English and Drama blog

3 posts from July 2013

23 July 2013

What's the longest play in the world anyway (anyone)?

In my recent blog post on Ken Campbell I mentioned his 24-hour long production of Neil Oram's The Warp at the ICA in 1979, once decreed the world's longest play by the Guinness Book of Records.

I say 'once decreed' because the current Guinness World Records web site lists a production by the 27 O'Clock Players (of Belmar, New Jersey) of Ionesco's absurdist 'anti-play' The Bald Soprano (aka The Bald Prima Donna) as the world's longest 'continuous dramatic performance', at 23 hours 33 minutes 54 seconds. 

Maybe The Warp wasn't quite 24 hours long after all, or perhaps the word continuous is key here, with the The Warp's intervals removed from the equation in the interest of accurate durational performance measurement.

The Bald Soprano, incidentally, is actually a short one-act play but - thanks to the stage direction 'repeat of start of first scene' - it can be looped indefinitely.

In any case, it would seem that Forced Entertainment's 24-hour edition of their show Quizoola! at the Barbican, London, earlier this year, offers stiff competition in the durational stakes, running as it did from 11.59 pm 12 April to 11.59 pm 13 April, with no audience breaks.

Forced Entertainment's Tim Etchells gives a fascinating account of the thought behind the making of the company's durational pieces here.

The British Library has enjoyed a long association with Forced Entertainment - our collection includes more than 300 of the company's performance and rehearsal videos, together with many audio recordings of talks and discussions - so we were delighted when the company offered to donate to the collection Hugo Glendinning's digital video documentation of the complete 24-hour Quizoola!.

Previously accessible only as a live webcast, the Quizoola! documentation is now available to view free of charge at the Library. Please note: you will need to acquire a reader pass if you don't already have one, and book an appointment (or several appointments if you wish to view the complete thing).

For an appointment or further information, please contact the Listening and Viewing Service via +44 (0)20 7412 7418 or listening@bl.uk quoting British Library item number C802/398.    

Some screenshots from the Quizoola! video (copyright © Forced Entertainment 2013) are reproduced below.




10 July 2013

Robert Louis Stevenson and the Strange Case of the Spanish Vampire

The Victorian fin de siècle was an era noted for its decadents, aesthetes, dandies and New Women. Viewed from a sunny perspective all could be seen as positive signs of a new age of liberation and freedom dawning within society. Viewed from a gloomier aspect however all could be seen as signs of transgression, perversity and moral and physical degeneration. Perhaps the latter view had something to do with the prevalence of another popular figure during the Victorian fin de siècle, albeit one mercifully confined to the pages of novels and short stories, namely the vampire. As a metaphor for vile transgression, disease and decay few literary tropes served quite so well as a pale undead figure with a taste for human blood. Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula sits at the summit of late-Victorian vampire fiction but the Transylvanian Count had plenty of company. Mary Elizabeth Braddon's short story 'Good Lady Ducayne' deals with the attempts of an elderly woman to remain ever youthful by surreptitiously draining the blood from her chloroformed servants while Florence Marryat's The Blood of the Vampire from 1897 tells of a young girl - the daughter of a mad scientist and a voodoo priestess no less which as a basis for a potentially difficult childhood takes some beating - who drains the life-force from those around her. One slightly earlier tale sits strangely neglected however, which is a shame as it is arguably the most elegantly written and haunting vampire tale of them all - a tale featuring a Spanish woman with beautiful but strangely empty eyes who gazes from her crumbling mansion over a sun-drenched landscape of ravines, mountain-passes and woodland.

Vampire II

(Above: A copy of Philip Burne-Jones's painting The Vampire, first displayed in 1897 - you couldn't move for vampires in the 1880s and 1890s, in art and literature at least)

Robert Louis Stevenson's enigmatic short story 'Olalla', published in the Christmas of 1885, sits in the shadow of the more illustrious Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Stevenson was writing the former at the same time as he was going through the proofs for the latter but while Jekyll and Hyde opened a Pandora's Box of new urban, scientific and psychological horrors 'Olalla' acts as something of a loving farewell to the golden age of Gothic fiction. Taken together they serve as a staging post between old and new nightmares.


