THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

50 posts categorized "Drama"

24 September 2018

Banned Books Week 2018 has landed: 50 years of creative freedom on the British stage

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Or The Misadventures of Slangwheezy, Bawlrot, Bluewink and Leerit

Banned Books Week logo


Banned Books Week 2018 has arrived and this year our theme is theatre censorship, prompted by the fact that this week sees the 50th anniversary of the laying down of the Lord Chamberlain’s blue pencil – the implement that had become synonymous with stage censorship in this country. On 26 September 1968 a new Theatres Act came into force, bringing to an end a system that had been in place since 1737 in which every new play in Britain due to be performed in a licensed theatre was required to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for examination. But how did it all work? Which plays were banned? Who really made the decisions and what kind of things were disallowed? Moreover, how could you cheat the system?


Here at the British Library – home to the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection - we’ll be honouring the anniversary a day early by taking a look at the often-mystifying inner workings of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. If you’d like to find out more and see performed a specially-written scene by playwright Vinay Patel (Murdered By My Father; An Adventure) join us tomorrow evening for CENSORED: Inside the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. Tickets are still available from the British Library Box Office.


The Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection at the British Library is the largest manuscript collection we hold, consisting of scripts for virtually every play written between 1824 and 1968, together with reader’s reports and correspondence files for 20th century plays. This collection, together with plays in our early modern manuscripts collection, provide an unparalleled insight into the workings of theatre censorship since the late 16th century when the role of the Master of the Revels was expanded under the jurisdiction of Edmund Tilney. While Shakespeare would have had to have his scripts approved by the Master of the Revels, the role of censor was later passed to the Lord Chamberlain, another office of the royal household. The modern roots of stage censorship, however, lie in the political machinations of 1737 when Prime Minister Robert Walpole championed a new Act of Parliament to prevent dramatists such as Henry Fielding from publicly embarrassing him. Indeed, the first play to fall foul of the new law was Henry Brooke’s Gustavus Vasa (1737) which features a villainous character bearing a resemblance to Walpole.


Though there were no hard and fast rules of censorship, the representation of living or recently dead public figures was a key preoccupation for the Lord Chamberlain and his staff, and chief among these concerns was the representation of monarchs (not surprising given that the Lord Chamberlain was answerable to the King or Queen). Surely the weirdest depiction of a monarch on stage must be Edward Bond’s Early Morning (1968), set in a surreal alternative reality in which Queen Victoria is having a lesbian relationship with Florence Nightingale and heaven approves of cannibalism.


The principles by which the Lord Chamberlain’s Office (LCO) operated were set out in a report to the Joint Select Committee in 1909 and remained broadly relevant through to 1968, although social attitudes changed over time and even within the same year there was not necessarily consistency of interpretation.


The Lord Chamberlain to remain the Licensor of Plays, […] and that he should license any play submitted to him unless he considers that it may reasonably be held –
    (a) To be indecent;
    (b) To contain offensive personalities;
    (c) To represent on the stage in an invidious manner a living person, or a person recently dead;
    (d) To do violence to the sentiment of religious reverence;
    (e) To be calculated to conduce crime or vice;
    (f) To be calculated to impair friendly relations with any Foreign Power;
    (g) To be calculated to cause a breach of the peace.

Our collection demonstrates that comparatively few plays were banned (i.e. refused a licence) outright – although these include famous works such as Ibsen’s Ghosts (1881), Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1888) and Jean Genet’s The Maids (1947). Other banned works are less well known to us today such as Marc Connelly’s Pullitzer Prize winner, The Green Pasture, which was disallowed in 1930 for representing God as an African American. The Lord Chamberlain referred his decision to both King George V and the Archbishop of Canterbury, both of whom approved the ban. Though the LCO occasionally made exceptions to the rule about not representing god on stage, The Green Pasture was not deemed worthy of special treatment and in fact the ban was upheld until the 1960s despite multiple resubmissions over the years. In other cases, the type of subject matter likely to elicit an outright ban included abortion (Harley Granville Barker’s Waste), male impotence (Marie Stopes’ Married Love aka Vectia), lesbianism (Lilian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour), incest (Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author), masturbation (Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening), prostitution (George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession) and extreme violence (Edward Bond’s Saved).


