where the writers are
Leary of `Lear,' and about Cordelia and the great Junius Brutus Booth

I sometimes talk to myself and have two daughters of my own, so writing about `King Lear' makes me a little nervous. I mean, I don't think of Amy and Anne as Regan and Goneril, in fact I'm fairly sure they are good and loving Cordelias, but you don't want to tempt fate, or whoever that is hovering out there with the glowering, judgemental eyes.

Granted, Lear had three daughters, but two is still cutting it close. And sometimes I carry a staff. Still, Belle Yang said we should all write a bit about Lear, and you know what Shakespeare said about ``a woman scorned.'' Incidentally, Belle said I introduced her to Shakespeare. I think what I actually said was she was reading too much of the same thing and ``needed to shake herself up.'' And Shakespeare does that.

Instead of writing about Lear himself, though, I think I'd like to focus on Cordelia.

Cordelia is a California town where highways 680 and 80 come together on the way from San Francisco and Oakland to Davis and Sacramento and on into the gold country. Nancy and I used to take this route often, driving Amy to and from UC Davis, and then later taking Anne to and from Chico State. Sometimes, like `King Lear,' these trips were fraught with drama and angst.

Each time we drove through, or stopped _ it's a popular trucker's stop, a major crossroads _ I wondered how the town got its name. Was it founded by a confused man with three daughters? Or an exhausted daughter with a burdensome father who howled at the wind? Either seems possible.

But so far I haven't been able to find out much about Cordelia, other than in 1865, according to Ken Stanton's book ``Mount St. Helena and Robert Louis Stevenson State Park: A History and Guide,'' the Cordelia downtown was the scene of an infamous shootout between the English and Durbin families.

With a touch of `Macbeth', we learn Parry English was killed, B.F. English lost an eye and Charley English (shades of `Richard III') suffered a ``crippled arm,'' all by gunfire. The Durbins were apparently the better shots.

Before this, though, it's very likely Shakespearean actors passed through Cordelia on their way to the gold fields in 1849 and the years following. Perhaps one of them named Cordelia after a performance of `Lear.' (Town Hall meeting: ``We could name ourselves Goneril.'' ``Are you kdding? Did you see what she did to her father? I don't want to give my kids ideas. How about Cordelia? There was a good lass.'').

On reaching the miners' camps, these actors could have performed `Lear' again. And woe to those actors who left out a single line. Some of the early troupes thought the miners might accept abreviated versions of the Bard's plays, and the actors could have an early night. They were wrong.

The miners had nothing to do most nights and memorized the plays around their camp fires. One actor wrote he knew his troupe was in trouble with its abridged production when he looked out into a firelit and booze-lit audience and saw the miners anticipating the lines, mouthing them before the actors spoke them.

Cutting lines often meant a bout of tar and feathering, the actors driven out of town on a rail, if one could be found. You could be Lear or you could be Hamlet or you could be Othello, but if you cut lines you were probably had.

One actor who would never cut a line and often forsook the bright stage lights of New York and Boston to play the boondocks was the legendary Junius Brutus Booth, father of the supremely gifted Edwin and the infamous John Wilkes. Junius and Edwin played San Francisco and Sacramento in 1852, and certainly passed near if not through Cordelia.

Junius, with his craggy features and broad shoulders, must have been a riveting Lear. The actor would have had no trouble sounding himself for sorrow in the role; he lost four children to illness and suffered bouts of alcoholism and madness.

California was one of his final engagements. He and Edwin took a boat from San Francisco to New Orleans, where the elder Booth was sensationally popular because he could perform Shakespeare in French.

On a steamboat from New Orleans to Cincinnati, he died from drinking bad water, sparing the great actor the tragedy of living through his son's assassination of a president, an event that haunted Edwin and all of his profession for years.

Which raises the question, had he lived, might Junius have disuaded John Wilkes from commiting the crime, thus profoundly changing history?

