I was lucky enough, during one of the few trips I made into London from the West Country via rail, to catch a musical performance of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner by the Trad Academy Sea Shanty Choir at historic Wilton’s Music Hall. The show was at 7:30 pm on 15 July, a Saturday; and because the last train back to Templecombe would leave Waterloo Station at precisely 9:20, I had to find lodgings in London for that night or risk getting “locked out” and, possibly, forced to pay through the nose for a few restless hours in a room that didn’t fit into my budget (this had happened once before, but is a story for a different day). I booked a room for that night in a nearby Chamberlain’s (the pub chain) hotel about a ten minute walk from the music hall. I showed up there several hours early, ate fish and chips, requested “iced tea” as my complimentary beverage (to the utter dismay of the bartender), climbed the five flights of stairs to my room (for the lift was broken), and took a nap. After the 140-minute train ride in, and another two hour walk from the station (I refused to pay for a cab), I knew that I needed to sleep or I would be unable to savor the coming performance.
During that interim, in which I courted my refreshment, there descended upon my brain in its recuperatory doldrums, a vision most sublime . . .
Just kidding. The sublimity held its breath until that evening, as I was sitting in the balcony at Wilton’s, early to my seat as was my preference, and the lights began to dim. Everything about the interior of the music hall, like a Gothic spire which is designed to draw the eye of the beholder up to heaven, seemed coordinated to put the spectator in a mood for gazing upon the drama of history. When the lights went down – slowly, but not all the way, not yet – a reddish haze rose up and filled the room, of a piece with the soft, placid curtains concealing the rear of the stage. The ceiling was high, slightly domed, and covered with ornate woodwork. The seats and railings alike were of an old wood, and no attempt had been made to restore imperfections in the finish. In some places, I thought, there was no finish at all. In gazing about, and getting a somewhat gestalt sense of the place, I felt it trying to reach back into a bygone era, but tiring out still about a hundred years or so away from contemporaneity with the author of the Rime. Still, it seemed to me that Coleridge would have liked the room, perhaps; and would have relished a performance there of one of his most celebrated poems.
When the Sea Shanty choir began to file out onto the stage, and then to disperse itself into a kind of synchronized mob, I was struck by an aura of youthfulness and spontaneity which did not inhere so much in the bodies of the singers, as it emerged piecemeal from their improvised garb (a great variety of striped shirts), their stomping and clapping, a practiced restlessness, and a beguiling habit of wooping and calling things out impromptu during the performance of the prefatory songs, which they sang before getting to the Rime. After they had sang four or five traditional sea shanties, which I guessed had probably been arranged by one or two of their own, I heard to my great delight, as one came forward alone to tell a tale “as it happened to me,” the opening lines of Coleridge’s great poem:
It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?
While I was thrilled to hear these lines, which I knew so well, sang to a room full of people who may not have heard them before, or not in many years, I did not feel the magic of the performance until the time came that the Mariner and his ship were trapped on the open sea, “like a painted ship upon a painted ocean.” The albatross, made entirely of white rope, which was in the shape of the bird, but also in the shape of the cross, hung around the neck of the Mariner, who assumed a Christ-like pose behind rows and rows of the bodies of his fellow seaman, the shanty-singers, who were all prone upon the stage. The Christian symbolism covertly or overtly (depending on one’s reading) situated in the poem, became reified by its central positioning on the stage and in the music hall, with the lifeless bodies of the singers, whom we had somewhat gotten to know, piled around the albatross-laden Mariner at the helm of the unmoving ship. And my heart leapt up, in rather a new way, when I heard the forlorn and forsaken Mariner utter those words, which to my mind (and I am not alone in this) constitute the poem’s poetic zenith:
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gush’d from my heart,
And I bless’d them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I bless’d them unaware.
If there was a triumph in a performance like this, aside from the obvious legwork that went into the practice, the costuming, the lighting, etc., and all which made the whole cohere, it was a triumph slightly divergent from that triumph which is attached to the rising action of the poem itself, which eventually climaxes in the Mariner’s reception of God’s grace. What we experienced was, in fact, a triumph of translation: bringing the drama of this very moment into the world, spoken in the language of objects and relational space. For as the Mariner spoke these words, all eyes saw the albatross, for so long stationary and dead, come alive again as it became magically unfastened from the doomed seaman’s neck, and then drop “like lead” onto the stage and out of sight; giving a sense, a real, lived sense, to the poematic action which only could have been understood within the chronologically ambivalent space of the imagination: whereas here, we experienced the dropping off of the albatross together, simultaneously and universally, as an event (to borrow a philosophical term). And at that moment Wilton’s Music Hall became, indeed, a kind of Romantic Landscape.