THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

47 posts categorized "Theatre"

08 November 2017

Heroes and victims of the Revolution

Add comment

 In November 1918, the first anniversary of the Bolshevik military insurrection (as the October Revolution was then known) was ‘celebrated in style’ in Soviet Russia. Around 3,500 metres of red fabric was allocated for decorating the Kremlin in Moscow. Over 400 metres of ropes were supposed to hold posters and panels during the celebration. On 7 November 1918 Lenin, who had made a remarkably prompt recovery after being seriously wounded in an assassination attempt some two months earlier, managed to give several speeches in different parts of Moscow. A large memorial plaque in commemoration of those who lost their lives “in the struggle for peace and the brotherhood of nations” was unveiled on Red Square and a temporary monument to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels was also erected in the centre of the capital. A mass show “The Pantomime of the Great Revolution” was staged in the streets. Such mass festivals and reenactments of “revolutionary events” would soon become a usual feature of each commemoration and celebration in the early years of Soviet Russia. You can see photographs of those first anniversary celebrations here.

Those Russian artists who embraced the Bolshevik Revolution were happy to glorify it in arts. Vladimir Mayakovski was quite active in promoting the celebrations. For the first anniversary he wrote a ‘comic opera’ – Misteriia-buff (Mystery-Bouffe) – which was accepted to be part of the festivities. Staged by the famous theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold with designs by Kazimir Malevich the play was premiered on 7 November 1918 and then shown two more times. The author also appeared on stage as a ‘common man’, but then had to play a couple more roles as some actors did not turn up.

Image 1 - Misteriia Buff-Mayakovski-Ac.4635.ca.6

Above: Designs by Kazimir Malevich, from Istoriia sovetskogo teatra ed ited by V.E.Rafalobich, Vol.1 (Leningrad, 1933). Ac.4635.ca.6; Below: Vladimir Mayakovski, poster for Misteriia-buff, 1918. From The Soviet theatrical poster (Leningrad, 1977). HS.74/2256

Image 2 - Misteriia-Buff poster

Seven pairs of ‘clean’ (‘bloodsuckers’) and seven pairs of ‘unclean’ (‘workers’), as well as The Hysterical Lady, The Common Man (The Man of the Future), Devils, Saints (including Leo Tolstoy and Jean-Jacques Rousseau) performed a ‘satirical drama’ in The Entire universe, The Ark, Hell, Paradise, Land of Chaos and finally – in The Promised Land. By the end of the year the play was published as a separate edition.

Image 3 - 1st edition

Cover by Mayakovski for the 1st edition of Misteriia-buff. (Petrograd, 1918). C.135.g.23

The Revolution affected everyone in the country, but it was also important for avant-garde artists and the Bolsheviks as well to stress the final divide between the past and the present, the rich and poor, the victors and losers, the heroes and victims and leave no space in between so that each and every one should clearly take sides. This irreversible split was also presented in another work by Mayakovski created for the anniversary – the album of drawings and short verses Geroi i zhertvy revoliutsii (Heroes and Victims of the Revolution’; Cup.410.c.81). Heroes (Worker, Red Army Soldier, Farm Labourer, Sailor, Seamstress, Laundress, Motorist, Telegraph Operator and Railway Worker) and Victims (Factory Owner, Banker, Landlord, Kulak, Lady, Priest, Bureaucrat, General and Merchant) are presented by four artists: Kseniia Boguslavskaia , Vladimir Kozlinskii, Sergei Makletsov and Ivan Puny.

Below are four of the album’s Heroes’: the Red Army soldier, Laundress,  Motorist and Railway worker:

Image 4 (3)


  Image 4 (7)

Image 4 (8)


Image 4 (10)

And here are some of the Victims’: Merchant, Kulak, Lady and Priest

  Image 4 (1)

Image 4 (14)

    Image 4 (15)

Image 4 (16)

It was proven before and happened this time again – Revolution devours its children. In 1919, Boguslavskaia and Puny left Russia for good; in 1930 Mayakovski committed suicide; in 1935, Malevich died of cancer having been banned from exhibiting ‘bourgeois’ abstract art; and in 1940, Meyerhold was shot dead in Stalin’s purges as an ‘enemy of the people’.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

03 October 2017

Le rose et le noir: Jean Anouilh

Add comment

Visitors attending the British Library’s event Greeks: Classic to Contemporary this evening will have the privilege of hearing Kamila Shamsie, among others, discussing her new novel Home Fire, a reworking of the legend of Antigone. It is appropriate that this timeless parable of civil disobedience should be re-examined on the 30th anniversary of the death of a man who brought it to the stage at a crucial point in European history: Jean Anouilh.

Anouih portrait YF.2014.a.17873

Portrait of Jean Anouilh from Anca Visdei, Jean Anouilh: une biographie (Paris, 2012) YF.2014.a.17873.

It may seem odd that such a classic figure of the modern French theatre died as recently as 1987, but Anouilh began his creative life and established his reputation at a comparatively early age. He was born on 23 June 1910 in the little village of Cérisole near Bordeaux, and registered as the son of François Anouilh, a tailor of Basque descent, and his wife Marie-Magdeleine, a violinist. During the summer she would augment the family finances by playing in music-hall, casino and theatre orchestras in the seaside resort of Arcachon, and years later her son discovered that he was actually the result of an affair which she had had there. A more tangible influence was the exposure to the world of the theatre where young Jean attended rehearsals, read scripts, and even experimented with playwriting on his own account.

When Jean was eight the family moved to Paris, where he was educated at the famous Lycée Chaptal and gained admission to the Sorbonne to read law. The family’s finances, however, were still too precarious to allow him to continue his studies, and in his second year he left to seek employment with the advertising firm Publicité Damour. This apparent blow actually stood him in good stead and provided him with a training in pithy and concise use of language, equally applicable to writing for the stage.

