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.