12 October 2020
a guest blog by Patrick Armstrong, PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge. Read more about the Library's collections relating to Harold Pinter on Discovering Literature.
‘In order that the film artist may create a work of art’, Rudolf Arnheim argued in his 1933 book, Film as Art, ‘it is important that he consciously stress the peculiarities of the medium’. When, in the early 1970s, Harold Pinter collaborated with Joseph Losey and Barbara Bray to write a screenplay of Marcel Proust’s novel A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (1913-1927), they were keen to find a means of foregrounding the peculiarities of the film medium while in some way maintaining a fidelity to the original text. How could they condense and distil Proust’s great novel into a (commercially viable) feature-length film? One answer is, simply, that they could not: to this day, the film has never been made (although there has been a sound broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1995, adapted by Michael Bakewell, and a modified National Theatre production in 2000, directed by Di Trevis). To quote the resigned Pinter, who would remain in search of lost funding: ‘The money to make the film was never found’. With Pinter's what would have been Pinter's 90th birthday passing last weekend, however, Lady Antonia Fraser has recently spoken of her desire for his screenplays and films to be more widely known and appreciated. The prospect of producing the Proust film remains a tantalising one. Still, any attempt to bring the screenplay to filmic fruition would be a true labour of love. To give my two cents’ worth, I would welcome the unlikely extension of Luca Guadagnino’s beautiful ‘Desire Trilogy’ (into a ‘Desire Quadrilogy’) to incorporate a long-awaited cinematic realisation of Pinter’s Proust Screenplay (with, if you’re asking, Timothée Chalamet as the young and fragile Marcel, Ralph Fiennes as Charles Swann, Mia Goth as Albertine, and, à la Suspiria (2018), multiple roles for Tilda Swinton).
It would be misleading to call this work ‘Harold Pinter’s Proust Screenplay’ because it was, from the outset, a thoroughly collaborative project. In his 2015 article on The Proust Screenplay, Matt Harle explains how the first draft - now housed in the Harold Pinter Archive at the British Library - began to take shape:
Working as a trio, they [Pinter, Losey and Bray] spent time in France visiting significant Proustian sites [Illiers, Cabourg and Paris] and planning the film before Pinter sat down to write a draft of the script. The script was completed in just three months in November 1972, Pinter having adapted the entirety of Proust’s novel into a single four-hour script. This was notably against the advice of Samuel Beckett, who suggested that the team start with Le temps retrouvé.
Both Losey and Bray made extensive comments on Pinter’s first draft in 1972. Losey, for instance, expressed his concerns about the practicalities of using a pure white screen (later replaced by the Vermeerian ‘yellow screen’), because of the likelihood of it becoming scratched and dirty. The archive shows that Bray, who was close friends with Beckett, and the project’s main authority on Proust, made a number of helpful suggestions relating to the structure of the film. The adaption also bears the imprint of Beckett’s own work, including his early essay on Proust, simply entitled Proust (1931). Pinter was surely under the spell of Beckett’s forays into film and television in the 1960s. The latter had made his own short film, entitled Film, in New York in the summer of 1964, while, with Eh Joe, a piece for television that was also completed in 1965, Beckett made use of filmic techniques by incorporating close-ups of the protagonist’s face (a device Pinter frequently uses in The Proust Screenplay). The ‘fresh and shrill’ garden gate bell that sounds at the beginning and end of Pinter’s screenplay, moreover, is reminiscent of the piercing bell in Beckett’s Happy Days (1961).
Pinter’s drafts and notes towards the screenplay are available to view in our Reading Rooms at Add MS 88880/2/82.
The drafts of the adaptation show how Pinter gradually selected the more distinctly filmic aspects of Proust’s novel and made them central to his screenplay: the patch of yellow wall in Jan Vermeer’s View of Delft (c.1559-1660), the romanticised visions of gondolas and palazzos in Venice, the dining room and sea at Balbec, and so on. For three months of 1972, Pinter read A la Recherche du temps perdu every day, taking ‘hundreds of notes’ along the way. When reading through these many notes and drafts, Pinter’s keen eye for detail becomes apparent: he draws attention to Albertine’s many rings, to the simple aigrette in the Duchesse de Guermantes hair, and, more broadly, displays a Proustian attentiveness to jewellery and clothing. ‘Clothes’, as Diana Festa-McCormick argues in her 1984 book Proustian Optics of Clothes, ‘act as the revealing factor for often unavowed psychological responses on the part of the narrator and as indications of the wearer’s social roles’. After all, Proust’s narrator ultimately resolves to construct his book, ‘not say ambitiously like a cathedral, but quite simply like a dress’. Comparably, Pinter tries to find the structural elements that are essential to the whole, the seams that join the carefully made garment together.
Proust’s own suspicion of the relation between the novel and the cinema is made clear in a parenthetical remark from the final volume, Time Regained:
(Some critics now liked to regard the novel as a sort of procession of things upon the screen of a cinematograph. This comparison was absurd. Nothing is further from what we have really perceived than the vision that the cinematograph presents.)
