In any era John Aubrey would have been a strange bird--bookish yet eager for company, a good and empathetic friend yet also a compulsive collector and repeater of vicious gossip. However, Aubrey lived through some of the most interesting events in English history: the English Civil Wars, the overthrow of the monarchy, the reign of Oliver Cromwell, the overthrow of Cromwell, the restoration of the monarchy--events that ripped apart Britain's well-ordered society. At the same time all the old conceptions of how the universe worked were being shattered by the work of men such as William Harvey, Rene Descartes, and Isaac Newton.
England's misfortunes were the making of John Aubrey. For if England had been less interesting he might never have bothered to write his quirky, gossip-filled collection of biographical sketches, collected and published as Brief Lives some 201 years after his death in 1697. That would have been a loss, because Aubrey's sketches are much more like a Restoration equivalent of News of the Weird than, say, Webster's Biographical Dictionary, packed as they are with odd, scandalous, and bizarre facts.
Sexual preferences, peculiar habits, odd behavior were all considered fair game by the mischievous Aubrey, who delighted in repeating the rumor that poet Sir Philip Sidney slept with his sister or stating as fact that Francis Bacon was a pederast or that the play-writing team of Beaumont and Fletcher "lay together [and] had one Wench in the house between them." Indiscretion was the better part of John Aubrey's valor.
To be fair, Aubrey was as much a scholar as he was a gossip, and his Brief Lives is as rich a source of information as it is of rumor and innuendo. For example, a great deal of the little we know about William Shakespeare comes directly from Aubrey's brief sketch. However, it is Aubrey's puckish love of the scandalous and strange that makes his book a great read even today.
That fact was certainly not lost on playwright Patrick Garland when he adapted Aubrey's work for the stage in the mid-60s. Using verbatim selections from Aubrey's writings, Garland structured a two-act monologue that he described as a "Restoration kitchen-sink." In Garland's Brief Lives Aubrey goes through his daily routine--heating the morning milk, taking an after-breakfast leak, having a mid-morning snack--as he repeats every delicious tidbit of gossip he can recall about this or that lord or lady or famous person.
Garland's gambit works fairly well, provided you don't mind your theater long on talk and short on action (I didn't) and provided the actor playing Aubrey is clever enough to keep the audience's attention, something Nicholas Pennell does with disarming ease. He makes Aubrey as interesting and full of contradictions as the people he gossips about--his Aubrey is at once charming and prickly, intelligent and crackbrained, capable of praising an old friend one minute and damning him the next. What makes Pennell's portrayal all the more amazing is that from the moment the play begins he never has a moment's rest, unless you count the 15-minute nap he fakes onstage during intermission.
Pennell's 18 years as a member of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival of Canada show in this production, not only in his incredible stamina, but also in the way he is able to make Aubrey's quaint syntax and word choice ("being very weake and like to dye that he was Christned before morning prayer") intelligible to an American audience without making that rare and wonderful bird Aubrey seem pretentious or pedantic.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.