In most cases, however, the censorship of plays took the form of a list of script changes required by the Lord Chamberlain. Negotiations between LCO staff and theatre managements over revisions are well-documented in the archive. Colourful phrasing was modified. Out went ‘from arsehole to breakfast time’, a line from Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker (1960). Samuel Beckett was obliged to replace farting with belching in Waiting For Godot (1954). And David Rudkin managed to get away with substituting the dialect word ‘firk’ for ‘fuck’ in Afore Night Come (1962). Sometimes managements negotiated over changes – see the defence of the central imagery in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger – and in other cases, when all else failed, they circumvented the system with private club performances (Osborne’s story of male prostitution and transvestism A Patriot for Me, also presented at the Royal Court, being a classic example).


Leaving aside the wider issue of freedom of expression, the absurdity of attempting to censor texts whose full meaning only becomes evident in the visual medium of performance became increasingly obvious as the 20th century progressed. Even in 1909 the playwright Henry Arthur Jones pointed out the difficulty (as quoted in Nicholson, The Censorship of British Drama Volume 1, p8):


One reason that makes the Censorship impossible today lies in the fact that modern plays are no longer chiefly pieces of declamation and lengths of dialogue… The Censor sits in his office vetoing Sophocles and Shelley and Ibsen, and their kin ancient and modern, with the full text of their plays before him. Meanwhile Mr. Slangwheezy and Mr. Bawlrot are almost out of his reach, and Mr. Bluewink and Mr. Leerit slip away from him altogether.


The LCO did its best to anticipate visual gags and crude gestures, but it didn’t always succeed: Mr Bluewink and Mr Leerit really did escape their notice in many cases. The LCO had, for example, failed to realise that a plank of wood brought on stage during the 1959 musical Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be would be held at a suggestive angle – one of many vulgarities that was only spotted by LCO staff when a slew of letters of complaint prompted them to go and check up on Joan Littlewood's production.

Tomorrow our experts Dan Rebellato, Steve Nicholson and Kathryn Johnson will be discussing both the humorous side of the work of the LCO and the serious consequences it had for artistic expression in Britain. As well as the obvious effects of theatre censorship documented in the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection, there are of course the more insidious effects of an invisible self-censorship. As Steve Nicholson puts it:


Some artists may persist in their work and their principles even if they anticipate that what they produce will be disallowed; but others, with livings to make, surely will not.’ (The Censorship of British Drama Volume 1, p2)

If this has piqued your interest, why not pick up a banned play mentioned in this blog or see the Banned Books website for more events on censorship taking place this week.

Further reading:

15 August 2018

Michael Palin: Writer, Actor and Comedian

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By Greg Buzwell, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives, and Silvia Gallotti, Manuscripts Cataloguer. The Michael Palin Archive, generously donated to the British Library by Michael Palin in 2017, is now available for consultation in the Manuscripts Reading Room. A display – Michael Palin: Writer, Actor and Comedian – featuring items from the archive can be seen in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library until 11th November 2018.

Attempting to curate a small display featuring material from the archive of Michael Palin was rather like attempting to select a small number of iconic songs written by The Beatles. The sheer volume of fascinating material available to choose from rapidly made the task of deciding what to leave out the stuff of nightmares. Diaries, letters, photographs, notebooks, annotated scripts and publicity material all jostled for attention. About fifty of the notebooks date from Palin’s time with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and provide a fascinating insight into how comedy routines such as ‘Spam’ and ‘Spanish Inquisition’ developed through different versions into those we know – and can’t help but recite using all the different voices – today. Finding iconic material to exhibit was clearly not going to be a problem.

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The Michael Palin display in Treasures Gallery at the British Library.

The display follows Palin’s career from the mid-1960s up to the late 1980s. The first case opens with the script for a mock theatrical documentary about attitudes towards sex through the ages called ‘The Love Show’ which Palin worked on with Terry Jones in 1965. Although never produced ‘The Love Show’, for which Palin received his first payment as a professional writer, shows early signs of the surreal humour that would come to define Monty Python. Other highlights in the first case include handwritten scripts by Palin and Jones for The Frost Report  –  a show which proved to be a meeting ground for future Pythons Palin, Jones, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle – and from Do Not Adjust Your Set where Palin, Jones and Idle met another future Python, Terry Gilliam. The item on display relating to Do Not Adjust Your Set is a sketch, written by Palin, called ‘Captain Fantastic’s Christmas’. David Jason played the hapless Captain Fantastic, a bumbling bowler-hatted superhero endlessly battling Mrs Black – ‘the most evil woman in the world’ – played by Denise Coffey. Although intended for children the anarchic humour of Do Not Adjust Your Set rapidly gained a cult following among adults.

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‘Captain Fantastic’s Christmas’, a sketch written by Palin and starring David Jason as Captain Fantastic and Denise Coffey as Mrs Black. 1968. Add. MS 89284/2/11. © Michael Palin.

