THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

Introduction

From Shakespeare’s First Folio to live recordings of experimental theatre, from Charlotte Brontë’s love letters to Wendy Cope’s emails, our collections offer unique, fascinating and unexpected sources for your research. Discover more about our manuscript, printed, digital and audiovisual collections here. Follow us on Twitter: @BLEnglish_Drama. Read more

21 September 2018

Making Magic: conjuring and ventriloquism in In the Spotlight’s regional theatre volumes

by Beatrice Ashton-Lelliott, a PhD researcher at the University of Portsmouth studying the presentation of nineteenth-century magicians in biographies, literature, and the popular press. She recently spent three months as a research placement student on the British Library’s In the Spotlight project, cleaning and contextualising the crowdsourced playbills data. She can be found on Twitter at @beeashlell and you can help out with In the Spotlight at playbills.libcrowds.com     

In working towards creating a (largely!) unified dataset of playwrights for each ‘play’ mentioned on In the Spotlight, it quickly became apparent that we were dealing with much more than what we might typically associate with performance in theatres, eg. dramas. This isn’t necessarily problematic, and actually is part of what drew me to the project in the first place as someone who works on a slightly more unusual form of performance: magic.

Although magic is by no means as common as a standard Shakespeare or the thousandth version of She Stoops to Conquer (which features in our most popular titles list, and is prominent in itself for sharing a playbill with magic acts (1)) we do have magicians and ventriloquists crop up now and again. Performers such as John Henry Anderson would often blur the lines between stage magic and more ‘typical’ performances through the use of pantomime as a vehicle to display his best tricks and apparatus. These types of unusual performances are now much easier to flag up thanks to the new tagging feature, but for now I’d like to delve into some of the playbills which our participants have identified so far and to provide some context into the people and performances behind the playbills.

The first belongs Joseph Jacobs (1813-1870), a relatively unknown figure from the nineteenth-century magic circuit in comparison to his contemporaries, such as the aforementioned Anderson. Edwin Dawes describes in book The Great Illusionists (1979, New Jersey) that Jacobs acted as a kind of running mate against Anderson (professional rivalries were common in the magic profession), and that he died in his fifties having begun his career performing in provincial towns or regional theatres (2), such as those which act as the focus of In the Spotlight. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Jacobs would appear in the volumes. He features in a February playbill from the Plymouth volumes, and The Western Courier, West of England Conservative, Plymouth and Devonport Advertiser promotes his performance of Wednesday 19 October 1842, stating that the ‘great original Wizard and Ventriloquist’ has ‘fully established’ his fame, so he clearly made several visits to this city. (3)

1Newspaper advertisement for Mr. Jacobs's show at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth

A notable figure to appear in the Portsmouth volumes is Signor Rosigniole, who can apparently summon birds in ‘a most astonishing Proof of his Art’ at the New Theatre in Portsmouth in May of 1782. Although Rosigniole takes up a third of the playbill, he is advertised only as an ‘end of play’ act, and the small print at the bottom of the playbill reveals that ‘TICKETS to be had of Signior Rosigniole, at Mr. Carr’s’, indicating that he has had to double up in an administrative role!

2Playbill showing the many roles of Signoir Rosigniole in this performance of As You Like it in Portsmouth in 1782

A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, etc. (1991) has been a great help in tracking Rosigniole’s career, which seems to have been cut short in 1800. Rosigniole certainly had a varied career, starting off touring with Philip Breslaw (4), a notable magician who penned the popular conjuring manual Breslaw’s Last Legacy (1784), then moving to selling tickets in Portsmouth…

In the year of Circus250, I have to include a circus poster. This Cooke’s Circus playbill from Edinburgh in the mid-nineteenth century features the unfortunately common phenomenon of a white performer adopting the ‘character’ of an Indian magician. This frequent occurrence has been critically examined by Chris Goto-Jones in his book Conjuring Asia (2016), but it’s most notable that James Cooke, the performer who features on the bill, seems primarily to be performing equestrian acts, so one wonders why he felt the need to adopt a ‘magician character’ at all!

3

Circus poster showing the ways in which tropes were perpetuated in ways which often made little sense.

Ventriloquism and magic often shared the stage together, and this bill from Oswestry 1821 features one of the most prominent ventriloquists of the period: Alexandre Vattemare. Most importantly, and perhaps unexpectedly, for the British Library, Mr. Alexandre also played a key role in developing a system of item exchange between libraries and museums in a desire to promote cultural discussion (5).

