Thursday, June 25, 2009

At long last, a reader! (Part 1: Villon)

Whoever you are, Anonymous, ave atque vale!

You gave Malcolm three tasks, derived from the previous posting about Bertie Smyllie's thing on Lord Haw-Haw:
  • Can you explain the "If Francois Villon were the king of France" quote?
  • Can you say more about "little Audrey"? That one sounds juicy.
  • Who is this Francis Stuart guy? Should he be in your list of the "not so great and the not so good"?

Well, here at Redfellow Hovel, we always try to oblige. Especially on put-out-the-trash day.

So here goes.

King for a Day

According to the modern legend (see below) Villon's boasts so annoyed Louis XI that he made the poet king for a day. And in that day Villon won the lady, saved the city, defeated the king's treachery ...

In truth, there is no evidence that Villon and Louis ever met: the rest is a wistful fiction.

Villon? Villain?

We are not even sure about the man's name. He appears in alternative versions of the same documents as "François de Montcorbier" and "François Des Loges", though he refers to himself and uses the acrostic "Villon" in his own verses.

He was born in the same year, 1431, that the English flambéed Jeanne d'Arc.

His father died when he was young, and he was raised by his mother in poverty. He studied at the University of Paris, and became a teacher. At the age of twenty-six he was involved in a street-fight, which caused the death of a priest: Villon was banished. He was reprieved after a petition to Charles VII, but was thereafter unable to keep a steady job. A further street-fight (again a woman seems to have been involved) and he had to flee Paris to the Loire. While he was there, he was indicted as the leader of a gang of burglars and church-robbers, and again banished. When Louis XI came to the throne, he was released from prison in an amnesty. Within a year, he was back in the prison of le Châtelet, under sentence of death (the previous church-robbings were the main charge). He was again reprieved, and disappears from recorded history.

All we have are his verse. And thereby hangs another tale.

Villon may not have been greatly served in that, of his poems, the best-known to the Anglophones is Dante Gabriel Rossetti's mid-Victorian rendering of Ballade des dames du temps jadis:
Where is Echo, beheld of no man,
Only heard on river and mere, --
She whose beauty was more than human? --
But where are the snows of yesteryear?
W.E.Henley had a go at Villon, notably the "looser" stuff, which was of the earth, earth, using thieves' cant and street slang. Here's his take on Villon's Tout aux tavernes et aux filles, a "crime does not pay" warning and a Straight Tip to All Cross Coves:
Fiddle, or fence, or mace, or mack;
Or moskeneer, or flash the drag;
Dead-lurk a crib, or do a crack;
Pad with a slang, or chuck a fag;
Bonnet, or tout, or mump and gag;
Rattle the tats, or mark the spot;
You can not bank a single stag;
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.
In passing, Malcolm notes that Henley is better remembered as the model for Long John Silver. In 1877, five years before The Sea Cook/Treasure Island RLS did a Villon short-story: A Lodging for a Night).

Which brings us neatly back on track. As this might show, later-nineteenth century Eng. Lit. had a significant cottage-industry in Villon...

The obligatory Irish connection

Justin Huntly McCarthy was Irish Nationalist MP for Newry between 1885 and 1892 (his Parliamentary career shuddered to a close when he eloped with a 17-year old actress). Among serious biographies and histories, McCarthy dashed off a fantasy, If I were King. It has a poetic dedication to "the loveliest lady this side of heaven", subscribed with the date of 21st December 1891 (so, go figure):
If I were king--ah love, if I were king!
What tributary nations would I bring
To stoop before your sceptre and to swear
Allegiance to your lips and eyes and hair.
Beneath your feet what treasures I would fling:--
The stars should be your pearls upon a string,
The world a ruby for your finger ring,
And you should have the sun and moon to wear
If I were king.
At the crucial moment of the rising action,
With a shout Villon sprang to his feet, draped his tattered cloak closely about him, struck a commanding attitude, and began to recite with great solemnity. Louis scooped his claw-like fingers behind his ear, that he might hear the better the words that fell from the wild poet's mouth:

All French folk, whereso'er ye be,
Who love your country, soil and sand.
From Paris to the Breton sea,
And back again to Norman strand,
Forsooth ye seem a silly band,
Sheep without shepherd, left to chance--
Far otherwise our Fatherland
If Villon were the King of France!
Hence Bertie Smyllie's reference.

[Many on-line sources are to be treated with suspicion. Some confuse our man (1859-1936) with his father, Justin McCarthy (1830-1912), also a nationalist MP, whom Parnell thought "a nice old gentleman for a quiet tea party". In at least one place, wikipedia has been ascribing authorship of If I were King to its American publisher, R.H.Russell.]
On stage

By 1901 McCarthy had adapted the novel (which is still in print) into a play, with the same title. It ran with considerable success on Broadway and, produced by George Alexander, at London's St James's Theatre.

The play was filmed in 1938, screenplay by Preston Sturges, as a Ronald Colman vehicle. Wikipedia (but not, surprisingly, IMDB) has a full synopsis of the (highly imaginative and grossly unhistorical) plot.

Music, Maestro, please!
In 1923, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart were at the beginning of their careers. They created a musical version of the McCarthy play for a Manhattan girl's school and then looked for a more prestigious venue for their collaboration. Broadway backers turned down the young team, but "borrowed" their idea and commissioned the more established Rudolf Friml to compose the piece.
Thus came about the 1925 operetta, The Vagabond King. Even those who may be unfamiliar with the source will recognise the tunes, as here Friml bashes out the overture:

In 1930, the film of The Vagabond King (for poster, see top of post) became Jeanette MacDonald's second screen appearance. For years that version only surfaced in occasional black-and-white clips. The original, filmed in two-strip Techicolor, existed in only one rotting copy in the UCLA archive. In 1991 a frame-by-frame rephotograph was done; and the achievement of director Ludwig Berger and art director Hans Dreier became, quite literally, clearer:

Dennis King, reprising his stage part got the two seat-wetters and crowd-pleasers, as there. A remake in 1956, with Kathryn Grayson and the Maltese tenor, Oreste Kirkup, gives this:

Anyone not roused by that has no soul. And probably is not a socialist. Sphere: Related Content

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