The following section is dedicated to Palin’s career with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and to his subsequent work on Ripping Yarns, and on films such as The Missionary, A Private Function and A Fish Called Wanda. Included in the display is an early scene from The Holy Grail in which a surreal explanation for the absence of horses and the use of coconut shells to mimic the sound of their hooves is provided (‘Our horses grew weary, unable to carry us further. We were forced to leave them by the mountain and continue with coconuts …’). Also included is an early draft of the ‘Biggus Dickus’ scene from Life of Brian and one of Palin’s notebooks in which he has written a potential running order for various Python routines including ‘Spanish Inquisition’, ‘Fish Licence’, ‘Scott of the Sahara’ and ‘Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights’.

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One of Michael Palin’s notebooks, listing potential running orders for sketches including ‘Spanish Inquisition’, ‘Scott of the Sahara’, ‘Communist Quiz’, ‘Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights’ and many others. Add. MS 89284/2/15. © Michael Palin

Ripping Yarns, which Palin worked on with Terry Jones in the mid-1970s is represented by an annotated script from the pilot episode ‘Tomkinson’s Schooldays’. The episode is a brilliant satire on public school life and the adventure stories found in magazines such as The Boys Own Paper. Tomkinson’s trials at the school include being nailed to a wall on St Tadger’s Day, fighting the school grizzly bear, being hunted down by a leopard while attempting to escape and, as seen here, having to take part in the ‘Thirty Mile Hop’.

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Annotated script for ‘Tomkinson’s Schooldays’, the first episode of Ripping Yarns broadcast in January 1976. Add. MS 89284/1/75. © Michael Palin

The last part of the display looks at some of the less widely known aspects of Palin’s career including his books for children, and the brilliantly disturbing Bert Fegg’s Nasty Book for Boys & Girls (a humorous book satirising popular encyclopaedias for children and presented as though written by the most unsuitable and disturbed person imaginable for the job). This part of the display also includes two of Palin’s diaries, one of which is open at an entry for 27 March 1970, in which Palin recollects the beginnings of his career just a few years earlier, when he was ‘finishing ‘The Love Show’ with Terry’, ‘still unmarried’, with ‘no immediate prospects’. He concludes: ‘A little bit of nostalgia, but I like sometimes to get my bearings right, just to convince myself that I haven’t wasted the 1960s’.

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Michael Palin’s diary entry for 27th March 1970, reflecting upon the 1960s and writing the second series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. © Michael Palin

The display represents only a very small portion of the archive, but hopefully it provides a glimpse into the riches it contains. The large amount of material included in the collection relating to the production, publicity and distribution of Palin’s TV shows and films makes the archive a wonderful resource for those interested in the history of comedy, TV and filmmaking. The wealth of notebooks and annotated scripts meanwhile provides a unique insight into one of the nation’s most popular entertainers, and into the genesis and development of comedy sketches and films that are now part of the very fabric of our cultural history.

 

15 March 2018

The “rich pageant” of historical playbills

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By Christian Algar, Curator Printed Heritage Collections

If you will see a pageant truly play’d … like that of Shakespeare’s shepherds in the Forest of Arden, his setting for As You Like It, you can now also see a literal procession of hundreds of thousands of performances advertised on printed historic playbills held at the British Library. Nearly 100,000 intriguing and eye-catching bills have been digitised and are freely available to view online via Explore the British Library

Besides recording a great variety of entertainments (ventriloquism, acrobatics, conjuring and all kinds of performing animals)playbills provide as near an entire historical survey of the performance of British and Irish drama in the 18th and 19th centuries we could hope for. As can be expected, there are a great many examples of Shakespeare’s plays advertised on these playbills. Browsing through a period from the 1780s to the 1860s, we get an impression of the most frequently performed and popular Shakespeare plays such as Macbeth; Hamlet; and Romeo and Juliet. It’s fun to see these famous titles appear in a range of type and font sizes that are characteristic of historical playbills.

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 A collage of 19th century playbills for Shakespeare’s big plays

But to find any level of detail, you have to get your noses in and browse through the playbills because there’s never been the resource to catalogue them; that’s why the British Library has a crowdsourcing project called In the Spotlight to capture core details – like performance titles, genres and dates. This provides opportunity to uncover all kinds of interesting events and details associated with past performances.

Appearing in this procession of playbills is a performance of King Henry IV with a bonus celebration: a pageant to conclude a drama called, Shakespeare’s Jubilee: or, Stratford upon Avon.

