THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

5 posts from June 2016

30 June 2016

In Defence of Shakespeare: Tolstoy and Orwell

by David Fitzpatrick, Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Shakespeare is almost universally respected among those writers who have followed him into the literary canon. However, as a recent European Studies blog post reminded readers, Tolstoy was one notable exception.

Towards the end of his life Tolstoy wrote an extremely harsh essay on Shakespeare entitled Shakespeare and the Drama, which was first published in English in 1907, in Tolstoy on Shakespeare, a small volume which, in addition to Tolstoy’s essay, includes Shakespeare and the Working Classes, an essay by Ernest Howard Crosby, author, fellow Georgist and friend of Tolstoy, as well as a letter from George Bernard Shaw to Tolstoy’s translator, which is somewhat more subdued in its criticism of the Bard.

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Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy shoeless, 1901 by Ilya Repin (1844-1940)

In Shakespeare and the Drama, Tolstoy writes that his various attempts to read Shakespeare’s plays – in Russian, English and German – invariably produced feelings of ‘repulsion, weariness and bewilderment’. Using King Lear as his example (the main body of the essay is a scene-by-scene criticism of the tragedy), Tolstoy argues that ‘[i]n Shakespeare everything is exaggerated: the actions are exaggerated, so are their consequences, the speeches of the characters are exaggerated, and therefore at every step the possibility of artistic impression is interfered with.’

At this stage of his life Tolstoy was a committed Christian anarchist, and many of his objections to Shakespeare’s universal popularity appear to derive from perceived moral shortcomings, both in Shakespeare’s works and in the works of those who admired him. In his essay Tolstoy suggests that the fundamental reason for Shakespeare’s fame, both in Shakespeare’s time and in Tolstoy’s, was that Shakespeare’s dramas ‘corresponded to the irreligious and immoral frame of mind of the upper classes of his time and ours’. In Tolstoy’s view, over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, the exaggerated praise of Shakespeare’s dramas, sustained by an ‘unreasoning state of hypnotism’, allowed for the development of ‘a low, trivial understanding of the drama’, which resulted in the dramas of Tolstoy’s time (his own included, Tolstoy adds) being devoid of any spiritual substance.

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George Orwell, 1933

Some forty years later, an essay by George Orwell entitled Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool examined Shakespeare and the Drama and discussed the possible reasons behind Tolstoy’s hatred of Shakespeare. In his essay Orwell highlights the weaknesses in Tolstoy’s arguments (for instance, he refutes Tolstoy’s claim that no motive is given for King Lear’s abdication), and suggests that Tolstoy may have attacked King Lear in particular because its plot bore some resemblance to his own life (Tolstoy, like Lear, renounced his title and estate in old age). As Orwell points out, although Tolstoy could not have foreseen it, even the ending of his own life (he died in a small village railway station, after fleeing his family home in the middle of the night) can be seen as a kind of ‘phantom reminiscence’ of Lear.

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The family circle at Yasnaya Polyana, circa 1905

In Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool, Orwell regards Shakespeare’s works as having a predominantly humanist attitude, and suggests that this may be the main reason why the deeply religious Tolstoy could not appreciate them, nor understand why anyone else could. Moreover, Orwell argues that Tolstoy’s essay hardly deals with Shakespeare as a poet, and so fails to grasp the real reason for his enduring popularity (‘[h]is main hold on us is through language’).

In defence of Shakespeare, Orwell concludes that Tolstoy’s arguments are ultimately unanswerable since ‘[t]here is no argument by which one can defend a poem… [i]t defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible.’ By this measure of literary merit Orwell finds Shakespeare, in answer to Tolstoy’s charges, to be ‘not guilty’.

A first edition of Tolstoy on Shakespeare is on display in the British Library’s exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts, which runs until 6 September 2016.

 

22 June 2016

Delving into the Laurence Olivier Archive: fan letters and Macbeth

by Zoë Stansell, Reference Specialist

Laurence Olivier was one of the great Shakespearean actors of the 20th century, who enthralled theatre audiences with his magnificent performances of Shakespeare’s leading men. He brought Shakespeare to the screen with his films of Hamlet, Richard III and Henry V, which he wrote, directed and starred in. These films can still be enjoyed by those who never had a chance to see him on stage. We can discover fascinating insights into Olivier’s Shakespeare productions by examining his own annotated scripts. We can also view correspondence, photos, and even fan mail, relating to his Shakespeare plays.

