English and Drama blog

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20 March 2020

Three New British Library Collections Featuring Harold Pinter

By Chris Beckett

The British Library’s collections of material relating to Harold Pinter continue to grow. Just released into the Manuscripts Reading Room are two small but significant acquisitions, one from Susan Engel, who acted in the first production of The Room (15-16 May, 1957), and another from the Estate of Guy Vaesen, who was Assistant Director to Pinter for the double-bill The Lover and The Dwarfs produced by Michael Codron at the New Arts Theatre in 1963. The third and more extensive deposit also now open to researchers is the archive of Joe Brearley, Pinter’s teacher and mentor at Hackney Downs School.

Susan Engel was a drama student at the University of Bristol when she took the role of Rose Hudd in Pinter’s first play, The Room. The play was produced and directed by Henry Woolf, one of Pinter’s close circle of Hackney Downs friends, who was at the time a postgraduate student in the Drama Department. As well as directing, Woolf also played Mr. Kidd. Woolf’s passion for the theatre, like Pinter’s, was strongly inspired by Brearley’s enthusiasm for poetry and drama. Engel has provided her programme for the play, seven original photographs of the production and her typescript copy of the play. Rose’s part is underlined throughout, and Engel’s occasional annotations show something of Woolf’s direction.

    The Room programme front BLOG

The Room programme inside BLOG

Programme front cover and inside page showing the cast for The Room, University of Bristol, 15-16 May, 1957.

Michael Billington’s biography of Pinter tells how, one evening in July 1957, Engel was instrumental in bringing together Pinter and his future theatrical agent, Jimmy Wax. Engel’s papers include a letter and a card from Pinter that show he kept her informed. Following Harold Hobson’s influential review of The Room (when it was revived at the National Student Drama Festival, again at Bristol, in December 1957), Pinter wrote to Engel (January 1958) that The Birthday Party, ‘my 3-acter is expected to go on at the Lyric Hammersmith. Quite a thing. Thank God you were Rose’. Although the play flopped badly on its first run, Pinter remained resolute: ‘a cheer for Hobson. I ain’t finished yet!’ (postcard to Engel, 4 June 1958).

Guy Vaesen kept a fascinating theatre journal in which he recorded, over eighty-eight closely-written notebook pages, the 1963 Pinter-led rehearsals for The Lover and The Dwarfs. Pinter and Vivien Merchant, who played ‘Sarah’ in The Lover, had previously acted together in several of Vaesen’s productions in repertory. At Bournemouth, in the summer of 1956, Merchant played Jane Eyre to Pinter’s Rochester; at the end of the season, they married. Vaesen’s journal is therefore not only illuminating about Pinter’s approach to stage direction but is enriched by personal observation and it displays particular insights that only close association brings. Of the two plays, it was The Dwarfs that proved the more challenging in rehearsal. Pinter’s response to the actors’ difficulties with some of his lines was that they should simply follow the rhythm of the words: ‘In short,’ Vaesen reports Pinter as saying, ‘if you hit a line with particular emphasis (within the rhythm) the line will become clear. Listen to the sound first – and the meaning will clear through this […]. Music and rhythm. They must be your guides.’ Here, Pinter’s approach to performance exhibits a poet’s confidence in the cadence of his words.

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Extract from Guy Vaesen’s rehearsal journal (19 August 1963).

Vaesen’s papers include thirty-two letters and cards from Pinter, beginning in 1963 with a letter confirming that he is to work with Pinter in directing the double bill: ‘Codron is completely happy about the idea! So am I, as you know.’ In typical Pinter style, the letters tend to be brief and direct. They continue until 1995, when we find Pinter ‘off today to Chichester where I’m directing Harwood’s new play.’ Lifelong friends, Pinter kept Vaesen abreast of his writing and directing projects for stage and screen. In later life, Vaesen enjoyed considerable success as an artist. Pinter bought his cricket scenes. In 1980, he wrote to say that he has a Vaesen ‘in almost every room in both houses now’.