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Playbill for ‘Shakesperare’s Jubilee’ performed 20 February 1834. British Library Playbills 263

This pageant at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth was, “nearly a fac-simile of the Procession” at a festival held in Stratford in 1830. This festival, helpfully described in the exposition on the playbill, was founded on the three-day “Jubilee” of September 1769 in Stratford which was organised by the great actor David Garrick Despite being well attended by dignitaries from across the country, Garrick’s ‘Folly’ as it became known, was actually a bit of a farce. After opening to the salute of cannon and ending with fireworks, heavy rain and flooding postponed the planned grand procession. The idea was to stage a fully-costumed procession of the principal characters from Shakespeare’s plays carrying banners with dramatic quotes, and with recitals of famous lines for those looking on.

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How it might have been: impression of the procession from 1769. British Library C.61.e.2

Garrick made up for the damp-squib in Stratford by staging further face-saving shows in London, but it was not the best start for the history of Shakespeare parades. The next big Stratford celebration in 1827 was met with apathy and after a further Pageant in 1830, the planned ‘triennial’ celebration did not take place again until 1847. But browse through these digitised playbills and you will find evidence that there were other Pageants for Shakespeare being held in regional theatres. Details on the verso of a Bristol playbill from 1821, list the plays and characters in an, “Order of the Pageant”.

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Order of the Bristol Shakespeare pageant. British Library Playbills 204

The local press seemed not to have made much of the show, Shakespeare quotes being predictably used to dub the pageant as “insubstantial” and “faded” (with no apologies to The Tempest).

The Bristol Pageant was held on Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23rd. But, the motive for the Plymouth show, held at the end of February, seems less apparent. Details from the playbill can help explain

A common feature on playbills tells us that the evening’s entertainment was, “For the Benefit of Mr. Henry, Artist, & Mrs. Henry”. Mr Henry’s, “annual appeal to the supporters of the Drama” at the top of the bill is aimed at selling tickets for the performance, the proceeds of which will go to Mr and Mrs Henry. This is a key feature of the economics of theatre history – an annual share of the night’s takings was a major contribution to those labouring to produce theatre.

Checking the local press helps try and trace how performances fared and further details fall into place. There are conflicting reviews of Mr Henry’s first ever performance as Falstaff, “he supported the Great Knight very cleverly and elicited much applause” says the Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse Herald, but other local press reports tell us, “it was a bold attempt – a fearful one – his success was certainly not proportionate to the boldness of the venture.” It seems that though Mr Henry was “fat enough” to pull off Falstaff, he did not know at moments what to say and that his part would have benefited from a more attentive reading, “without which Mr Henry can never expect to completely succeed”!

It would seem the reporter in The Devonport Telegraph is suggesting Mr Henry should not give up the day job and it is in yet another newspaper where we find a detail that explains the true meaning of Mr Henry the ‘Artist’ making reference to his capability for – DRAWING! So it would seem that Mr Henry likely worked on producing illustrated sets to decorate the stage. This is a good illustration in itself of how general theatre workers – not just actors – were given the opportunity to act in plays or performances they concocted for their own Benefit Night performance. Mr Henry, hoped to, “escape the charge of egotism” but clearly wished to associate himself with the works of the supreme English dramatist.

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Review in the ‘Plymouth & Devon Weekly Journal’, Feb 20, 1834 revealing the type of ‘artist’ Mr. Henry is. British Library NEWS6323

Playbills very often provide us with great descriptions and information. Close examination of the order or programme of the procession stimulates thought about the choice of plays, characters, quotations used in the procession. Is there significance in the order?

Playbills provide us with details of the musical elements of entertainment. The playbill tells us that The Mulberry Tree (written for the 1769 Jubilee by Charles Dibdin) was performed after Mr Henry’s pageant.

These advertisements provide a great source for studying dramatic literature and its interpretation on different stages – we are often treated to plot synopses, guides to the ‘action’, and signposts for moral lessons to be drawn by the audience. These can be used to estimate contemporary understandings of historical drama across the regions (all the playbills on In the Spotlight are currently from regional theatres.)

Shakespeare pageants are of historical importance – they are an expression of the Romantic conception of Shakespeare as supreme creator of character. The pairing and prominence of St George also links the identities of Shakespeare’s drama with an English national expression.

Playbills, like historical newspapers are full of potential rabbit holes. Looking for performances of the Tempest? Do try not to get distracted by this Bristol playbill from 1820 announcing that “a celebrated pedestrian’ will arrive on stage after walking 92 miles in 24 hours” - between pubs in Cheltenham and Bristol. All for a considerable sum, it seems.