After a period of military service and an early and troubled marriage to the actress Monelle Velentin, in 1935 Anouilh became secretary to the actor and director Louis Jouvet at the Comédie des Champs-Elysées. This brought him into contact with Jean Giraudoux, who encouraged him to return to writing, and in 1932 Anouilh completed L’Hermine (the British Library holds the 1934 edition: 12208.ee.151, and also a first edition of Y'avait un prisonnier (Paris, 1935; P.P.4283.m.(2.)). Anouilh also collaborated with the Russian director Georges Pitoëff, with whom he achieved his first commercial success, Le Voyageur sans bagages (Paris, 1937; P.P.4283.m.(2.)). He also worked closely with the set designer André Barsacq, director of the Théâtre de l’Atelier, who created an exquisite series of illustrations for a limited edition of Anouilh’s play L’Invitation au château.

Anouih Invitation 11740.n.8.

Illustration by André Barsacq for L’Invitation au château (Paris, 1948) 11740.n.8.

This play, memorably adapted by Christopher Fry under the title Ring Round the Moon (London, 1950; 11740.n.11) was one of many which gained wide popularity on the English-speaking stage.

It belongs to the group classified by Anouilh as his pièces roses, comedies with an almost whimsical fairy-tale quality, in strong contrast to his pièces noires, where a darker, more cynical tone prevails. The bitter years of the German occupation and the Vichy regime had led Anouilh to reflect on the recurrent motifs and archetypes of human folly and cruelty in history and myth, crystallized in a series of dramas including Antigone (Paris, 1946; W22/1129) and L’Alouette (1952; BL copy Paris, 1953; 11740.m.34) dealing with the conflicts surrounding idealistic young protagonists facing a choice between integrity and death in a corrupt society. Despite belonging to a third group described by the author as pièces costumées, this play, like Becket, does not merely seek refuge in the safe past but emphasizes the eternal and vividly topical nature of the moral choices which the characters confront.

Anouilh was equally unsparing of himself in his final cycle of pièces secrètes in which he analyses the predicament of the dramatist or director and the dilemmas which it poses. As well as the conflict between life and art, these were also of a political nature; Antigone, for example (a theme which had also been interpreted by Brecht) escaped censorship under the Vichy government and thus attracted criticism on the grounds of moral ambivalence, as did Anouilh’s public disagreements with Charles de Gaulle and his support of the author Robert Brasillach, executed in 1945 for collaboration with the Nazis. Despite the numerous honours which Anouilh received, these considerations may have had a bearing on the fact that despite being shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, he never won it. Moreover, in the 1960s, as the Theatre of the Absurd gained ground, his plays began to lose their appeal despite his own highly individual approach to existential crises as profound as anything to be found in the works of Beckett or Ionesco (both of whom he defended); the Belgian critic Hubert Gignoux, for example, sums up Antigone as ‘drame psychologique en marge d’une tragédie’.

Anouilh biog Gignoux 11867.e.29

Cover of Hubert Gignoux, Jean Anouilh (Paris, 1946; 11867.e.29).

However, he retained his vitality as a man of the theatre and the cinema well into his seventies, turning to directing (he was also a translator of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde). Although he remarked in 1946 to Gignoux that he had no biography and was content with the fact, he could surely have had no quarrel with his biographer Anca Visdei’s comment in her biography of Anouilh: ‘Anouilh est devenu omniprésent dans la vie théâtrale française … Incontournable.’

Susan Halstead (Subject Librarian, Social Sciences) Research Services.

31 March 2017

Wagenseil, Wagner and the Mastersingers of Nuremberg

Add comment

By a neat coincidence, an enquiry about a work by Johann Christoph Wagenseil arrived in the same week that I attended a performance of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Royal Opera. Why a neat coincidence? Because an important source for Wagner’s opera was another work by Wagenseil, a history of Nuremberg with an appended study of the Meistersinger, or Mastersingers, and their art, especially as it developed in the city.

Wagenseil tp
Title-page and frontispiece portrait of the author from Johann Christoph Wagenseil, De Sacri Rom. Imperii Libera Civitate Noribergensi Commentatio ... (Altdorf, 1697) 794.f.6.(1.)

The precise origins of the historical Mastersingers are not entirely clear, but their schools or guilds developed in the late middle ages and their heyday was in the early 16th century. Wagenseil reports the tradition that the Mastersingers looked back to ‘Twelve Old Masters’, including the mediaeval poets Wolfram von Eschenbach and Walther von der Vogelweide – although in the opera the pedantic town clerk Beckmesser dismisses the latter as a master because he is ‘long since dead’ and would have known nothing of the guild’s rules.

In Wagner’s story, the knight Walther von Stolzing seeks admission to Nuremberg’s guild of Mastersingers in the hope of winning the hand of his beloved Eva Pogner at the St John’s Day singing contest. Among the masters he is opposed by rival suitor Beckmesser and assisted by the shoemaker Hans Sachs, who has to set aside his own feelings for Eva. In the first act Walther auditions for the guild and the Masters are shocked by his untutored efforts, which break all their rules and are especially condemned by Beckmesser, who judges the song in his official role as ‘Marker’.

Wagner took many details of the Mastersingers’ rules and ceremonies from Wagenseil. The list of sometimes bizarre names for the guild’s approved tones, which Sachs’s apprentice David reels off to the baffled Walther, all come from Wagenseil, and the rules of the ‘Tabulatur’ which the master Fritz Kothner recites before Walther’s audition for the guild cleverly reflect in verse the rules described by Wagenseil in prose.

