English and Drama blog

54 posts categorized "Drama"

04 August 2016

Kemp’s Nine Days Wonder: Curator’s Choice

Tanya Kirk, Lead Curator, Printed Heritage Collections 1601-1900 and Co-Curator, Shakespeare in Ten Acts

For the last month of the Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition run, the other curators and I will be telling you a bit about some of our favourite exhibits.

One of my absolute favourites is a little book called Kemp’s Nine Days Wonder, published in 1600 and surviving in only a single copy (owned by the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, and kindly on loan to us from there).

The book was written by Will Kemp, an actor who had been the clown (or comedian) in Shakespeare’s company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He was famous for roles such as Falstaff in Henry IV Part 1, Dogberry in Much Ado about Nothing, and Peter in Romeo and Juliet. In 1599 there was some kind of disagreement within the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and Will Kemp resigned his shares in the company and left. In an unusual next move, he went on to perform a Morris dance from London to Norwich over the course of nine days, as a sort of publicity stunt and a way of raising money by betting on himself. Although it may seem to us a little odd, the Nine Days Wonder was fitting – Kemp was very famous for performing jigs, physical comedy afterpieces incorporating dance, which were performed after plays. Several dramatists of the period had complained that these ruined the mood at the end of a tragic play, and it’s been conjectured that this might have been an artistic difference between Kemp and the rest of Shakespeare’s company, which could have caused him to split from them.


In this pamphlet, Kemp describes the 110-mile journey, including the towns he visited, the people he met, and the various daring deeds he executed – such as jumping over a churchyard wall in Norwich, a leap so outstandingly high that to commemorate it, the shoes he’d been wearing were nailed to the wall of the Guildhall. With him were his tabor-player Thomas Slye, his servant William Bee and a man called George Sprat, who was there purely as an overseer of the task, to be sure Kemp didn’t cheat.

My favourite part of the account is Kemp’s description of what happens in the town of Sudbury. A strong, tall butcher offers to keep him company by dancing alongside him as far as Bury. Kemp accepts, but before they’ve travelled half a mile, the butcher gives up, protesting that he couldn’t keep pace with Kemp even for £100. As the butcher leaves, a ‘lusty country lass’ shouts that he’s a ‘faint hearted lout’ and says she could keep going for a mile even if it costs her her life. The crowd laugh at her, but she replies that if Kemp will lend her some bells, she’ll dance for a mile. Kemp writes,

I looked upon her, saw mirth in her eyes, heard boldness in her words, and beheld her ready to tuck up her russet petticoat, I fitted her with bells, which [s]he merrily taking, garnished her thick short legs, and with a smooth brow bid the taborer begin.

She does indeed keep pace with Kemp for a mile. Afterwards he gives her a crown piece to buy a drink, and calls her ‘my merry Maid Marian’. As a morris dancer myself (I’m a member of Cuckoo’s Nest Morris) I feel a great kinship with this unnamed woman – I hope she enjoyed her post-dance beer.

You can see Kemp’s Nine Days Wonder in Shakespeare in Ten Acts until 6 September.

28 July 2016

Richard Burbage and The Dead Man's Fortune

Over the next three weeks the curators of Shakespeare in Ten Acts will be picking their favourite items from the exhibition. First up is Zoë Wilcox.

Having curated Shakespeare in Ten Acts, I must admit somewhat sheepishly that my favourite item in the exhibition is actually not one that’s directly related to the man himself. It’s a document that hung backstage in an Elizabethan playhouse, the one last trace of a lost Elizabethan play called The Dead Man’s Fortune in which Shakespeare’s friend Richard Burbage appeared.

  Dead Mans Fortune

Stage plot for The Dead Man's Fortune, Add MS 10449.

This type of document is called a ‘stage plot’ and it would have helped the cast to know when to make their entrances since they were only given their own parts and cue lines rather than the entire script of a play. There are only six of these stage plots still in existence: five here at the British Library and another (for the second part of The Seven Deadly Sins) at Dulwich College. The example on display in Shakespeare in Ten Acts dates from the 1590s and is especially significant because it records that the theatrical star Richard Burbage was part of the cast, though what part he played remains the subject of argument.

Everything we know about The Dead Man’s Fortune comes from this one document and although we can’t be certain who wrote the play or where it was performed, it’s surprising just how much can be gleaned from one piece of paper. Back in the 1930s the scholar W. W. Greg tried to piece together the story of the play, the main points of which I will summarise here:

There are two girls who are in love with two boys, but the girls have wicked fathers who would prefer them to marry suitors of their own choosing. The fathers throw the girls in prison for refusing to marry the beaux they have selected and then plot to drug their daughters (with poisoned meat) to make them do their bidding. Enter a magician called Urganda who helps to release the girls. The fathers and the evil suitors are condemned to death. Cue magic show, dancing fairies and a happy ending in which all are reconciled and the wicked men are pardoned. Oh, and a ‘chest or truncke’ is brought on stage, presumably containing the dead man’s fortune - but no one has quite been able to explain how that fits with the rest of the plot.

