English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

08 September 2023

Phantom of the Collection: Reaching Beyond the Material in the Theatre Royal Stratford East Archive

With cataloguing underway on the archive of the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, manuscripts cataloguer, Cameron Randall, reflects on the process and the presence of its previous archivist Murray Melvin.

Working as a Manuscripts Cataloguer, I feel lucky that I can arrive at work each day with the possibility of being transported to past places, previous times, and perhaps most interestingly, entering the lives of those who rise from the collection. A photo, some exchange of correspondence, or an inanimate object can hold stories that have lain buried and dormant among the collection's contents. In some sense, every archive is intrinsically hauntological. Hauntology, as coined by Jacques Derrida, is a spin on the term ontology: a metaphysical inquiry into ideas around being. Where hauntology differs is that it refers to the return or persistence of elements from the social or cultural past, as in the manner of a ghost.

The collection that I am currently working on, the Theatre Royal Stratford East Archive, seems to capture this idea better than most. Running through the body of the collection is another presence that murmurs within the material. A spectre is haunting the archive: its previous custodian, the actor and director turned theatre archivist Murray Melvin.

A portrait of Murrary Melvin posing in front of a red wall with his arms cross and a small smile on his face, wearing his distinctive pale pink shirt and blue jumper.
Murrary Melvin at the Theatre Royal (c) The British Library Board

Murray enjoyed a distinguished theatre, television, and film career, working with directors including Joan Littlewood, Ken Russell, and Stanley Kubrick. He also appeared in 1966’s Alfie alongside Michael Caine, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, and the 2004 version of The Phantom of the Opera, not to mention the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood. Murray’s first leading role on stage was with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, where he took on the role of Geoffrey in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, in 1958, followed by the seminal role in Brendan Behan’s The Hostage, later the same year.  His star continued to rise, reprising his role as Geoffrey in the 1961 film adaptation of A Taste of Honey. This performance would lead Murray to win the BAFTA film award for Most Promising Newcomer and the Cannes Film Festival Best Actor.

Murray sadly passed away in April this year, but his spirit not only lives on through his hugely successful acting career but also in the diligent care and attention he provided to the Theatre Royal Stratford East Archive, which was acquired by the British Library in 2021.

A selection of programmes, notes and various archival material from the Theatre Royal archive, displayed in a fan flat on a table and all overlapping
A selection of notes, programmes and other papers relating to theatre unions work in the thirties (c) British Library Board

Murray's influence on the archive cannot be understated; his methodology and instructions are extensive, precise, and deeply detailed. Each box contains Murray's literal and metaphorical fingerprints, from the chronological ordering of the Theatre Royal's productions, which Murray's hands would have sorted, to the micro-precision of labelled photos, designating the date, place, and individuals that sit within them. There are even meta-notes that accompany much of the archive, some with extended pages of long insights, stories, and descriptions that unearth an extra layer of context that enriches the content. In these moments, Murray's presence feels at its most potent; his tone and style of writing have a conversational quality that is not only accurate but provokes curiosity, establishing his personal perspective as an invaluable component of the archive and a lens through which to fully understand it.

Given Murray's long-term personal involvement with Theatre Royal Stratford East and his much greater knowledge of its history, I must adhere to his decision-making, and constrain my natural tendencies in shaping the collection, or even abstain from them all together. In some ways, I have to think as Murray would and respect his arrangement, order, and sorting of the material. In this sense, I feel like I am acting as a vehicle or conduit for Murray's archival logic, trying to stay true to his reasoning and maintain how he intended the archive to be perceived. This is both a blessing and a curse, as on the one hand, Murray guides me box to box, and on the other, his methodology creates inflexibility and rigidity, which I have to contend with as I attempt to pull a thread between Murray and potential researchers in the future.

A fabric and silk doll which was originally white and black but now appears browned with age, it is in the style of pierrot productions, with a silk dress with black pom pom buttons and a pointed white hat with black pom pom on the top
Doll made by Una Collins and used by Fanny Carby in Oh! What a Lovely War (c) British Library Board

My involvement with The Theatre Royal Stratford East comes through the Hidden Collection initiative, which seeks to remove barriers to discoverability and access in the cataloguing backlog at the British Library. The initiative itself is one that recognises the hidden, invisible, and ghostly nature that collections like these possess. Through the cataloguing process, collections are seemingly revived, the hauntological becomes ontological, and the hidden is unlocked to take on a new lease of life, ultimately making archives available for research and opening up the library's collections. As a troubled Danish prince once put it, 'the time is out of joint', but with the work of individuals such as Murray Melvin, we see the possibility for time to fall back into joint, where the past is resurrected in the present to produce new ideas, other perspectives, and unknown possibilities, reaching beyond the material and into the future.

Further Reading

Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx (Routledge, 1994)

Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life (Zero Books, 2014)

Peter Rankin, Joan Littlewood: Dreams and Realities (Oberon Books, 2014)

Murray Melvin, The Art of Theatre Workshop (Oberon Books, 2006)

Murray Melvin, The Theatre Royal: A History of the Building (Stratford East Publications, 2009)