Wagenseil Tones
A selection of the Mastersingers’ tones, from Wagenseil’s book

Walther’s experience of the ‘Singschule’ also follows Wagenseil’s description, including the time and place: following a service at St Catherine’s Church. One key difference, however, is that where Wagenseil describes four Markers, each with a specific task, Wagner has only one, in order to highlight the contrast and rivalry between Walther and Beckmesser.

Even the Masters’ names come from Wagenseil, who lists 12 ‘old masters’ of the Nuremberg guild. Wagner uses all of these (with some minor changes), but attributes a selection of trades to them which are not mentioned by Wagenseil. As Wagner also needed to add Hans Sachs to his list and presumably wanted to avoid the odd and unlucky number of 13 masters on stage, one of Wagenseil’s line-up, Niclaus (In Wagner’s libretto Niklaus) Vogel, is absent from the action, reported sick by his apprentice during the roll-call.

Wagenseil Masters
Wagenseil’s list of the 12 ‘old masters’ of the Nuremberg guild

For all its basis in Wagenseil’s work, Wagner’s opera presents a romantic and idealised view of the Mastersingers as a core part of a community where art and work go hand in hand, and where the townspeople share an instinctive appreciation of true art. The guilds actually had little public or popular resonance, but were more of a closed circle. Those who did become popular writers, such as the real Hans Sachs, tended to be known for other works, not least because their Meistergesang was performed only at the guild’s meetings and preserved only in manuscript among the members.

In fact one of the historical Sachs’s works features in the opera: the opening lines of his poem in praise of Martin Luther, Die Wittenbergisch Nachtigall, are sung in act 3 by an admiring chorus in praise of Sachs himself. But its poetic form is not that of authentic Meistergesang, and nor is the musical setting of the chorus.

Nachtigall  

Nachtigall Wach auf
Title-page and opening lines (as set by Wagner) of Hans Sachs, Die Wittembergisch Nachtigall  ([Augsburg, 1523]) 11515.c.18.(4).

Indeed, it seems that Wagner took little inspiration for the actual music of the opera from Wagenseil’s work: according to the musicologist Annalise Smith, it is only the songs of the rule-obsessed Beckmesser that closely follow the guidelines cited by Wagenseil. But since Wagner’s plot is concerned in part with the importance of change and innovation in artistic practice, and since he gently mocks many of the rules quoted from Wagenseil, perhaps this is only fitting.

Wagenseil Melody
An example of Meistergesang with music from Wagenseil’s history

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

References/further reading

Herbert Thompson, Wagner & Wagenseil: a Source of Wagner’s Opera ‘Die Meistersinger’ (London, 1927) 07896.f.36.

John Flood, ‘Mastersingers’, in Matthias Konzett, ed., Encyclopedia of German literature (Chicago, 2000) pp. 687-689. YC.2000.b.1167

Annalise Smith, ‘Honour Thy German Masters: Wagner’s Depiction of “Meistergesang” in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.’ Musicological Explorations, 11 (2010)

23 December 2016

Christmas in the Trenches 1916: a Mystery Play.

Add comment

This year I showed some items from our Low Countries collections  with a Christmas theme at the annual Christmas party for the Patrons of the British Library. I had selected three items, all of them worthy of a blog post, but I decided to pick just one: L’Adoration des Soldats, or ‘The Adoration of the Soldiers’. This year is the hundredth anniversary of its publication. It was not published in the Netherlands, or Flanders, but in London, the residence of its author Émile Cammaerts and place of refuge of its illustrator, Dutch cartoonist Louis Raemaekers.

The Adoration is a nice example of some of the more subtle Allied propaganda during World War I. Cammaerts’ wife, British actress Helen Tita Braun, better known under her stage name of Tita Brands, translated the French text into English. The English text is printed on the left hand pages, the French text on the right hand pages. Margaret B. Calkin wrote the script.

AdorSold00TtlpgP1090297

Title-page of Emile Cammaerts, L’Adoration des soldats = The adoration of the soldiers (London, [1916]). K.T.C.26.b.29.

It was the perfect book for the occasion, because it looks like an illuminated medieval manuscript, so practically guaranteed a warm reception with the public. The text is printed on high quality, thick paper, in black and red ink, in a medieval looking font. The initials are decorated, as are the spaces on lines where the text does not run to the end. It is bound in cream cloth, resembling vellum, with gilt decorations. Just as one would expect of a publisher like The Fine Arts Society

AdorSold01InitialEngP1090287

In the Foreword it says: “The Adoration of the Soldiers is a short mystery play which was suggested to Mons. Cammaerts during a visit which he paid to the Belgian Trenches in Christmas Week.” In what year this visit took place is not mentioned. The story is set in the trenches during Christmas. The main characters are four soldiers: The Believer, The Grumbler, The Jovial One and The Sceptic. They see a rocket being fired which fails to fall down on them, but remains hanging in the air, like a bright burning star. Soon after an old man leading a donkey carrying a young woman appears, as if from nowhere. How they managed to get through enemy lines and how they know the password is a mystery.

AdorSold02JosephMariaP1090291

After some deliberations the soldiers allow the couple to take shelter in their dug-out. All apart from The Believer go to sleep. Soon an angel appears to the soldiers, bringing the happy tidings of Christ’s birth, as on every Christmas. This year He chose to be reborn amongst “…his martyrs and defenders”, of which the angel says: “Let this be to you a token of victory!”.
The story ends with the soldiers adoring the Christ-Child in their dug-out, joined by people from the local village. All sing a local Christmas song.

AdorSold03NoelEngP1090293

 

AdorSold04bMadonnaChildsmallDSCF0807

I have not been able to find evidence of ‘The Adoration’ ever being performed, either in churches or in the trenches. If anyone knows of any such performance, please get in touch.

Thank you and Merry Christmas!