While the precise details of the story remain a matter of conjecture, it’s clear that this is a play with many elements that are familiar to us from Shakespeare’s comedies. For a start there are disguises (‘validore passeth ore the stage disguisde’), which we tend to associate with Shakespeare though they were really the trademark of the dramatist John Lyly. There’s a comic sub-plot with familiar commedia dell’arte characters. And there is also a foreshadowing of The Tempest (written c. 1610-11) in the magic tricks that Urganda uses to punish the evil-doers before all is forgiven at the end of the play.

The plot is written on two sheets of paper pasted onto each side of a pulp board measuring 16 x 12 inches. If you look closely you can see the trace of a rectangular hole in the centre gutter which would have enabled the paper to be hung up backstage, but this was filled in by the British Museum at some point prior to 1930. Though written in secretary hand, you can easily pick out the word ‘Enter’ which denotes the beginning of each new scene, apart from at the end of the play where the system appears to have gone slightly haywire. Props are mentioned - such as a looking glass, a hangman’s block and a ‘flasket’ of clothes - to remind the actors not to forget these. Interestingly, the mention of the ‘tyre man’ in the right hand margin has been interpreted as a sign that the wardrobe master was required to stand in as the company was short of an actor. The other noteworthy annotations are the music cues which appear in the margins and indicated by lines of crosses. These interludes divide the play into a five act structure, but they are later additions in a different hand, suggesting that the play was originally performed straight through without intervals as was customary in the outdoor playhouses.

While most of the cast are referred to by their character names, some actors’ names are also used and that’s how we know that ‘Burbage’ appeared in The Dead Man’s Fortune (Richard was the only member of his family who is known to have acted). His name is visible just after the third music cue followed by the words ‘a messenger’. Could the great Burbage who later played Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear and Othello really have been a mere messenger in this play? It’s not clear. W. W. Greg thought it unlikely and suggested that Burbage, who would have been in his twenties at the time, may have played Urganda the magician but others disagree.

Burbage portrait Dulwich College

Only known portrait of Richard Burbage, British School, early 17th century, currently on display in Shakespeare in Ten Acts on loan from Dulwich Picture Gallery. Image by Permission of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.

Ultimately this is my favourite item in the show because it immediately transports me into the world of the playhouse and not just that, but behind the frons scaenae into the private world of the actors. If documents could talk, what stories would this one have to tell? What backstage arguments, gossip or pranks might have taken place beneath this plot as it hung on its humble peg? We’ll never know but we can imagine. Come and see for yourself in Shakespeare in Ten Acts which runs until 6 September.

09 July 2016

Shakespeare: Gentleman or Player?

Last week the New York Times revealed a host of new discoveries relating to Shakespeare’s coat of arms. Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. has found nearly a dozen previously unknown documents that confirm that Shakespeare was an ambitious social climber. Four of the newly discovered documents are from the British Library and two others can currently be seen in our Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition. These exhibits relate to a dispute over whether Shakespeare deserved to be made a gentleman, proving that entry into the upper classes was far from straightforward even in the upwardly mobile Elizabethan era.

Shakespeare coat of arms

Coat of arms belonging to William Shakespeare. Harold Bowditch Collection, Mss 1180, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, page 66 (detail).

Shakespeare’s father John, a glover, first applied for a coat of arms in 1575 but it was not awarded until a second application was made in 1596. Given John’s age (he was well into his sixties), it’s always been assumed that William re-applied on his father’s behalf and the new discoveries seem to bear out that theory. Half of the newly discovered documents associate the Shakespeare arms with William rather than John, suggesting that it was William who was particularly keen to boost his own social standing.

Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson had a dig at his fellow playwright’s new status as a gentleman in 1598 in his play Every Man Out of His Humour. A peasant is advised to purchase arms with the motto ‘Not without mustard’ – an illusion to the gold-coloured Shakespeare arms and their motto ‘Not without right’. But Shakespeare didn’t only have to put up with ribbing from his friends. A couple of years later the arms came under attack again, this time from the College of Arms, the very body which had granted them.

William Dethick (1543-1612) was the Garter King of Arms responsible for approving the Shakespeare grant and by all accounts he was a pretty unsavoury fellow. Arrogant and violent, he was known to have beaten his own father and wounded his brother. In 1576 he attacked another herald’s wife by pushing her head into the fireplace, tipping hot ashes, alcohol and the contents of a chamber pot over her and was only just prevented from killing her. Matters were hardly improved when he stabbed two people with a dagger during the funeral of the Countess of Sussex at Westminster Abbey. Needless to say he wasn’t too popular with his fellow heralds due to his habit of beating and slandering them, and he came in for a good deal of criticism for his professional judgement too.

