Episode 47 - Buster the Prize Fighting Shrew (Shows Week)
Updated: Apr 17
Sam's Episode notes: Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo, the touring conjoined twins who won the hearts of European Royalty
I did try. I looked up historically funny plays, historically controversial plays, and I ended up coming back to an equally rather sweet and gruesome early example of a freak show.
But as is now traditional I DO have an honourable mention and it's a pretty funny one and definitely theatrical – and that is a comedy play by the Greek playwright Aristophanes from the 5th Century BC. It's one of the earliest known anti-war plays and is all about a pact between the women of two warring cities, to end the hostilities by denying their husbands any sex. They all gather around and say we're sick of this, no more sex until you stop killing each other, it's getting out of hand. The men end up fighting with the women instead, and it's all very funny and slapstick. BUT it's particularly noteworthy for one passage which has been confusing academics for nearly 2000 years, and which still doesn't actually have a definite answer.
The women all make a vow to chastity for as long as the war lasts, chanting: No lover or husband shall ever come close to me with an erection.
They go on to claim that they shall stay at home unfucked, dressed in their sexiest clothes and makeup to drive them wild for me, and I shall not lift my slippers to the ceiling.
And then one of the oddest lines I've ever heard in a play: “I will not adopt the lioness on a cheesegrater position.”
The lioness on a cheesegrater position. Let that sink in for a minute. Is that like a cat on a hot tin roof? It doesn't sound sexy...
Unlike the porcupine on the upturned plug. Phwoar. Or the Slow Loris on a Cliff Richard record. Two personal favourites.
Now, there's no context given to this at all – and even in the later Hellenistic period people had no idea what it meant. They still don't. Articles have been written. PHD thesis have been assembled on it. The best idea that people have is that it's what we would know as doggy style due to the shape of the classical Greek cheese knife, but who can say for sure. Either way it sounds painful and not especially fun. But hey, somewhere 2500 years ago there was an Athenian soldier getting very hot under the collar.
Anyway, I'll let you mull on that – audience if you have any ideas please do send us an email. Not a picture message, please for the love of god, use your words people. firstname.lastname@example.org
Anyway, Tom. My main story today is the sorry and slightly odd tale of Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo, one of Europe's first known travelling freak shows. And there was something rather special about the brothers. Can you guess what it is?
Well, the Genoese twins were one of the first recorded cases of conjoined twins. Not only that, they were the even rarer parasitic conjoined twins. Joannes was growing out of Lazarus' chest, and whilst he had arms and one leg, he was completely reliant on his doting brother for survival.
We've got a great description of them from the Danish anatomist Thomas Bartholin, who would go on to discover the lympatic system. It's a long quote but a really interesting one.
I saw, saith Bartholinus, Lazarus Colloredo, the Genoese, first at Copenhagen, after at Basil, when he was twenty-eight years of age, but in both places with amazement. This Lazarus had a little brother growing out at his breast, who was in that posture born with him. If I mistake not, the bone, called xyphoides, in both of them grew together; his left foot along hung downwards; he had two arms but only three fingers upon each hand: some appearance there was of the secret parts: he moved his hands ears and lips, and had a little beating in the breast. This little brother voids no excrements but by the mouth, nose, and ears, and is nourished by that which the greater takes: he has distinct animal and vital parts from the greater, since he sleeps, sweats, and moves when the other wakes, rests and sweats not. Both received their names at the font; the greater that of Lazarus, and the other that of Johannes Baptista. The natural bowels, as the liver, spleen, &c. are the same in both. Johannes Baptista hath his eyes for the most part shut: his breath small, so that holding a feather at his mouth it scarcely moves, but holding the hand there we find a small and warm breath. His mouth is usually open, and wet with spittle; his head is bigger than that of Lazarus, but deformed; his hair hanging down while his face is in an upright posture. Both have beards; that of Baptista is neglected, but that of Lazarus very neat. Lazarus is of a just stature, a decent body, courteous deportment, and gallantly attired: he covers the body of his brother with his cloak, nor would you think a monster lay within at your first discourse with him. He seemed always of a constant mind, unless that now and then he was solicitous as to his end, for he feared the death of his brother, presaging that when it came to pass, he should also expire with the stench and putrefaction of his body; and therefore he took greater care of his brother than himself.
