Last weekend, Mr. Brain and I went to see The King Lear Project, a “new” world premiere of King Lear presented in its original pronunciation. I managed to make it through reading the first three acts of the play before making it to the performance, vowing to go into it with some basic understanding of its plot just in case the language made it more difficult to follow. As it turns out, the original pronunciation wasn’t so strange sounding. Mostly I felt like I was listening to an Irish production, with a little more oomph than you might want conversationally; I noticed genuine spit sprays coming from actors’ mouths and was happy to be safely nested a few rows back.
But what really heightened my experience of the play, more specifically the forgotten gut-wrenching violence of the final two acts, was an unexpected and unwanted smell: the odoriferous, confusing, possibly conflicted, perfume of someone seated in front of me. I’d be hard pressed to really identify the bouquet presented to my nose; it wasn’t floral and it wasn’t musky in the way colognes can sometimes be, I’d have to say it fell somewhere between my brother’s circa 1986 Stinkor (yes, I still remember the smell quite vividly) and Nair, with a faint soapy undertone. As the play progressed, growing increasingly more bloody, each horrific scene became tragically attached to that smell. Gloucester’s eyes are poked out and stomped on: whiff. Sword goes under someone else’s arm: practically choking. The dead bodies of Goneril and Reagan are dragged on stage: there it is AGAIN.
In the process of recounting this experience to Mr. Brain, who somehow remained out of sniffing distance, he suggested that I try to find out exactly what the Globe smelled like back in the day. Dubious that there was actually any documentation concerning the olfactory experience of an original Shakespeare production, I flippantly typed something like “smell globe theater” into my trusty Google search box, only to be greeted with an extensive list of documents addressing the experience of attending an event at the Globe as being quite a noxious one.
One of the things that would strike us now about the Elizabethan theatre would be the smell. The smell includes the smell of crowds, their sweaty bodies and stinking breath. These were mixed with the smells of food and drink and the smoke from tobacco. If there were any toilets, these were open buckets, which did not help improve the atmosphere. (Source)
The cheapest part of the Globe was known as the “pit”, where audience members could stand to watch the play. Patrons of the pit where referred to as the “groundlings”, or in the hot summer days as the “stinkards”. It was hot and crowded in the pit, not to mention that the ground would have been covered with nutshells and other garbage. As John Marston, Shakespeare’s contemporary, is to have said of the experience, he was “choked with the stench of garlic … pasted to the balmy jacket of a beer- brewer.” (Source)
So, while I wasn’t standing in trash, I feel like I got a genuinely authentic Shakespearan experience, what with the dialect and the stench. I can’t say for sure how I would have fared in 16th century London, but let’s say that I applied a sense of frugality to a decision to see what all the fuss was about, skipping the seats in the upper gallery, and opting for a turkey leg, a cool poster, and three hours in the pit instead. If I close my eyes I can smell it, and I can hear the crunch of Gloucester’s eyes under foot. Perhaps this perfumed patron was a plant to give, at least me, a bona fide ride through King Lear. If not, I really hope that bottle of perfume is on its last sprays.
*Photo credit: Trollan Magician (I added the quote/text)