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections (Low Countries)

17 October 2016

The Seagull has landed: 120 years of Chekhov’s ‘comedy’

Add comment

Audiences who enjoyed the recent ‘Young Chekhov’ season of early plays which transferred to London from the Chichester Festival Theatre might be surprised to learn that the work with which it culminated, The Seagull – now generally regarded as the first of Chekhov’s four great mature dramas – was anything but a success when first performed.

17 October marks the 120th anniversary of the play’s première in 1896 at the Alexandrinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg. It is a work which provides more opportunities than most for things to go wrong (a lamp catching fire and a pistol failing to go off in an open-air production in which the present writer took part), and on the first night life imitated art all too closely. As the audience began to boo and hiss, Vera Komissarzhevskaya, in the role of Nina, the aspiring young actress, became so nervous that she completely lost her voice. Chekhov disappeared backstage after the second act, and, although outwardly composed, was so discouraged that he seriously considered giving up playwriting.

Seagull Nina
Vera Komissarzhevskaya as Nina in The Seagull, from P.A. Markov, Vera Fedorovna Komissarzhevskaia (Moscow, 1950) British Library 10790.de.52

Nowadays The Seagull is recognized as a masterpiece in its subtle portrayal of the conflicts between youth and maturity, city sophistication and rural simplicity, and the literary values represented by the jaded urbane middle-aged Trigorin, a writer of short stories, and the eager young dramatist Konstantin, son of Trigorin’s mistress, the actress Arkadina. Konstantin’s experimental Symbolist play is greeted with the same bewilderment and mockery that The Seagull received at its first outing. In both cases the audience, failing to appreciate a drama which ran counter to their expectations, were loud in their condemnation; possibly those at the Alexandrinsky were disconcerted as a play advertised as a comedy revealed a succession of thwarted loves, hopes and ambitions and ended with a fatal pistol-shot. When Chekhov’s friend Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko assured him that later performances had been well received and urged him to let it be performed in Moscow, Chekhov initially believed that this was no more than a kindly attempt to reassure him. However, Nemirovich-Danchenko, a successful playwright, persuaded Konstantin Stanislavski  to put The Seagull on at the Moscow Art Theatre, and its opening night there, on 29 December 1898, became a landmark in Russian theatrical history.

Seagull Reading
Chekhov reading from The Seagull to actors from the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898. From S.D. Balukhatyi, Chaika v postanovke Moskovskogo Khudozhestvennogo Teatra (Moscow, 1938) X.908/6396

The British Library holds a translation of Stanislavski’s production score (1952; X5/6281) which demonstrates his psychological penetration of the text and skill in bringing even its most minute details to life. As Thomas Kilroy, who relocated the action to the west of Ireland in his adaptation The Seagull ‘after Chekhov’ (Oldcastle, 1981/93; YK.1994.a.1609) remarks in his introduction, ‘stars like to play minor characters in Chekhov, something which is not even true of Shakespeare’. Stanislavski gave precise directions to his company about such apparently insignificant points as a character’s way of laughing or taking snuff, and his attention to these was triumphantly rewarded. At Chekhov's suggestion he took over the role of Trigorin, playing opposite Olga Knipper, Chekhov’s future wife, in that of Arkadina. This time the play received universal acclaim from critics and public, with members of the audience so transfigured by the experience that one observer described them as ‘looking as if it were their birthday’.

From then on The Seagull never looked back. It was widely translated, with one of the earliest versions being an edition of Chekhov’s plays in Yiddish (New York, 1911; 17107.a.6) where it appeared as Der ṿaser-foygel. Elsewhere it took to the air as Måken in Norway, Die Möwe in Germany, and La mouette in Marguerite Duras’s French version (Paris, 1985; YA.1987.a.4430). The first British production was mounted at the Royalty Theatre, Glasgow on 2 November 1909, in a translation by its director George Calderon.

Seagull Glasgow cast list
Cast list of the first British production of The Seagull, from Two plays by Tchekof, translated by George Calderon (London, 1912) 11758.cc.1.

The play also inspired a ballet score by Rodion Shchedrin (Moscow, 1982; f.541.aa) and an opera by Thomas Pasatieri with an English libretto by Kenward Elmslie (King of Prussia, PA, 2005; MUSIC H06/.10701), as well as numerous film versions, re-workings and adaptations by Tennessee Williams (1981), Regina Taylor (2004), Aaron Posner (2013) and others – most bizarrely, perhaps by the popular Russian crime writer Boris Akunin, whose version contains Chekhov’s original text followed by a continuation exploring the characters’ subsequent lives.

Seagull Akunin
Cover of Anton Chekhov/Boris Akunin, Chaika – komediia i ee prodolzhenie (Moscow, 2000) YA.2001.a.36762 

One thing is clear: unlike the seagull in Chekhov’s original play, shot by Konstantin and carried on dead halfway through Act II, The Seagull continues to soar to new heights 120 years after first taking wing. As Thomas Kilroy observes, `for all their sense of imminence, of the moment about-to-be, all Chekhov’s plays are rooted in an untidy present, full of inconsequentialities, of ordinary helplessness’, and it is this quality which gives The Seagull its timeless appeal.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities and Social Sciences) Research Engagement

 

13 October 2016

Frederick Cosens, Shakespeare and the Spanish drama of the Golden Age.

Add comment

Frederick William Cosens (1819-89) had a very successful career in the sherry and port wine trade between Britain and Spain and Portugal. The profits from his businesses permitted him to develop his interests in both fine art and literature. His put together an art collection that included notable Spanish and Italian drawings of the 16th-19th centuries, etchings and two drawings by Goya. His interests in English literature centred on Shakespeare and Dickens. However, his library, containing some 4,950 titles at his death, was remarkable in the British context for its rare editions of major Spanish writers, its manuscripts and for its extensive holdings of 19th-century works. His collections were sold by Sotheby’s after his death, and the British Museum purchased a total of 47 items of which 37 were related to Spain.

