That’s Comedy!

Right then. Not every entertainment in Shakespeare’s England was, how shall we say this? high-brow.

To that end, let me present to you Singing Simpkin, a jig (that is to say, a short comedy — all singing, all dancing) that might have been presented between acts in a theater, or in a tavern yard. Or somewhere.

Because we can’t have bawdry these days without making it high-brow, however … here are program notes!

Dancing, singing, cross-dressing, off-color humor, fight scenes, and improvised comedy are all the stuff of jigs. These musical skits often performed during the intermissions or at the ends of longer dramatic works, juxtaposed comedy with the serious narrative of plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

And, because figuring out what they’re saying may be a bit of a challenge, here is the full text of Singing Simpkin (page 109 et seq) so you can follow along (or put it on yourself at your Christmas Revels to the great amusement of your guests). This jig has five characters: Simpkin, a clown; Bluster, a Roarer; An Old Man; His Wife; and A Servant. Surely even in these plague times you can get that going.

Seriously, though, you can draw a straight line from this through to modern burlesque, and probably could draw one backwards to a USO show put on before the walls of Troy to amuse the Achaeans during that interminable siege.


While I have you here, if you’re looking for a bit of pre-Shakespearian bawdry (and who isn’t, these days?) allow me to present A Merry Play of Johan Johan, the Husband, Tyb, his Wife, and Sir Johan, the Priest by John Heywood. Totally not suitable for the workplace.

Want it in hardcopy? Buy one! Better still, buy a dozen! They make excellent gifts.

Plagues Gone Past

Where are the plagues of yesteryear?

So there I was, reading Fifty Years in the Magic Circle by Signor Blitz (the memoirs of a mid-19th-century magician) when I saw this bit (pp. 58-59):


                           Irish Wit. 

During the season, a band of Russian horn-players 
appeared at the Theatre Royal. Their style of music was 
original and novel ; each instrument played one note only, 
all harmonizing correctly and producing the sweetest tones, 
much resembling those of an organ. The horns were of 
various sizes, from one foot to thirty, and the latter were 
supported on trestles. The company numbered nearly 
forty persons, who were said to be the slaves of a prince, 
who had given them permission to leave their country for 
two years. 

They had visited Italy, Germany, France, and England, with much success. At one of their concerts the house was densely crowded, and the band had for some time delighted the audience, when suddenly a person seated in the gallery, in a full Hibernian voice, cried out, " Plaze, play up the Cholera Morbus." Immediately the whole audience in the gallery made the same demand, when the uproar became general, so that ultimately Mr. Calcraft, the manager, found it necessary to make his appearance. After learning their wishes he communicated with the leader, in French, who stated they were not acquainted with the air. On Mr. Cal- craft's repeating this to the audience, the Hibernian in the gallery exclaimed, "Be faith and sure, Mr. Manager, is it not a Russian air, — for did not the cholera come from Rus- sia in a ship laden with hemp?" At this explanation, a gen- eral clapping of hands and laughter took place which lasted several moments, much to the surprise of the Russians, who were of course unable to appreciate the musical capac- ity and ready wit of a fun-loving Irishman. The band shortly afterward sailed for the United States, where they succeeded admirably, but an unfortunate dis- agreement among themselves caused a complete separation.

That sounds like a marvelous orchestra and I wish I could have heard them.

The event would have happened sometime before 1834 (when Blitz sailed for America, never to return). This instantly caused me to wonder, “What’re the words (and music) for Cholera Morbus?”

After many journeys through the Google-indexed web, I found these verses, referring to the cholera outbreak of 1831/32, under the title “The Cobbler o’ Morpeth” (dialect humor!) published in The Tyne Songster, 1840, page 73, and credited to John M’Lellan.

The Cobbler o’ Morpeth myeks sic noise,
He frights the country round, sirs;
That if yen i’ the guts hez pain,
By the Plague they think he’s doom’d, sirs.
It was but just tother day,
A Skipper, when at Sheels, sirs,
Drank yell till he cou’d hardly see,
Or ken his head frae heels, sirs.

Bow, wow, wow, &c.

The song continues for several more verses, which are easily found by those who seek. Morpeth is a town in Northumberland, UK.

Ah, but what was the tune?

By dint of tenuous strings of logic based on “to the tune of” comments here and there, I came to “old English” air, which we find sung (with words other than Cholera Morbus):

Sheet music can be found here: Barney Buntline

If you read the words to Barney Buntline printed there, you find Barney talking with his friend “Billy Bowling.” I suspect that the character’s actual name was “Billy Bowline” (pronounced approximately the same). The bowline (if I could only take one knot with me to a desert island, it would be a bowline) and a buntline hitch are kinds of sailor’s knots.

