THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

43 posts categorized "Drama"

21 October 2016

Dan Leno: the original Pantomime Dame

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by Helen Peden, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections 1601-1900 and British Library curator of exhibition Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun.  

When Dan Leno performed as the Pantomime Dame in the 1880s he transformed a previously minor role into the main part and shaped pantomime into the Christmas show we know today.

  Dan Leno

Illustrated cover of the score of My Old Man (1889) H.1260.m.(43

The great clown Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) had been the star of Regency pantomime and brought the subtle arts of mime and gesture to this popular entertainment. In Grimaldi’s performances the clown was always the main character but after his death these clever skills were lost and soon replaced by the much less finely drawn charms of Principal Boys and Pantomime Dames. Clowns no longer played a pivotal role in the production and returned to the circus leaving pantomime without a main character and in need of a new direction. This was provided through the comic genius of Dan Leno.

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Foresters’ Music Hall playbill (1885) Evan.611  

On Monday, October 5th, 1885, Leno made his first appearance in London at the Foresters’ Music Hall. Playbills in the Evanion Collection document Leno’s early London success (Evan.611, Evan.1063) and list him as a champion dancer – he had won a world clog dancing competition in Leeds in 1880. His champion clog dance was the main part of his turn at the Foresters’ but his comic song – I’m Going to buy Milk for the Twins – proved more popular with London audiences. Although the words have not survived, we know that Leno rushed on stage in the guise of an ordinary, harassed, yet spirited and resilient woman, and immediately grabbed the attention of the audience with his rapid comic patter in which he revealed the many small injustices of everyday life. Although Leno performed alone on stage the characters he embodied were so well drawn that his stage always seemed to be fully peopled.

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Oxford Music Hall playbill (1886) Evan.1063

George Conquest, manager of the Surrey Theatre in Lambeth, South London was so impressed by Leno’s performances that he was quickly engaged to play Dame Durden in the 1886-7 pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk. Leno’s Dame stole the show and he subsequently appeared in every spectacular pantomime at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane until the end of the 1904 season.

Mother Goose

Illustration of Dan Leno as Mother Goose. Jay Hickory Wood: Dan Leno. London, 1905 10827.f.24.

The Good Old Original Mother Goose

Leno became the pantomime star of the late Victorian era. The main part of Mother Goose was written for him by the writer J. Hickory Wood for the 1902-3 Christmas season at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The character went through a number of phases – from poor to wealthy, humble to haughty, plain to beautiful and young to a final incarnation as the good old original Mother Goose, complete with top-knot and bunion.

Mother Goose was Leno’s favourite pantomime role and was considered to be the greatest triumph of his pantomime career.

Visit There Will Be Funa free British Library exhibition on Victorian popular entertainments, open until March 2017, and see many other rare and wonderful treasures from the Evanion Collection.

Helen Peden, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections 1601-1900

 

01 October 2016

"The Lord Chamberlain regrets..."

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 by Kathryn Johnson, Curator Theatrical Archives and Manuscripts

Until the passing of the Theatres Act in September 1968, which removed the legal necessity for all stage plays to be licensed by the Lord Chamberlain, these are the dread words which a producer might read when he opened the letter from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office informing him of the cuts and alterations required in his script before the Lord Chamberlain was prepared to issue a licence.

There had been a permanent official in charge of staged entertainments since 1545, in the shape of the Master of the Revels, but only after the return of Charles II in 1660 did the Lord Chamberlain begin to take a serious interest in censorship and the regulation of the theatre. The first Theatres Act of 1737 came about because Sir Robert Walpole was suffering under the satirical attacks of Henry Fielding and others on the shortcomings of his ministry. This act reduced at a stroke the number of “legitimate” theatres in London to two, Covent Garden and Drury Lane. While this provision was lifted by a second Theatres Act in 1843, the censorship of new plays continued until 1968.

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Image of the Lord Chamberlain's Day Books

Some of the new regulations laid down by the 1843 Act continued unchanged for more than a century. The Lord Chamberlain’s Office levied a charge for reading a play – one guinea (£1.05) for a one act play, and two guineas (£2.10) for plays longer than one act. The Office kept extremely careful records of all plays and monies received, largely because the Examiner of Plays, the functionary whose job it was to read each play and advise the Lord Chamberlain whether they were fit for licence, was paid these sums of money rather than a salary. These careful lists survive in the British Library as the Lord Chamberlain’s Day Books.

