English and Drama blog

4 posts from April 2013

30 April 2013

In Praise of the Unloved

There is something intriguing about forgotten novels by famous authors. Why, for example, do general readers and academics alike adore Middlemarch and Adam Bede and yet leave Romola to gather dust like a neglected maiden aunt slumped in a chair? While many novels are ignored because they are simply rather dull and some because they are just too peculiar (we love Bram Stoker's Dracula while refusing to have anything to do with the bafflingly odd Lair of the White Worm) a few fall into obscurity when they deserve a better fate. A recent enquiry reminded me of one such title - a neglected novel by a famous author that among its many fascinations includes a heroine who works out in her private gymnasium while wearing a pair of pink pyjamas. I shall explain ....

Which novel by Thomas Hardy features, in addition to the heroine with the pink pyjamas, a pistol-packing tattooed illegitimate son of a dashing army officer; an amateur production of a Shakespeare play hastily re-written by the leading man so as to include an unscheduled love-scene with the leading lady and a hero who unfortunately finds himself in a railway tunnel as a steam train approaches? The answer is A Laodicean and while Mary Elizabeth Braddon, the Queen of the Sensation Novel, would have wept with pleasure at any one of these plot elements somehow A Laodicean missed its audience and tumbled from view.

Even the illustrations didn't help .... A remarkably undramatic depiction by the usually excellent George du Maurier of a scene from A Laodicean. George Somerset, the hero, and Paula Power remain curiously unruffled after a close encounter with a steam train.

A Laodicean; or, The Castle of the De Stancys. A Story of To-Day, to give the book its full title, was published in 1881 and has by and large sat undisturbed on bookshelves ever since. Hardy categorized the work among his 'Novels of Ingenuity'; a category shared by the similarly ill-starred Desperate Remedies and The Hand of Ethelberta. The book was written while Hardy was seriously ill and perhaps the combination of looming deadlines and ill-health resulted in a more feverish and uneven imaginative process than usual. The sombre drama of The Return of the Native had gone before and the brilliant gloom of Jude was to come but A Laodicean lurks like an unexpected 'Mr Bun the Baker' card in the middle of a conventional pack. For all of its peculiarities, however, the book is not without interest and certainly deserves better than its generally forlorn status.

While undoubtedly sensational in nature - for example most of the drama actually takes place in a Gothic crumbling castle - A Laodicean highlights, in embryonic form, one of the major changes taking place within society during the 1880s and 1890s, namely the emergence of the independent, educated and free-spirited New Woman. Paula Power, the heroine of the novel, is highly intelligent and for a Victorian mainstream novel really rather racy. During the course of the book she vacillates - hence the title of the novel, a Laodicean being someone lukewarm or half-hearted - between various religions, various plans for the future of her dilapidated castle and various suitors while always remaining ultimately independent of outside influence and true to her own desires. She has charm and character and considerably more spirit than the wet and shabby array of men who make a play for her hand. One somehow always thinks of Hardy as looking back to a rural and romantic past but he was, as his love of the bicycle and the motor car would show, more often than not looking ahead. His sympathetic portrayal of Paula as a woman in advance of her time and a forerunner of more complex characters such as Grace Melbury from The Woodlanders and Sue Bridehead from Jude puts him at odds with many of his contemporaries, male and female, who regarded the New Woman as a mannish, pipe-smoking, child-neglecting monster prepared to put her own unnatural desires before the sturdy duties of marriage and motherhood.


The New Woman as seen in an unsympathetic Punch cartoon - cigarette-smoking, mannish and frankly a bit unnatural. Punch (Vol 108 page 282).

Hardy, I would argue, saw the other side of the coin and in A Laodicean sympathetically portrayed a woman who, though swayed by outside opinion, ultimately decides her own path in life and refuses to follow the conventions set out for her. So, we have challenging social comment, drama, a Gothic castle prone to shedding a turret or two during violent storms, dashing army captains and dopey heros wandering about in railway tunnels. And all this from a largely forgotten book. One never knows just what lies between the pages of those dusty, neglected and unjustly unloved novels.