Was this the actual song that the witty Hibernian was calling for from the Russian horn-players?  Darned if I know.  But there it is.



Blitz, Antonio. Fifty Years in the Magic Circle: being an account of the author’s professional life; his wonderful tricks and feats; with laughable incidents, and adventures as a magician, necromancer, and ventriloquist. Belknap & Bliss, 1871

A Complete Silk Act

One of the perennial topics in these parts goes something like this: “I’ve signed up for a talent show. What should I do?”

Let me make a suggestion, under the rubric “everything old is new again.”

In Jean Hugard’s Silken Sorcery (1937), the last chapter describes the Stillwell Silk Act. Here’s what Hugard says:



The production of silks from a handkerchief ball after the manner adopted by George Stillwell, who was the first magician to present a complete silk act in vaudeville, is undoubtedly the most artistic method yet devised. Mr. Stillwell issued a pamphlet explaining his routine but this has long been out of print and is now almost unobtainable. I will devote my last chapter to an explanation of the act as I saw it presented by Mr. Stillwell himself. I am told that he joined the ranks of other great magicians in the Halls of Valhalla several years ago.

Thanks to the Miracle of the Internet and on-line archives, that pamphlet that Hugard called “almost unobtainable” is easily obtained by anyone who cares to look for it. This is the link: Stillwell, George. Stillwell’s Handkerchief Manipulation Act (Illustrated) Hamley Brothers, Ltd. 1902

The instruction in Stillwell’s original pamphlet is far clearer and more complete than Hugard’s synopsis, and includes notes on how to manufacture the various gimmicks and fakes needed.

If you need a fully worked-out act, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, I can think of none finer (and it isn’t one that everyone else is doing). I doubt that anyone has performed Stillwell’s routine in a century.

Here are some links to places where you can purchase some of the needed props (I have no financial stake in any of these, BTW):

Stillwell hank balls.

Hank Ball review from My Lovely Assistant.

Silks (from Abbott’s)

Production Flag Staff

Other stuff you’ll need to look around, or go all arts-and-crafts.

Here is how Hugard ended his chapter on the Stillwell Handkerchief Manipulation Act:

Stillwell’s act was successful, partly on account of its novelty, but mainly because he had woven the necessary moves for getting possession of the loads and disposing of the balls, etc., into a routine of natural movements.

That says it all.

In the Mageworlds


So there we were in the Republic of Panama, living in downtown Panama City rather than on base. We were big science fiction fans, and there was only one importer of English language books in the country (Servicio Lewis) and they only got new books once a month, and their SF list was … small. So we started to write our own.

We were working on a story that eventually became The Price of the Stars. To show how new we were, we were at about 200 pages on this one and still referring to it as “The short story.”

As may be. We were coming to the end of the story, about to wrap it all up. We were in a pizza place in downtown Panama City, having a Hawaiian Pizza (and the pineapple in Panama was nice), when I said to Doyle, “I want to blow it up.” “What?” she said. “Open the story out, not shut it down.” And she said, “If you know how to do that….”

This here is where the shift happened. Everything before the line break is heading for a climax and the long-awaited THE END. Everything after the line break was me sending it in another direction, into a big book, and later a big series.

She [Beka Rosselin-Metadi] put Warhammer onto a new course for yet another jump point beyond and astern of the cruiser. Closer and closer she ran, until finally the huge vessel began to turn–but away from Warhammer, not toward her.

Beka frowned. What’s this?

Still frowning, she began the final tick-down for the run to jump. The cruiser finished its long, looping turn, and began accelerating again on a convergent course. The fighters continued to swarm on Warhammer’s ventral side, firing but doing no real damage at the longer range with their light weapons.

She checked the sensor readouts. Not only had Corisydron paralleled Warhammer’s course; the Space Force vessel had also matched speeds with the freighter. Good thing we’re inside the minimum range of his guns-and the fighters don’t dare shoot us for fear of hitting him.

But he’s so close, his field is interfering with my jump. I can’t jump with him so near, I can’t turn without colliding with the little guys–time to see who’s the fastest. She pushed the throttle lever forward again.

Suddenly, warning lights blazed on all over the panel. Alarms began hooting and beeping. Warhammer’s controls vibrated under her hands, and she could feel the whole frame of the spacecraft starting to buck and tremble around her. “Damn,” she said aloud, over the rising howl of the freighter’s oversized engines. “The bastard’s got a tractor beam on me.”


“He’s maneuvering again,” said the comptech at the tank terminal. “And he’s fast.”

Gil walked over to the watch officer. “Has he hit us?”

“Not yet.”

Gil took a deep breath. “All right,” he said to the watch officer. “I am ready to relieve you.”

The watch officer stared. “What do you mean? This is my watch!”