Only in 1911 was the Examiner of Plays required to write a formal report recording the grounds on which he had decided (or declined) to recommend that a play be licensed. The files which grew around the reports submitted by the Examiners have survived as the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays Correspondence. In later years a file for a controversial play might contain everything from complaints from members of the public – “This is the New Babylon!” raged one anonymous correspondent about a risqué revue of 1937– to press cuttings, copies of police reports, and ticket stubs and witness statements for the occasions when a play’s producer was prosecuted for presenting unlicensed material.

The rules by which plays were judged fit or unfit came about as a result of the 1909 Joint Select Committee on the theatre. The Committee suggested that the Lord Chamberlain should license any play submitted to him unless he considered it

  1.  To be indecent
  2.  To contain “offensive personalities”
  3.  To represent on the stage in an invidious manner a living person, or a person recently dead
  4.  To do violence to the sentiment of religious reverence
  5.  To be calculated to conduce to crime and vice
  6.  To be calculated to impair friendly relations with any Foreign Power
  7.  To be calculated to cause a breach of the peace

In practice this meant that a play must not have living persons as characters, or those recently dead, whatever the manner in which they were depicted.   This rule applied particularly to the Royal Family: no plays about Queen Victoria were permitted before the late 1930s. No Biblical personage, and certainly not God or Jesus Christ could appear as a stage character, however reverent the production.

No wonder that a satirical alphabet of the 1930s had under the letter C : “C is for CENSOR, who keeps the stage clean, by ruling out God and the Crown as obscene.”

A development of rule (a) led to the set of rules concocted to regulate the nude reviews which appeared in London and elsewhere from the late 1930s, the most famous of which were the long series of Revudeville shows at the Windmill Theatre in Soho. Occasional complaints about indecency of dress on stage were nothing new, and there had been a considerable brouhaha when a revue in Coronation Week 1937 had been accused of featuring topless dancers. But in April 1940 the Lord Chamberlain of the day, Lord Clarendon, held a conference on stage nudity and the supposed decline in moral standards. Rather like the 1909 Select Committee, it achieved little except to formulate the famous rules, summarised as “If it moves,it’s rude”. The nude tableaux had to resemble works of art, and exhibit genuine artistic merit. The lighting had to be subdued, and no movement whatsoever was permitted – the girls posing nude were not even allowed to smile. Furthermore, before any nude pose could be exhibited, a photograph had to be submitted for official approval. Many though not all of these photographs survive in the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays Correspondence files, sometimes neatly annotated with the words “YES” or “NO” by a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s staff.

Hair!cropped

Image of Reader's report for the second submitted version of Hair!, LCP Correspondence LR 1968/2 

Moves to liberalise and then to abolish altogether the laws on censorship gathered pace in the middle and late 1960s. By the time the Joint Committee on the Censorship of the Theatre began its meetings in the summer of 1966, radical change was unstoppable. The first draft of the bill which became the 1968 Theatres Act saw the light in January of that year. By July it was ready for the Royal Assent, and on 26 September 1968, it became law. The very last play to be licensed by the Lord Chamberlain was As long as I live, a melodrama written for amateur performance, read and recommended for a licence by Examiner Charles Heriot less than a week before the act became law. But the most famous play of 1968 remains the “tribal love-rock musicalHair, submitted three times in the spring and summer of 1968 by three different managements, each time refused a licence. It is perhaps not accidental that Hair – complete with expletives and full-frontal male nudity -eventually opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 27 September 1968, the very day after the new act became law.

This blog is part of series for Banned Books Week 2016. See also Melvin Burgess’s blog on Censorship and the Author, curator Christian Algar on the ‘corrected’ Il Decamerone, curator Tanya Kirk on The Monk, the Bible and Obscenity, The Book Banner who inspired Banned Books by curator Alison Hudson, Banned From the Classroom: Censorship and The Catcher and the Rye by curator Mercedes Aguirre and a blog on Press Freedom and its Limits in Revolutionary Vienna by curator Susan Reed.

Banned Books Week was initiated by the American Library Association in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries, and in particular, books aimed at children or young adults. For the first time in the UK we are holding events, activities and publishing a series of blogs, all on the topic of Censorship and Banned Books, made possible by the partnership between The British Library, Free Word and Islington Library and Heritage Services and in association with the ALA.