Cosens (1)
Frederick. W. Cosens, engraving by Joseph Swain 

Cosens also turned his hand to translation. He translated the Spanish epic, the Poema de Mio Cid, a version that remains unpublished. Three other translations bring together his interests in Spanish literature and Shakespeare. He published a version of Ejemplo 35 from Juan Manuel’s Conde Lucanor (ca. 1335), the tale of the Moor who marries a very strong and fierce young woman (‘fuerte y muy brava’) and succeeds in subjugating her: The Moorish Marriage, bearing some similarity to the story of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Just ten copies were printed.

Moorish Marriage
The Moorish
Marriage, translated by Cosens (London, 1867; 12490.a.37)

More substantial are two privately published versions of Golden Age comedias based on the legend of Romeo and Juliet: Lope de Vega’s Castelvines y Monteses. Tragicomedia (London, 1869; 11726.i.25) and Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla’s Los bandos de Verona. Montescos y Capeletes (London, 1874; 11725.h.80). Castelvines y Monteses, arguably written before 1604, was first published in Parte XXV of Lope de Vega’s complete works in 1647. Los bandos de Verona (1640) was first printed in 1645 in In the Segunda parte de las comedias de… Rojas Zorrilla (11726.c.25). Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, first printed in 1597, is generally dated to ca. 1595. Both Spanish dramatists drew on an Italian novella by Matteo Bandello (1554); this also lies behind Shakespeare’s immediate source, Arthur Brooke’s The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (London, 1562; Huth.34.).

LopedeVega (1)
Portrait of Lope de Vega, attributed to Eugenio Cajés (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Cosens translated Castelvines y Monteses because he considered it worthy of a ‘better fate’ than it had received in an earlier version (Castelvines, pp. v-vii). Lope’s play is indeed unjustly neglected. The plot is fast paced from the very beginning, as his audience would have expected. It follows a similar outline to both Bandello’s and Shakespeare’s but with variations: it opens, for example, with the ball scene and Roselo/Romeo’s meeting with Julia/Juliet. Surprisingly, it ends happily with the successful reuniting of the lovers at Julia’s tomb and the resolution of the conflict between the families. As the subtitle ‘tragicomedia’ indicates, comic elements are present: for example, in Julia’s duping of Octavio, Roselo’s none-too-bright rival for her hand. Octavio’s subsequent death, stirred into action by his father, exemplifies this tragi-comic blend. In spite of its quality, Castelvines y Monteses is rarely performed in Spain; Spanish audiences are seemingly more willing to opt for productions of Romeo and Juliet in translation. (Castelvines y Monteses has been translated into modern English by Gwynne Edwards in Three Spanish Golden Age Plays (London, 2005; YC.2005.a.11238) and was performed at the Dell Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in August 2006, directed by Heather Davies.

BandosVeronaOpening scene of Los Bandos de Verona (Madrid, 1645), C.63.h.2.

Cosens considered Rojas Zorrilla’s Los bandos de Verona to be ‘inferior in every way to “Castelvines y Monteses”’. He therefore limited his English version to ‘such portions… as bear some reference to Shakespeare’s tragedy’ (Los bandos de Verona, p. viii). Like Lope, Rojas Zorrilla follows Bandello, but introduces further changes. He adds characters: Carlos Romeo, a friend of Alejandro Romeo (i.e. the Romeo) and, more crucial to the plot, Elena, Romeo’s sister, who is unhappily married to Count París. The latter, now a member of the Capelete clan, wishes to repudiate Elena and marry Julia/Juliet instead. Further innovations follow: Julia supposedly takes poison to thwart her father’s injunction to choose between Count París and her cousin, Andrés. In fact, Los bandos is altogether a very different kind of play both from Romeo and Juliet and Castelvines y Monteses. It contains more action, culminating with Alejandro Romeo’s threat to storm a tower in which Elena and Carlos are held prisoner. Eventually, however, peace is restored and the feud is ended by the marriage of Alejandro Romeo and Julia. The family feud and a possible political dimension predominate over the original, tragic love story.

Recent critical opinion has largely justified Cosens’ opinion of the two Spanish plays.

Geoff West, formerly Lead Curator Hispanic Collections

11 October 2016

Andreas Gryphius, monarchs and mechanicals

Add comment

In 2016 we have been commemorating the 400th anniversaries of the deaths of both Cervantes and Shakespeare. Today, however, we look at a literary figure who was born in the year of those deaths, Andreas Gryphius.

Gryphius portrait
Andreas Gryphius, after an engraving by Philip Kilian. Reproduced in Marian Szyrocki Andreas Gryphius: sein Leben und Werk (Tübingen 1964) British Library X.909/3470

Gryphius was born in Glogau in Silesia, today Polish Głogów, on 2 October 1616 although some sources claim 11 October as the date, possibly a confusion of birth and baptismal dates, but more likely due simply to roman numerals being read as arabic ones. His early years were marked by personal loss and the upheavals of what would become the Thirty Years’ War. His father died when he was four years old, his mother seven years later, and young Andreas spent the following years moving between various Silesian towns, living with his stepfather or other relatives and patrons, sometimes attending school and sometimes studying independently. In 1638 he entered the University of Leyden, a centre of European scholarship and a refuge from the ongoing war in the German territories, where he could develop his literary and academic talents in an atmosphere both politically safe and intellectually stimulating. After six years in Leyden and a further four travelling around Europe, Gryphius returned to Silesia and in 1649 was appointed Syndic of his native Glogau, a post he held until his death in 1664, despite being a Protestant in a state that, since the Peace Of Westphalia, was under Catholic control. Alongside the duties of his post, he continued the writing career which had begun in his teens.