4 Playbill showing the ways in which Mr. Alexandre’s performances were carefully planned, and are laid out in the same scene-by-scene style as we might expect from a more standard dramatic performance.

As is clear from the playbill, Mr. Alexandre’s performances were carefully planned, and are laid out in the same scene-by-scene style as we might expect from a more standard dramatic performance.

5Photo of Alexandre Vattemare in The Public Library of the city of Boston : a history by Horace G. Wadlin, 1910, 1911

In light of these magical performances cropping up amongst In the Spotlight’s playbills, it is important to remember that magic and the theatre did not always share a harmonious existence. In the Theatrical Times of the 13th June 1846, the performer M. Phillipe is criticised for performing in theatres; the writer notes that ‘crowds are attracted to it’ but that ‘it is a great pity that he cannot find any other arena than that of a theatre in which to manifest his handi-work’, imploring that he move ‘a little farther westward than the Strand’ (6). In the Spotlight highlights some brilliant examples of the fact that, despite some opposition, magic still managed to infiltrate regional theatres.

 

References

  1. Milbourne, C. Panorama of Magic. P. 40 – She Stoops To Conquer shares a bill with the magician Chabert’s ‘Fire King’ trick
  2. Dawes, E. A. (1979). The Great Illusionists. New Jersey: Chartwell Books Inc, p. 98.
  3. Western Courier, West of England Conservative, Plymouth and Devonport Advertiser - Wednesday 19 October 1842 https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0001306/18421019/019/0002
  4. A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers & Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800, Volume 13 by Philip H. Highfill, Kalman A. Burnim, Edward A. Langhans, SIU Press, 1991
  5. Nash, S. (2004). Alexandre Vattemare: A 19th Century Story. In Society of Dix-Neuviémistes, 3, 1-17. https://web.archive.org/web/20070928091419/http://www.sdn.ac.uk/dixneuf/september04/nash/vattemare.pdf
  6. The Theatrical Times; a weekly magazine of Thespian biography, etc. 1846. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, Victorian Popular Culture, http://www.victorianpopularculture.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/Details/MH_UL_[M.M.C.]_P_[Theatrical_times]_1846 [Accessed July 31, 2018], p. 7.

 

 

 

13 September 2018

Windrush Sounds

by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives and Manuscripts, who assisted on the sound selections for the exhibition Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land, on display in the Entrance Hall of the Library until 21st October 2018. More details about the exhibition can be found here.

By some coincidence, Britain’s first boom in mass migration roughly coincided with the growing availability and fidelity of sound recording and playback technology. Because of this, Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land, the Library’s free exhibition which is now entering its final month in the Entrance Hall Gallery, is a story which must be told – that is, spoken, shouted, sung, recited and chanted – as well as shown, seen and read. Sound recordings in the exhibition range from a speech by Marcus Garvey, whose precision and force as a profoundly gifted orator has not diminished over time, to readings by poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah and James Berry, whose incisive socio-political commentary, linguistic and formal experimentation, and willingness to engage with emerging musical forms have built upon the deep oral tradition of the Caribbean and impacted British poetry immeasurably in the process. But beyond these famous and perhaps familiar voices, the exhibition also highlights a number of everyday speakers, drawn from the Library’s Sound Archive. These stories of arrival and work, education and family-building, integration, tension and everything in between and beyond, help to build a fuller picture and go a long way to helping us think about the exhibition’s key questions: Why did people come? What did they leave behind? And how did they shape Britain?

SLP-037

Visitors use the exhibition sound terminals on opening night. 

These stories are told through the Library’s vast and varied oral history collections, which come in a variety of forms. The first, and most accessible form, is the pre-curated radio programmes which, through their edited structure and high production values, provide an invaluable introduction to the canonical issues surrounding the Windrush moment and its afterlife. Shows such as Changing Caribbean (1960), London’s Black Pilgrims (1965) and Passage to the Promised Land (1996) form the backbone of the exhibition’s sound offering, with roughly contemporaneous interviews and more recent reflections charting the shifting and complex attitudes of those who came and their decedents.

