THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

63 posts categorized "Exhibitions"

10 February 2017

Jane Austen Among Family and Friends

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curated by Sandra Tuppen, Lead Curator Modern Archives & MSS 1601-1850

This year marks the bicentenary of the death of one of our most-loved writers, Jane Austen. To mark this anniversary, we have brought together writings from Austen’s formative teenage years for the first time in 40 years, from the British Library and Bodleian Library collections, plus family letters and memorabilia as part of a temporary display in our free Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. Austen’s treasured notebooks contain stories and poems she wrote to entertain her family and close friends and are accompanied by other items showing her strong family and social networks. Together these items illuminate the personal family life of this towering literary figure.

Austen, Jane

Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolour, circa 1810 © National Portrait Gallery, London

This display also includes one of the Library’s finest treasures – Austen’s writing desk. The desk was given to Austen by her father and might have been the very surface at which she produced first drafts of novels such as Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey. While travelling through Dartford in 1798 she almost lost it when it was accidentally placed in a horse-drawn chaise heading for Dover.

Austen desk

Portable writing desk, late 18th century, Add MS 86841

We have united the three notebooks that Austen kept of her teenage writings, which include “The Beautiful Cassandra”, a story dedicated to Austen’s sister, and a spoof history of England featuring illustrations of the Kings and Queens by Cassandra Austen. They are vivid sketches which illustrate the monarchs of England looking rather more like common men and women than they may have liked.

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An image from 'History of England' from Volume the Second by Jane Austen and illustrated by Cassandra Austen (Add MS 59874)

The social world which Austen lived in deeply influenced her books. Her family and friends provided inspiration for some of her novels’ characters. Their opinions mattered to her and she wrote down what each person thought of her later novels. In the exhibition you can see Austen's careful notation of opinions of Mansfield Park (1814), capturing some of the negative comments with a certain irony. The following image shows a page of these comments relating to Emma (1815).

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Opinions by various people of Jane Austen's work, 1814?, Add 41253 B

Among the letters on display one tells of Austen’s sorrow on the death of her beloved father, while a poem expresses the joy Austen felt on the birth of her nephew. The letters and manuscripts exhibited give an insight to Austen’s close friendships, explore her romances and reveal the family joys and sorrows which shaped the writer.

The exhibition is free to visit in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery until 19th February.

03 February 2017

Busting the Myths of Music Hall

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by guest blogger Fern Riddell, cultural historian and consultant for the BAFTA award-winning BBC and Amazon drama, Ripper Street

Teaching a British Library Adult Learning course is an absolute joy. This new range of courses brings together Library experts and guest specialists to offer unique learning experiences, using the Library’s rare collections for inspiration. I was invited to design a six-week course to support Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun, a free exhibition showcasing the Library’s Evanion Collection – a unique archive of the ephemera of Music Hall magician Henry Evans, acquired by the Library and rarely seen by the public.

 

  M. Evanion

Programme of M. Evanion's entertainment, January 13, 1893, Copyright © The British Library Board

I started my academic life as a Music Hall Historian. It’s a well-known part of our cultural history, a genre of entertainment we instantly recognise but actually know very little about. For many people, music hall is a sterotype, infantile, full of mother-in-law jokes and something that should never be considered ‘art’. And this misconception is why I chose to focus on the reality of Music Hall, and not out cultural memory of it, with my course Behind The Myth Of Music Hall. Each week we took a Music Hall myth – from the working class identity, to the role of women – and blew it apart. Did you know that Dickens loved the Music Hall? That women owned and ran music halls across the country; that Kitty Marion, one of our most dangerous suffragettes, was committing arson attacks on MP’s houses in-between on-stage appearances? And that the language of the songs, far from being ‘Knee’s Up Mother Brown’ was witty, clever, and occasionally stolen from the poetry of the greats like Byron or Keats. And above all, Music halls educated their audience about personal rights and situation through topical songs. Music halls kept their audience informed of parliamentary bills, changes in the geographical landscape of London, political intrigues, as well as domestic relationships and trials.