Despite the vicissitudes of the Thirty Years’ War, German literature was enjoying something of a renaissance in this period, with writers such as the founders of the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft (modelled on the Italian academies) seeking to give German a new status as a language of literature and scholarship. Gryphius became a member in 1662, and was given the soubriquet ‘der Unsterbliche’ (the Immortal), which suggests the esteem in which contemporaries held him, although it  has some poignancy in retrospect given that Gryphius was dead within two years of his election to the society.

Gryphius frontispiece 11525.bb.3
Frontispiece of a collected edition of Gryphius’s works, A Gryphii Deutsche Gedichte erster Theil (Breslau, 1657) 11525.bb3.

As well as poems and plays Gryphius wrote factual prose works and was not afraid of controversy. One of his first published works, Fewrige Freystadt, describes the fire that devastated the Silesian town of Freystadt (modern-day Kożuchów) in 1637, and openly criticises the authorities for failures in dealing with the crisis. In his early years as a Syndic in Glogau, he published a collection of historical documents Glogauisches Fürstenthumbs Landes Privilegia ... (Lissa, 1653; 1502/223) intended to demonstrate to the ruling Habsburg Emperor that local freedoms had a long precedent and could not be overturned by a centralising absolutist state. But it is for his poems, and perhaps even more his plays, that Gryphius is best remembered today. The plays include both tragedies and comedies (among the latter the splendidly titled Horribilcribrifax Teutsch), and interestingly one of each has an English connection.

The tragedy Ermordete Majestät, oder Carolus Stuardus is unusual for its time in dramatizing a near-contemporary event, the execution of the English King Charles I in 1649. Although the play was not published until 1657, Gryphius began work on it soon after hearing of Charles’s execution, and he later revised it partly to take account of the Restoration. The action is relatively static: various groups of people discuss the reasons for or against and the possible repercussions of regicide, Charles prepares to die a martyr, and a series of allegorical choruses comment on the situation. Gryphius strongly takes the royalist side, and seems to have a low opinion of how the English treat their monarchs in general: in Act I the ghost of Mary Queen of Scots lists a number of murdered kings (who later appear as a chorus) and reflects ‘Es ist der Insell Art’ (‘It is the way of the Island’ [i.e. Britain]).

Gryphius Carolus 11525.bb.3
The opening of Ermordete Majestät, oder Carolus Stuardus from the 1657 collection of Gryphius’s works

Gryphius’s ‘English’ comedy is Absurda Comica, oder Herr Peter Squentz, essentially a version of the ‘Rude Mechanicals’ material from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, although leaving out the fairies and Bottom’s transformation. The comedy shows the schoolmaster Peter Squentz and his players preparing their version of Pyramus and Thisbe and presenting it to drama-loving King Theodorus and his court in the hope of winning favour. Their rustic language, outmoded poetic style and frequent blunders cause great amusement among the aristocratic audience, and the play is sometimes described as a satire on common folk who pretend to be learned and talented above their station, but Squentz and his company are nonetheless shown to come off well since Theodorus rewards them with 15 Gulden for every mistake.

Gryphius Squentz 11745.a.55.
A song performed by the weaver and Meistersinger Lollinger in Absurda Comica, oder Herr Peter Squentz, from the collection A Gryphii Freuden und Trauer-Spiele auch Oden und Sonnette (Leipzig, 1663) 11745.a.55. It is a parody of the Meistergesang style, widely considered outdated by Gryphius’s time.

Gryphius claims to have adapted his work from that of Daniel Schwendter, revising and improving Schwendter’s text. It his highly unlikely that either Schwendter or Gryphius knew Shakespeare’s original play, but quite possible that either could have seen a version of it –or of the Mechanicals subplot – performed by travelling English players on the continent, an idea supported by the fact that one of Gryphius’s characters is called Pickelhäring, the name of a stock fool character among such troupes.

While even Gryphius’s most ardent admirers could hardly claim him as Shakespeare’s literary equal or heir, there is nonetheless a nice symmetry in the fact that the author of this first literary reworking of a Shakespeare play in German was born in the year of Shakespeare’s death and died in 1664, the centenary year of Shakespeare’s birth.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

20 September 2016

Ira Aldridge's Polish Journey: Developing the Shakespearean Canon and Influencing Local Politics

Add comment

I was delighted to discover that the British Library’s recent exhibition Shakespeare in 10 Acts chose to tell the remarkable story of Ira Aldridge’s career – albeit only part of it. Although the famous black Shakespearean actor acquired star status in the UK provinces, he was never fully accepted in London by the cultural elites. Nevertheless his acting was celebrated on the Continent wherever he went. He toured extensively from 1852 to 1867: he went as far as Imperial Russia, including Poland and Ukraine, and visited Mongolia and Turkey.

Aldridge’s contribution to Shakespeare’s performance history was not limited to the question of race and his pioneering acting feats as Othello or King Lear (in whiteface). In the non-Anglophone reception of Shakespeare Aldridge is a very special case in the dissemination of his work. At the time not many proper translations were available to non-English speakers and thus Shakespeare was not staged frequently, in some places not at all (for example, in 1858 Aldridge brought Shakespeare to Serbia for the very first time with his Richard III) .

