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A woman alone. With limited wind.

A 19th Century "Crawler"

By Lisa Jackson-Schebetta

I am so compelled by how hard these people fight, every one of them.   The dramaturges brought in some wonderful image research.  We are not setting the play in the 1890s London but we are informed by the 1890s London.  And there is this image of a “crawler”.  An actual photo, taken by a documentary journalist, in 1890s London.  And the woman is so small, huddled in a doorway, dying to sleep but not able to, impossibly weary deep in her skeleton—no, even deeper, in her kidneys and lungs

She looks old, but, on closer inspection, one feels she has been aged by this city, by the way this city of London can devour and scavenge and torment.  Turn the corner one day and you are on top of the world in this city, in love in an instant, your heart flying out of your ribcage.  Turn the corner another and you are face down in the gutter, huddled and howling against steel toed kicks to your lower back, your skull, your teeth.   The city: bone-crushing and exhilarating in the anonymity it promises, the creation and destruction it harbors in its timber and steel and pavement. 

This crawler is holding a baby.  She is too broken to beg, too weary to work.  She begs from the beggars.  She watches other impoverished women’s babies while they go to work in the factories.  She huddles in cold stone doorways, in the rain for hours upon hours, with a thin shawl about her shoulders, holding a hungry baby that is not hers.  Does the baby squall for its mother?  Does the baby stare about, haunted by its own tiny aching belly, too weak to wriggle?   Does the crawler love these stranger’s children, finding in their heartbeats a momentary companion for her own? If the small life expires on her watch, does she cry?  Or does she just get up, and, fearing the wrath of her keeper, leave the little body for its mother to find on her return, to wail and weep. . . does the crawler watch?  How many times has she seen this scene before?

“A woman alone.  With limited wind.”  Mrs. Lovett sings.  How has this woman, this Lovett, not become a crawler?  How has she managed to survive in this city for 15 years, with no lodgers, no husband and only a box of razors?  Razors with handles of chased silver.  Clearly, from Pirelli’s reaction to them, worth much more than five quid.  Razors she never sells.  Refuses to sell.  She must have been hungry, lonely, desperate.  She must have turned that corner where the steel toed boots waited for her.   More than once.  There must have been some very dark nights, when the razors were her only companion.  Her ferocity, her will to survive at any cost, her brazen battle to wrest the life she wants from this city----this Lovett humbles me, amazes me, inspires me.