By the latter half of the 19th century, there were over 300 music halls licensed in London alone. Syndicated groups began to appear, opening music halls in towns and resorts across the country, and later the world. The Evanion Collection reflects the huge breadth and depth of acts, performers, and locations across the country as well as Music Hall’s influence over the tastes and ideas of their audience. National stars were created, Marie Lloyd, Leona Dare and Dan Leno packed houses to the roof night after night, and all caught Henry Evans’s eye.

 

  Leona dare

 Poster with an illustration of Leona Dare's balloon ascent, Copyright © The British Library Board

From 1852 Music Hall gained a reputation for showcasing something different, something special, and something new. It was a marvel to behold: opulent ceilings, chandeliers, expensive carpets. The middle classes were shocked: why were music hall impresarios going to such expense just to provide entertainment to the masses? Elegant designs and exteriors belonged to those who could afford to have them at home, not just to be visited for pleasure. But this is where the very core of the entire music hall industry ideal exists. It was a world of fantasy; it attempted to create perfection and sold it to the people who would never have enough money to obtain it. It was the modern day celebrity gossip magazine and reality TV star world rolled into one, and appearing twice nightly just down your road.

The Canterbury Music Hall was the first of these, opening in 1852, and then again in 1856, after a significant rebuild to increase seating capacity. Morton built this hall at 143 Westminster Bridge Road, and it signalled the new style of entertainment, specifically for the working classes, in the heart of the city of London. When the cost of Charles Morton's carpet in the Canterbury was revealed to be over a thousand pounds, he was met with derision and disbelief that he would waste such expense on those who were unable to appreciate it. Morton met his detractors with defiance, his manager, William Holland invited them ‘to come and spit on it’ [Busby, Roy, British music hall: An illustrated who's who from 1850 to the present day (Michigan, 1976), 12.].

 

  Canterbury theatre prog

Canterbury Theatre of Varieties, theatre programme, 1888, © The British Library Board

Historians have argued that the music halls were the first commercial mass entertainment to appear in Britain, they appealed to everyone. In a world that we see as often only operating along strict class and gender divides, the music halls were a place that drew in men and women, old and young, from all walks of life. In the last week of my course, Helen Peden, the British Library’s Curator of Printed Heritage Collections 1601-1900, joined us and brought with her a mesmerizing selection of posters, playbills and other ephemera from the Evanion Collection, which we displayed on tables across two rooms. The joy of seeing students connect to original source material is unparalleled, and by the end of six weeks, my passionate group of historical myth busters set off to explore the rest of the Library’s collections. I can’t wait to see what they find.

 

  George Pike and seals

George Pike's wonderful performing seals, © The British Library Board

For more information on adult courses at the Library, visit www.bl.uk/courses. The exhibition There Will Be Fun is open until 12th March 2017.

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

 

10 October 2016

'Rhys-cycled’

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By Sophie Oliver, co-curator of the display ‘Wide Sargasso Sea: Jean Rhys, Jane Eyre and the Making of an Author’

Jean Rhys is amply represented in the British Library’s manuscript collection, including by several versions of her best-known (and widely loved) novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). Fifty years after that book appeared, and 200 since the birth of Charlotte Brontë, whose Jane Eyre (1847) inspired it, 2016 seemed like a good moment to celebrate Rhys and the British Library’s archival holdings of her work.  

Wide Sargasso Sea

The display ‘Wide Sargasso Sea: Jean Rhys, Jane Eyre and the Making of an Author’, showing in the Treasures Gallery until 8 January, takes Brontë as a starting point. From her manuscript of Jane Eyre we’ve shown the part when Rochester takes Jane to see his ‘mad’ first wife, Bertha Mason, whom he rejects in the cruellest terms: ‘her nature wholly alien to mine […] her vices […] intemperate and unchaste’. Rhys referred to this nineteenth-century classic text as ‘frozen assets’, material to be reignited and given new life. She objected to what she felt was Brontë’s one-dimensional depiction of Bertha as a ‘poor Creole lunatic’, and resolved to write ‘her story’. Although Rhys’s letters show that she hugely admired Brontë, this oppositional stance was typical. For many literary critics, Rhys is above all a West Indian and a woman writer: her relationship to the Western canon is tangential and celebrated as such.