Lincoln's death, by the way, was in 1865, the year the Englishes and Durbins had their bloody showdown in Cordelia, California

23 Comment count
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Welcome aboard the Lear Jet

I feel your pain.  I have three daughters (and a son) and I'm constantly babbling to myself. :)

    This whole Shakespeare thing has got me thinking...not so much about the work, but about the process.  One of the things we American writers take pride in (and Alaskans to an even greater extreme) is our total individuality.  We've thrown off the shackles of European tradition and restraint  ("With Shekels come Shackles"), and come up with an entirely new kind of literature.  But sometimes I wonder if maybe we've, to some small extent, thrown out the baby with the bathwater.  Shakespeare and his peers didn't arise in a vacuum...they'd come to their prominence out of the already centuries-old tradition of craft guilds, apprenticeships, journeyman and master programs.  We tend to equate the Medieval guilds with all the negative connotations of modern unions and such, but I think the analogy is flawed.  Shakespeare had a huge support group...probably just as tight as Red Room...or more so.  (He also had royal patrons, which probably would NOT be a great idea these days).  But in any case, the European makers weren't out flailing  on their own as our modern makers. 

   We really don't have anything like a writer's apprenticeship program...unless you include specialized boot camps like Clarion West.

    For all our lip service about Yankee ingenuity....I really think Europeans appreciate their makers more....though there are probably a lot fewer of them, percentage-wise, than in the U.S.   And when I think of all my real heroes...most of them are Europeans.....Fourier, Newton, Bach, Lavoisier, Faraday, Maxwell, Hertz.  I would love to include Edison in the group, but history has shown him to be an unmitigated, amoral, S.O.B.  (Twice, he had his goon squads burn down Tesla's laboratories....something Bill Gates hasn't even lowered himself to....yet).

Anyway....I think Red Room has this great opportunity to serve as a modern-day guild, taking from the best and throwing out the worst of that system.



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Interesting on Gates . . .

. . . but that's for another day. And Edison could be brutal. Shakespeare did have this incredible support, which did not mean he wasn't also attacked, especially by jealous rivals. I hope Red Room can do what you say. That would be wonderful. All is possible.

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Bits of History

Hello Steve,

Thanks so much for sharing this bit of history with us. I love learning the origin stories of the things around us that many take for granted. A town name or a word have a deep impact when I know where they came from.

For instance, I learned a number of years ago that companion translates literally in Latin to "with bread." This etymology shows the importance of food and specifically bread in ancient cultures. It also reminds me of the importance of supporting our companions however we can.

All the best, 

Abe Mertens, redroom.com

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Great Post. Steve

I love it that the miners really know their bard. Wasn't it Oscar Wild who toured the West and had climbed down into the shafts to read to the miners who were really quite educated? I may have my literary history all twisted up.

And Abe--

I will never hear "companion" the same way again. I've always liked the Chinese way of eating, which the Americans call family style. In the restaurants, however, Americans order their separate plates and rarely share. I don't like that kind of eating.

I have girlfriends who I hike with and we each bring our own lunch, but it's important we bring something to share. I find it off putting when people do not offer something, anything out of their lunch basket.

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Abe, it's important to know . . .

. . . where we come from, as you are well aware. Sometimes the arts ignore their roots and history, too.

A very sad story (which probably has nothing to do with naming towns, but nags at me anyway): seven or eight years ago an elderly actor read for a part in a new film. The director-producer, about twenty-five, looked at the actor, listened to him, and then asked him if he'd ever done any work on stage or in films.

Well, yes, Rod Steiger did win the Academy Award for ``The Pawnbroker,'' and . . . and . . . and . . . Not suprisingly, Steiger was momentarily caught speechless, a difficult thing to do to an actor.

Thanks much for the ``companion'' story. A keeper.

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Belle, one . . .

. . . of my favorite Wilde stories in the American West:

Wilde was reading to miners, in Colorado I think, from the brillant ``Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini.''

Sculptor, writer, metalsmith, the 16th Century Cellini lived with flair.

The miners loved hearing his words and hearing about him, and asked Wilde if he could bring Cellini to Colorado someday.

When Wilde said that would not be possible, since Cellini was dead, and had been for some time, the miners yelled in chorus, ``Who shot him?''

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I believe it was Robert Service who said....

"I never shot a man who didn't deserve it." 


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Let's hope . . .

. . . he was right.