These can be found in the Olivier Archive, which the BL purchased from the Olivier family in 1999. It is a vast archive, containing nearly 1000 files. The BL reference numbers for the whole archive are Add MS 79766-80750.

Anyone with a valid BL reader pass can view items from the archive in the BL Manuscripts Reading Room. Please see this link for the BL Archives & Manuscripts Catalogue, if you want to search it yourself: http://searcharchives.bl.uk/ .

Olivier was involved in so many Shakespeare plays it was necessary to pick one as an example. Macbeth seems a good choice because Olivier’s enthusiasm for the role, in which he excelled, means there are plenty of Macbeth-related items in the archive. Also, it’s familiar to many of us who studied it at school! Olivier appeared in the title role at the Old Vic in 1937. Macbeth is traditionally associated with bad luck and this production was no exception. According to the Old Vic website, manager Lilian Baylis died on the day of the dress rehearsal; Olivier narrowly avoided a falling stage weight; and the director and lead actress were in a car accident. To cap it all Lilian’s portrait fell off the wall!

There was an early TV broadcast by the BBC of scenes from this adaptation. It is described on this website: http://bufvc.ac.uk/shakespeare/index.php/title/av71012 . A file in the archive, Add MS 79975, contains ‘correspondence, mostly fan mail sent to Olivier, for his Old Vic performances of Henry V, Hamlet, and Macbeth: 1936-1938’.

Having spent an entertaining hour searching the file for a memorable fan letter about his Macbeth performance, I was thrilled (and appalled at the same time) to read an eight page critical analysis from, “a much older man who has followed your career with interest & sometimes enthusiasm”. According to the writer of the letter, Shakespeare himself would not have performed the role in this manner!

Apparently, Olivier’s reading fluctuates “between Richard III, Shylock (especially in make-up) & Lear”, his dagger scene “kills the ascending tension stone dead”, he shouts after the murder, and ruins the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech by his stage movements.

More comments follow about Olivier’s “fatal” makeup and “raucous” voice and the letter concludes “that these criticisms are offered in the genuine, though possibly presumptuous, desire to serve”.

Who wouldn’t wish to be a fly on the wall when Olivier finished reading this letter? I wonder if he took on board these pointers and improved his subsequent performances! Alas, there is no evidence that he replied.

The file contains letters from other fans expressing more traditional admiration. There is also a letter from Lilian Baylis, dated 19/9/36, thanking him for his gift of “cyclorama”. If anyone is unfamiliar with the word “cyclorama” (I was), the OED entry says it is:  “Theatr. A large backcloth or wall, freq. curved, at the back of a stage, used esp. to represent the sky”.

Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh performed together as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford, in 1955.

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BL Add MS 80731. Photos of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, in the 1955 Stratford production of Macbeth.

Vivien Leigh’s costume from this production is displayed in the Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition at the British Library, which runs until 6th September 2016. Here is the link for details of the exhibition: http://www.bl.uk/events/shakespeare-in-ten-acts

Critics such as Kenneth Tynan raved about Olivier’s Macbeth but were less impressed with Vivien Leigh’s Lady Macbeth. Tynan didn’t think much of any of her performances at this time, but apparently changed his mind in later life. The following files relate to this particular production: Add MS 80299 Correspondence and papers relating to Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, and Twelfth Night. Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon; 1954-1958; Add MS 80682 Cuttings relating to Plays at Stratford, and elsewhere; 1954-1957: Macbeth; Twelfth Night; Titus Andronicus; The Deep Blue Sea; The Entertainer; Add MS 80731 Photograph Album of Olivier and Vivien Leigh in the Stratford productions of Titus Andronicus and Macbeth. Some of these photos are currently on loan to the Library of Birmingham for their Shakespeare exhibition, which runs until 3rd September 2016. Here are details of the exhibition: http://www.libraryofbirmingham.com/event/Events/ourshakespeare.


