Curtain Raiser

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It's an almost hallucinatory sight: men and women in historical costume rolling drums of flaming tar down the cobbled streets of a southern English town, lighting up the night as drums beat and crowds roar. Others follow, bearing burning torches and letting off deafening fireworks. The air is dense with the smoke of vast bonfires, ablaze in surrounding fields and on hillsides. No, it's not a re-enactment of Dante's Inferno. It's Bonfire Night in the Sussex town of Lewes.

Held every year on Nov. 5, Bonfire Night nominally commemorates the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605—an...

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