Correspondingly, Pinter writes about the difficulties of adapting Proust’s great novel, concluding that a fidelity to the text must be retained through the distillation of its essence. This is an understandable position given that the word count of Proust’s novel is somewhere in the region of 1,267,069 words. Despite the daunting challenges of radically condensing the original, Pinter found working on the adaptation ‘the best working year’ of his life, as he wrote in the introduction to the 1978 Metheun edition of the screenplay. Reading through Pinter’s reams of notes allows us to perceive the slow process of distillation. As one reviewer for the New Statesman put it, the finished screenplay is ‘a beautiful working model in which Proust’s million and a half words have been brought lucidly down to 455 shots’.
At the early stage of the screenplay composition, the notes offer an accumulation of images and snatches of dialogue, as if Pinter were peering in through one of the windows of the Parisian drawing-rooms frequented by the narrator, half-hearing conversations and half-seeing figures from the world of fashion. Proust’s novel demands that the reader imagines themselves seeing, leaving space for the individual’s imagination to give the scenes and characters shape. We are invited to read the novel through the lens of our own experiences, comparing them with those recounted by the narrator. Yet, the difficulty for Pinter is representing through film the workings of the narrator’s mind. As Walter Benjamin suggested in his 1929 essay, ‘The Image of Proust’, ‘the important thing for the remembering author is not what he experienced, but the weaving of his memory, the Penelope work of recollection’. For Michael Billington, Pinter’s official biographer, the ‘screenplay was based on a chain of visual and aural motifs, and interlocking images’. In this sense, the adaptation is true to the original in its attempt to foreground the workings of involuntary memory. As you read through Pinter’s many notes, the same images and impressions (the napkin, the sea, the steeples, etc.), familiar to any reader of Proust’s novel, appear and reappear throughout the drafts. These become the central images of the finished screenplay, the luminous fragments that disrupt the paralysing effects of habitual perception.
The early notes show Pinter carefully working out the chronology and order of the book, including the ages of the characters at various stages in the narrative. Though onerous, plotting the ages of the characters at different stages of the narrative is an important task because, as Benjamin writes, ‘to observe the interaction of aging and remembering means to penetrate to the heart of Proust’s world, to the universe of convolution’. Pinter’s many lists of the narrative’s key events and images can be compared with Beckett’s incomplete cataloguing of the crucial, epiphanic moments of involuntary memory in his essay Proust:
- 1. The Madeleine steeped in an infusion of tea.
- 2. The steeples of Martinville, seen from Dr. Percepied’s trap.
- 3. A musty smell in a public lavatory in the Champs-Elysees.
- 4. The three trees, seen near Balbec from the carriage of Mme. de Villeparisis.
- 5. The hedge of hawthorn near Balbec.
- 6. He stoops to unbutton his boots on the occasion of his second visit to the Grand Hotel at Balbec.
- 7. Uneven cobbles in the courtyard of the Guermantes Hotel.
- 8. The noise of a spoon against a plate.
- 9. He wipes his mouth with a napkin.
- 10. The noise of water in the pipes.
- 11. George Sand’s François le Champi.
Many of these ‘fetishes’, as Beckett calls them, are central to Pinter’s adaptation, which foregrounds the narrator’s revelatory impressions and memories. Undoubtedly, Pinter would have been familiar with Beckett’s dazzling early reading of Proust’s epic, in which he points out that the narrator’s ‘eye functions with the cruel precision of a camera’ – an idea that seems to lurk behind the numerous close-ups of faces and the shots from Marcel’s point of view.
Pinter’s screenplay is an attempt to dislocate and reorder time, true to Proust’s project of immobilising and recovering fragments of lost time in their pure state. Pinter dislocates narrative time in order to focus on the connections between images and sounds. In so doing, Pinter is able to stress the peculiarities of the film medium while remaining true to the original text. Aware of the opportunities as well as the restrictions of adaptation, Pinter realises that film offers the possibility of cutting swiftly between, or even overlaying, some of the key motifs and artistic figures of Proust’s novel: namely music, as represented by the composer, Vinteuil, and literature, as represented by the writer, Bergotte. Shot 31, for instance, succinctly blends visual art, literature, and music (which Beckett called the ‘catalytic element’ in Proust): ‘Flash of yellow screen. Music of Vinteuil’. The opening montage provides an opportunity to cross-cut between the vital moments of involuntary memory in the novel: the Proustian epiphanies, though there are no famous madeleines or teacups in sight. It is a non-verbal sequence of thirty-four shots (some would argue thirty-five or more), resembling the symphonies of visual movement created by the montagist Slavko Vorkapich. Yet, as the many drafts indicate, a considerable number of words – read, written, rewritten, erased – were considered to create this iconic, though as yet unseen, wordless opening.
20 March 2020
By Chris Beckett
- Joseph Brearley Papers: Add MS 89422.
