‘Black Pot’ and black holes

For the first two years that I was writing George Calderon’s biography, its working title was Black Pot: The Mysterious Life of George Calderon.  The reason for this was not just that several people before me had failed to find significantly more material about him than was presented in Percy Lubbock’s memoir, so that there was a sense of my ‘plumbing the unknown’. George’s life in Russia (1895-97) seemed a tightly closed book, and when he returned he definitely behaved secretively, especially in his relations with the widow Kittie Ripley. Most people interested in George felt that his personality was ‘elusive’. After a year or so’s work, I actually wrote an Introduction in which I explained that the book was an inquiry into ‘who’ Black Pot (‘cauldron’) was in both the plain factual and deeper psychological senses…

As I discovered more about what George did in Russia through cross-referencing his few letters home with unsigned reportage from Russia in two British newspapers, investigating his Russian contacts at Rugby and Oxford, and trailing his friends the Rosses in St Petersburg, it became clearer what he did there. Similarly, genealogical research, time-consuming trawls of dozens of contemporary British periodicals, and a somewhat forensic reconstruction of his affair with Kittie through their letters of 1898-99, suggested that his life wasn’t so downright mysterious after all. The subtitle then became The ‘Mysterious’ Life of George Calderon. Finally, as I got to grips with theatrical and suffrage archives, the working title and Introduction were scrapped altogether.

I have no intention of plucking out the heart of the mystery of George’s personality, but I certainly no longer feel it is a ‘Black Pot’ to me.  On the other hand, there are plenty of mere ‘black holes’ left in his life.

One of these is, why is there absolutely no evidence that he continued to look for a producer for his pantomime/children’s musical The Brave Little Tailor after June 1914? The very popular humorist William Caine had collaborated with George on this script in 1913/14 and they had finished it by March 1914. Before he went off for six months to America in the spring, Caine had given a lunch party at Oddenino’s restaurant in Regent Street, where George networked to submit the script to the American theatrical producer Charles Frohman, of Peter Pan fame. Caine had left George in charge of finding a producer, and George pursued the task seriously. After July 1914, however, there is no evidence that he did anything. Why might he not have?

What one might call the ‘Lubbock explanation’, would be that George was prone suddenly to drop projects for other interests and never return to them. The new interest in this case would be the War. But is this likely, after all the time he and Caine had put into The Brave Little Tailor, and given the fact that by now Martin Shaw had completed the music?

Another ‘obvious’ explanation would be that the demand for pantomimes slumped in the winter of 1914/15 because of the War. But as far as I can see, this did not actually happen. Moreover, Mabel Dearmer’s children’s play The Cockyolly Bird, with music by Shaw, which had probably influenced George and Caine in the pantomime season of 1914, was revived from 26 December 1914 to 23 January 1915. So why did George do nothing about finding a producer whilst he was at home?

If you think about it, the most likely reason is that The Brave Little Tailor was based on a GERMAN source, a Grimms fairytale, and everyone would know that. This would surely dampen theatrical interest in producing it, and audiences’ enthusiasm for attending it. The commercial viability of a production was fatally flawed.  Possibly, indeed, George and Caine regarded it as unpatriotic to take the matter any further. End of ‘black hole’?

But there are certainly only crumbs of evidence for what creative projects George worked on now —  in February 1915 — or up to May 1915. We must not, of course, forget that he wrote long, artistic letters home both from Flanders and Gallipoli, and these were intended to provide material for a book about the War. Apart from these ‘journals’, though, there are two prime candidates for literary works that he continued to write between January and May 1915: the travel book Tahiti and his last play, The Lamp.  I shall post about these over the next two months.

Today, 25 February 1915, the East Mediterranean Fleet resumed shelling the ‘Outer Forts’ of the Dardanelles at Sedd el Bahr on the European side and Kum Kale on the Asian side. I will summarise the results on 8 March.

Next entry: The return to Tahiti


About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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