Pinter’s acceptance speech for the Cohen Literature Prize (1995) included a warm tribute to his ‘inspirational’ teacher at Hackney Downs, Joe Brearley, who ‘possessed a passionate enthusiasm for English poetry’, especially the dramatic poetry of Shakespeare and John Webster. Pinter said that Webster’s words made him feel ‘dizzy’. Henry Woolf has recalled the vivid impression that Webster made on ‘the Hackney gang’ when Brearley took some of his pupils to see The White Devil. In his Cohen speech, Pinter remembered long walks with Brearley when they would ‘declare into the wind, at the passing trolley-buses or indeed to the passers-by, nuggets of Webster’. Betrayal, cruelty, moral corruption, and torture – mainstays of dark Jacobean theatre – were to be repeatedly re-inscribed in Pinter’s plays. The memorial poem he wrote for Brearley, who died 19 November 1977, evokes these excited walks and talks of his youth, perambulations so indelible that it seemed to Pinter he was, in some ever-necessary way, undertaking them still: ‘You’re gone, I’m at your side, / Walking with you from Clapton Pond to Finsbury Park, / And on, and on.’ When Mr. Kidd in The Room says ‘So I thought to myself, I’d better have a look at those pipes’, one can imagine an inward chuckle as Woolf performed, reminded as he surely must have been of Webster’s visceral line, cited by Pinter in his Cohen speech: ‘There’s a plumber laying pipes in my guts’.

Joe Brearley retired from Hackney Downs School in 1971, at the age of 62. He spent the next six years of his life – all that was to remain to him – in Germany. A German speaker, and a teacher of German as well as English, Brearley had spent his summers in the 1930s in Germany as a private English tutor, where he witnessed at first hand the rise of the National Socialist Party. In 1933, he heard Hitler speak at a rally at Rüdesheim on the Rhine. After the War, he returned to teach at Hackney Downs School, where fifty per cent of the pupils, including Pinter, were from Jewish families. Although Brearley’s final years in Germany were few, they were nevertheless eventful. At the Gymnasium where he taught English (his retirement did not bring an end to the impulse to teach), Brearley met the artist and teacher Mara Loytved-Hardegg, thirty-three years his junior, with whom he was to share his last years (and who has now donated Brearley’s papers to the British Library). They lived in Nuremburg. To an out-going yet conservative former Deputy Head, Mara’s circle of young friends – avant-garde artists, teachers, film-makers, and Marxists – were a rich source of intellectual stimulation (although, as the papers show, he drew the line at Marxism and at smoking cannabis).

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Joe Brearley, 1973 (credit: Mara Loytved-Hardegg).

Brearley’s archive is weighted towards these final and personally-fulfilling years: there are extensive files of correspondence and two journals that record, in poetry, photographs and watercolours, holidays with Mara in Greece and Ireland. But the collection also includes some earlier Hackney Downs material. There are printed programmes for the school plays that Brearley produced, and school exercise books that record the staging and lighting schemes for the two plays by Shakespeare in which Pinter acted, as Macbeth and as Romeo. Brearley did not act in his production of Macbeth, but in Romeo and Juliet he played Prince Escalus.

Brearley Macbeth lighting scheme blog

A page from Joe Brearley’s lighting scheme for his production of Macbeth (1947) at Hackney Downs School.

In September 1977, only weeks before his death in November, Brearley returned to England to meet up with a longstanding American friend and his wife. Much to Brearley’s frustration, they are determined to visit – whistle-stop fashion, guide-book in hand – every cathedral city in southern England. Along the way, however, Brearley manages to augment the repetitive schedule. They visit Henry Woolf, ‘an old (actor) pupil of mine’ then living in Folkestone. Two days later, they detour to Brighton where Brearley is reacquainted with Pinter’s parents (in 1948, Brearley had interceded on Pinter’s behalf when, much to the dismay of his parents, he decided to register as a conscientious objector). At the end of the exhausting itinerary, on Friday 30 September, Brearley lunches with Pinter, at ‘The Little Acropolis’ in Charlotte Street. Inevitably, much of their conversation touches upon Pinter’s changed personal circumstances, sensationally reported at the time in the newspapers: the end of his marriage to Vivien Merchant and his new life with Antonia Fraser. When Brearley and Pinter met for the last time, they were both were embarking on new futures. 