Ira Aldridge Lear 11797.a.32
Ira Aldridge as King Lear, from  S.Durylin, Aira Oldridzh  (Moscow, 1940). 11797.a.32

I will relate only one of Aldridge’s many continental success stories, one not mentioned in the exhibition, which took place in Poland (then occupied by Russia, Prussia and Austria). Some Polish scholars believe that Ira Aldridge is of unique importance in the reception of Shakespeare in Poland as his six visits, over the period 1853-1867, may not only have inspired more and better Polish translations of Shakespeare’s plays but also influenced the acting style of many Polish actors for years to come. Undoubtedly his first performances of Othello with German companies motivated Józef Paszkowski (1817-1861) to prepare a Polish translation of the original, which was used for the first time by a Warsaw troupe during Aldridge’s visit in 1863.

Ira Aldridge Othello
Othello and Desdemona from an edition of  Paszkowski’s Shakespeare translation (Warsaw,1875-1877). 11765.g.3. 

Most Polish reviews of his performances praised his realistic renditions of the roles. When touring, as a rule he performed in English with actors from a given country playing in their native languages but it is often claimed that because of his acting genius he proved that the imposed barriers of languages and cultures could be transcended, which he achieved by the ‘sweetness and softness of his voice’ and passion too.

In continental Europe Aldridge was awarded medals and honours wherever he went, including honorary memberships of many academies and arts societies. He consorted with kings, queens and emperors. But the famous black tragedian was also sensitive to the somewhat delicate political situation in partitioned Poland. When Poles boycotted him in Cracow because he played in a German theatre, for the first time he leaked to the press news of his involvement with the abolitionist movement in the USA, to prove that he sided with the oppressed, including Poles. As a result he was under constant surveillance by officials of Tsarist Russia who did not like it that Poles identified with Aldridge as an oppressed man in his self-professed exile. In the press he was often referred to as ‘our brother’ and his performances quickly became political events.

Aldridge died  in Łódz in provincial Poland where he was given a splendid funeral. A long funeral procession crossed the city, with members of the local theatre society carrying his medals and orders on red velvet cushions and a laurel wreath, while local people covered his grave with flowers. The grave is cared for by the Łódz Appreciation Society and many anonymous citizens decorate his grave on a regular basis with fresh flowers and candles. His tomb was renovated in 2001. In November 2014 a commemorative plaque designed by a renowned Polish artist, Professor Marian Konieczny, was unveiled at the entrance to the Museum of Cinematography in Łódz  (the former location of the theatre and Hotel Paradyz in which Aldridge was invited to perform); you can see a recording of the event made by Professor Sławomir Kalwinek of the National Higher School of Film, Television and Theatre in Łódź, here

Ira Aldridge memorial plaque Memorial Plaque to Ira Aldridge, Museum of Cinematography, Łódz [Image from http://www.polskaniezwykla.pl/]

Two plays about Ira Aldridge in Poland have been written and staged to date: Maciej Karpiński’s Otello umiera [‘Othello Dies’], first published in Dialog monthly, 2003, no. 1/2 (P.P.4838.kob); and Remigiusz Caban’s Murzyn może odejść [‘The Negro must leave’] (2010). Both plays were staged.

Dr Aleksandra Sakowska (MA University of Warsaw, PhD King's College London) 

References:

Krystyna Kujawinska-Courtney and Maria Łukowska, eds., Ira Aldridge 1807-1867 on the Bicentennial Anniversary of His Birth (Frankfurt am Main, 2009) YD.2009.a.9405

Krystyna Kujawinska-Courtney, Ira Aldridge 1807-1867: dzieje pierwszego czarnoskórego tragika szekspirowskiego (Krakow, 2009)


You can find out more about all aspects of Shakespeare’s life and works, including famous performances and performers on our Shakespeare web pages

30 August 2016

Russian Hamlet(s)

Add comment

The first Russian adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet was made by the founder of the Russian classical theatre Alexander Petrovich Sumarokov (1717-1777). The play was written in 1748 by the 31-year old ambitious statesman and poet.


HamletSumarokov-KR
Rossiiskii teatr" ili Polnoe sobranie vsiekh' rossiiskikh' teatralnykh' sochinenii.
Ch. 1. (Sankt-Petersburg, 1786).  1343.h.1. The first page of Gamlet' by Aleksandr Sumarokov 

Some researchers suggest that this work was commissioned to legitimise the power of Peter the Great’s daughter Elizabeth through cultural discourse. Elizabeth took the Russian throne as a result of a court coup against an infant great grandson of Peter’s elder brother. Ivan VI was barely two months old when he became Russian Emperor and “reigned” for eleven months. For the rest of his short life he lived in exile and, from the age of 16, in solitary confinement. Elizabeth’s actions might be seen as avenging her father by returning power to his successors.

Image 1-Portrait_of_Empress_Elizaveta_Petrovna_by_Ivan_VishnyakovElizabeth of Russia (portrait by Ivan Vishniakov, State Tretyakov Gallery)

Translated from French, Shakespeare in Sumarokov’s version was also turned into a classist play, where people represented functions, such as order and chaos, good and evil, wisdom and stupidity. According to this pattern, the state could not be left without a legitimate ruler. Therefore, Sumarokov wrote a happy end with Claudius and Polonius punished by death and Hamlet, Ophelia and Gertrude victorious and content.

Although this version was rarely staged, the image of an outcast prince was often referred to. For example, Catherine the Great’s son and heir Paul tried on this role – his father was assassinated and overthrown by his mother’s lover to get her the throne.

Image 2-Paul_I_by_Batoni
Grand Duke Pavel Petrovich (the future Tsar Paul I) in 1782 (portrait by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni)

There is no evidence that Paul read the tragedy, as Hamlet was unofficially banned during Catherine’s reign, but when he  was abroad on a grand tour in 1781-1782, the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II cancelled a performance of Hamlet as part of Paul’s reception, apparently because the actor who played the Danish prince hinted that there would be two Hamlets in the theatre. 20 years later Emperor Paul I was strangled in his bedroom to make way for his son Alexander I.