- Guy Vaesen: Papers Relating to Harold Pinter: Add MS 89421.
- Susan Engel: Theatre Papers and Photographs: Add MS 89420.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
21 November 2019
by Zoë Wilcox, Curator of Contemporary Performance and Creative Archives
In tribute to Peter Nichols who sadly died in September, Trafalgar Studios is staging an afternoon of readings on 27 November to celebrate his theatrical legacy, generously supported by the British Library Collections Trust. Directed by his grandson, George Nichols, and starring Roger Allam and other special guests to be announced, the event will take a look at Peter Nichols’ vast literary contribution with excerpts from his much-loved television and stage plays including Promenade (1959), The National Health (1969), Forget-Me-Not-Lane (1971) and Poppy (1982), as well as passages from his personal diaries and rare unproduced plays from Nichols’ archive at the British Library.
Peter Nichols, photo courtesy of Trafalgar Studios
Also on show in the Trafalgar Studios’ bar is a display about the evolution of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Nichols’ most famous play which is currently being revived by the Trafalgar in a new production by Simon Evans. You can see reproductions from Peter Nichols’ archive in the Studio Bar, tracing the play’s difficult birth from initial doubts over the first draft, to wranglings with the Lord Chamberlain’s censors and its ultimate glowing reception at its premiere in 1967.
'The Evolution of Joe Egg', display curated by the British Library for Trafalgar Studios' Studio Bar, until 30 Nov. Photo courtesy of Trafalgar Studios.
If that has whetted your appetite for further research, the wider archive is available to consult at the British Library. Acquired 20 years ago this month, the Peter Nichols Papers comprises 256 volumes of personal and professional papers from 1945 to the 2000s. You can listen to Peter Nichols reflecting on his career on BL Sounds, and various other interviews and theatre recordings are available to listen to onsite at the Library (search our Sound & Moving Image catalogue for details).
In light of Peter’s recent passing, it’s difficult not to read fresh significance into his words. In the programme for the current production of Joe Egg, Jamie Andrews from the British Library recalls one particular email exchange amongst many:
I see that at one point, feeling the physical challenges of ageing, his subject line was a typically self-deprecating ‘Petering Out’; but that a few emails later, it had changed to ‘Anything But Petering Out’…. A far more accurate assessment of his later years.
Just as Peter’s words will live on in all who knew him, his work survives in the archive he left behind and the potential it holds for many more revivals to come.
Peter Richard Nichols CBE, playwright, born 31 July 1927; died 7 September 2019, aged 92.
11 January 2019
Today we launch a Harold Pinter retrospective in our Second Floor Gallery as part of the wider anniversary season of events marking ten years since his death. Focusing on Pinter’s creative process, this free display of manuscript reproductions from his Archive offers glimpses of some of his most famous plays at various stages in their development.
In his Nobel Prize speech of 2005 Pinter noted that ‘most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word, or an image’. It was usually, in fact, a word or phrase – ‘What have you done with the scissors?’ in the case of The Homecoming - that was the starting point, closely followed by an image, typically of a configuration of characters in a room. Inspiration having struck, Pinter would put pen to paper in pursuit of the fleeting figures, working out who they were through the circuitous evasions and revelations of quotidian dialogue though always resisting too deep a probe into their backstories. These adventures on paper are what is on show in this new display.
Seeing Pinter’s large, energetic handwriting filling the pages of his yellow legal pads transports us back to the moment of creation. There are intriguing false starts and changes of mind in evidence, such as a deliberation over where to set the opening scene of Betrayal (a tea shop, flat or a pub) and a diagram suggesting a third presence in the enigmatic two-hander Landscape. The naming of characters (always a secondary act for Pinter) is revealed on the page as initially anonymous As and Bs are christened in later annotations. And there are, of course, many pauses peppering the manuscript pages, always denoted by a lower case ‘p’. According to Pinter in his 1962 speech to the National Student Drama Festival it was in these silences that his characters became most evident to him.
Taking the structure of Pinter’s great play Betrayal as a model, the display offers a selective reverse chronology of Pinter’s playwriting career, taking in the last lines of his final stage play Celebration (written in 1999) as well as early prose pieces that influenced his theatre writing. For those who’ve seen any of the ongoing Pinter at the Pinter season by the Jamie Lloyd Company there are numerous resonances with our selections: we have reproduced the notecard on which Pinter scribbled the threatening lines from One For The Road, performed so memorably by Anthony Sher in the recent 'Pinter One', as well as a number of other drafts which will be familiar to fans of the season. My favourite inclusions, though, are perhaps the early prose pieces which contain the seeds of Pinter’s playwriting career. The pieces in question are a 1955 short story called ‘The Examination’ in which the menacing figure ‘Kullus’ can be seen as a prototype of the threatening interlopers of later plays, and a first draft of Pinter’s biographical novel of competitive male friendship The Dwarfs begun in 1952. Both offer crucial clues to the dramatist that Pinter became and both deserve to be better known.