BannedBooksWeekLogos

23 August 2016

Last chance to see Shakespeare in Ten Acts

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There are just two weeks left to see our exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts which must close on the 6th of September. If you haven’t yet got round to seeing it, here’s why you don’t want to miss out on what the TLS called a ‘dazzling show of shows’.

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Items on display from Peter Brook's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1970 © Richard Eaton

Many of the items on display won’t be seen again for a long time, so this could be your one chance to see the manuscript of Sir Thomas More, the only surviving play-script in Shakespeare’s hand, as well as the Library’s only Shakespeare signature. The fragile first quarto edition of Hamlet – one of only two copies in the world – is also on display giving you a rare opportunity to see this alternative version of the play, oddly different from the one we’re so familiar with. Oh, and there are a couple of First Folios on display too of course.

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A rare opportunity to see the scene written by Shakespeare for the play Sir Thomas More. © Richard Eaton

The exhibition begins by telling the story of Shakespeare’s early career, with early printed books showing how he went from being regarded as an ‘upstart crow’ to ‘honey-tongued Shakespeare’ in a mere six years. The Library’s collections also give a glimpse into Shakespeare’s reputation outside of the professional sphere, with a diary from 1602 recording contemporary gossip about Shakespeare getting one over on his friend Richard Burbage by bedding an admirer of his and wittily proclaiming his triumph with the line ‘William the Conqueror came before Richard III’.

While Shakespeare’s changing reputation is a thread that runs through the whole exhibition, performance is its main theme and we lead off our Ten Acts by exploring the contexts in which Hamlet and The Tempest were first performed by Shakespeare’s company. Hamlet would have premiered in London at the recently built Globe theatre, which can be seen at the centre of Visscher’s famous two-metre-long panorama of London in the year 1600 which you really need to see in person to appreciate its scale and attention to detail (the heads of traitors mounted on spikes on the south side of London Bridge add a gruesome touch to the scene). Another favourite map from our collections sets the scene for The Tempest section by showing the site of what later became the Blackfriars Playhouse amidst some charming details of 16th century London life, from the tilt yard at Whitehall Palace to cattle paddling in the Thames.

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Looking at 'A view of London about the Year 1560', London, 1737. The British Library Maps Crace Port.1.8. © Richard Eaton

Researching the history of the Blackfriars Playhouse, where we believe The Tempest was performed around about 1610-11, was one of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition preparations. What emerged from my reading was an area of London that was a melting pot of Puritans and religious refugees, aristocrats and artisans. Of all the historic performances featured, I most wanted to transport myself back in time to this one. I like to imagine myself entering the narrow streets of Blackfriars, buying a feather to adorn my best theatre-going attire and joining the crowd climbing the winding staircase of the former monastery, following the strains of lute music to reach the candlelit chamber in which some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays were performed.

While this slightly later engraving of an indoor theatre (see below) gives an idea of what the Blackfriars may have looked like, other items in this section convey a sense of the theatre’s reputation as the destination of choice for the wealthy elite (Queen Henrietta Maria even attended plays there in the 1630s). You can also see the Privy Council’s copy of a petition against the opening of the theatre, on loan from The National Archives, which astonishingly lists the names of Shakespeare’s patron and his publisher as supporters of the cause.

The Wits

Frontispiece to The Wits, 1673. The British Library C.71.h.23.

If part of what appeals about Shakespeare is the glamour and intrigue of the Jacobethan world, there are other treats in store that go beyond Shakespeare and his canon: the infamous accusations against Christopher Marlowe made by the spy Richard Baines shortly before Marlowe’s murder, theatre designs by Inigo Jones on loan from the Devonshire collection at Chatsworth, and Ben Jonson’s presentation copy of ‘The Masque of Queens’, written out in his best handwriting as a gift for James I following its performance at court in 1609.

Meanwhile, the practical business of staging plays in Shakespeare’s time is perhaps most powerfully confronted when you see a ‘stage plot’ which once hung backstage to remind Richard Burbage and his fellow cast members when to make their entrances. There are only six surviving documents like this in the world and the plot for The Dead Man’s Fortune is the best preserved example. Or you might prefer the cannonball on loan from the Museum of London which was dug up in the excavations of the Rose Theatre and may once have been used to create thunder sound effects.