Pinter is a presence throughout the archive, which includes his correspondence with both Brearley and Loytved-Hardegg, continuing solicitously until his death in 2008. But there is a second consistent presence who must be mentioned. On the same tour of southern England, Brearley slipped away to make one further personal call. Passing through Cambridge, he called upon his old tutor, F. R. Leavis, whose health was then rapidly declining. Queenie Leavis greeted him: ‘It’s good to see his really old students from the great days … one has to be so careful now. I have to keep away people who come out of mere curiosity … and journalists out for a story.’ Brearley read for the English Tripos at Cambridge under Leavis’s supervision. In an autograph testimonial in the archive, Leavis wrote (14 March 1932): ‘[Brearley] has in particular studied critical method, especially as it bears upon the problem of teaching English. He is a cultivated man with a trained mind, & is himself well qualified to teach. I recommend him with great confidence.’ Among the many letters of condolence Mara received was one from Q. D. Leavis, who admitted to having initially hesitated in agreeing to Brearley’s visit, ‘Dr Leavis so changed and not able to converse’. She paints a poignant picture of their last meeting: ‘I shall never forget how kind and sympathetic [Joe] was to my husband, sitting by his bed & holding his hand’.

Leavis outlived Brearley by five months. His persistent presence in the archive – which extends even to a final brief entry (2 November 1977) in Brearley’s last journal, written from his hospital bed – serves as a reminder that Brearley’s enduring influence upon the young Pinter in the late 1940s, including the ‘revelation’, as Pinter described it, of Webster’s plays, had a particular critical and pedagogical setting. It also supplies a context to Pinter’s advice to the actors rehearsing The Dwarfs, that their guide should be the music and rhythm, the movement – to borrow a favoured term from Leavis – of his words. If Brearley’s teacher was not far from his thoughts in hospital, nor was his pupil. The first note in the same hospital journal (15 October) registers a dream of a dream, a dream of Pinter acting in a ‘school production’ of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

 

 

13 March 2020

Community Printing in North Kensington: The Beryl Foster Archive

by Eleanor Dickens, Curator of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts, Politics and Public Life. The Beryl Foster Archive( Add MS 89305) now available to consult, for free, in our Reading Rooms

During the late 1960s, London was home to many revolutionary groups and radical collectives that were part of the greater wave of student and worker action that spread across Europe that decade. In West London, community activists sought to fight local issues -- such as poor housing conditions and lack of play space for children -- by forming groups such as the Notting Hill Community Workshop and the Notting Hill People’s Association.  In this environment, there was a need to spread information and updates quickly and cheaply, to promote the local community activities and share the successes and the campaigns.

To meet this need student nurses Beryl Foster and Linda Gane co-founded Notting Hill Press LTD in 1968. It was the beginning of almost three decades of radical printing in North Kensington and, although the press would change hands and identities over the next decades, its output would remain a consistent and important resource for the neighborhood until the late 1980’s.

Foster and Gane had initially wanted to produce a newspaper for local community groups to share updates but all the groups they had contact with had wanted to print their own material. So the idea of the Notting Hill Press LTD was born. The Press was designed to meet the needs of the local radical community by allowing them to design and print their own material using in-house equipment. Foster recounts: “In the 1960’s printing was a powerful medium. Organisations, groups and movements all sought to get their message across to others and to put their information in print. […] Controlling the means of production had a particular appeal to anyone wanting to make a revolution and the offset lithographic process could make these means more affordable and flexible. It could deliver long runs, colour printing, flexible graphics and even photographs.” (Foster:2017)

Through their friends, Myrtle Solomon, general secretary of the Peace Pledge Union, and the pacifist and suffragist Sybil Morrison, Foster and Gane procured a printing machine - a Rotaprint 30/90 - from a mutual friend. Another friend emptied out an old laundry room as a home for the machine and the first premises for Notting Hill Press was established. Given the precariousness of Foster and Gane’s living situation and that of the radical communities which they served, Notting Hill Press organised a careful legal arrangement that protected the expensive printing equipment. They ‘sold’ their machinery, for a peppercorn, to two neighbourhood centres and the Community Workshop, who then leased them back to them, again for a peppercorn.

