-screen, head and shoulders, in the academic gear and Victorian haircut of the Reverend Dodgson. But as his story unfolds he becomes a small, active image on the periphery of the action whose events and personalities take center screen in a series of striking pictures. The images combine with the narration to draw parallels between what Dodgson experienced in his life and what’s said and done by the characters in his books.

The story doesn’t start in 1863 with Dodgson rowing a boat from Christ Church College with Alice Liddell and her two sisters on board. Instead, it starts years later as he and a period camera cool their heels in the back garden of a suburban mansion waiting to photograph England’s revered poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson. This multitalented cleric had a hobby of collecting cameras and taking pictures that soon earned him a reputation as a society photographer specializing in portraits of children. “I like all children,” he once admitted, “except boys.” It’s a remark that has no doubt sparked a lot of post-Freudian speculation about his fondness for females until they reached puberty. Burnham quotes it and leaves the speculations to those who enjoy that kind of thing.

His Dobson-turned-Carroll is a lovable, vulnerable learned jokester who improvised a nonsense story during a summer boat ride that grew into a children’s classic full of narrative tricks, an unforgettable cast of crazy characters, provocative puzzles and Victorian social satire. But has anyone, I wonder, ever researched how those two sisters felt when Alice turned into the star figure and they didn’t get so much as minor supporting roles?

Burnham as always is superb. He’s a performer with flawless comic timing and a mastery of dialect and characterization that, in this case, provide chirpy little girls, an envious Scottish rival author, a fluty British matron, a growling Colonel Blimp-type and a score more of other colorful eccentrics moving through Charles Dodgson’s eventful life.

He’s good on research too. I’m a lifelong Alice addict but this artful script taught me how Dodgson used his proficiency in Latin to come up with “Lewis Carroll” as a nom de plume. And how the Anglo Saxon language figures prominently in the nonsense vocabulary of Jabberwocky.

A vote of thanks to Howard and to Monterey County Theatre Alliance for supplying a welcome Zoom hour of forget-the-virus entertainment.

The show will be viewable on line for the next few weeks. Click HERE