The rest of the exhibition goes beyond Shakespeare’s own time to look at how his plays have been re-interpreted by subsequent generations. You can see how Shakespeare’s works have been reinvented by the likes of genius theatre director Peter Brook, cult film-maker Derek Jarman and composer of West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein. There are stunning costumes born from the imaginations of Jenny Tiramani, Oliver Messel, Sally Jacobs and London College of Fashion. The work of numerous visual artists is represented including François Boitard’s contributions to the earliest illustrated edition of Shakespeare, the enchanting engravings produced from the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, and a video of Davy and Kristin McGuire’s Ophelia’s Ghost.

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Looking at film adaptations of The Tempest by Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway. © Richard Eaton

There’s also a strong social history aspect to the exhibition, with two ‘Acts’ that explore widening participation in Shakespeare through the years with women taking to the professional stage in 1660 and the first British performance by the black Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge in 1825. Some of my favourite items from these sections include the trinkets depicting gutsy 17th century actresses Dora Jordan and George Anne Bellamy (on loan from the Folger Shakespeare Library), the beautiful and hilarious playbills from our 200,000 strong collection, and James Northcote’s painting of Othello, identified as a portrait of Ira Aldridge in the 1980s (on loan from Manchester City Art Galleries).

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Othello, the Moor of Venice by James Northcote, 1826, on loan from Manchester City Art Galleries. © Richard Eaton

There is all this to see plus film and video clips of performances and interviews with leading Shakespearean actors Simon Russell Beale, Samuel West, Harriet Walter, Maxine Peake, Hugh Quarshie and Sara Kestelman. While you’re there, look out for some of the quirky oddities we’ve planted here and there: a morris-dancing stunt, a play-writing pig, Shakespeare forgeries and the skull that Sarah Bernhardt used when she played Hamlet in 1899. Come prepared for a couple of hours packed with things to see and listen to, and be warned that it’s somewhat chilly in the gallery to protect the items so don’t forget your cardigan - or make like this Blackfriars play-goer, get yourself a new cloak, throw it closer about your shoulders and enjoy the show.

Nim

The Life of a Satirical Puppy Called Nim (1657) by Thomas May. The British Library G.1042.

 

Shakespeare in Ten Acts runs until the 6th of September and tickets can be booked online via the British Library Box Office.

19 August 2016

William Shakespeare and The Learned Pig

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There have been many learned pigs in history but only one, to the best of my knowledge, that has claimed credit for writing the plays of William Shakespeare. Indeed by 1786, when The Story of the Learned Pig, by an officer of the Royal Navy was published, complete with its claim regarding the authorship of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and certain other plays knowledgeable animals of one kind or another were in danger of becoming somewhat passé. ‘Marocco the thinking horse’, for example, had made his appearance in the late 16th century and was able to follow the commands of his owner William Bankes with uncanny ability. Marocco could play dead, walk on his hind legs, urinate on command and even, apparently, separate and indicate the innocent maids in the audience from the disreputable harlots. Clever, certainly, but not as clever as writing The Tempest.

The first performing pig didn’t arrive on the scene for almost another 100 years later. Trained by a Scotsman, Samuel Bisset, the original learned pig used cards printed with individual letters and numbers to answer questions - indicating particular cards with its snout to respond to enquiries about the number of people in the audience, the time of day and even on occasions enquiries about what certain ladies in the audience were thinking at any given time. The show was a great success, and after Bisset’s death the pig went into new management with a Mr Nicholson who exhibited the pig in Nottingham in 1784 and then in London in 1785. Tours of provincial towns and a trip to Europe swiftly followed. The interest aroused by this trail-blazing learned pig caused considerable debate regarding how the pig had been trained and the extent of its cognitive abilities. Was the pig really answering questions, or was it simply responding to certain sounds or movements made by its owner in order to give pre-determined answers? Whatever the truth of the performance the idea of pigs as intelligent creatures took hold in the popular imagination. One only has to think of the pigs Snowball and Napoleon being the driving intellectual forces in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) for a modern literary example.