Although it has been ten years since Pinter’s death on Christmas Eve 2008, his plays continue to speak to us about today’s world, sometimes in astonishingly prescient ways. Pictured above is Antonia Fraser who came to the Library this week for a preview of the exhibition. She stands alongside a dramatic sketch she discovered in 2017 when turning the page of one of Pinter’s old legal pads kept by the phone for messages. There to her astonishment was ‘The Pres and an Officer’, a short piece in which a trigger-happy President of the United States is eager to ‘nuke London’. Donald Trump was entirely unknown to Pinter, but now we know what Pinter would have made of him, so to speak. It seemed fitting to include ‘The Pres’ in our display as a ‘first last look’ (to quote Samuel Beckett’s words about Betrayal) among the other drafts and photographs now on show.
Harold Pinter: A Line, A Word, An Image is on display in the British Library Second Floor Gallery until 17 March 2019.
Join Antonia Fraser and Michael Billington in conversation for Remembering Harold Pinter on Monday 4 March 2019.
24 September 2018
Or The Misadventures of Slangwheezy, Bawlrot, Bluewink and Leerit
Banned Books Week 2018 has arrived and this year our theme is theatre censorship, prompted by the fact that this week sees the 50th anniversary of the laying down of the Lord Chamberlain’s blue pencil – the implement that had become synonymous with stage censorship in this country. On 26 September 1968 a new Theatres Act came into force, bringing to an end a system that had been in place since 1737 in which every new play in Britain due to be performed in a licensed theatre was required to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for examination. But how did it all work? Which plays were banned? Who really made the decisions and what kind of things were disallowed? Moreover, how could you cheat the system?
Here at the British Library – home to the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection - we’ll be honouring the anniversary a day early by taking a look at the often-mystifying inner workings of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. If you’d like to find out more and see performed a specially-written scene by playwright Vinay Patel (Murdered By My Father; An Adventure) join us tomorrow evening for CENSORED: Inside the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. Tickets are still available from the British Library Box Office.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection at the British Library is the largest manuscript collection we hold, consisting of scripts for virtually every play written between 1824 and 1968, together with reader’s reports and correspondence files for 20th century plays. This collection, together with plays in our early modern manuscripts collection, provide an unparalleled insight into the workings of theatre censorship since the late 16th century when the role of the Master of the Revels was expanded under the jurisdiction of Edmund Tilney. While Shakespeare would have had to have his scripts approved by the Master of the Revels, the role of censor was later passed to the Lord Chamberlain, another office of the royal household. The modern roots of stage censorship, however, lie in the political machinations of 1737 when Prime Minister Robert Walpole championed a new Act of Parliament to prevent dramatists such as Henry Fielding from publicly embarrassing him. Indeed, the first play to fall foul of the new law was Henry Brooke’s Gustavus Vasa (1737) which features a villainous character bearing a resemblance to Walpole.
Though there were no hard and fast rules of censorship, the representation of living or recently dead public figures was a key preoccupation for the Lord Chamberlain and his staff, and chief among these concerns was the representation of monarchs (not surprising given that the Lord Chamberlain was answerable to the King or Queen). Surely the weirdest depiction of a monarch on stage must be Edward Bond’s Early Morning (1968), set in a surreal alternative reality in which Queen Victoria is having a lesbian relationship with Florence Nightingale and heaven approves of cannibalism.
The principles by which the Lord Chamberlain’s Office (LCO) operated were set out in a report to the Joint Select Committee in 1909 and remained broadly relevant through to 1968, although social attitudes changed over time and even within the same year there was not necessarily consistency of interpretation.
The Lord Chamberlain to remain the Licensor of Plays, […] and that he should license any play submitted to him unless he considers that it may reasonably be held –
(a) To be indecent;
(b) To contain offensive personalities;
(c) To represent on the stage in an invidious manner a living person, or a person recently dead;
(d) To do violence to the sentiment of religious reverence;
(e) To be calculated to conduce crime or vice;
(f) To be calculated to impair friendly relations with any Foreign Power;
(g) To be calculated to cause a breach of the peace.
Our collection demonstrates that comparatively few plays were banned (i.e. refused a licence) outright – although these include famous works such as Ibsen’s Ghosts (1881), Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1888) and Jean Genet’s The Maids (1947). Other banned works are less well known to us today such as Marc Connelly’s Pullitzer Prize winner, The Green Pasture, which was disallowed in 1930 for representing God as an African American. The Lord Chamberlain referred his decision to both King George V and the Archbishop of Canterbury, both of whom approved the ban. Though the LCO occasionally made exceptions to the rule about not representing god on stage, The Green Pasture was not deemed worthy of special treatment and in fact the ban was upheld until the 1960s despite multiple resubmissions over the years. In other cases, the type of subject matter likely to elicit an outright ban included abortion (Harley Granville Barker’s Waste), male impotence (Marie Stopes’ Married Love aka Vectia), lesbianism (Lilian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour), incest (Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author), masturbation (Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening), prostitution (George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession) and extreme violence (Edward Bond’s Saved).