For her part, in work and life Rhys promoted an image of herself ‘outside the machine’, as one of her stories is titled. Yet she admitted that she longed for Wide Sargasso Sea ‘to be understood and read and so on’. The long process of drafting her final novel was spurred on by the attention that she gradually began to receive in the 1950s (having all but disappeared after Good Morning, Midnight was published in 1939) from critics, publishers and the BBC, which broadcast a radio dramatisation of Good Morning, Midnight in 1957.

The display was conceived to explore this aspect of Jean Rhys’s career – the public reception of her work and the making of her reputation in the years leading up to Wide Sargasso Sea and in the decade after, when she achieved international renown. The British Library’s Rhys archive is particularly strong on this period. For example, it holds Rhys’s corrected page proofs of the story ‘Till September Petronella’, published in London Magazine in 1960. This was Rhys’s first appearance in print since 1939, so in some ways represents the re-ignition of her literary career. She remembered it fondly for years, writing in one letter that ‘Petronella’ ‘just about saved my life’.

The Rhys archive also includes drafts of her earlier novels After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931) and Voyage in the Dark (1934) – pages of determined, fluent notes together with frenzied revisions and angry crossings-out. All of her earlier books were reissued in hardback and paperback in the late 1960s after the great success of Wide Sargasso Sea. The return of the 1930s fiction brought Rhys to a broad contemporary audience – not just through the books themselves, but in the form of profiles in the mainstream press and TV adaptations. The work that Rhys wrote in the interwar period seemed to fit in the 1960s, a decade of great social change. Thirty years previously she had written books and stories that listened to the marginal voices – those of women and racial minorities – that were being heard more in the 1960s. A profile in the fashion and lifestyle magazine Nova that is included in the display suggests that Rhys’s fictional obsession with flawed women spoke to that publication’s celebration of female identity in all its contradictory guises.

  Fig. 1

Julie Kavanagh, ‘Rhys-cycled’, Women’s Wear Daily, 13 November 1974.
Photo by Willie Christie. Reproduced with kind permission of Julie Kavanagh
and Willie Christie

As well as manuscripts, then, the display draws on the full breadth of the British Library’s collections, including newspapers and magazines, formats that were central to the story of Rhys’s rise to fame. Her presence in the press on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1970s confirms that Rhys and her work had become fashionable. Two newspaper items that we weren’t able to include refer to a Rhys ‘cult’ in this period. Julie Kavanagh’s 1974 profile in Women’s Wear Daily, ‘Rhys-cycled’ (illustrated), connects the republication of Rhys’s earlier work with the fashion system’s continual updating of old trends. Originally a fashion trade journal, by this point WWD was a ‘fashion gossip’ magazine with a mass market, decreeing who and what were the latest social and cultural phenomena. In late 1974, it seems, Rhys was. The previous year, aged 82, she had even been given her own fashion shoot in The Sunday Times, styled by the notorious fashion editor Molly Parkin (illustrated). The photographs were taken by Norman Eales, whose images of Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy had appeared in Vogue, Queen and Cosmopolitan.

  Fig. 2 copy

Molly Parkin, ‘Look! Fashion’, The Sunday Times, 25 February 1973. Jean
Rhys photographed by Norman Eales. Reproduced with kind permission of the
estate of Norman Eales

The fashion press often picked up on Rhys’s own love of clothes and their importance in her fiction, where they feature as signs of hope and despair – the promise of fulfilment and individuality or a way to blend in, but also the threat of deadening sameness. In the Sunday Times piece, contemporary quotes from Rhys are interwoven with fashion-conscious citations from her writing. Some have a more abstract link to fashion, such as this from Voyage in the Dark: ‘It was one of those days when you can see the ghosts of all the other lovely days. You drink a bit and watch the ghosts of all the lovely days that have ever been from behind a glass.’ But in the context it seems clear: the way that the past haunts the present is like the return of an old style. Much like Rhys herself, then: a ghost who, last seen in the 1930s, returned with new relevance in the 1960s.

Sophie Oliver is finishing a PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her article ‘Fashion in Jean Rhys/Jean Rhys in Fashion’ will be published in the journal Modernist Cultures in November 2016.