      Downfall 02

(Above: The Downfall of Taste and Genius, or, The World as it Goes by Samuel Collings – a satirical print from 1784 lampooning the public’s taste for performing animals. Here a learned pig leads the charge against the arts with a copy of Shakespeare’s plays lying abandoned in the assault)

Further learned pigs soon followed, including William Frederick Pinchbeck’s ‘Pig of Knowledge’, which was displayed in America in 1798 and even met President John Adams. Curiously Pinchbeck’s pig inspired considerable discussion, some of which took a fairly dark tone with many believing Pinchbeck had used witchcraft to control the animal while others claimed the pig’s ability to answer questions was evidence of reincarnation – the pig being inhabited by a soul that must once have animated a human being. Later, in the early 19th century, ‘Toby the Sapient Pig’ was exhibited in London by the illusionist Nicholas Hoare. Indeed such was the interest in Toby that in around 1817 he even published his autobiography – The life and adventures of Toby, the sapient pig: with his opinions on men and manners. Written by himself – although interestingly this was not the first time a learned pig had seen his memoirs appear in print, something which takes us back to 1786, The Story of the Learned Pig, by an officer of the Royal Navy and, perhaps even more strangely (if that’s possible) to William Shakespeare.

  Learned Pig 02

(Above: The Story of the Learned Pig by an Officer of the Royal Navy. London, 1786.)

In the Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition The Story of the Learned Pig is displayed in a section exploring 'bardolatry' – the word used to describe the often uncritical fascination that accompanies all things Shakespearean, and how sometimes that fascination takes a turn towards the bizarre. In The Story of the Learned Pig a soul describes how he has successively migrated through various humans and animals before finally ending up in the body of a pig. Earlier incarnations had included Romulus, one of the mythical founders of Rome and Brutus, the murderer of Julius Caesar.  At one point the soul was reincarnated as a man called ‘Pimping Billy’, who worked as a horse-holder at a playhouse (where Shakespeare was regularly in attendance) and was the real author of the plays – the Immortal Bard having simply stolen Pimping Billy’s ideas and words. Finally the soul moves into the body of a pig, who then presents his personal reminiscences to the author. As the pig remarks Shakespeare ‘has been fathered with many spurious dramatic pieces: Hamlet, Othello, As You Like It, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ of ‘which I confess myself to be the author’.

Although humorous, and a satire upon how our fascination with performing animals, circus tricks and the seemingly magical often exceeds our fascination with great art, the book plays profoundly upon our interest in all things relating to Shakespeare. After all, a pig that claimed to have written the works of John Fletcher or Francis Beaumont would be one thing, but a pig that claimed to have written the works of Shakespeare? Now that’s a whole different level of porcine achievement and greatness.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts runs until September 6th 2016.

11 August 2016

"All that glitters is not gold" - Curator's Choice

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The final co-curator of Shakespeare in Ten Acts, Greg Buzwell, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives, tells us about his favourite item in the exhibition.

One of the comments frequently uttered during curatorial meetings for the Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition was ‘You can’t go wrong with Vivien Leigh’. Hundreds of potential exhibits were discussed, considered and discarded during the planning stage but whenever something relating to Vivien Leigh cropped up – a costume, a photograph or even an idea for a display panel – it would somehow always make the final cut. After all, Vivien Leigh was cinematic and theatrical royalty – winning awards for her performances in iconic screen roles such as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) and Blanche duBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and achieving critical acclaim on the stage, not least for her appearances in Shakespeare – Ophelia, Cleopatra, Juliet and Lady Macbeth among them. Leigh achieved that rare combination of both critical and commercial success. Whatever the indefinable nature and mix of qualities that, taken together, combine to make someone a star she possessed in abundance. When it came to finalising the poster for the exhibition there were several choices but, unsurprisingly, the design featuring Vivien Leigh was the one that ultimately came to represent the show. After all, you can’t go wrong with Vivien Leigh.

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Above: The poster for Shakespeare in Ten Acts. Vivien Leigh as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Old Vic Theatre, London, 1937. Photography by J W Debenham, Mander & Mitchenson / ArenaPal

One of the sections in the Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition looks at performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in detail, focusing primarily on Peter Brook’s revolutionary production of the play at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1970 but containing a prelude in which the rich romantic history of Dream is explored. It is this section that contains my favourite item in the show, namely the headdress designed by Oliver Messel and worn by Vivien Leigh in the 1937 staging of the play at the Old Vic, the very headdress she is wearing in the photograph reproduced on the poster.

The director of this staging, Tyrone Guthrie, along with his designer, Oliver Messel, deliberately set out to recreate the romance and visual spectacle of the great Victorian productions of the play, productions that had been swathed in opulence and excess. Guthrie and Messel strived to ‘make a union between the words of Shakespeare, the music of Mendelssohn, and the architecture of the Old Vic’. Indeed Guthrie felt that the well-known music written for the play by Felix Mendelssohn was ‘redolent of crimson and gold opera houses, of operatic fairies in white muslin flying through groves of emerald canvas’. Messel’s designs, of which the headdress is a fine example, perfectly echoed Guthrie’s vision.