In most cases, however, the censorship of plays took the form of a list of script changes required by the Lord Chamberlain. Negotiations between LCO staff and theatre managements over revisions are well-documented in the archive. Colourful phrasing was modified. Out went ‘from arsehole to breakfast time’, a line from Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker (1960). Samuel Beckett was obliged to replace farting with belching in Waiting For Godot (1954). And David Rudkin managed to get away with substituting the dialect word ‘firk’ for ‘fuck’ in Afore Night Come (1962). Sometimes managements negotiated over changes – see the defence of the central imagery in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger – and in other cases, when all else failed, they circumvented the system with private club performances (Osborne’s story of male prostitution and transvestism A Patriot for Me, also presented at the Royal Court, being a classic example).
Leaving aside the wider issue of freedom of expression, the absurdity of attempting to censor texts whose full meaning only becomes evident in the visual medium of performance became increasingly obvious as the 20th century progressed. Even in 1909 the playwright Henry Arthur Jones pointed out the difficulty (as quoted in Nicholson, The Censorship of British Drama Volume 1, p8):
One reason that makes the Censorship impossible today lies in the fact that modern plays are no longer chiefly pieces of declamation and lengths of dialogue… The Censor sits in his office vetoing Sophocles and Shelley and Ibsen, and their kin ancient and modern, with the full text of their plays before him. Meanwhile Mr. Slangwheezy and Mr. Bawlrot are almost out of his reach, and Mr. Bluewink and Mr. Leerit slip away from him altogether.
The LCO did its best to anticipate visual gags and crude gestures, but it didn’t always succeed: Mr Bluewink and Mr Leerit really did escape their notice in many cases. The LCO had, for example, failed to realise that a plank of wood brought on stage during the 1959 musical Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be would be held at a suggestive angle – one of many vulgarities that was only spotted by LCO staff when a slew of letters of complaint prompted them to go and check up on Joan Littlewood's production.
Tomorrow our experts Dan Rebellato, Steve Nicholson and Kathryn Johnson will be discussing both the humorous side of the work of the LCO and the serious consequences it had for artistic expression in Britain. As well as the obvious effects of theatre censorship documented in the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection, there are of course the more insidious effects of an invisible self-censorship. As Steve Nicholson puts it:
Some artists may persist in their work and their principles even if they anticipate that what they produce will be disallowed; but others, with livings to make, surely will not.’ (The Censorship of British Drama Volume 1, p2)
If this has piqued your interest, why not pick up a banned play mentioned in this blog or see the Banned Books website for more events on censorship taking place this week.
- Nicholas De Jongh, Politics, Prudery and Pervisions: Censorship of the English Stage (London: Methuen, 2000)
- John Johnston, The Lord Chamberlain’s Blue Pencil (Sevenoaks: Hodder and Stoughton, 1990)
- Steve Nicholson, The Censorship of British Drama 1900-1968 Volumes 1-4 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2003-2015)
- Dominic Shellard and Steve Nicholson with Miriam Handley, The Lord Chamberlain Regrets… A History of British Theatre Censorship (London: British Library, 2004)
15 August 2018
By Greg Buzwell, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives, and Silvia Gallotti, Manuscripts Cataloguer. The Michael Palin Archive, generously donated to the British Library by Michael Palin in 2017, is now available for consultation in the Manuscripts Reading Room. A display – Michael Palin: Writer, Actor and Comedian – featuring items from the archive can be seen in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library until 11th November 2018.
Attempting to curate a small display featuring material from the archive of Michael Palin was rather like attempting to select a small number of iconic songs written by The Beatles. The sheer volume of fascinating material available to choose from rapidly made the task of deciding what to leave out the stuff of nightmares. Diaries, letters, photographs, notebooks, annotated scripts and publicity material all jostled for attention. About fifty of the notebooks date from Palin’s time with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and provide a fascinating insight into how comedy routines such as ‘Spam’ and ‘Spanish Inquisition’ developed through different versions into those we know – and can’t help but recite using all the different voices – today. Finding iconic material to exhibit was clearly not going to be a problem.
The Michael Palin display in Treasures Gallery at the British Library.
The display follows Palin’s career from the mid-1960s up to the late 1980s. The first case opens with the script for a mock theatrical documentary about attitudes towards sex through the ages called ‘The Love Show’ which Palin worked on with Terry Jones in 1965. Although never produced ‘The Love Show’, for which Palin received his first payment as a professional writer, shows early signs of the surreal humour that would come to define Monty Python. Other highlights in the first case include handwritten scripts by Palin and Jones for The Frost Report – a show which proved to be a meeting ground for future Pythons Palin, Jones, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle – and from Do Not Adjust Your Set where Palin, Jones and Idle met another future Python, Terry Gilliam. The item on display relating to Do Not Adjust Your Set is a sketch, written by Palin, called ‘Captain Fantastic’s Christmas’. David Jason played the hapless Captain Fantastic, a bumbling bowler-hatted superhero endlessly battling Mrs Black – ‘the most evil woman in the world’ – played by Denise Coffey. Although intended for children the anarchic humour of Do Not Adjust Your Set rapidly gained a cult following among adults.