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‘Playspace in North Kensington: Report on local play programmes 1967 – 69’ published by the Notting Hill Social Council Leisure and Amenities Committee, printed by Notting Hill Press, July 1970. Copyright – Beryl Foster

 

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‘People’s News’ published by Notting Hill People’s Association, printed by Notting Hill Press, January [1969] Copyright – With kind permission of the Mike Braybrook Archive Group

 

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Westway Nursery Association first Annual Report, printed by Crest Press, 1974. Copyright – Beryl Foster

 

In 1969 the press moved to premises at on Ladbroke Road, beneath an opticians. This new premises required rent so Foster and Gane, who had both had children by 1970, were beginning to struggle to put in the long hours the press required. In 1971 they trained up and handed over the press to two students, Vicky Hutchin and Carola Ker. Just as they had anticipated with the earlier financial arrangements Notting Hill Press LTD could be declared bankrupt with the machines remaining safe in the hands of local community groups.

This was the end of Notting Hill Press LTD in name but not the end of community printing in this area. In fact, the people, ideas and even machines through which it emerged continued to flourish. The press formed itself into a new company, Crest Press Ltd., which functioned in much the same manner as Notting Hill Press; printing for local community organisations and on local issues such as housing, nurseries and play spaces for children. As before, all the staff were volunteers who drew no real wage and no commercial work was taken.

Senta Kandler joined Crest Press in around 1973 and in 1975 she and Mike Braybrook took over the press and moved it to the Community Action Centre (CAC) on Kensington Park Road. CAC as an organisation was formed the same year to secure rights to the Talbot Tabernacle, known as ‘The Tab’ and used as a community center. Another new iteration of the press was born, this time known as Printshop W11.

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'Losing Out': A study on Colville and Tavistock, printed by Crest Press. Copyright – With kind permission of the Mike Braybrook Archive Group

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The Un-Supported Mothers Handbook by members of the Claimants’ Union, printed by [Crest Press]. Copyright – With kind permission of the Mike Braybrook Archive Group

In 1978, moved on again by the council, Printshop W11 moved to ‘The Point’ on Tavistock Road. By this point those that ran the press were still working for free but they were breaking even and had developed an impressive list of local customers. Before it ended, the press was to go through one final move, forming in 1982 into ‘Words Illustrated’ run by Braybrook, Conor Lynch and George Robertson. Words Illustrated ran in this format for much of the eighties before finally folding in 1988. As his next move Mike Braybrook started A-Priori Press and though this was more commercial in the sense that people earned a wage (and so commercial work was undertaken) it remained the go-to for local community printing until it was finally bought in the 1990s by Portobello Press.

Through all these changes – and the many wider political and national changes over these decades - the press and the essential community activism around it remained the constant. There had been differences: Notting Hill Press wanted to be embedded in the broad left community coalition which was active in North Kensington at the time, they wanted to serve that movement; Crest Press worked as a collective of political activists who were involved in local and national movements; later incarnations, Printshop West 11 and Words Illustrated, functioned more as worker collectives serving community groups and supporting movements for social and political change. Through it all, one thing remained the same – the Rotaprint 30/60 which was used until this final iteration in 1988. As Forster re-calls, “from 1968 to 1990’s the names of the printers and of the press change, but the machines carried on”. Beryl Foster (2017).

28 February 2020

Stirrings Still

Lucy Carolan is currently in the third year of a practice-based fine art PhD at Newcastle University, funded by Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership. In her research she is using photography, text and moving image to create work that draws on the inspiring experiences of people living with dementia, and her recent research placement at the British Library was entitled 'Art, Poetry and Memory: Contemporary UK Artists’ Books'. See more of Lucy's work here.