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From British Library Playbills 204

All these performances recorded on playbills really do form what we all know as, “Life’s rich pageant” (which, disappointingly for armchair Shakespeare aficionados, is not a quote from the great poet, but simply an old English idiom.)

You can get your nose into more historical playbills and play a part in capturing the details by checking out https://www.libcrowds.com/collection/playbills

  Playbills 7

Further reading: https://community.libcrowds.com/d/14-playbills-background-reading-and-reference-sources  

12 October 2017

Discovering Literature: 20th century drama

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‘I visited this play last night and endured two hours of angry boredom’; ‘A piece quite without drama and with very little meaning’. This was one audience member’s summary of the first London production of Waiting for Godot  – now regarded as Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece of 20th century drama. This wasn’t, however, the opinion of just any regular audience member – but an examiner for the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, which until 1968 examined and licensed all plays for public performance. Heriot was called on to review the play in production following a letter of complaint from Lady Howitt, who was appalled by the play’s ‘lavatory references’ (f. 8r) and wanted it banned. According to Heriot, audience members ‘fled, never to return’ – except for ‘a sprinkling of young persons in slacks and Marlon Brando pullovers with (according to sex) horsetails or fringes’.

Lcp_1954_6597_waiting_godot_correspondence_f8r 

© Crown copyright

This is just one of the stories that you can find on the new 20th-century theatre phase of our free educational resource, Discovering Literature, which launched earlier this month. From production photographs of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey to manuscript drafts of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, the website draws on the British Library’s rich literary and theatrical archives to examine the work of 14 key dramatists. Aimed at A Level students, teachers and undergraduates, as well as the general public, this phase of Discovering Literature aims to show the developments and innovations on the British stage over the course of the century – which saw playwrights and practitioners breaking new ground with the subjects and characters they portrayed, and the forms and styles they experimented with.

We’ve digitised over 100 collection items, from manuscript drafts – offering fascinating glimpses into the creative processes behind the plays – to contemporary production photographs, reports from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, reviews, posters and programmes, which help to shed light on the plays’ cultural, historical and political contexts.

Highlights online for the first time include:

  • Manuscript of A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney, written when she was 19 and typed on her employer’s notepaper, on a borrowed typewriter. You can view the entire original manuscript of the play, and discover the notes and changes made by Delaney and Joan Littlewood, director of Theatre Workshop.

Photographs-of-A-Taste-add_ms_89164_10_113_003

Orphan work licence

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Orphan work licence

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© the Sir Terence Rattigan Charitable Trust

  • Script extracts from Oh What a Lovely War, with notes and rewrites by Joan Littlewood that reveal how the show evolved through a process of discussion, improvisation and experimentation by Littlewood, Gerry Raffles and members of the Theatre Workshop cast, in collaboration with Charles Chilton.

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© Joan Littlewood Estate

  • One of several unpublished draft typescripts of The Black Jacobins, C L R James’s 1967 play about the Haitian Revolution.

In addition, we have partnered with institutions including the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, the Beckett International Foundation at the University of Reading and the J B Priestley Archive at the University of Bradford, to showcase archive material from different collections held in the UK and US. Highlights include:

  • John Osborne’s notebook for Look Back in Anger (held by the Harry Ransom Center), featuring title ideas for the play including ‘My Blood is a Mile High’, ‘Farewell to Anger’, ‘Angry Man’ and ‘Man in a Rage’ before Osborne hit on the iconic ‘Look Back in Anger’.
  • Letter from a young J B Priestley, sent from the front line during World War One (held by the University of Bradford). Priestley’s wartime experiences shaped his awareness of class division and injustice, which would greatly influence his political life and his writing in later life.

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© The Estate of J.B. Priestley. © J.B. Priestley Archive, Special Collections, University of Bradford.

Alongside this digitised collection material, you’ll find 40 newly-commissioned articles by leading scholars, critics, directors and curators. Michael Billington explores Oh What a Lovely War and The Birthday Party, Yvonne Brewster reflects on forming Talawa Theatre Company and producing The Black Jacobins, Jeanette Winterson writes on the impact of Shelagh Delaney and A Taste of Honey, and Dan Rebellato considers Look Back in Anger. We’ve also covered influential theatre practitioners and genres, ranging from Brecht to, more recently, the work of Punchdrunk .