‘Captain Fantastic’s Christmas’, a sketch written by Palin and starring David Jason as Captain Fantastic and Denise Coffey as Mrs Black. 1968. Add. MS 89284/2/11. © Michael Palin.
The following section is dedicated to Palin’s career with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and to his subsequent work on Ripping Yarns, and on films such as The Missionary, A Private Function and A Fish Called Wanda. Included in the display is an early scene from The Holy Grail in which a surreal explanation for the absence of horses and the use of coconut shells to mimic the sound of their hooves is provided (‘Our horses grew weary, unable to carry us further. We were forced to leave them by the mountain and continue with coconuts …’). Also included is an early draft of the ‘Biggus Dickus’ scene from Life of Brian and one of Palin’s notebooks in which he has written a potential running order for various Python routines including ‘Spanish Inquisition’, ‘Fish Licence’, ‘Scott of the Sahara’ and ‘Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights’.
One of Michael Palin’s notebooks, listing potential running orders for sketches including ‘Spanish Inquisition’, ‘Scott of the Sahara’, ‘Communist Quiz’, ‘Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights’ and many others. Add. MS 89284/2/15. © Michael Palin
Ripping Yarns, which Palin worked on with Terry Jones in the mid-1970s is represented by an annotated script from the pilot episode ‘Tomkinson’s Schooldays’. The episode is a brilliant satire on public school life and the adventure stories found in magazines such as The Boys Own Paper. Tomkinson’s trials at the school include being nailed to a wall on St Tadger’s Day, fighting the school grizzly bear, being hunted down by a leopard while attempting to escape and, as seen here, having to take part in the ‘Thirty Mile Hop’.
Annotated script for ‘Tomkinson’s Schooldays’, the first episode of Ripping Yarns broadcast in January 1976. Add. MS 89284/1/75. © Michael Palin
The last part of the display looks at some of the less widely known aspects of Palin’s career including his books for children, and the brilliantly disturbing Bert Fegg’s Nasty Book for Boys & Girls (a humorous book satirising popular encyclopaedias for children and presented as though written by the most unsuitable and disturbed person imaginable for the job). This part of the display also includes two of Palin’s diaries, one of which is open at an entry for 27 March 1970, in which Palin recollects the beginnings of his career just a few years earlier, when he was ‘finishing ‘The Love Show’ with Terry’, ‘still unmarried’, with ‘no immediate prospects’. He concludes: ‘A little bit of nostalgia, but I like sometimes to get my bearings right, just to convince myself that I haven’t wasted the 1960s’.
Michael Palin’s diary entry for 27th March 1970, reflecting upon the 1960s and writing the second series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. © Michael Palin
The display represents only a very small portion of the archive, but hopefully it provides a glimpse into the riches it contains. The large amount of material included in the collection relating to the production, publicity and distribution of Palin’s TV shows and films makes the archive a wonderful resource for those interested in the history of comedy, TV and filmmaking. The wealth of notebooks and annotated scripts meanwhile provides a unique insight into one of the nation’s most popular entertainers, and into the genesis and development of comedy sketches and films that are now part of the very fabric of our cultural history.
15 March 2018
By Christian Algar, Curator Printed Heritage Collections
If you will see a pageant truly play’d … like that of Shakespeare’s shepherds in the Forest of Arden, his setting for As You Like It, you can now also see a literal procession of hundreds of thousands of performances advertised on printed historic playbills held at the British Library. Nearly 100,000 intriguing and eye-catching bills have been digitised and are freely available to view online via Explore the British Library
Besides recording a great variety of entertainments (ventriloquism, acrobatics, conjuring and all kinds of performing animals)playbills provide as near an entire historical survey of the performance of British and Irish drama in the 18th and 19th centuries we could hope for. As can be expected, there are a great many examples of Shakespeare’s plays advertised on these playbills. Browsing through a period from the 1780s to the 1860s, we get an impression of the most frequently performed and popular Shakespeare plays such as Macbeth; Hamlet; and Romeo and Juliet. It’s fun to see these famous titles appear in a range of type and font sizes that are characteristic of historical playbills.
A collage of 19th century playbills for Shakespeare’s big plays
But to find any level of detail, you have to get your noses in and browse through the playbills because there’s never been the resource to catalogue them; that’s why the British Library has a crowdsourcing project called In the Spotlight to capture core details – like performance titles, genres and dates. This provides opportunity to uncover all kinds of interesting events and details associated with past performances.
Appearing in this procession of playbills is a performance of King Henry IV with a bonus celebration: a pageant to conclude a drama called, Shakespeare’s Jubilee: or, Stratford upon Avon.