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Above: Fit for a Fairy Queen, The dazzling headdress, currently on loan to the British Library from the V&A, made by Oliver Messel and worn by Vivien Leigh in her performance as Titania. 1937. © Victoria & Albert Museum

Messel understood that theatre is an art form which thrives on heightened realism. It doesn’t especially matter, in terms of design, what a fairy crown is made of so long as, under the lights and in performance, it looks sufficiently dazzling for the audience to believe it is what it claims to be. The headdress Messel designed for Leigh has a wire base concealed by brown paper tape painted silver. Pink flowers, again made from paper, are tied by thread to the wire base along with black, gold, green and silver leaves, made from a mixture of metallic paper, painted paper and gauze. Gold-coloured beads, rhinestones and imitation pearls are also used, along with strips of silver ribbon. Parts of the headdress are even covered in clear sellotape. The materials could hardly be more prosaic, and yet the headdress is a sublime example of the set-designer’s art. Under lights, on the stage, during the magical spell cast by a theatre performance (and, yes, worn by someone like Vivien Leigh) this fragile collection of everyday materials appeared entirely appropriate, and suitably magical to adorn a fairy queen.

The 1937 production at the Old Vic, which also starred Robert Helpmann as Oberon, Ralph Richardson as Bottom and Anthony Quayle as Demetrius brilliantly realised its intentions. As the critic Herbert Farjeon observed upon witnessing the final scene of the play ‘You can almost see our young Queen [Victoria] leaning forward in one of the boxes’, such was its success at recreating 19th-century theatrical spectacle although, in fact, it was actually the young Princess Elizabeth who was in the audience on one occasion, brought along by the Queen Mother to witness her first Shakespearean production. Genuine royalty in the audience undoubtedly, but the real romance and magic was taking place on the stage.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts runs until the 6th September 2016.

04 August 2016

Kemp’s Nine Days Wonder: Curator’s Choice

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Tanya Kirk, Lead Curator, Printed Heritage Collections 1601-1900 and Co-Curator, Shakespeare in Ten Acts

For the last month of the Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition run, the other curators and I will be telling you a bit about some of our favourite exhibits.

One of my absolute favourites is a little book called Kemp’s Nine Days Wonder, published in 1600 and surviving in only a single copy (owned by the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, and kindly on loan to us from there).

The book was written by Will Kemp, an actor who had been the clown (or comedian) in Shakespeare’s company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He was famous for roles such as Falstaff in Henry IV Part 1, Dogberry in Much Ado about Nothing, and Peter in Romeo and Juliet. In 1599 there was some kind of disagreement within the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and Will Kemp resigned his shares in the company and left. In an unusual next move, he went on to perform a Morris dance from London to Norwich over the course of nine days, as a sort of publicity stunt and a way of raising money by betting on himself. Although it may seem to us a little odd, the Nine Days Wonder was fitting – Kemp was very famous for performing jigs, physical comedy afterpieces incorporating dance, which were performed after plays. Several dramatists of the period had complained that these ruined the mood at the end of a tragic play, and it’s been conjectured that this might have been an artistic difference between Kemp and the rest of Shakespeare’s company, which could have caused him to split from them.

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In this pamphlet, Kemp describes the 110-mile journey, including the towns he visited, the people he met, and the various daring deeds he executed – such as jumping over a churchyard wall in Norwich, a leap so outstandingly high that to commemorate it, the shoes he’d been wearing were nailed to the wall of the Guildhall. With him were his tabor-player Thomas Slye, his servant William Bee and a man called George Sprat, who was there purely as an overseer of the task, to be sure Kemp didn’t cheat.

My favourite part of the account is Kemp’s description of what happens in the town of Sudbury. A strong, tall butcher offers to keep him company by dancing alongside him as far as Bury. Kemp accepts, but before they’ve travelled half a mile, the butcher gives up, protesting that he couldn’t keep pace with Kemp even for £100. As the butcher leaves, a ‘lusty country lass’ shouts that he’s a ‘faint hearted lout’ and says she could keep going for a mile even if it costs her her life. The crowd laugh at her, but she replies that if Kemp will lend her some bells, she’ll dance for a mile. Kemp writes,

I looked upon her, saw mirth in her eyes, heard boldness in her words, and beheld her ready to tuck up her russet petticoat, I fitted her with bells, which [s]he merrily taking, garnished her thick short legs, and with a smooth brow bid the taborer begin.