(Above: Robert Louis Stevenson, pondering both past and future horrors)

'Olalla' tells the tale of an unnamed English soldier wounded during the Peninsular Wars of the early nineteenth century and sent to recuperate in an isolated Spanish mansion. While there he meets Felipe, a simple-minded youth, and his sister the enigmatic Olalla together with their mother who sits staring out endlessly at the sun-baked hills and valleys. The mother remains languid in the heat until the soldier accidentally cuts his hand at which point, when she sees the strong flow of blood, she becomes notably more wide-eyed and animated - indeed she leaps from her chair and bites him.

'Olalla' has the air of a feverish dream throughout and contains several typically Gothic elements. It is set in the past and takes place in an exotic Southern European Catholic country. The landscape, in the tradition of Ann Radcliffe, is beautifully described. There is even a portrait on a wall which depicts a long-dead ancestor who bears an uncanny resemblance to someone still living - an echo of both Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables (and a device later used by Arthur Conan Doyle in The Hound of the Baskervilles). The decayed Spanish house and the strangely lifeless figure of the mother mirror each other in the same fashion as the unravelling once grand Ushers mirror their literally collapsing mansion in Edgar Allan Poe's famous tale. Ancestral secrets and physical decay were staples of early Gothic fiction and Stevenson gathers together the traditional themes and adds a twist of post-Darwinian theory in the idea of physical and mental flaws being inherited, rather than ancestral sins. As a late summation of all that was wonderful about the first flowering of Gothic fiction 'Olalla' could hardly be bettered, something which renders its neglected status all the more baffling. Having completed the tale Stevenson returned to the proofs of Jekyll and Hyde, a narrative in which he held up a mirror to the very different dawning nightmares of the future - nightmares being played out not in a foreign land of long ago but in the here and now of London. Sweet dreams .....



04 July 2013

Ken Campbell is alive and you are dead

On 31 August 2013 it will be five years since the death of writer, performer, director and general one-off theatre legend Ken Campbell.

In the Guardian's obituary, theatre critic Michael Coveney described Campbell as 'a perennial reminder of the rough-house origins of the best of British theatre, from Shakespeare, music hall and Joan Littlewood to the fringe before it became fashionable, tame and subsidized.'

The multifarious products of Ken Campbell's profoundly anarchistic theatrical imagination included his 24-hour long production of Neil Oram's The Warp at the ICA in 1979 - decreed by no less an authority than the Guinness Book of Records to be the world's longest play - and his production of Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - performed inside a hovercraft - also at the ICA, later that same year. In the later part of his career he was perhaps best-known for his solo shows of fantastical monologues detailing all manner of odd experiences and arcane knowledge.

In 1977, the opening attraction of the National Theatre's new Cottesloe space was the full-cast stage adaptation by the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool - co-founded by Campbell with Chris Langham the previous year - of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's Illuminatus! trilogy. The British Library made an audio recording of the full 9-hour show and continued, throughout the 1980s and 90s to record Campbell's (usually solo) shows at the National. These included Furtive Nudist, Pigspurt, Jamais Vu, Violin Time, The Pidgin Macbeth and The History of Comedy: Part One: Ventriloquism.

Campbell was happy to have his shows recorded for posterity, his only stipulation being that he was not informed of the date the recording would be happening.  


As well as unique live recordings, the Library has tried to acquire any commercially circulated recordings of Campbell: from the CD 'Wol Wantok' (King Mob, 1999), in which Campbell advanced the case for Pidgin English as a new world language, to the DVD edition of G. F. Newman's TV series Law and Order, in which Campbell had a rare straight acting role, as a crooked lawyer. He later described his performance in Law and Order as an example of 'tie-acting' (the actor tucks in his chin and mumbles into his tie).

The Library does not have any unique audio documentation of The Warp but it does have a copy of the video version (on six videotapes) purchased from writer Neil Oram a few years back. This is still available to purchase from Neil here, now in DVD format.

If you would like to hear (or view) any of the material mentioned in this blog post you can do so free of charge at the British Library. You will need a British Library Reader's Card however and you may need to book an appointment.   

 Listen to Ken Campbell introducing his Pidgin Macbeth in 1998 (excerpt)