Playbill for ‘Shakesperare’s Jubilee’ performed 20 February 1834. British Library Playbills 263
This pageant at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth was, “nearly a fac-simile of the Procession” at a festival held in Stratford in 1830. This festival, helpfully described in the exposition on the playbill, was founded on the three-day “Jubilee” of September 1769 in Stratford which was organised by the great actor David Garrick Despite being well attended by dignitaries from across the country, Garrick’s ‘Folly’ as it became known, was actually a bit of a farce. After opening to the salute of cannon and ending with fireworks, heavy rain and flooding postponed the planned grand procession. The idea was to stage a fully-costumed procession of the principal characters from Shakespeare’s plays carrying banners with dramatic quotes, and with recitals of famous lines for those looking on.
How it might have been: impression of the procession from 1769. British Library C.61.e.2
Garrick made up for the damp-squib in Stratford by staging further face-saving shows in London, but it was not the best start for the history of Shakespeare parades. The next big Stratford celebration in 1827 was met with apathy and after a further Pageant in 1830, the planned ‘triennial’ celebration did not take place again until 1847. But browse through these digitised playbills and you will find evidence that there were other Pageants for Shakespeare being held in regional theatres. Details on the verso of a Bristol playbill from 1821, list the plays and characters in an, “Order of the Pageant”.
Order of the Bristol Shakespeare pageant. British Library Playbills 204
The local press seemed not to have made much of the show, Shakespeare quotes being predictably used to dub the pageant as “insubstantial” and “faded” (with no apologies to The Tempest).
The Bristol Pageant was held on Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23rd. But, the motive for the Plymouth show, held at the end of February, seems less apparent. Details from the playbill can help explain
A common feature on playbills tells us that the evening’s entertainment was, “For the Benefit of Mr. Henry, Artist, & Mrs. Henry”. Mr Henry’s, “annual appeal to the supporters of the Drama” at the top of the bill is aimed at selling tickets for the performance, the proceeds of which will go to Mr and Mrs Henry. This is a key feature of the economics of theatre history – an annual share of the night’s takings was a major contribution to those labouring to produce theatre.
Checking the local press helps try and trace how performances fared and further details fall into place. There are conflicting reviews of Mr Henry’s first ever performance as Falstaff, “he supported the Great Knight very cleverly and elicited much applause” says the Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse Herald, but other local press reports tell us, “it was a bold attempt – a fearful one – his success was certainly not proportionate to the boldness of the venture.” It seems that though Mr Henry was “fat enough” to pull off Falstaff, he did not know at moments what to say and that his part would have benefited from a more attentive reading, “without which Mr Henry can never expect to completely succeed”!
It would seem the reporter in The Devonport Telegraph is suggesting Mr Henry should not give up the day job and it is in yet another newspaper where we find a detail that explains the true meaning of Mr Henry the ‘Artist’ making reference to his capability for – DRAWING! So it would seem that Mr Henry likely worked on producing illustrated sets to decorate the stage. This is a good illustration in itself of how general theatre workers – not just actors – were given the opportunity to act in plays or performances they concocted for their own Benefit Night performance. Mr Henry, hoped to, “escape the charge of egotism” but clearly wished to associate himself with the works of the supreme English dramatist.
Review in the ‘Plymouth & Devon Weekly Journal’, Feb 20, 1834 revealing the type of ‘artist’ Mr. Henry is. British Library NEWS6323
Playbills very often provide us with great descriptions and information. Close examination of the order or programme of the procession stimulates thought about the choice of plays, characters, quotations used in the procession. Is there significance in the order?
Playbills provide us with details of the musical elements of entertainment. The playbill tells us that The Mulberry Tree (written for the 1769 Jubilee by Charles Dibdin) was performed after Mr Henry’s pageant.
These advertisements provide a great source for studying dramatic literature and its interpretation on different stages – we are often treated to plot synopses, guides to the ‘action’, and signposts for moral lessons to be drawn by the audience. These can be used to estimate contemporary understandings of historical drama across the regions (all the playbills on In the Spotlight are currently from regional theatres.)
Shakespeare pageants are of historical importance – they are an expression of the Romantic conception of Shakespeare as supreme creator of character. The pairing and prominence of St George also links the identities of Shakespeare’s drama with an English national expression.
Playbills, like historical newspapers are full of potential rabbit holes. Looking for performances of the Tempest? Do try not to get distracted by this Bristol playbill from 1820 announcing that “a celebrated pedestrian’ will arrive on stage after walking 92 miles in 24 hours” - between pubs in Cheltenham and Bristol. All for a considerable sum, it seems.
From British Library Playbills 204
All these performances recorded on playbills really do form what we all know as, “Life’s rich pageant” (which, disappointingly for armchair Shakespeare aficionados, is not a quote from the great poet, but simply an old English idiom.)