She does indeed keep pace with Kemp for a mile. Afterwards he gives her a crown piece to buy a drink, and calls her ‘my merry Maid Marian’. As a morris dancer myself (I’m a member of Cuckoo’s Nest Morris) I feel a great kinship with this unnamed woman – I hope she enjoyed her post-dance beer.

You can see Kemp’s Nine Days Wonder in Shakespeare in Ten Acts until 6 September.

28 July 2016

Richard Burbage and The Dead Man's Fortune

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Over the next three weeks the curators of Shakespeare in Ten Acts will be picking their favourite items from the exhibition. First up is Zoë Wilcox.

Having curated Shakespeare in Ten Acts, I must admit somewhat sheepishly that my favourite item in the exhibition is actually not one that’s directly related to the man himself. It’s a document that hung backstage in an Elizabethan playhouse, the one last trace of a lost Elizabethan play called The Dead Man’s Fortune in which Shakespeare’s friend Richard Burbage appeared.

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Stage plot for The Dead Man's Fortune, Add MS 10449.

This type of document is called a ‘stage plot’ and it would have helped the cast to know when to make their entrances since they were only given their own parts and cue lines rather than the entire script of a play. There are only six of these stage plots still in existence: five here at the British Library and another (for the second part of The Seven Deadly Sins) at Dulwich College. The example on display in Shakespeare in Ten Acts dates from the 1590s and is especially significant because it records that the theatrical star Richard Burbage was part of the cast, though what part he played remains the subject of argument.

Everything we know about The Dead Man’s Fortune comes from this one document and although we can’t be certain who wrote the play or where it was performed, it’s surprising just how much can be gleaned from one piece of paper. Back in the 1930s the scholar W. W. Greg tried to piece together the story of the play, the main points of which I will summarise here:

There are two girls who are in love with two boys, but the girls have wicked fathers who would prefer them to marry suitors of their own choosing. The fathers throw the girls in prison for refusing to marry the beaux they have selected and then plot to drug their daughters (with poisoned meat) to make them do their bidding. Enter a magician called Urganda who helps to release the girls. The fathers and the evil suitors are condemned to death. Cue magic show, dancing fairies and a happy ending in which all are reconciled and the wicked men are pardoned. Oh, and a ‘chest or truncke’ is brought on stage, presumably containing the dead man’s fortune - but no one has quite been able to explain how that fits with the rest of the plot.

While the precise details of the story remain a matter of conjecture, it’s clear that this is a play with many elements that are familiar to us from Shakespeare’s comedies. For a start there are disguises (‘validore passeth ore the stage disguisde’), which we tend to associate with Shakespeare though they were really the trademark of the dramatist John Lyly. There’s a comic sub-plot with familiar commedia dell’arte characters. And there is also a foreshadowing of The Tempest (written c. 1610-11) in the magic tricks that Urganda uses to punish the evil-doers before all is forgiven at the end of the play.

The plot is written on two sheets of paper pasted onto each side of a pulp board measuring 16 x 12 inches. If you look closely you can see the trace of a rectangular hole in the centre gutter which would have enabled the paper to be hung up backstage, but this was filled in by the British Museum at some point prior to 1930. Though written in secretary hand, you can easily pick out the word ‘Enter’ which denotes the beginning of each new scene, apart from at the end of the play where the system appears to have gone slightly haywire. Props are mentioned - such as a looking glass, a hangman’s block and a ‘flasket’ of clothes - to remind the actors not to forget these. Interestingly, the mention of the ‘tyre man’ in the right hand margin has been interpreted as a sign that the wardrobe master was required to stand in as the company was short of an actor. The other noteworthy annotations are the music cues which appear in the margins and indicated by lines of crosses. These interludes divide the play into a five act structure, but they are later additions in a different hand, suggesting that the play was originally performed straight through without intervals as was customary in the outdoor playhouses.

While most of the cast are referred to by their character names, some actors’ names are also used and that’s how we know that ‘Burbage’ appeared in The Dead Man’s Fortune (Richard was the only member of his family who is known to have acted). His name is visible just after the third music cue followed by the words ‘a messenger’. Could the great Burbage who later played Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear and Othello really have been a mere messenger in this play? It’s not clear. W. W. Greg thought it unlikely and suggested that Burbage, who would have been in his twenties at the time, may have played Urganda the magician but others disagree.

