Based on the life and writings of Edward Lear
Directed by Judy Matetszchk-Campbell, Ph.D.
Edward, the Owl and the Calico Cat won two B. Iden Payne Awards in 2002:
Emily Cicchini, Outstanding Original Script;
Damien Gillen, Outstanding Actor in a Play for Youth.
Also nominated for a B. Iden Payne Award for her performance in Edward, the Owl and the Calico Cat was Betsy McCann, Outstanding Actress in a Play for Youth.
Read a Review by Kate X. Messer in the Austin Chronicle
WARNING: NONSENSE AHEAD!
A Little Explanation for the Adults Among Us
The Pollyanna Theatre Company knows that many adults have not dusted off their imagination in a while and have forgotten how to “play pretend.” We have great faith in the children in our audience and we know that they will see our production for what it really is: A way of exploring life, love, and growing up. But we know that you big people may like a little more hard data…
Edward, the Owl, and the Calico Cat is a play full of nonsense. But Adults, we are warning you, don’t expect to see ‘cause and effect’ or ‘real life’ here today. Instead, you will see what we at Pollyanna like to call “Freedom of Fun.” The Pollyanna Theatre urges you to “Relax, have a seat, and stop your worrying.” Emily Cicchini’s script, based upon the nonsense poems and stories of Victorian poet Edward Lear, operates on many levels. Children in our audience will identify with the individual moments of fun and wild and wacky characters found in the play. And they may well have a deep understanding for the emotional world that our young Edward inhabits. But they may not have the sophistication of language necessary to help understand the play when it is over. After all, the children in the audience will be hungry by then and will need to go outside and play. There is no “right or wrong” way to watch a play. But here are a few facts about Edward Lear that you might find interesting and that might help you to see Pollyanna’s production in a more “Adult” way. Perhaps you can even share some of these facts with the child currently sitting by your side when the play is over.
ABOUT EDWARD LEAR
Edward Lear was born in 1812 in Holloway, England which was then a village north of London. Today, the area is within London itself and no longer exists. He was the 20th of 21 children of Jeremiah Lear, a stockbroker who went bankrupt when Lear was four years old. According to family legend, Edward’s father ended up in the King’s Bench Prison, where Lear’s mother took his father meals each day. During this period of great financial distress the children were separated. Worn out by childbearing and financial pressure, Lear’s mother made it clear that she wanted no more to do with their upbringing and abandoned them when Edward was still very young. The family was made mostly of girls, and the younger children like Edward, were allocated to an older sister for her to care for and feed. Edward went with his eldest sister Ann who was twenty-two years old when their family broke apart.
Though Ann was very loving and good to Edward, nothing could compensate for the sudden and inexplicable rejection by his own mother and every word Lear wrote is haunted by a sense of desertion and nostalgia for better times, times that he could hardly remember. His childhood was very unhappy. He was a highly strung thoughtful boy whose nervous temperament was complicated by epilepsy and poor eye-sight. Even before their family was separated, young Edward was constantly weighed down by the financial difficulties and arguments of his parents. To complicate matters, he was unable to go outside to play because he was often ill. Because so little was known about epilepsy at the time, his condition was considered a disgrace and therefore was kept from the knowledge of even the closest of his friends. When Edward was old enough to write, attacks were marked in even his private diaries with only an “x.” Due to this difficult atmosphere and the emotional pressures it placed him in as a child, it is now believed that Lear suffered from clinical depression by the age of 7.
But children are very resilient and often find an inner strength that can help them overcome even the most difficult of circumstances. Edward emotionally withdrew from the unhappiness of his childhood by using his vivid imagination to entertain and comfort himself. Lear’s childhood joy was to draw and compose comic verses. His poetry centers on eccentric people and characters, individuals who were different from the norm in current society but who are nonetheless accepted and “star” in the world he created for them. In these poems and short stories joy is always mingled with a sense of loss. Later in his life when Lear began to publish his verses, children responded to them with great enthusiasm, identifying with the zany images, characters, and situations. It is as if Lear was creating the kind of happy, carefree, childlike environment he wished he could have had as a boy. In reality, Lear’s “nonsense” poems and stories (which were published under the names The Book of Nonsense and More Nonsense) were his personal rebellion against what he saw in society as a highly restrictive and unnatural were his personal rebellion against what he saw in society as a highly restrictive and unnatural Nonsense way of life. Lear believed that children should be free to play and behave as they wish and should be able to retain some of those freedoms in adulthood. This was a very unpopular theory in Victorian society that was based upon proper manners, saving face, and behaving in standardized patterns of response. Lear’s way of refusing adult life was to reject everything that Victorian society held dear – responsibilities and the conventions of class, possessions and property, education and a profession – and to follow instead a wondering life as a landscape painter. And when he wasn’t painting or drawing, he was writing verses. Into his children’s rhymes went his rage at snobby, constraining nineteenth-century society, his forlorn sense of not fitting in, his jokey despair at what was absurd in life. While it is likely that some of this was not consciously known by Lear, it is clear in some of his poems that he was indeed directly making fun of specific people and situations. Like many of the world’s greatest artists, Lear created art as a release and means of expression that surpassed words and realism.
But the reality was that the adult Lear needed to earn a living, so he traveled all over Great Britain and Europe painting landscapes and selling them as best he could. But he also continued to write. He specialized in botanical drawings and supplemented his income by illustrating plant life for a variety of publishing houses. When looking at The Book of Nonsense today, one sees this influence in the many very detailed line drawings Lear included of plants and wildlife.
As an adult, Lear could not and would not stop searching for the happy childhood he never had himself. And he seemed determined to provide moments of wild imagination and “nonsense” for all of the children he encountered. He had little money, he never married, and he had no home of his own until he was sixty years of age. He identified most with children who never understood and liked the niceties of conventional behavior. He made up nonsense rhymes for them and developed a baby-language of his own, with recurring ‘misspelt’ words like ‘stew-jew’ (studio) and ‘vorx of hart’ (works of art), and signatures like ‘Slushypipp’ for himself which he used in his letters to even his adult friends. He called “nonsense” the “breath of his nostrils.” He said it expressed his view of the grown-up world as nonsensical, and affirmed his connection with youth.
On many levels, Lear’s strategy worked. He was dearly loved by many children and his poems still speak to very young children today in a language of silliness and in a spirit that is carefree, creating places and times when anything can happen and things are never what they seem. The affection of children did answer some of Edward’s craving for love that was a legacy of Lear’s early neglect. Yet as an adult he remained lonely. His poems continue to appeal to children because his vision was essentially a child’s vision, one of innocence and possibility, a place and time when anything is possible. And after all, isn’t that what childhood is all about?
Kristi Brown & Jennifer Elliot