You can get your nose into more historical playbills and play a part in capturing the details by checking out https://www.libcrowds.com/collection/playbills
12 October 2017
‘I visited this play last night and endured two hours of angry boredom’; ‘A piece quite without drama and with very little meaning’. This was one audience member’s summary of the first London production of Waiting for Godot – now regarded as Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece of 20th century drama. This wasn’t, however, the opinion of just any regular audience member – but an examiner for the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, which until 1968 examined and licensed all plays for public performance. Heriot was called on to review the play in production following a letter of complaint from Lady Howitt, who was appalled by the play’s ‘lavatory references’ (f. 8r) and wanted it banned. According to Heriot, audience members ‘fled, never to return’ – except for ‘a sprinkling of young persons in slacks and Marlon Brando pullovers with (according to sex) horsetails or fringes’.
© Crown copyright
This is just one of the stories that you can find on the new 20th-century theatre phase of our free educational resource, Discovering Literature, which launched earlier this month. From production photographs of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey to manuscript drafts of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, the website draws on the British Library’s rich literary and theatrical archives to examine the work of 14 key dramatists. Aimed at A Level students, teachers and undergraduates, as well as the general public, this phase of Discovering Literature aims to show the developments and innovations on the British stage over the course of the century – which saw playwrights and practitioners breaking new ground with the subjects and characters they portrayed, and the forms and styles they experimented with.
We’ve digitised over 100 collection items, from manuscript drafts – offering fascinating glimpses into the creative processes behind the plays – to contemporary production photographs, reports from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, reviews, posters and programmes, which help to shed light on the plays’ cultural, historical and political contexts.
Highlights online for the first time include:
- Manuscript of A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney, written when she was 19 and typed on her employer’s notepaper, on a borrowed typewriter. You can view the entire original manuscript of the play, and discover the notes and changes made by Delaney and Joan Littlewood, director of Theatre Workshop.
Orphan work licence
- Manuscripts of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, The Homecoming and Betrayal, revealing the playwright’s experimentation with everyday speech, structure and characterisation
Orphan work licence
- The earliest surviving draft of The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan, showing the evolution of the play’s plot, characters and subtext.
© the Sir Terence Rattigan Charitable Trust
- Script extracts from Oh What a Lovely War, with notes and rewrites by Joan Littlewood that reveal how the show evolved through a process of discussion, improvisation and experimentation by Littlewood, Gerry Raffles and members of the Theatre Workshop cast, in collaboration with Charles Chilton.
© Joan Littlewood Estate
- One of several unpublished draft typescripts of The Black Jacobins, C L R James’s 1967 play about the Haitian Revolution.
In addition, we have partnered with institutions including the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, the Beckett International Foundation at the University of Reading and the J B Priestley Archive at the University of Bradford, to showcase archive material from different collections held in the UK and US. Highlights include:
- John Osborne’s notebook for Look Back in Anger (held by the Harry Ransom Center), featuring title ideas for the play including ‘My Blood is a Mile High’, ‘Farewell to Anger’, ‘Angry Man’ and ‘Man in a Rage’ before Osborne hit on the iconic ‘Look Back in Anger’.
- Letter from a young J B Priestley, sent from the front line during World War One (held by the University of Bradford). Priestley’s wartime experiences shaped his awareness of class division and injustice, which would greatly influence his political life and his writing in later life.
© The Estate of J.B. Priestley. © J.B. Priestley Archive, Special Collections, University of Bradford.
- Library book covers defaced by Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell (held by Islington Local History Centre) with collaged images of monkeys, tattooed torsos and other surreal imagery – an elaborate literary prank which led to a six-month spell in prison.
Alongside this digitised collection material, you’ll find 40 newly-commissioned articles by leading scholars, critics, directors and curators. Michael Billington explores Oh What a Lovely War and The Birthday Party, Yvonne Brewster reflects on forming Talawa Theatre Company and producing The Black Jacobins, Jeanette Winterson writes on the impact of Shelagh Delaney and A Taste of Honey, and Dan Rebellato considers Look Back in Anger. We’ve also covered influential theatre practitioners and genres, ranging from Brecht to, more recently, the work of Punchdrunk .
There are new interviews, too. We spoke with Max Stafford-Clark about directing Top Girls and Our Country’s Good at the Royal Court in the 1980s, and created film interviews with actor Murray Melvin, who reflects on his experiences starring in the original and ground-breaking Theatre Workshop productions of A Taste of Honey and Oh What a Lovely War.
© Estate of J V Spinner (born in Walthamstow).
Lastly, teachers should also find our teaching resources area helpful. These downloadable resources offer a range of ideas for how to use the digitised collection items and articles in the classroom.
This new phase of material joins our existing site on 20th century poets and novelists, which went live in May 2016. Discovering Literature first launched in 2014, focussing on Romantic and Victorian literature, and the resource continues to grow, with the ultimate aim being to cover the backbone of English Literature from Beowulf to the present day – and to use our collection to enrich the study and enjoyment of literature.
Explore more: www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature
Katie Adams, Content Manager: Digital Learning
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