The second kind of oral history takes the form of a long question and answer session with an individual or a group of individuals, usually lasting a few hours, which is recorded and left completely unedited for posterity. In these recordings, interviewees often mumble, stumble, clip and talk around the questions they are asked; they evade and waffle, mirroring the rhythm of a real conversation. The first reaction, for a curator tasked with locating narratives in these unwieldy audio-files, is often frustration. Yet there’s a strange sort of intimacy too, which over time becomes not only disarming but – I think – actively imbeds you in the lived experience of the person to whom you’re listening. These collections are often focused around occupational groups – there’s one for nurses, for instance, as a group which was highly represented among those arriving from the Caribbean.  But many are also incidentally concerned with the diasporic experience, such as the Millennium Memory Bank project which aimed to record oral histories with a demographically representative section of the British population as a kind of time capsule at the turn of this century. This project interviewed people from the Caribbean living in Britain not as immigrants but as part of British society at a particular point in time. Interviews like that with Eunice McGee, a Caribbean-born homemaker from the Midlands, allow researchers to engage with social history in a more direct and intimate way, as the discussion tracks the minutiae of everyday life – of bringing up families and buying a house, of marriage and work, of cooking and speaking – and the interested listener can move beyond external narritavisation of racial and economic groups and allow the complexity of the everyday to show itself through the life of a particular individual.  

All of these encounters made at the sound terminal in the exhibition, or with headphones in the Reading Rooms, are valuable. They allow us to commune with the past; to hear stories which affirm and contradict what we already think we know, often in the same recording. But this is part of the point. The idea of Windrush generation has become monolithic; a mythology which, for better or for worse, represents an over-simplification. The Library’s job is to facilitate access and act as custodians for material which complicates this narrative and others like it. Oral history helps to make sure that the multifaceted past is preserved in order that we, in the present, can avoid misrepresenting those who lived through it. (Even if this means listening intently to someone’s unedited recollection of their day).

 

05 September 2018

'I into history, now': Andrew Salkey's Jamaican epic

A Salkey mid 60s resized

Andrew Salkey in the mid 1960s. Photo courtesy of Jason Salkey.

This is a poem about Jamaica, about the experience of the slave trade and of colonisation and about a struggle for freedom and for identity which still rages today among Caribbean peoples. It deals with political issues, but is not simply a political poem. Rather it conjures up the swirling colours, the music, the moods, the atmosphere of a bustling, suffering, vital island community.

So says the blurb for the first edition of Andrew Salkey’s epic poem published in 1973, a typescript of which is currently on display in Windrush: Songs In a Strange Land. The poem had been 20 years in the writing. Its seed lay, presumably, in the poem of the same name that won Salkey the Thomas Helmore Poetry Prize in 1955, though nothing remains of this earlier effort in his archive here at the British Library. There are, however, records of the poem’s publication and reception among the fifty cartons of papers (and sound recordings) that make up the Salkey Archive. These boxes have been extensively mined for the Windrush exhibition: the number of items on display from this one archive is testament to Salkey’s importance as a central figure in the Caribbean arts scene and his tendency to act as its unofficial archivist.  He was jokingly labelled ‘Chief Recorder of Caribbean authors and their whereabouts’ by close friend Sam Selvon in recognition of his meticulous collecting and documentation activities. But more than that, Salkey played a crucial role in connecting and encouraging writers, influencing the decisions of British publishers and asserting the worth of Caribbean arts and cultures internationally.

Jamaica resized

'Jamaica' poem by Andrew Salkey, from the Andrew Salkey Archive, Deposit 10310.

As a novelist, poet, broadcaster with the seminal BBC programme Caribbean Voices, activist, academic and co-founder of the Caribbean Artists Movement, Salkey’s importance is difficult to overstate. Born in Panama in 1928, brought up in Jamaica, resident in Britain from 1952 and later the US, Salkey was a truly diasporic figure. His political interests in revolutionary Cuba, newly-independent Guyana and Chile’s fight against the Pinochet regime are all evident in the archive, as is his stellar network of correspondents which include CLR James, Chinua Achebe and even a fan-letter from Maya Angelou. His own writing is well represented too, with manuscripts and correspondence pertaining to many (though not all) of his novels, poetry, children’s stories and non-fiction books.

  AS and Ray Charles resized
Salkey interviewing Ray Charles for the BBC, 1966. Photo courtesy of Jason Salkey.

When it came to deciding which example of Salkey’s own work to include in the Windrush exhibition, the decision was not easy and I wish we could have included more items. Whereas his novels exploring the Caribbean immigrant experience in Britain had previously been displayed in exhibitions at the Library, we felt that this time the poem Jamaica deserved a showing. For myself and my co-curator Elizabeth Cooper, Jamaica stands out for the power and directness of its language, and also because it was representative of many Caribbean writers and artists’ desire to possess their own understanding of Caribbean history and culture. Salkey explained this desire for greater knowledge to Anne Walmsley (quoted in her book The Caribbean Artists Movement):

I got a British Museum reading card, and I went to the Public Record Office nearby. And I really started learning about me and home and the history, because I damn’ well wanted to talk to Jamaicans about Jamaica in the long poem that I was hoping to write. And therefore for the first time I began to realise myself as a colonial and us as a colony, and our history, and the way that we were forever at somebody else’s beck and call. Our economy wasn’t ours. Even our language wasn’t really ours. We had to, at least I had to, relearn a great deal.