15 September 2016

Philosophies of punk

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By Rachel Brett, Reference Specialist

Among the fanzines on display in ‘Punk 1976-78’ is a copy of Sideburns, featuring a diagrammatic representation of three chords, with the caption 'This is a chord - this is another - this is a third ... now form a band'.

Imagine this famous three-chord approach as a manifesto for life; it might look something like this:

  1. Committing to the destruction of old beliefs
  2. Accepting that we are alone and committed to create our own ideals and beliefs
  3. Living in accordance with these self-authored ideals while resisting the temptation to return to old ideal (in the words of Robin Ryde).

When we speak of punk then, you could argue that we are also speaking about a philosophy. We are still talking, and putting on exhibitions about, Punk because inside the record sleeve was the message: change is possible.

Brave New World

First-issue-of-ripped-and-torn-created-by-tony-drayton

The first issue of Ripped and Torn created by Tony Drayton (Tony D) on display at Punk 1976-78 at the British Library until 2nd October

While the three points above read like a punk manifesto, it is in fact a summarisation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s conceptualisation of a ‘superman’. Such beings would live by their own values, choices and beliefs, cast off old perceived habits and pre-given morals to ultimately lead a freer and more fulfilling existence.

This is an over simplification of an illustrious theory by Nietzsche, yet parallels can be drawn with the ethos of the punk spirit which was tantamount to the idea of change and autonomy. Punk wanted to rip it up and start again, and it wanted to do it for itself. If we want to consider the significance of punk, its legacy and intention beyond slogans perhaps then the German philosopher Nietzsche is just as germane as Joe Strummer.

This is not to connote punk was a preconceived philosophical gesture, rather it is offering a reflection on punk’s demand for change that became a shaping force within culture as demonstrated in the British Library’s exhibition. This however, raises a question - If art can be philosophically considered, why shouldn’t pop music also be contemplated with philosophical curiosity?

Such outrageous posturing to situate punk within a philosophical proposition will provoke a loud disquiet in the crowd. What has punk got to do with philosophy? A brief glimpse into some of Nietzsche’s ideas may be thought provoking for the curious. Nietzsche loved music. Life without it he famously said isn’t worth living. Music for him was an expression of the imagination, a dynamic power in the everyday world, an expression of a life changing force within all humans, a feeling and an emotional outburst, and anger after all is energy…

Nietzschean gesture

  Nietzsche187c
Friedrich Nietzsche around 1869. Photo taken at studio Gebrüder Siebe, Leipzig. Courtesy of WikiCommons.

Nietzsche considered music’s function within Greek tragedy, which he understood as an artistic form born from the struggle between the gods Apollo and Dionysus. As a philosophical concept Dionysus denotes a primordial urge outside the rationality of instincts representing intoxication, excess, and a drive towards a transgression of limits. Nietzsche identified these aspects within non-representational art and specifically encapsulated within the power of music to covey suffering as a universal truth as opposed to an individual symptom.

In the modern world the rational reigns, while gods and myths are banished as the divine guiding principle for human existence. Nietzsche’s panegyric of Greek tragedy lies in his argument that such enlightenment had failed. Instead privileging  a return to the subterranean impulse of the Dionysian spirit within music to exposes the depths of human experience beyond the rational.

Put another way, the unifying experience of music contains a potential for change to live creatively beyond the suffering of the human condition. Heck, sounds a bit punk to me!

Going Underground

PunkGNeill

Reproduced with kind permission of ©Gary Neill

In 1886 Nietzsche raised the question “What would music have to be like if it were no longer Romantic in its origin, as German music is, but Dionysiac?”. Given his understanding of the Dionysian drive in music, I would propose it would be like  Punk. This proposition was explored in the contemporary world by the artist Dan Graham in his work “Rock my Region”. In this ‘video essay’ Graham drew out the ecstatic release within punk music and illustrated comparisons with the same release in religion and the Shaker movement.