There are new interviews, too. We spoke with Max Stafford-Clark about directing Top Girls and Our Country’s Good at the Royal Court in the 1980s, and created film interviews with actor Murray Melvin, who reflects on his experiences starring in the original and ground-breaking Theatre Workshop productions of A Taste of Honey and Oh What a Lovely War.

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© Estate of J V Spinner (born in Walthamstow).

Lastly, teachers should also find our teaching resources area helpful. These downloadable resources offer a range of ideas for how to use the digitised collection items and articles in the classroom.

This new phase of material joins our existing site on 20th century poets and novelists, which went live in May 2016. Discovering Literature first launched in 2014, focussing on Romantic and Victorian literature, and the resource continues to grow, with the ultimate aim being to cover the backbone of English Literature from Beowulf to the present day – and to use our collection to enrich the study and enjoyment of literature.

Explore more: www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature

Katie Adams, Content Manager: Digital Learning

 

03 October 2017

A guest blog by Henry Woolf

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A performance of Spider Love, based on a play by Mick Goldstein, adapted and arranged by Jeremy Goldstein, verse by Henry Woolf will take place at the British Library, Monday 16th October 18.00-20.00.

Spider Love

Photo Darren Black (Henry Woolf and Jeremy Goldstein)

Henry Woolf writes:

Writers are an awkward lot. When they’re dead they just won’t lie down. One visit to The British Library Archives in London will convince you of that. The words of these archived writers, assumed to be safely dead, fly off the page as fresh as a daisy, as warm as toast or as cold as ice but all as indubitably aliveas when they were first put down on paper. Death doesn’t necessarily have the last word. Thank heaven for the British Library archives which make these wonderful words available to anyone and everyone at absolutely no cost at all.

I feel all this very keenlywhen I visit the Harold Pinter Archive and re-read some of the hundreds of letters he wrote to myself and his other friends. He is still alive, forever, captured in the very pages that dropped through my letter box, his pages crackling with affection and energy.

Six of us including Harold and myself made up Harold’s ‘Gang’ We were friends for sixty years. I am the only one officially alive now. I wrote about us in The Guardian in 2008:‘A bunch of determined solipsists is how I would describe the six of us as we bowled about Hackney in the late forties and fifties our lives central to the workings of the Universe. We had mostly met at school encouraged by the shining example of our English teacher, Joe Brearley, to put our lives first and the world second’.

What does that mean?

Well in 1947 the world was too much with us; the Holocaust still loomed; atomic bombs had incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the Cold War was being manufactured to keep the American economy going. What lay in store for us looked pretty bleak. We could prove to be the last generation. No future. No children. Did we agonise over this? Discuss our unhappy fate in the small hours? Not a bit of it. By silent agreement we put the day-to-day world to one side. Once we breathed its infected breath we were goners.

If you want a glimpse of what we were like then, how particular, how different from each other and yet sharing a common language, a common stance, read Harold Pinter’s novel, The Dwarfs, written when he was twenty-two. He brilliantly captures young men in all their pride and peacock before society closes in and squeezes the life out of them.

All at once life has caught up with me. The past has stepped off the pages of my friends’ letters and into the living breathing worldof a stage play by Mick Goldstein, one of our closest friends. The play was discovered after his death by his son Jeremy Goldstein who has since adapted it and turned it into Spider Love. It’s about Mick’s complicated life and his friendship with Harold and the rest of us. The British Library has generously encouraged Jeremy and a company of professional actors to present a rehearsed reading of the play on October 16th. Before the reading, Michael Billington the distinguished drama critic of The Guardian and Pinter’s biographer, will engage in a discussion about the play with myself, and in a moment of shameless self-promotion, at some point in the evening I shall be signing copies of my recently published memoir, Barcelona is in Trouble.

Jeremy's adaptation of Mick’s play includes myself as I am today at 87 (c. 2017) in the action of the play which takes place in 1975. A time traveller leading us to a Promised Land is not a bad description. I seem to represent the link between the past, present and future, and The Promised Land evokes the unknown fulfilment of the hopes, we as young men carried within us sixty years ago.

At first Spider Love seems a pretty straightforwardaccount of a man’s unhappy marriage and his own voyage of self-discovery. The play is lively enough, but one feels one has visited its territory before that is, until it dawns on us that everyone in the play not just Mick, is leading a double life. They too are looking for their own Promised Land of their imagination that was the unspoken promise of their youth.