Imagine how fabulous a film, with Laurence Olivier as Macbeth and Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth, would have been! Olivier put a huge effort into planning a film version of Macbeth but, unfortunately, lack of funding prevented it. The archive holds nine folders (Add MS 80508-80516) of papers relating to Olivier’s unsuccessful attempt to make the film, including set designs, photographs of potential locations and production budgets. There are also 13 drafts of screenplays (Add MS 80534-80546).
 

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BL Add MS 80537. Unbound sheets from one of the 13 draft screenplays of Macbeth, with extensive annotations in ballpoint pen by Olivier. These pages show the scene where Macbeth and Banquo encounter the witches.

The BL holds the archives of many other 20th century theatre greats, who were contemporaries, friends and colleagues of Laurence Olivier. These include: John Gielgud (Add MS 81306-81590) Alec Guinness (Add MS 89015) Kenneth Tynan (Add MS 87715-88472) All of the above were involved in various Shakespeare productions, including Macbeth, whether it be as actor, director or writer. I’ll save their archives for next time! 
 

If you’re planning to visit the BL Shakespeare exhibition, you might like to enhance your experience with a talk from a reference expert about Shakespeare-related items in the BL’s vast collections (not all of which could be included in the exhibition). See this link for details: http://www.bl.uk/events/shakespeare-revealed-into-the-collections

 

 

15 June 2016

P is for Printess: New Acquisition

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Christine Tacq’s latest artist’s book Printess & the p is a reimagining of the timeless Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a young woman who proves her nobility to her suitor prince, by detecting a pea through twenty feather mattresses. Only a princess would be so sensitive to be awakened by a pea. In this version, it is a woman printer, or ‘printess’, who is the person of discernment.

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The first thing that is striking about Tacq’s latest work is the interspersed monotone plates sit in sharp contrast to the vibrant rich imagery of the colour spreads illustrating the narrative. This contrast is beautifully underpinned by using different paper. The colour reliefs are printed on Zerkall paper, while, intaglio collagraphs are on Fabriano paper. By cleverly changing the medium it reinforces the initial contrast at the physical as well as on a visual level.

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The theme of contrast extends to the depictions. The seven richly coloured double-page spreads juxtaposed with the far more vulnerable black and white which offers an intimate glimpse into an inner darker world. Some of these prints spill out from the confines of the frame with hard edged intaglio  printing as if attempting to burst out from the page and ape the freedom a vibrancy depicted in the colour plates.   

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Tacq’s skill as a book artist are illustrated in the way this volume unravels and draws in a complex range of themes and concepts, techniques; - and then presents them in such an appealing way. Her use of Optima for the text balances with the rich relief collagraphs

The Printess &the p was published in July 2014, it is a first edition of twenty five copies. The volume was printed by p’s &q’s Press, Thame in Oxfordshire and bound at the Fine Book Bindery.  

The covers are bound in hand-printed linen designed with relief-blocks and comes in a linen slipcase.

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The images are created using the collagraphy technique in which the plate is constructed of adhered elements and inked with a roller or brush to produce in both relief and intaglio, and an embossed impression can be obtained by printing the plate dry without inking.

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The way the imagery and the narrative intertwine to create this volume weighted with powerful subtexts which engage with concepts of feminism and identity. In some respects it offers a self-portrait of a printer.  

On returning the volume to its slipcase one evening after working with it I noticed a small piece of paper squashed in to the back of the slip case. On retrieving and unfolding it, it read:

“18 Excellent Copy, British Library? Excellent”

Because of the way the creases appear it was possibly placed on the spine as part of the quality assurance process. Nevertheless, to come across such a note adds to an authenticity of the artistic process and speaks to the huge range of skills and processes it takes to create a tome of such outstanding quality.

 

The Library’s copy of the Printess &the p will be accessible at British Library shelfmark RF.2016.b.35. in the near future.

Images reproduced with the kind permission of Christine Tacq.

Blog by Jerry Jenkins, Curator, Emerging Media, Contemporary British Published Collections

09 June 2016

Peter Brook and A Midsummer Night’s Dream

by Greg Buzwell, Curator of Shakespeare in Ten Acts

William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream lends itself to spectacular visual excess. After all, if you can’t go over the top with a comedy set in a magical moonlit-woodland and populated by mischievous fairies then when can you? Many Victorian productions of the play concentrated almost exclusively on spectacle, cutting Shakespeare’s text and adding hosts of Amazons and allegorical processions celebrating the triumphs of Theseus, including his victory over the Minotaur. Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s production of the play in 1900 even went so far in its efforts to heighten the air of woodland magic as to include live rabbits hopping across the stage.