Punk was a sonic and visual sign in an otherwise grey, over commercialised industry. It was the fly in the ointment, a critique of society, mass culture and of itself. That is to say of pop music. Perhaps punk’s greatest legacy is that it remains indefinable. What do we mean by punk? Everyone knows all the answers to this, don’t they? Yet we still dispute it, maybe because punk demanded a change and while it was not the revolution McLaren’s King Mob dabbling’s aspired to, it did effect exactly what pop music could be, sound like and how it could be made and distributed.

Punk’s still got a job to do; only it’s going to take more than a guitar to do it. Better get out your philosophy books kids, there’s an overdue revolution waiting to happen and perhaps Nietzsche and a bit of Greek Tragedy just might help…

Hey! Ho! Dionysus & Go!

26 August 2016

From Shakespeare to rock music: the history of the word ‘punk’

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In light of the Library’s summer exhibition programme we thought we’d take a look at the links between punk and Shakespeare by exploring the evolution of the word since Elizabethan times. If this whets your appetite for Shakespearean verse then you can catch our Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition until 6 September. Punk 1976-78 is a free exhibition in our Entrance Hall running until 2 October.

Shakespeare was an early user of the word 'punk', which originally meant ‘female prostitute’. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the first recorded usage of the word is in a ballad called ‘Simon The Old Kinge’ composed some time before 1575. It warns men that drinking is a sin akin to keeping prostitutes: ‘Soe fellowes, if you be drunke, of ffrailtye itt is a sinne, as itt is to keepe a puncke’.

Not too long after that, Shakespeare used the word in Measure for Measure (written around 1603-04) where Lucio tries to explain Mariana’s cryptic denial that she is ‘neither maid, widow, nor wife’ by declaring ‘She may be a Puncke’ (5.1.178). It’s not surprising that the word crops up in this play given its preoccupation with sexual morality and its setting in a debauched Vienna where whoring is big business.

Over time the word has taken on different meanings. In the late 17th century the word began to be used to describe a boy or young man being kept by an older man for sex. A 1698 manuscript in the Bodleian Library contains the lyrics to a bawdy song, 'Women’s Complaint to Venus', containing the alarming line ‘The Beaus ... at night make a punk of him that's first drunk’.

Punk has subsequently been used as a derogatory insult of various kinds, from US prison slang for men being used for sex to a term for the young male companions of tramps, and then as general description of contemptible or worthless people, petty criminals, cowards, weaklings, amateurs, apprentices and inexperienced youths in general.

The popular use of the word to describe a type of rock music dates from 1971, when US rock journalist Dave Marsh used it to describe - retrospectively - 1960s garage band ? and the Mysterians. Stylistically similar groups would include the Seeds and the Standells.

Less well-known is the use of the term 'Punk Music' to advertise early shows by the New York minimalist electronics-and-vocals duo Suicide. This was slightly earlier, in late 1970.

Ramones in Park Lane - Copyright Danny Fields

Punk style: The Ramones in London, 1976. Photo © Danny Fields. My Ramones by Danny Fields is published by First Third Books.  

Later in the decade punk became the catch-all term for the type of music pioneered by the Ramones in New York and the Sex Pistols in London. The Ramones debut album contained a song '53rd & 3rd' told from the point-of-view of a male prostitute, and another titled 'Judy is a Punk', but it was probably Punk magazine, first published in January 1976 in New York, that had most to do with reviving the word.  

John Holmstrom, Ged Dunn and Legs McNeil created the magazine to cover the local music scene that centred around the club CBGB. Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain tells the whole story, and the British Library holds a complete run of the original journals.

In the UK, the term was not favoured by the leading lights of the new movement, and it took a while to stick. For example, in October 1976 a major article by Jonh Ingham in the music weekly Sounds was titled 'Welcome to the (?) Rock Special', suggesting that at that point nobody quite knew what to call it.

A month later however, the Sex Pistols swore on live TV. The next day, the word 'punk' was all over the newspapers, and - for better or worse - was here to stay.

by Zoë Wilcox, co-curator of Shakespeare in Ten Acts , Andy Linehan and Stephen Cleary, co-curators of Punk 1976-1978

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’.

BL14.4.16_058

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.

BL14.4.16_045

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.

BL14.4.16_062

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.