23 April 2013

James Joyce on record


Listen to James Joyce reading from Ulysses (extract)

In March this year the British Library issued the latest in its series of archival spoken word releases: a 3-CD set titled 'Irish Poets and Writers'. The release attracted a modest amount of favourable publicity, including a letter published in the Times Literary Supplement of 13 April in which Anthony Carroll, of Taylor's Hill, Galway, drew attention to the James Joyce recordings included in the set. Mr Carroll identified Joyce's accent not, as one might reasonably have supposed, as a Dublin one, but as North-East Cork, attributing this to the influence of Joyce's father, who grew up in the town of Fermoy.

There are two Joyce recordings on the Library's CD-set - which together compose the only recordings of his voice that are known to exist. The earlier of the two, in which Joyce reads from Ulysses, dates from 1924 and is a new digital transfer of one of the rarest discs in the Library's collection, which was issued in an edition of only 30 copies, most of which were given away to Joyce's friends. Joyce has signed and dated the label (see picture above).

The Library's new anthology also includes a previously unpublished talk given by Sylvia Beach, the proprietor of the Shakespeare and Company English-language bookshop in Paris, recorded in London in 1960 at the British Institute of Recorded Sound, the forerunner of today's British Library sound archive. Beach explains how she persuaded Joyce to make the record and how she came to organize the recording session.

Beach also discusses the making of the second Joyce recording, an extract from Finnegans Wake recorded for the Orthological Institute, Cambridge, in 1929. Not so rare as the earlier disc, the Library holds four copies of this one, which delivers a recording superior to the earlier in respect of sound quality and, arguably, the author's performance.

'Irish Poets and Writers' is available to purchase from the British Library online shop. Further details here

12 April 2013

Royal Court Theatre recordings at the British Library

Over the past year there have been a number of press articles about the Royal Court Theatre’s preparation for a change of artistic director. Dominic Cooke’s succession is going to be effective at the end of this month. Vicky Featherstone will be taking over, making her director number thirteen since George Devine, and the first woman to occupy the post.

To mark this new chapter in the Royal Court’s history this blog concerns the British Library audio recordings made at the Theatre over the past 40 years.  Of course, if you have your list of missed productions ready you may want to jump straight into the online Sound and Moving Image Catalogue and plan your visit to the Library’s Reading Rooms.

The Royal Court is known as a writers’ theatre. The venue has hosted a long-running young writers’ programme, which has included national and international writers alluring audiences with all sorts of challenging subjects. For example listen to Hanif Kureishi and Karim Alrawi interviewed in 1986 discussing British Asian theatre. Kureishi was the Theatre’s writer-in-residence in 1982 and ran the writing side of the young writers’ workshops for a number of years. See BL reference C311/1.


The British Library made its first audio recording of a Royal Court production on 30 October 1970. The play was Home by David Storey, directed by Lindsay Anderson, starring John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Dandy Nichols, Mona Washbourne and Warren Clarke. It premiered 17 June 1970 and transferred to the Apollo on 29 July.

Since then, for all the subsequent recordings, the Library has kept a permanent set of microphones hanging from the lights grid of both the upstairs and downstairs performance spaces at the Court. The recordings are part of the Library’s ongoing programme of audio and digital video documentation of performing arts and spoken word, which began in 1963.

The Royal Court recordings collection include plays, pre- and post-show talks and rehearsed readings; forums on European writing, black writing, gay writers and female playwrights; and talks about production, design and acting; occasional gala events and more. All the recordings are listed on the Library’s catalogue. See BL references C1208, C1209 and C311. For material recorded prior to 2006, you will usually need to make an appointment with the Listening and Viewing Service 

In 2006, for the Theatre’s 50th anniversary, the Royal Court programmed over 50 rehearsed readings under the title Look back: 50 readings, 50 writers, 50 years. The programme consisted of a selection of 50 plays produced at the theatre from 1956 till 2006, most of which were recorded.

In the same year, Harriet Devine, George Devine’s daughter, published Looking Back: Playwrights at the Royal Court, 1956-2006. The book was based on a series of recorded interviews that she had made with playwrights whose work had been produced at the Royal Court. The original recorded interviews are now archived at the British Library and include writers such as John Arden, Simon Farquhar, Sebastian Barry, Richard Bean, Martin Crimp, Anne Jellicoe, Terry Johnson, Hanif Kureishi, Conor McPherson, David Storey, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Arnold Wesker and Snoo Wilson.