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An extract from an 1847 playbill for A Midsummer Night’s Dream Playbills Vol 262, item 261

Later, in the 20th century, film adaptations of the play appeared. A 1935 Hollywood film of Dream directed by Max Reinhardt and starring James Cagney as Bottom included dozens of extra fairies and a Satanic-looking Oberon on horseback accompanied by a troop of bat-winged henchmen. The set included sixty-seven truckloads of trees and shrubs (including a transplanted redwood tree) and covered over sixty-six thousand square feet. Blending in with this jungle-like excess Mickey Rooney, according to one observer at least, played Puck as though he were ‘the son of Tarzan’. The spectacular dance scenes featuring Titania’s attendants were choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska, formerly of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. For Hollywood, if A Midsummer Night’s Dream was worth doing, it was worth overdoing.

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A play not noted for its restraint: a scene from the spectacular 1935 Hollywood adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Warner Bros / The Kobal Collection

In 1914, attempting something different, the theatre director Harley Granville Barker staged the play at the Savoy Theatre in a fashion that eschewed extravagance in favour of suggestion and symbolism. When the production came to Manhattan in 1915 Barker explained his challenge to realism and visual excess by observing: ‘What is really needed is a great white box. That’s what our theatre really is’. The world may not have been ready for such an interpretation in 1915, but in 1970 ‘a great white box’ is exactly what it got.

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Poster for the RSC’s 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring Sally Jacobs’s famous white-box set design. Courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The director Peter Brook probably knew nothing of Barker’s comment, but Brook effectively restated Barker’s challenge to illusionistic theatre a half century later. Brook, along with his designer Sally Jacobs, devised a white box setting for their 1970 production of the play in Stratford-upon-Avon. Large metal coils represented the woodland; a spinning plate on an acrylic rod became the flower containing the magic potion Puck fetches for Oberon; Puck entered the stage on stilts while Oberon descended to the stage on a trapeze. Circus tricks replaced the fairy magic. The intention was to move the play away from realism altogether and into the heightened realm of metaphor. Originally black drapes had hung behind the white box stage design but during the Paris leg of the world tour Brook removed them. Suddenly everything could be seen, including the tower-like structures from which the cables supporting the trapezes were fixed. The actors playing the fairies could be observed on the catwalk that ran around the top of the set, watching the action during the scenes in which they were not required. The creation of artifice and illusion was no longer of paramount importance.

The small cast was also at odds with traditional productions. Brook liked the dream-like associations of doubling given by many of the actors playing dual roles, recognizing that a small ensemble of performers would not only enhance the quality of actor involvement but also heighten the sense of dream-like theatrical metaphor. The costumes were far removed from the usual elaborate designs, rich fabrics and gossamer threads. Puck, played by John Kane, wore a yellow jump suit and a blue skull cap inspired by the costumes Brook and Jacobs had seen Chinese acrobats wearing in Paris. The young lovers meanwhile, the men in their tie-dyed shirts and the women in long white dresses, brought a touch of the ‘here and now’ to the production. The first staging of the play in Stratford took place in August 1970, not long after the 1967 summer of love and the student riots in Paris the following year. A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be seen as many things, but on one level it is a drama about youthful rebellion - perfect for the late-1960s zeitgeist of sexual freedom and the desire to escape stale orthodoxy.

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Alan Howard as Oberon, Sara Kestelman as Titania and John Kane as Puck in Peter Brook’s 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC.

Reviews of Brook’s Dream, as it became known, were largely positive. The reviewer in the Sunday Times wrote: ‘more than refreshing, magnificent, the sort of thing one sees only once in a lifetime, and then only from a man of genius’. Inevitably there were a few dissenting voices – the New Statesman commented that Brook had ‘remoulded’ the play ‘with the help of Billy Smart, Walt Disney, J. G. Ballard and … his own sleeping, hallucinating self’ (although that in itself sounds utterly amazing). Perhaps above all else the production showed that it was possible to put a completely new spin on Shakespeare, transforming a play with a tradition of performance stretching back over 350 years into something new, strange, challenging, inventive and wonderful.