Present in the archive is the original (anonymous) reader’s report that was submitted to Salkey’s publishers, Hutchinson. The reader judged the poem to be ‘a work of imagination and originality’ - ‘always interesting, and often moving – nowhere more so than in the descriptions of what "freedom" means, when it consists only in abolishing licensed slavery.’ They noted some reservations about the symphonic structure (which Salkey removed prior to publication), but praised Salkey’s use of dialect:

The many dialect sections seem outstandingly successful to me: they capture a very rich human feeling and present no difficulty to someone unfamiliar with Caribbean speech, like myself. Within their terse and repetitive rhythms, there is a great deal of unforced poetry. This is the real language of ritual and as such it has a greater lyricism and power than the well-contrived but slightly stale formality of the other sections.

On publication Jamaica received a mixed response, both from critics and friends. The TLS (25 Jan 1974) described the poem as ‘a loud cry for the island to reclaim its identity from the wrongs and sorrows of imperialism, ancient and present, and reassert Caribbea in myth, history and current blood’, but did not find its execution entirely successful.  One friend, Judy Ruggles, wrote to say she had initially regarded it as ‘Andrew’s indulgence’ but had since changed her mind on visiting Jamaica for the first time. The Jamaican Daily News lauded the poem for telling the island’s pre-Columbian history, whereas the sharpest criticism came from the UK version of the Jamaican Weekly Gleaner (21 August 1974) which opened its review by quoting Samuel Johnson’s line: ‘Sir (it) is like a dog’s wailing on its hind legs. It is not done well but you are surprised to find it done at all’. Despite first impressions, the reviewer is not, actually, questioning the quality of the writing so much as the reason for publishing a 100-page poem that it says hardly anyone will read since Salkey ‘antagonises’ his middle-class readers with the inclusion of ‘four-letter words’, and ‘The masses who may approve of that sort of thing do not buy books, neither prose nor poetry’. But I will give the last word to Christopher Laird, publisher of the Trinidadian arts journal Kairi, who declared ‘Again I must tell you how successful your “Into History Now” has been and how much we all dig it. Hardly a statement can be made these days without fitting in a line from “Into History”’.

That influence has lived on, as demonstrated by Raymond Antrobus who read from the poem at Monday’s event on the sound of the Caribbean voice. He spoke about his appreciation of Salkey’s poetry and the importance of seeing a copy of Jamaica on each of his parent’s bookshelves – his English mother and Jamaican father - as he was growing up.

Part of the power of Jamaica lies in its refrain ‘I into history, now’ with its radical sense of embodying history in order to reclaim it. Salkey returns to this idea in the final movement of the poem. Starting with an invocation to ‘grab weself like we know weself’, it concludes with these lines:

Culture come when you buck up
on you’self.
It start when you’ body make shadow
on the lan’,
an’ you know say
that you standin’ up into mirror
underneat’ you.

I say to meself,
“Is how the mento music go?”

You say,

“Is how the river flow?”
or, “How the sea does lay down so?”

I done wit’ you.
I into history, now.
Is the lan’ I want
an’ is the lan’
I out to get.

The twenty years’ journey of self-discovery that Salkey embarked upon with this poem was a long one, but a necessary one given the gaps and silences that have dogged our understanding of Caribbean history, culture and identity. Elsewhere in the exhibition we feature the work of other cultural figures who embarked on a similar learning process, from poet James Berry who wrote about coming to terms with his Caribbean background only after witnessing racism in the southern states of the US, to novelist Andrea Levy who has written about her own revelation that she was part of the ‘black experience’ despite growing up in a light-skinned, middle-class family who had distanced themselves from the black community due to the legacy of colonial-era shadism. This flourishing of Caribbean literature is in evidence throughout the exhibition, so if you haven’t seen it yet there is still time as the display runs until 21 October.

As for Andrew Salkey’s archive - without which the exhibition would be considerably poorer - we are pleased to announce that cataloguing of the collection will begin early next year and will lead to a conference to be held here at the British Library in 2020, thanks to the support of the Eccles Centre for American Studies.