Burbage portrait Dulwich College

Only known portrait of Richard Burbage, British School, early 17th century, currently on display in Shakespeare in Ten Acts on loan from Dulwich Picture Gallery. Image by Permission of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.

Ultimately this is my favourite item in the show because it immediately transports me into the world of the playhouse and not just that, but behind the frons scaenae into the private world of the actors. If documents could talk, what stories would this one have to tell? What backstage arguments, gossip or pranks might have taken place beneath this plot as it hung on its humble peg? We’ll never know but we can imagine. Come and see for yourself in Shakespeare in Ten Acts which runs until 6 September.

09 July 2016

Shakespeare: Gentleman or Player?

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Last week the New York Times revealed a host of new discoveries relating to Shakespeare’s coat of arms. Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. has found nearly a dozen previously unknown documents that confirm that Shakespeare was an ambitious social climber. Four of the newly discovered documents are from the British Library and two others can currently be seen in our Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition. These exhibits relate to a dispute over whether Shakespeare deserved to be made a gentleman, proving that entry into the upper classes was far from straightforward even in the upwardly mobile Elizabethan era.

Shakespeare coat of arms

Coat of arms belonging to William Shakespeare. Harold Bowditch Collection, Mss 1180, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, page 66 (detail).

Shakespeare’s father John, a glover, first applied for a coat of arms in 1575 but it was not awarded until a second application was made in 1596. Given John’s age (he was well into his sixties), it’s always been assumed that William re-applied on his father’s behalf and the new discoveries seem to bear out that theory. Half of the newly discovered documents associate the Shakespeare arms with William rather than John, suggesting that it was William who was particularly keen to boost his own social standing.

Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson had a dig at his fellow playwright’s new status as a gentleman in 1598 in his play Every Man Out of His Humour. A peasant is advised to purchase arms with the motto ‘Not without mustard’ – an illusion to the gold-coloured Shakespeare arms and their motto ‘Not without right’. But Shakespeare didn’t only have to put up with ribbing from his friends. A couple of years later the arms came under attack again, this time from the College of Arms, the very body which had granted them.

William Dethick (1543-1612) was the Garter King of Arms responsible for approving the Shakespeare grant and by all accounts he was a pretty unsavoury fellow. Arrogant and violent, he was known to have beaten his own father and wounded his brother. In 1576 he attacked another herald’s wife by pushing her head into the fireplace, tipping hot ashes, alcohol and the contents of a chamber pot over her and was only just prevented from killing her. Matters were hardly improved when he stabbed two people with a dagger during the funeral of the Countess of Sussex at Westminster Abbey. Needless to say he wasn’t too popular with his fellow heralds due to his habit of beating and slandering them, and he came in for a good deal of criticism for his professional judgement too.

College of Arms officials compiled records of grants which they believed Dethick should not have made and Shakespeare is included in the examples given. These manuscripts are full of snide allusions to the sort of ‘mean persons’ who’d been undeservedly elevated to the gentry, such as one Molesworth, a ‘seller of stockings’. Two drawings of Shakespeare’s arms are annotated with the words ‘Shakespeare the player’, denoting that William’s occupation was clearly a point of contention for the heralds who opposed Dethick. Acting, after all, was not an upper class profession and was considered somewhat on the seedy side (all that cross-dressing and travelling the country, sleeping who knew where!), even if you were patronised by aristocrats or royalty. The other reason for criticising the Shakespeare grant was due to the similarity of the black and gold arms with those of Lard Mauley. Dethick defended the grant on both grounds and emphasised the good standing of John Shakespeare who had been a Justice of the Peace and had married into the prestigious Arden family. While we don’t know for sure whether Shakespeare was aware of the controversy, the existence of angry letters from other individuals whose arms were questioned suggests that it’s likely he would have known and complained about the situation.

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Ralph Brooke's complaint against coats and crests granted by William Dethick including the arms granted to 'Shakespeare the player', Folger Shakespeare Library V.a.350.  Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

You can see the complaint against Shakespeare (on loan from the Folger Shakespeare Library) and Dethick’s response (on loan from the College of Arms) on display in Shakespeare in Ten Acts until the 6th of September. To see more manuscripts relating to Heather Wolfe’s discoveries, including those held in the British Library, go to the Shakespeare Documented website.