New attempts to translate the play resumed in the second decade of the 19th century, about ten years into Alexander’s reign, but really kicked off in the 1820s, under the rule of Nicholas I, when coups d'état went slightly out of fashion. Many critics think that before the Nobel Prize laureate and the author of Doctor Zhivago Boris Pasternak translated the tragedy (the first version was  published  in 1940 and the final one in 1968), the best translation into Russian was by Emperor Nicholas I’s grandson Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, or “poet KR (Konstantin Romanov)” – the name he signed his works with. Although trained as a naval officer, Grand Duke Konstantin was more inclined to the arts. He played the piano, wrote lyrics, and translated from English and German. His translation of Hamlet was created after Emperor Alexander III told his cousin Grand Duke Konstantin about his visit to Helsingør, where the play is set.

Image 3-Helsingør
Helsingør  (Photo by Katya Rogatchevskaia)

The visit to Denmark prompted Alexander to re-read the play and he found that its translations were lacking the true “feel  of the time”. KR’s was the 14th translation into Russian. This time the translator used the American edition of 1877 as his source. KR was proud of his work, when it was published in 1901 with extensive commentaries.

Image 4-Hamlet KR

               Tragediia o Gamletie printsie Datskom' (Sankt-Peterburg, 1901)  011765.gg.41

The play was performed several times and Grand Duke Konstantin himself played Hamlet in an amateur production (below).

Image 6-KR Hampet 1

In the 20th century the story of Russian Hamlet continued. As the Russian poet of the Silver Age Maksimilian Voloshin put it, “Hamlet – is a tragedy of conscience,  and in this sense it is a prototype of those tragedies that are experienced by the “Slavonic soul” when it lives through disintegration of will, senses and consciousness”.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

The exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts, which looks at landmark productions of Shakespeare’s plays throughout the centuries and around the world, continues until 6 September at the British Library.

26 August 2016

Staging Shakespeare in Soviet Azerbaijan

Add comment

“To beguile the time, look like the time. Bear welcome in your eye, your hand, your tongue…” (Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 5)

The British Library’s collections contain a remarkable Shakespeare item from the Soviet Caucasus: the record of an Azerbaijani production of Macbeth in 1936. It consists of black-and-white photographs of the production, by the Baku State Theatre, directed by Alexander Tuganov and with impressive sets and costumes by Mikhail Tikhomirov. Articles about the production and a copy of the programme are bound in the same volume. Two of the photographs are displayed in the Library’s current exhibition “Shakespeare in Ten Acts”.

Maqbet1
Cover of Maqbet
V. Seqspir (Baku, 1936) British Library N.Tab.2022/3

Very little is known about the director or the performance itself. Soviet theatre created many memorable productions, including of Shakespeare’s plays, but the Baku theatre production – no matter how professional – was not one of them. Nonetheless it does have a particular significance, being staged in 1936, a time of terror in the Soviet Union when artists, poets, and musicians were sent into exile or even murdered as enemies of the Party and people.

Shakespeare was extremely popular in the Soviet Union and the most highly regarded foreign dramatist. He was rendered acceptable on the Soviet stage by Marx and Engels, who had great esteem for and a solid knowledge of the Elizabethan dramatist and his works. The theatre was always recognised as a political weapon by Soviet leaders. Having insisted on Shakespeare’s role as a proto-revolutionary writer and appropriated his works as evidence of the inevitability of the October Revolution, Soviet ideologists had by the 1930s fully re-launched Shakespeare and his legacy.

Maqbet article
Article about Macbeth by A.M. Sharifov, who played the role in Tuganov’s production

The republics of the Caucasus – Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia – each had a separate history of Shakespearean productions and scholarship, but in the Soviet period there was an intensive effort to create a new Soviet culture. The Baku National Theatre had 30 years of experience performing Shakespeare, having performed Othello, Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew and King Lear. These productions attempted to be creative and innovative. However, the 1936 production of Macbeth was different, as the principal aim was to be realistic. The articles in our volume show that the production team studied the text and the historical background of Macbeth in depth. Both Soviet historicism and Soviet realism were key ideological requirements in art.

Maqbet scene
Images from Tuganov’s production of Macbeth 

Maqbet3

The articles consist of accounts of the performance by the actors, directors and journalists. Personal experiences are described as far as ideological pressures allowed. It appears that they all were seeking ways of bringing their production close to a safe political standpoint and tuned carefully into the latest news spread by the Party press.

Maqbet Sharifov
Sharifov in the title role of Macbeth

In his article “For genuine Shakespeare”, Tuganov discusses realistic interpretations of Shakespeare and the importance of the text and translation. A new translation was used for the 1936 production. As a result the Baku State Theatre’s Macbeth was well received. Tuganov was made a People’s Artist of Azerbaijan, the highest honour in the Soviet Union for outstanding achievement in the theatre. However, these things were not permanent and circumstances could change, as in the case of Shostakovich and his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. At its 1934 premiere it was immediately successful at both popular and official levels. It was described as “the result of the general success of Socialist construction, of the correct policy of the Party”, and as an opera that “could have been written only by a Soviet composer brought up in the best tradition of Soviet culture”. A few months later an article in Pravda, “Muddle Instead of Music”, condemned it as “formalist, coarse, primitive and vulgar".

Artists had to skilfully create works that could co-exist with the Communist Party’s ideology and yet be regarded as aesthetically creative. They were not judged solely on their artistic achievements, but rather on how well those achievements matched the Party’s agenda of the day. Works of art were banned, while their creators were exiled or murdered if the Party, or Stalin personally, objected to them:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more… (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5)

Anna Chelidze, Georgian Curator

 The exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts, which examines this and many other landmark productions of Shakespeare’s plays, continues until 6 September at the British Library.