So Lazarus was a tall, handsome, good looking bloke with a slightly less attractive twin brother growing out of his stomach, who he cared for pretty well knowing that both their lives depended on it.
And they didn't just survive, they thrived. The pair travelled the courts of the kings of Europe in the 1630s and 40s, living off the largesse of curious royals and aristocrats. They travelled from Italy around modern Germany, Poland, Turkey, Scotland and Britain and became internationally famous; not just because of their freak show nature, but because Lazarus was actually a thoroughly interesting and pleasant chap. We don't really know what their stage show involved – I think to be honest they were just present for people to talk to. Maybe they did some magic, you could do an awesome version of the 'got your nose' or 'remove the thumb' trick.
In fact, they made a pretty athletic pair – the French historian Henri Sauval once played them at handball, which seems slightly unfair since one team is effectively playing as a doubles team, and Lazarus also married and had kids. Way to feel like a spare wheel Joannes.
Although Bartholin's description does say that he had some semblance of private parts. Which, given he was dangling from Lazarus belly up, must have made for some awkward conversations with his erection tickling his older brother's chin. Maybe that's the lioness on the cheesegrater. Who can say.
Interestingly, though, their situation did throw up a unique moral conundrum. During the handball game, Lazarus told Sauval that his condition meant he'd actually gotten away with murder. He claimed that he once stabbed a man and killed him after the man had insulted his brother. The case had gone to court, and Lazarus had been found guilty and sentenced to death. However, he'd argued that by killing him, the court was also sentencing his twin brother to death, since Joannes was entirely dependant on his brother for survival and couldn't survive more than a few minutes or hours without him. The court had been forced to let the pair walk free – choosing to punish neither rather than punish both.
Not much is known about the brothers in later life, we don't know when they died although we do know that they lived until at least their 30s if not their 40s – but they were one of the first known parasitic conjoined twin pairs to not only survive but really thrive. Which is pretty bold at a time when you could still be burned for witchcraft.
Tom's notes: Penny Gaffs
This week I’m taking you back to the Victorian period to the raucous and ridiculous Penny Gaffs of London Town. Cor blimey Mrs!
· Etymologically, Penny Gaff’s were named after the cost of entry, a mere penny, and ‘Gaffs’ which were cock-fighting pits.
· They were very popular in London during the middle of the 19th Century and are fascinatingly tacky, coarse and rambunctious. They certainly weren’t classy theatres for the rich and important, with the finest actors of the day performing Shakespearian plays.
· These Penny Gaffs were tucked away in the funniest, most awkward nooks and crannies of London; back rooms of bars, vacant shops, stables and warehouses. They commonly consisted of stalls in front of a crude stage surrounded by precariously built seating. The venues could usually seat between 50 to a few hundred people.
· “The Effingham Saloon, with real boxes, a real pit, and a real gallery; dreadfully dirty, and with a dirtier audience”
And who attended these shows?
· The great unwashed! Which is incidentally a phrase first recorded in 1830 by Lord Edward Buller-Lytton, a British Politician. To this chap is also attributed the phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.
o A quick tip, don’t bring a biro to a sword fight, unless you’re Steven Segal, master of Aikido (7th Dan! Well that was a lot of time wasted).
· This was very working class entertainment. The typical crowd consisted mostly of poor young men and women eager for brash entertainment and a raucous evening.
o Here’s a quote
§ As for going to church, why, I can‘t afford it,--besides, to tell the truth, I don‘t like it well enough… The ‘penny gaffs’ is rather more in my style; the songs are out and out, and makes our gals laugh. The smuttier the better, I thinks; bless you! the gals likes it as much as we do.