Researchers may also be interested in the collection ‘The Legacy of the English Stage Company’, which comprises a series of life-story interviews covering the careers of theatre directors associated at some point with the Royal Court. See BL reference C1316. This collection has been sponsored by John Hodgson Theatre Research Trust and is an ongoing project curated by the Library’s Oral History section.

Some highlights of the Royal Court recordings include Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, Jim Cartwright's Road, Sarah Kane’s Cleansed and Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem.


Over the past four years I have had the pleasure of making many recordings for this collection. I would like to emphasise the value to researchers of the post-show talks. They are usually attended by members of the cast, the director and often the playwright, and they provide a valuable insight into the creative process. Along with the recordings the Library also collects a programme or published text for each production.

The Royal Court has an active international programme which showcases the work of young playwrights from around the world, with a focus on contemporary issues. The programme, which is run by Elyse Dodgson, has included readings in translation and discussions of plays with playwrights from Nigeria, Syria, Chile, Romania, India, Georgia and Ukraine, to mention just a few. In August 2011, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, I recorded ‘After the Spring: New Short Plays from the Arab World’, which presented work from Tunisia, Egypt and Syria followed by a post-readings talk, with the playwrights reporting on the protest movements and what was going on in the streets at the time. See BL ref. C1209/136 and 137.

I have also recorded many of the ‘Rough Cuts’ series of work-in-progress, experimental pieces, readings and shorts, which takes place twice a year, after a gestation period at the Theatre’s Studio. The most recent season ‘Bytes’ was shown in January. Playwrights Alia Bano, DC Moore, Nick Payne and Penelope Skinner presented work examining and exploring our relationship to the internet, and E.V. Crowe a rehearsed excerpt of her new play Searched.

We hope this whets your appetite for the collection. We are always interested in hearing from you and if you have any suggestions please feel free to comment.

Eva del Rey
Curator, Drama and Literature Recordings 

05 April 2013

Neil Bartlett's Desert Island Discs

Neil Bartlett appeared at the Library recently performing pieces from his repertoire and discussing his varied career as writer, performer and director with Amy Lamé.  Doing her best Kirsty Young impression, Amy invited Neil to select and perform extracts from some of his favourite shows. Neil chose pieces from A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep (first performed at Battersea Arts Centre, 1987), Night After Night (a show based on the night his parents met, Royal Court, 1993), Seven Sonnets of Michaelangelo (Lyric Hammersmith, 1998) and A Picture of Dorian Gray (Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 2012), as well as a recent solo piece, What Can You Do? (Theatre Royal, Brighton, 2012).


A clip from the event recorded at the British Library on 22 February 2013, followed by an archive video of A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep at the Drill Hall, 1989. Performers are: Neil Bartlett, Ivan, Regina Fong and Bette Bourne.

Over the course of the evening Neil reflected on what it was like to be a performance artist before he was even aware of the term, the challenges of taking over the Lyric Hammersmith, and his eclectic love of high and low art (but indifference to ‘everything in between’).

Out of the five pieces he performed, he chose ‘The Song of Solomon’ from A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep (inspired by the life of Simeon Solomon, the pre-Raphaelite painter persecuted for homosexuality) as the piece he would most like to save from the waves. It stands, Neil said, as an overwhelming reminder of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and is also the only piece to be tattooed on his body. For his luxury item he plumped for an endless supply of paper and pencils, to be put to use translating Racine’s final play, Athalie (his chosen book). This was his second choice, his preferred—though disallowed—luxury item being the Wallace Collection.

The event marked Neil Bartlett’s donation to the British Library of his video archive and working papers. The video collection, acquired with the help of the Live Art Development Agency, has now been digitised and catalogued and is available to view by appointment with the British Library Listening & Viewing Service, or at the Live Art Development Agency’s study room in Hackney Wick. Neil Bartlett’s working papers document his 27 books (novels, adaptations, translations and original work for the theatre) and 79 theatre pieces. Researchers wishing to consult these papers should contact mss@bl.uk.