At the Drop of a Hat
At the Drop of Another Hat
Tried by the Centre Court
And Then We Wrote...
[A Monologue. MF talks, DS plays Greensleeves on the piano at a lazy tempo.]
There's another splendid tune from England's great heritage of musical rhubarb. Greensleeves, a song we all know and love. Donald knows it and he hates it.
[The music stops]
Really very interesting how that tune, Gleensleeves, came to be written. I'd like to tell you about it. Are you all sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.
1546, if you'll cast your minds back, was a very bad year for the theatre. Gorboduc was doing poor business at The Globe; Gammer Gurten was still giving everyone the Needle*. Apart from Noah's Flodde (On Ice), that's about all there was on. Not even Salad Days in The Mouse Trap. No, not even us.
Everybody's just seemed to stop writing. And the Master of The King's Revels is getting terribly worried, because he has to have a new revel on in time for Candlemas, see, it's part of his job. So, he sent for a playwright friend of his. And he said to him, "Look, Kyd." A-ah! That was his name: "Kyd." "Eh, how about your writing us another of your little Spanish Tragedies or something, I did so enjoy the last one." Kyd said, "If it's all very well for you, standing there, smoking that potato, telling people to write plays, it's not as easy as all that. All the best plots have been used already. Second volume of Hollinshed's ain't out yet. Any case, the public nowadays are only really interested in bear baiting and cock fighting. Morton's Fork! They don't give a fig for the live theatre." Very angry, young man, this 'Kyd.'
Well, the Master of the King's Revels sort-of calmed him down a bit, you know, as you do, stood him a butt of sack and so on. Said, "But, we really must try to think of something because this' going to be rather a special occasion: we're nationalizing the monastaries." He said, "If they offer you one, don't take it 'cause if Bloody Mary gets in they'll be De-nationalized." He said, um, matter of fact he said, "I have an idea for you," he said, "I know I'm only a civil servant, but you're most welcome to it. Why don't you... May I call you Doest Not Thou? May I? Thank you. Why doest not thou re-write Ralph Roister Doister? It is crying out to be done as a musical. Anything to stop it being done straight." Kyd thought this was an absolutely wonderful idea; he rolled about on the floor like Donald when he's seen a joke. But by this time, of course, after all this sack, he was Titus Andronicus. He staggered home... Well, he got to work on the books, straight away, got Skelton to work on the lyrics. John Skelton. Made a first-class job, too, right down to the very strong point numbers. Stephen Was a Worthy Peer, that was one of his, Nay, John, My Porridge is Too Hot, Cha-cha. Dozens more, very funny, very strong, lovely stuff.
But none of these songs seemed quite right to end the first half. Now, if you're writing a musical, which I'm sure practically all of you are, that is the thing to watch out for, actually, what they call the first half closer. They got to do Ralph Roister Doister in two halves; you're going to do Roister in the first half, Doister in the second half. Ralph in the interval. And, uh, as, um, as Skelton said, and he was quite right, "For a first-half closer, you must have a hit. A palpable hit." Well, they thought of having Sumer Is Icumen In. But this had got itself on the banned list; people had been singing "cuccu" rather too lewdly. And he though, "Well, what next? There's always the Agincourt court songs," said Skelton, "but it's been done to death, hasn't it, I mean, having all those ghastly, old archers, I just can't face it," he said. "They're just, uh, just not... Y'know, they're not writing songs like those any more these days." And Kyd said, "Well, leaf us not be too hasty," he said, "Leaf us not. Somebody... Somebody maybe somewhere, this chap 'Anon' is writing some perfectly lovely... Nobody seems to know who his agent is." Well, they, um, they sat around in the old Bankside theatre, whence they had a short lease, getting more and more depressed, and shorter and shorter of money.
They pawned their doublets. ...Sitting around in their singlets. And those were Wolseys.
And suddenly, suddenly, there came the sound of a tucket without. Pausing only to pull down his singlet and tuck it within, Kyd... Kyd rushed to the door, and a scroll was handed him by special messenger. Kyd took the scroll, unrolled it. It rolled up again, it always did. Unrolled it again. At the bottom were several rows of very square, but highly illuminated notes. And at the top, it said, "Green Fleeves." Kyd looked at this; he thought, "Well this is a pretty unlikely title. ...for a fong." He, um, he handed it over to Skelton, and sat back to listen while Skelton tried it over on the virginals.
[Greensleeves wafts lazily from piano, playing behind following monologue.]
And after listening for a while, Kyd said, therein he said, "Tis a passing-melodious roundolé. You know, I doubt me 'an it be commercial. Who wrote this Greenfleeves thing, anyway?" And a voice from the back of the auditorium shouted out, "We did!!!" [Music stops at end of verse.] Like that. Scared the living doublets and hose off 'em. And they came forth, they could just make out a shadowy figure standing at the back there, and they said, "Who are you?" And the figure answered (and this is the part that's almost worth waiting for)... The figure answered, "We are Henry the Eighth, we are." Well, then, of course, they realized Greensleeves was exactly what they wanted.
They put it in the show, and under the title of Doxies Without Smocksies,** it ran for years. As you'd expect with royalty taking interest. Like horse racing and so on. In fact, to this very day [Greensleeves resumes with chorus], in every period play you go to see, set in 1300 up to about 1715, I suppose, still for incidental music, Greensleeves is always played. And the royalties go to royalty.
* - Gammer Gurten's Needle is an old play.
** - "Doxie" is Olde English slang for a prostitute.
Sumer is icumen in is a thirteenth-century song, beginning:
Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweth sed, and bloweth med,
And springth the wude nu--
Thanks to Gregory Gross for this transcript.
Originally from the album 'At The Drop of a Hat'.