At the beginning of January this year I completed a short PhD placement in the British Library’s department of Contemporary British Publications, which involved researching artists’ books towards a potential future project on the theme of memory. During the three months I spent at the Library I consulted over 300 artists’ books, ranging from late nineteenth century works, like ‘Le Corbeau’ (C.70.i.1), the 1871 Stéphane Mallarmé/Édouard Manet response to Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’, to contemporary works such as Jana Traboulsi’s 2013 ‘Sorry for not attending’ (ORB.30/8742), and from tiny concertina books the size of 35mm film strips, to a suite of screen-prints so large, at 93x73cm, it took a while for Reading Room staff to figure out how to manoeuvre it through the door and over the Issue Desk. Even the artists’ books which didn’t fit the research brief captured my interest, but one in particular left a very strong impression.

Stirrings Still (C.193.c.25) contains the last prose piece, of that title, written by Samuel Beckett and designed and illustrated by artist Louis le Broquey for publication in late 1988, roughly a year before Beckett’s death. As an object, Stirrings Still is not as spectacular or unusual as many of the other artists’ books in the Library’s collections, and although it is evidently beautifully crafted, its form is very familiar. Nevertheless, it continues to affect me. Initially I was struck by the subtlety of its unusual page layout; the way the text splits across pages in blocks in order to fragment the narrative and the way le Broquey’s abstract imagery punctuates Beckett’s prose. Its design drew me in, but it was the book in its entirety -- as aesthetic object and as an artistic vehicle for the literary text – that worked to unsettle what I’d thought was a comfortable familiarity with Beckett’s work. I suspect that I may not have discovered this text if I’d come across it otherwise, such as in the paperback version of his complete short prose that I bought afterwards. By comparison with the standard edition, Beckett and le Broquey’s Stirrings Still, although modestly designed in the context of other artists’ books, clearly demonstrates the power of the medium.

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Photographs illustrating the modest design of  le Broquey and Beckett's work and the placement
of abstract images alongside the text C.193.c.25

Timing is a factor to consider. My receptivity to the book can partly be explained by my own research project, which concerns finding ways to express -- through image and text -- aspects of the lived experience of dementia. Stirrings Still is remarkably consistent with these experiences. The narrative is centred in a lone character who seems to exist in a state of spatial and temporal confusion: he experiences hallucinations, short-term memory loss, compulsive repetition, disorientation, and a pervading sense of non-continuous identity, or having lost previously held capacities, which he meets with an unmet desire for concentration. Beckett writes:

    One night or day then as he sat at his table head on hands he saw himself rise and go. First rise and stand clinging to the table. Then sit again.     Then rise again and stand clinging to the table again. Then go. Start to go. On unseen feet start to go. So slow that only change of pace to show he     went. As when he disappeared only to reappear later at another place. Then disappeared again only to reappear again later at another place     again...

The spiralling structure of this text is disorienting for the reader, too. It seemed to me to also have an aphasic quality. Further research lead to the discovery of the next and final piece of Beckett’s writing; a poem called ‘Comment Dire?’ (Shelfmark Cup.21.g.27(11), translated into English as ‘What is the Word?’), written contemporaneously with Stirrings Still and following a presumed stroke earlier that year which left him temporarily aphasic. The loss of ability to access language – to remember or recognise words -- was something that interested Beckett throughout much of his career.[1] And in an interview with Lawrence Shainberg in 1980,[2] when he was 74 years old, he was recorded as saying:

    ...with old age, the more possibilities diminish, the better chance you have. With diminished concentration, loss of memory, obscured intelligence what you, I suspect, would call brain damage the more chance there is for saying something closer to what one really is.

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Comment Dire Cup.21.g.27(11)

Beckett is one of those authors who people tend to think they ‘know’, by reputation, through reviews, or having read/seen/heard some of his works, however partially. My encounter with Stirrings Still at the British Library has led to the realisation that even the most straightforward-looking artists’ books can take things, like the text of an author with whom I thought I was familiar, and inspire a radical reassessment and refreshed appreciation of their work.

[1] Salisbury, L., Code, C. (2016), Jackson’s Parrot: Samuel Beckett, Aphasic Speech Automatisms, and Psychosomatic Language, The Journal of Medical Humanities vol. 37:2 pp.205-22 doi:10.1007/s10912-015-9375-z

[2] Shainberg, L. (2019), Four Men Shaking, Shambala Publications, Boulder CO, p.71