What are they hanging, who are the hanging, why .. and when? Good questions you might ask! This is a three hundred and fifty year old mystery, where tantalising pieces of information have been found within the annals of history, and where suddenly another surprise comes to light ... if you like dusty folios of the unexpected?
This is a post of two halves .. the first a play, also in two halves, then the background to the whys, whens and wherefores ... it is a murder .. but of a person’s reputation .. not of a man; it is a research of today for that man’s rightful place in society, correcting the historical records.
Hanging Hooke - A new play by Siobhán Nicholas: “Christopher Wren loved him; Isaac Newton loathed him”.
A reworked detail from a painting of Lucas Cranach [ Adam and Eve]; Siobhan advises that she asked Ken, their graphics designer of Good Dog Design, to find them a tree from the Garden of Eden: the apple referring to knowledge, curiosity and the Newton story.
The play opens in 2006 with the countdown of the auctioneer’s gavel ... knock on wood ... on wood ... on wood ... the booming voice announcing “Sale of Lot 189 at the reserve price of £1,000,000”, an air of expectation, the auction room chatter ceasing, everyone looks around ... who are the likely bidders ... will this important Folio be lost to the nation?
We, the audience in 2010, also wait in eager anticipation to see a new play, written by Siobhan Nicholas, put on by an innovative theatre group “Take the Space”, inspired to find out more about Robert Hooke (1635 - 1703), this man they call “The English Leonardo”.
An auctioneer's gavel
The stage is set ... the central square displays Hooke’s writing – taken from his Folio – a few props .. easels with pictures, some stacked up, a microscope, a telescope, tables with ‘treasures’, a small travelling chest... depicting the sparse times of the 1600s.
A play of two halves – where the youthful Hooke’s guardian gives us the background on his childhood, his illness and the political upheaval of the times; young Hooke’s total engrossment in learning about all facets of life from an early age ... his schooling, while having the freedom to roam his island (the Isle of Wight)– the whole of nature .. the sky, the sea and shore, valleys, fields and meadows with all its flora and fauna.
We are introduced to his early ‘play’, experimentation and research – where he spent hours looking at rock pools .. both for their beauty, the invertebrates, crustaceans, pebbles and rock formations, the refraction of the water, the tidal movements ... and then he recorded and drew all he saw. He experimented with clock-making, woodwork, and all things mechanical too .. searching to find more about the heavens above and the earth below.
This young fertile mind was ready for more .. so on the death of his father, he used his inheritance, at age 13, to buy an apprenticeship in London – the centre of learning. Here the actor changes from the ‘guardian’ to the misshapen Hooke – reminding us of his ‘broken’ body ... reminding me of the hunch-back of Notre Dame ... not so hunchback, but hobbling and lopsided: disfigured.
Chris Barnes, as Hooke, puts on a convincing performance, as he goes about his days as curator of this eminent group of scientists. We now begin to see his irascibility appear – this genius, who could apply himself to so many disciplines and experiments, as well as record his research within the auspices of the fledgling Royal Society.
Chris Barnes: performer for Hanging Hooke
The brilliant scientists were often overwrought keeping up with Hooke, justifying their results against Hooke’s brilliant mind, which would come at the problem from a different perspective. These men included Sir Christopher Wren, Sir Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle .. to a man: polymaths, scientists various, philosophers diverse ... a challenging time for all.
Hooke wondered aloud who his friends were – were they true – in those times of switching allegiances, or the powerful and rich demanding sworn loyalty .. men having no choice but to conform.
We see Hooke’s friends waiver under these demands, but such were the signs of the times – disagree with the mighty and they would be thrown into society’s wilderness of sleaze and poverty, their access to funding, to equipment, to like minds would be removed at an instant.
The auctioneer’s gavel beating down at the start of the play ... the countdown to the auction of the Hooke Folio ... the announcement that Lot 189 was for sale for £1,000,000 ... reminds us that three hundred years after his death we know very little about Robert Hooke and his works, other than a few references and deductive thought that there must have been more to this man.
The Royal Society records show that Hooke played a full part as Curator of Experiments and early on as the Secretary, keeping the Minutes of all experiments held and recorded: not as we would do today in a separate Corporate Secretarial Meeting held round a Board table.
He was appointed ‘Curator by Office’ for life, where his role was to demonstrate experiments from his own methods or at the suggestion of members. Amongst his earliest demonstrations were discussions of the nature of air, the noting of the difference between venous and arterial blood; experiments on the subject of gravity, the measuring of barometric pressure and many more.
Instruments were devised to measure a second of arc in the movement of the sun or other stars, to measure the strength of gunpowder, and in particular an engine to cut teeth for watches, much finer than could be managed by hand, an invention which was, by Hooke’s death, in constant use.
In 1663 and 1664, Hooke produced his microscopical observations, subsequently collated in the published work Micrographia in 1665, which Samuel Pepys (yes, the Diarist), announced that Micrographia “is the most ingenious book that he had ever read in his life” – some endorsement.
Title page of Micrographia
We know of Hooke through Hooke’s Law - the law of elasticity; we know he worked at the Royal Society – but there was little else, some references, the beginnings of an autobiography – but who was this invisible man? What happened, why was he no longer represented historically, where are the portraits .... Going, going NOT GONE ... but where did the Folio come from and what happened to it? AND more importantly what will we find out about our Hanging Hooke? I leave you gently swaying for part two ......
Dear Mr Postman – do you think I’ve been too unkind to my readers? My mother will laugh when I explain what I’m doing .. she would appreciate the joke. She had a treat this week and she was awake fortunately .. her daughter (me!) dressed in Medieval costume, pretending to play the Mandolin?! – fortunately our replacement therapist, Susie, while Janice travels to Brazil, Australia and California .. lucky for some! – can play and gave Mum a short recital .. I hope we have more .. and I shall feature them on here.
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Robert Hooke - Wikipedia - please contribute to Wikipedia .. small amounts much appreciated!
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