Of course young people today have their own passionate views on life just as we had and feel the same energy and joy, but they express it differently and their approach to the world of politics that we all inhabit is much more straightforward than ours ever was. These days, young people are much more ready to speak up about their concerns than we were, and will confront what they consider to be the dishonest aspects of society, taunting their enemies with marvellous chants like truth to power which resonate with a wonderful confident optimism against the sleazy spin doctors we know so well today. We were much more wary of our shoddy, power corrupted world that was about to blow itself up.

Jeremy has kindly let me write some verse for the play as well as including some poetry that seems to marvellously capture its central theme. One of my favourite lines, and Harold Pinter’s too, is by the poet John Donne who wrote‘At the four corners of the imagined world blow your trumpets angels!’Surely we ourselves are the angels Donne is addressing as well as any supernatural beings that might be in the vicinity. The message is simple, there is more to life than the daily trudge at least for people like ourselves, the affluent few, who need only an economic surplus to release their imagination. On a much more jingle jangle level I wrote a verse myself on a similar theme:

‘What’s that drumbeat, what’s that thunder?
It’s the boys who’ve gone down under,
Beating on the door of wonder
That never closed inside your creaking heart.’

It is places like The British Library with its archives and other collections that help keep the door of wonder open in all our creaking hearts.

Henry Woolf, July, 2017.

Henry Woolf

Photo Darren Black (Henry Woolf)

‘Spider Love’ is a new play forming part of an international art project inspired by the political and philosophical beliefs of Harold Pinter and his Hackney Gang. The play will be read at The Knowledge Centre British Library on 16 October, and from 8 November its companion project ‘The Truth to Power Café’ tours the UK and internationally with Index on Censorship at Theatre in the Mill in Bradford. Devised by London Artists Projects

13 July 2017

Gay UK: Love, Law, Liberty and Literature?

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The tag line for the British Library’s Gay UK exhibition is ‘Love, Law and Liberty’. One could add another ‘L’ to the alliterative list and make the tag ‘Love, Law, Liberty and Literature’. Literature, and the way it has been used for and against the gay community is a revealing thread running throughout the show. The very first display case in the exhibition examines the downfall of Oscar Wilde and the way his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray – fit for ‘none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys’ in the words of one reviewer – was used against him during his trial for gross indecency. Wilde himself realised he had gone too far in the original version of the story, published in Lippincott’s Magazine in the summer of 1890, and for the first novel publication in 1891 he rewrote the book. In the new version the passionate expressions of Dorian, Basil Hallwood and Sir Henry Wotton are recast in aesthetic terms, removing the original’s emphasis on male relationships. The damage was done though and in the eyes of the prosecution lawyers the Lippincott’s version revealed Wilde’s true, criminal, nature. He was, in their eyes, condemned by his own work.

Lippincott's

(Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, July 1890. The first appearance of Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray in print)

This need to either rewrite a novel, or to modify it in order to avoid moral outrage (or indeed to not publish it at all, as E. M Forster did with Maurice) is a common theme. Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) was prosecuted for obscenity, and banned, almost as soon as it appeared. By today’s standards the novel is tame but the line ‘and that night, they were not divided’, which referred to two women, was enough to have James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express, raging with disgust. He wrote: ‘I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel’. Further comments by Douglas made a direct link back to Oscar Wilde and the decadence that was a key part of the Victorian fin de siècle – ‘It is a seductive and insidious piece of special pleading designed to display perverted decadence as a martyrdom inflicted upon these outcasts by a cruel society. It flings a veil of sentiment over their depravity.’ The trial caused a sensation, with both sides being easy prey for satirists.

Sink of Solitude 01 (2)

(An illustration by Beresford Egan for The Sink of Solitude (1928), a satire on Radclyffe Hall, her novel and the case brought against her book. Hall is being martyred on the cross; the Home Secretary Joynson-Hicks looks on; Cupid makes an insulting gesture and Sappho leaps joyously across the centre).

Perhaps Radclyffe Hall’s real offence was to root lesbianism in the English countryside, as much a fixture as the fox hunt and the Saturday-to-Monday house party. She drew attention to it and she defended it. Just as she pointed out and defended the fact that many women ambulance drivers on the Western Front during WWI had been lesbians. This was something a large part of the establishment did not wish to hear; it didn’t tie in with their old-style vision of muscular Christianity and their sense of order.