Gil met the other man’s incredulous gaze. The maneuvers in the main tank were shaping up as the nicest little space battle Command Control had seen in years-in the watch officer’s shoes, Gil wouldn’t have wanted to let go of it, either. So here I am, about to cycle a perfectly good career out the airlock. Life’s a bitch.

He pushed down the urge to leave the whole thing in the watch officer’s eager hands and asked, instead, “Commander, what’s your lineal number?”

“Seven eight seven two, zero zero two three,” replied the watch officer, in something close to a snarl.

“My number is seven eight seven two, zero zero one six. I’m senior to you, and I’m taking the watch.”

“I protest!”

“Fine. Send a letter to the Board.” Gil raised his voice to carry into the farthest reaches of the space. “In Control, this is Commander Gil. I have the watch.”

The man he’d relieved snapped “Log that!” at the duty comptech. Gil ignored them both and walked over to the battle comm–Space Force’s highest-priority, highest-security communications system.

“Give me the comm.”

The petty officer gave him the handset. Gil keyed it and waited for the double beep of the crypto synchronizing.

Corisydron, this is Space Force Control. Condition White, Weapons Tight. Break off at once, return to base. Acknowledge. Over.”

“Dropped synch, over,” a distorted, faraway voice replied.

Gil’s lips tightened. The CO of the Cory wasn’t any more eager to let go of this one than the watch officer here on Galcen had been. That “dropped synch” was a polite way of asking if the speaker on the other end still had all his synapses firing in order.

“This is Space Force Control,” he repeated. “Break off at once. Return to base. Acknowledge. Over.”

A long pause from the Cory, and then, “Will comply. Out.”

Up in the main battle tank, the blue triangle and the smaller blue pips peeled away from the unknown. The red dot sped on, holding a straight-line accelerating course, then flickered out.

He’s jumped.

That spot, that line break, is the jewel on which the entire plot turns.

The “comm” here is based on Navy HICOM, which does in fact double-beep when the crypto synchronizes.   In this universe it’s a Faster Than Light communications system (and what happens when it goes down is central to the next book in the series, Starpilot’s Grave).   Commander Gil is named for my friend Gil Lott, who had been one of my space-mates on USS Moinester (FF-1097).   Corisydron had been, in the first draft, Coricidin, the cold and flu remedy (we took our fun where we could find it).  Warhammer‘s layout, dimensions, and feel, are based on USS Hawkins (DD-873), my first berth as an officer.

The only change Doyle made in that bit after the line break above was expanding the proword “WILCO” to “Will comply.”  (That’s what WILCO means.  You never, never say “Roger Wilco” because the meaning of “Roger” (“I heard and understand”) is included in “Wilco.”)  Only the commanding officer of a ship or aircraft can say “Wilco.”

If anyone would like to read a couple of Mageworlds short stories, we collected them in Two From the Mageworlds (cover by my son Brendan).

Circle of Magic

Speaking of which, a bit on the origin of Circle of Magic. Circle of Magic #1: School of Wizardry
Those middle-grade novels started off as paragraphs and pages that Debra and I wrote to each other before we were married while I was in the Navy; she in Philadelphia, me off in the Med on USS Savannah (AOR-4), she in grad school.   (On Savannah I was certified as an “Underway Replenishment Specialist” and was rig captain for Rig 2.)  Anyway, we wrote these little bits to amuse each other.

Later, after we were married, and after I was sent to Norfolk, VA, to serve on USS Plymouth Rock (LSD-29), Debra (as Lady Malkin Grey, her SCA name) became Chronicler of Atlantia.  As such, she put out the kingdom newsletter, the Acorn.  She got pregnant, and I was unexpectedly sent around the Horn on a UNITAS cruise.  (UNITAS is a joint US/Latin American naval thingie–that was the first time I saw the Panama Canal.  It would not be the last.)  By great good luck, I got back before her due date, and, since I was now between ships (I was headed for USS Moinester (FF-1097)) and had a lot of time, was able to participate in her birthing.  And while she was in active labor with our first daughter, on the way to the hospital, we stopped off at the post office to mail the Acorn, so it would go out on time.

After that she had the moral jump on everyone: “If I could get the Acorn out on time, you can damn well get your event announcements to me on time.”

She got her Mistress of the Pelican for her time as Chronicler.

Which gets us back around to Circle of Magic.  Some time later, Debra was about to have twins and we were living in Manchester, NH.  So, after giving birth (and these were full-term, full-size twins, mind you), she was sitting up in her hospital bed with a binder with the current manuscript in it, going over it with her red pencil.  And a nice nurse walked in and said, “Are you sure you should be doing that, dear?”  To which Doyle replied, “Dammit, I have a deadline.”

And here’s a remembrance of Debra from Pippin’s newsletter.

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