§ Sounds a bit like some of our listener’s aye?
o “it chanced to me to visit a penny gaff ... A great part of the proceedings were indecent and disgusting, yet very satisfactory to the half grown girls and boys present. never was the theatre so full - never was the audience so excited - never did the scum and refuse of the streets so liberally patronise the entertainment as when deeds of violence and blood were the order of the night.”
o Forward they came, bringing an overpowering stench with them, laughing and yelling as they pushed their way through the waitingroom. One woman carrying a sickly child with a bulging forehead, was reeling drunk, the saliva running down her mouth as she stared about her with a heavy fixed eye. Two boys were pushing her from side to side, while the poor infant slept, breathing heavily, as if stupified, through the din. Lads jumping on girls' shoulders, and girls laughing hysterically from being tickled by the youths behind them, every one shouting and jumping, presented a mad scene of frightful enjoyment.
To the entertainment
· Penny Gaffs existed at the same time as Penny Dreadfuls, which were essentially cheap and cheerful comics with serialised stories targeted at young adults.
o In fact, Sweeney Todd originates from a Penny Dreadful first published in 1847/8.
o There were also stories about Dick Turpin, vampires and anything else murderous and horrific.
o These stories were also acted out on stage at Penny Gaffs, by really shit actors with really shit costumes, props and sets
o Unlike Penny Dreadfuls, literacy was not an obstruction, and despite rapidly increasing literacy during the Industrial Revolution, many working class youths could not read or write
· But these stories were only part of a Penny Gaff show.
o There was lots of audience participation, always bawdy and crude
o The performance was commenced by a black man… with broad rings of red round his ankles and wrists, illustrative, as presently appeared, of his suffering from the chafing of the manacles be had worn in a state of slavery. It was a very long descriptive ballad… and the audience-who bad possibly heard it on a few previous occasions… expressed a desire that the singer should "cut it short,"… but beginning the sixth verse in all coolness, somebody threw a largish crust of bread at him, which narrowly missed his head, and somebody else threw a fish-bone with more certain aim… He glared to the right and the left of him, and, apparently marking the delinquent in the pit, jumped off the stage and rushed towards him. What then transpired I cannot say, not being in a position to see, but after a minute of uproar, and cursing, and swearing, and yelling laughter, the black man scrambled on to the stage again with a good deal of the blacking rubbed off his face, and with his wool wig in his hand, exposing his proper short crop of carroty hair. "Now looky' here !" exclaimed he, with a desperate, but not entirely successful, effort to deliver himself in a calm and impassionate manner, " Looky' here, if you thinks by a-choking me off to get at the new piece a bit the sooner you're just wrong. When I've done a-singin' my song then the piece'll be ready and not a oat before, and the more you hinterrups why the longer you'll be kept a-waitin', that's all." And having expressed these manly and British sentiments in genuine Whitechapel English, he readjusted his wig and became once more an afflicted… and continued… and was about to commence the ninth when some one behind the scenes audibly whispered, "Off, Ginger,"
§ Blacked up actors seem to have been very common place
· A rather questionable form of entertainment, the BBC’s Black and White Minstrel show ran until 1978 and stage shows were still being shown in the late 80s at places like Butlins.
o Classy, classy Butlins.
o Classy, classy Justin Trudeau (Trudow)
· Now stale and offensive stereotypes like blacked up actors capturing missionaries and boiling them in cauldrons were popular
o Bad versions of Shakespeare were common, I came across an account of one Penny Gaff’s version of the Taming of the Shrew which ended with a violent, pantomime cudgelling of a wife by a husband, much to the delight of the audience
o Various forms of animal bating; shrews, cocks etc.
o Lots of base jingoism; think Daily Mail.
§ There’s one account of a show that I read in which a blacked up actor, dressed as an American slave, invades the stage screaming his support for Napoleon in French. A sailor gives him a kick in the crotch and he runs off screaming, everyone cheers and God Save the Queen is belted out by some of the other actors
Penny Gaffs were seen by more respectable members of society as hotbeds of disgraceful behaviour
· As they at present exist, they are nothing better than hot-beds of vice in its vilest forms.
· Here the stage, instead of being the means for illustrating a moral precept, is turned into a platform to teach the cruelest debauchery. The audience is usually composed of children so young, that these dens become the school-rooms where the guiding morals of a life are picked up; and so precocious are the little things, that the girl of nine will, from constant attendance at such places, have learnt to understand the filthiest sayings, and laugh at them as loudly as the grown-up lads around her.