Peter Brook’s 1970 staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the productions explored in detail in Shakespeare in Ten Acts. Peter Brook will be giving a talk entitled The Esoteric and the Profane in Shakespeare’ at the British Library on the afternoon of Wednesday 15th June and there will be a panel discussion about the 1970 production of Dream, featuring Peter Brook, Sir Ben Kingsley (who played Demetrius) and Frances de la Tour (who played Helena) later that evening.

01 June 2016

Touching History

by Melissa Addey, 2016 Writer in Residence at the British Library, funded by the Leverhulme Trust

As a writer of historical fiction, my favourite item at the British Library so far has been a letter in the Treasures of the British Library permanent exhibition. It’s a dark and shadowy space, with delicate lighting placed here and there so that you can make out the precious items on display.

The letter is from both Anne Boleyn and Henry the 8th, to Cardinal Wolsey. On a single page, Anne begins the letter, asking about the progress of the desired annulment of Henry’s first marriage to Katherine of Aragon. The second half of the page is from Henry. “The wrytter of thys letter wolde nott cease tyll she (had caused me likewise) to sett to my hand; desiring yow, thowght it be short, to (take it in good part)”. In other words, Anne has nagged him to complete the letter and add his own nudge to the Cardinal.

It’s special for a number of reasons. To actually see the item is to know that these two people, so famous in our history, both held this page in their hands. It has their handwriting on it, such an intimate thing about a person, so peculiarly theirs.

Handwriting is something we are losing: I used to know exactly what my friends’ and family members’ handwriting looked like. I now have friends whose handwriting I don’t believe I’ve ever seen. The letter has their tone of voice. Henry’s reference to Anne nagging is really quite funny. It tells you something about their relationship at the time and makes you wonder how many of these letters were sent, gradually increasing from jocular confidence to frustrated rage. The letter is dated August 1528, quite early on in Henry’s attempt to marry Anne, something that didn’t happen for another five years. Seeing something like this is to reach back and touch history, to see people as human rather than legend. 

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Detail from Henry VII’s Psalter, Royal MS 2 A XVI f3r, showing Henry VII.

When researching for a historical novel, it’s these items you’re desperately searching for. Not the big dates and official accounts, the official court robes and formal proclamations, although you have to have those as your backdrop. It’s the tone of voice and the scribbled asides, the letters and diaries, children’s toys and defamatory handbills, hearing the crack in someone’s voice. These are what let us touch history.  Because of my residency I’ve been spending a lot of time at the British Library and these up-close brushes with history are endlessly fascinating.

Currently the British Library’s Literary and Creative Archives and Manuscripts team are working on trying to acquire complete archives, such as diaries, manuscripts and collections of people like Alec Guinness (one of his letters to Evelyn Waugh includes the great line: “Graham’s last play seemed BONKERS to me…”), Hanif Kureishi (see some of the Kureishi Archive on our online learning resource Discovering Literature: 20th Century) and Kenneth Williams.

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A page from the diaries of Kenneth Williams

Seeing these items, reading through them, looking at the notations or signatures, the rants or the ponderings, is like sitting next to that person and watching them be themselves. Not a front put on for others but their own selves, the people they are underneath.               

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Laurence Olivier's shooting script for Henry V 1943 British Library Photo by Clare Kendall

In the current Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition at the British Library I stood with earphones on and quickly pushed buttons, hearing actors from Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant say “To be or not to be’. I didn’t listen to the whole speech, just that one line and even in that line, with over ten actors, there was such a variety of choice and meaning to just six words. It made you think about the role and the person portraying Hamlet, the decisions they must have made in rehearsals, their own understanding of the text. It was a strange and intimate auditory experience and more personal than you would expect. As is a Christmas greeting message from the Beatles to their fan club: extraordinarily unpolished by today’s standards but unmistakably them.

Touching history should not be a smooth and polished affair. It should be rough and dirty. It should leave you with your fingers bleeding, your eyes open wide and a gasp or a giggle in your mouth. I’m off to trawl through the archives again.