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As a kid growing up in the Sonoma Valley, I remember being very aware of the Scandia Fun Center (mini-golf, video arcade, bumper boats, etc.). Only later did someone tell me that it was located in a town called Cordelia.

I tried looking up Cordelia, Calfornia, on Wikipedia just now, and all I got was a redirect to the page for Fairfield. Apparently, Cordelia, and whatever was left of its historic downtown, has been swallowed up by the massive suburb up Interstate 80.

If I ran the zoo, one of the holes at the Scandia mini-golf would be themed after the English/Durbin family feud.

Huntington Sharp, Red Room

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I've always worried there was no there . . . there . . .

. . . when it came to Cordelia having a downtown. When we stopped, it was just for gasoline, a sandwich, but didn't venture further, afraid to discover nothing, or little, I think. Apparently there was a town there once. Under ``images'' and ``Cordelia'' did see a barn with character. Nice to think that maybe a great actor did at least pass through. Two, perhaps. When a town loses its center like that, it loses a bit of its soul. Coalinga lost so much of its center with the earthquake of the same name. A few years ago arsonists burned down one of the few buildings of interest and character in the center of the little town of San Lucas in South Monterey County, and the town doesn't have the same feeling.

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Gudde's "California Place Names, 4th edition"

My "1000 California Place Names" (the Erwin G. Gudde classic) doesn't list Cordelia, but the online version does. Here's what it says: "The place was settled in 1853 by clipper ship captain Robert H. Waterman and was named Bridgeport after the town in Connecticut. When the Post Office Department insisted on a less common name, Cordelia was chosen in honor of Waterman's wife. The name Cordelia for a section of town had been mentioned since 1855. Hoffman's map of the Bay region, 1873, still records the town as Bridgeport, but the post office and the slough as Cordelia. The place received the name definitely when the Wells Fargo agency was established in 1880."

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What a great thread.

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Yes, Matthew,

hopefully some of it really happened.

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Thanks, Judith,

I knew we could eventually get to the truth. So founded the year after the Booths came through the area. Perhaps Captain Waterman delivered Junius Brutus Booth and Edwin Booth to the port of San Francisco on his clipper ship. Perhaps Junius did a scene from `King Lear' on ship board, and maybe the Captain's wife, Cordelia, saw it, and Booth said to her, with a wink at the Captain, ``Such a beautiful wife, you have, sir. Someone should name a town after her.'' Well, can imagine so anyway.

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Your "perhaps" reminds me of one aspect I love working (which means sharing poetry) with really young kids who still have very open access to imagination -- the fun of moving between "fact" and "story," honoring both, seeing the difference.

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Judith, I think . . .

. . . that's exactly why it's fun to be with kids, they are very open to that, and it frees up your mind a bit. You define it beautifully. Explains why I can spend hours playing with grandsons Wyatt and Victor. Kids must love your poetry.

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Being with kids lets my mind relax and be open and leap-y. A big relief.

It's not my poems I share with kids, but opportunities for them to write their own. That work has basically been my work life -- not only with kids (little and older) but also with maximum security prisoners. Who, actually, also give me the space to be my most leap-y self.

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What you do . . .

. . . is interesting and important work. As a reporter, I went into prisons several times, and it could be difficult. I have respect for people who can work and work well with prisoners. I knew several artists who did it and helped some inmates discover an artistic talent which changed their lives.

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King Lear

When we were strolling in Chicago in May, we suddenly came across this amazing statue on Michigan Avenue. It must have appeared in the last ten years. As we approached, we were wondering who it could be. Yep, Lear.



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Wow, Christine,

the stuff of nightmares. Pretty impressive. Did you take the photo?

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lear statue

No, you can tell by the absence of a thumbprint. Christine

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Come on, with a grandmother

like Kate Carew, the great painter and caricaturist, you know you have talent.

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lear photo

I realize I should have given credit for both the statue and the photo. The statue is by J. Seward Johnson, and the photo is by Spudart. I forget how easy it is to copy something off a website (in this case flickr) and not credit the creator. I love the photo because even though the statue is way smaller than the building behind it, it is so emotionally overwhelming that in a way, it seems like the biggest thing in Chicago.