This open hostility towards literature that addressed gay life lasted well into the 20th century. Terence Rattigan conceived his play The Deep Blue Sea (1952) as a one-act piece revolving around a love affair between two men. Knowing this would never get past the censors however he had little option but to place a heterosexual relationship at the play’s heart if it was to be performed. A few years later however things were beginning to change. Following the publication of the Wolfenden Report in 1957, which recommended the decriminalization of homosexuality, and the subsequent rise in campaign movements and pressure groups such as the Homosexual Law Reform Society, attitudes were finally starting to relax. On 31st October 1958 the Lord Chamberlain issued a memorandum to his staff stating that plays about homosexuality, or including homosexual characters would no longer be subject to an automatic ban. The language of the document is grudging and of its time (“We will not allow embraces between males or practical demonstrations of love”) but all the same it was progress and plays like Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958) soon brought sympathetic portrayals of gay men and women to the London stage.

  LCP Report 01

(Lord Chamberlain's memorandum from 31st October 1958 outlining what can, and what cannot, be permitted on the stage with regard to the portrayal of homosexuality)

Although the pace of change has been gradual the positive advance in attitudes over the twentieth century is encouraging. Seventy years after the banning of The Well of Loneliness Sarah Waters’ novel Tipping the Velvet (1998) achieved impressive sales and critical acclaim. A racy television adaptation was broadcast four years later. Waters’ novel is immeasurably more daring in its depiction of lesbianism than The Well of Loneliness. It is graphic, sexy, bold, joyous and brilliant. The fact it was also available to buy in high-street bookshops and to borrow from libraries up and down the country is indicative of how far attitudes towards same-sex relationships have progressed since the dark days of Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall.

Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty runs until 19th September 2017. The events programme to accompany the exhibition can be seen here.

 

 

27 June 2017

Undercurrent: British Library Associate Theatre Company

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UNDERCURRENT THEATRE ANNOUNCED AS BRITISH LIBRARY’S FIRST ASSOCIATE THEATRE COMPANY

Undercurrent Theatre are an innovative and research based London theatre company, who have today been announced as the British Library’s first Associate Theatre Company. In a year-long residency, the Associateship will open up the British Library’s unparalleled collections to a diverse range of users, through innovative engagement with the Library’s public, cultural and creative audiences. Working closely with Library curators, Undercurrent Theatre plan to facilitate and generate new cross-cultural opportunities.

Laura Farnworth_credit Sophie Cornell

Laura Farnworth, photographed by Sophie Cornell

Undercurrent will research eight topics whilst in residence and host opportunities for artists to delve into this research, opening up the possibility of future partnerships. It is our aim that this research will not only lead to new productions for Undercurrent, but will also be a source of inspiration for many other artists in developing creative projects. The residency will culminate in mid 2018 with two public performance events at the British Library.

The partnership began in 2016 with the critically acclaimed production ‘Calculating Kindness’. This production was researched over three years using the personal archives of evolutionary biologists George Price and W.D. Hamilton archives which are held at the Library. The play brought to the public the little known true story of George Price, and inspired Price’s own daughters to donate further papers of their father to the British Library and travel to the UK to lay a headstone at his previously unmarked grave. The play ran at the Camden People’s Theatre in London to excellent reviews and plans for a wider tour are currently in progress.

Calculating Kindness_credit Richard Davenport117

Calculating Kindness, photographed by Richard Davenport

Roly Keating, the British Library’s Chief Executive, said: “We are thrilled to welcome Undercurrent Theatre as our first Associate Theatre Company, following our previous successful collaboration on Calculating Kindness last year. We are committed to exploring the rich potential of the Library’s collections as sites of creative inspiration and are hugely looking forward to working with Undercurrent, through this Associateship, to continue opening up the Library and its collections to new audiences and communities.”

Undercurrent Theatre Artistic Director Laura Farnworth said: “We are delighted to be starting this residency at the British Library. As a company our mission is to uncover and explore extraordinary stories. We see the British Library as the home of all stories, and can’t imagine a better place to reside and be inspired to create future work for new audiences.”

Undercurrent Theatre Executive Producer Sophie Cornell said: “This Associateship and support from Arts Council England allows us precious artistic research time, which is so often over-looked and under-funded. This will ensure we can reach out into the artistic community and test a research-residency model.”

Calculating Kindness_credit Richard Davenport186

Undercurrent is a London-based theatre company who unearth extraordinary real life stories with fearless imagination. They gather oceans of material which are interrogated, filtered and moulded into exhilarating and aesthetically bold experiences for audiences across the U.K. Specialising in research-based performance, Undercurrent’s artistic process centres around a piece of rigorous research and includes weeks of development time which brings the design team into the heart of the collaborative process. 

Follow the residency @uk_undercurrent, or by signing up to Undercurrent’s mailing list www.undercurrent-uk.com/mailing-list

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.

Playbill Leno

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.

Playbill- leno

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