College of Arms officials compiled records of grants which they believed Dethick should not have made and Shakespeare is included in the examples given. These manuscripts are full of snide allusions to the sort of ‘mean persons’ who’d been undeservedly elevated to the gentry, such as one Molesworth, a ‘seller of stockings’. Two drawings of Shakespeare’s arms are annotated with the words ‘Shakespeare the player’, denoting that William’s occupation was clearly a point of contention for the heralds who opposed Dethick. Acting, after all, was not an upper class profession and was considered somewhat on the seedy side (all that cross-dressing and travelling the country, sleeping who knew where!), even if you were patronised by aristocrats or royalty. The other reason for criticising the Shakespeare grant was due to the similarity of the black and gold arms with those of Lard Mauley. Dethick defended the grant on both grounds and emphasised the good standing of John Shakespeare who had been a Justice of the Peace and had married into the prestigious Arden family. While we don’t know for sure whether Shakespeare was aware of the controversy, the existence of angry letters from other individuals whose arms were questioned suggests that it’s likely he would have known and complained about the situation.


Ralph Brooke's complaint against coats and crests granted by William Dethick including the arms granted to 'Shakespeare the player', Folger Shakespeare Library V.a.350.  Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

You can see the complaint against Shakespeare (on loan from the Folger Shakespeare Library) and Dethick’s response (on loan from the College of Arms) on display in Shakespeare in Ten Acts until the 6th of September. To see more manuscripts relating to Heather Wolfe’s discoveries, including those held in the British Library, go to the Shakespeare Documented website.

22 June 2016

Delving into the Laurence Olivier Archive: fan letters and Macbeth

by Zoë Stansell, Reference Specialist

Laurence Olivier was one of the great Shakespearean actors of the 20th century, who enthralled theatre audiences with his magnificent performances of Shakespeare’s leading men. He brought Shakespeare to the screen with his films of Hamlet, Richard III and Henry V, which he wrote, directed and starred in. These films can still be enjoyed by those who never had a chance to see him on stage. We can discover fascinating insights into Olivier’s Shakespeare productions by examining his own annotated scripts. We can also view correspondence, photos, and even fan mail, relating to his Shakespeare plays.

These can be found in the Olivier Archive, which the BL purchased from the Olivier family in 1999. It is a vast archive, containing nearly 1000 files. The BL reference numbers for the whole archive are Add MS 79766-80750.

Anyone with a valid BL reader pass can view items from the archive in the BL Manuscripts Reading Room. Please see this link for the BL Archives & Manuscripts Catalogue, if you want to search it yourself: http://searcharchives.bl.uk/ .

Olivier was involved in so many Shakespeare plays it was necessary to pick one as an example. Macbeth seems a good choice because Olivier’s enthusiasm for the role, in which he excelled, means there are plenty of Macbeth-related items in the archive. Also, it’s familiar to many of us who studied it at school! Olivier appeared in the title role at the Old Vic in 1937. Macbeth is traditionally associated with bad luck and this production was no exception. According to the Old Vic website, manager Lilian Baylis died on the day of the dress rehearsal; Olivier narrowly avoided a falling stage weight; and the director and lead actress were in a car accident. To cap it all Lilian’s portrait fell off the wall!

There was an early TV broadcast by the BBC of scenes from this adaptation. It is described on this website: http://bufvc.ac.uk/shakespeare/index.php/title/av71012 . A file in the archive, Add MS 79975, contains ‘correspondence, mostly fan mail sent to Olivier, for his Old Vic performances of Henry V, Hamlet, and Macbeth: 1936-1938’.

Having spent an entertaining hour searching the file for a memorable fan letter about his Macbeth performance, I was thrilled (and appalled at the same time) to read an eight page critical analysis from, “a much older man who has followed your career with interest & sometimes enthusiasm”. According to the writer of the letter, Shakespeare himself would not have performed the role in this manner!

Apparently, Olivier’s reading fluctuates “between Richard III, Shylock (especially in make-up) & Lear”, his dagger scene “kills the ascending tension stone dead”, he shouts after the murder, and ruins the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech by his stage movements.

More comments follow about Olivier’s “fatal” makeup and “raucous” voice and the letter concludes “that these criticisms are offered in the genuine, though possibly presumptuous, desire to serve”.

Who wouldn’t wish to be a fly on the wall when Olivier finished reading this letter? I wonder if he took on board these pointers and improved his subsequent performances! Alas, there is no evidence that he replied.

The file contains letters from other fans expressing more traditional admiration. There is also a letter from Lilian Baylis, dated 19/9/36, thanking him for his gift of “cyclorama”. If anyone is unfamiliar with the word “cyclorama” (I was), the OED entry says it is:  “Theatr. A large backcloth or wall, freq. curved, at the back of a stage, used esp. to represent the sky”.

Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh performed together as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford, in 1955.


BL Add MS 80731. Photos of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, in the 1955 Stratford production of Macbeth.

Vivien Leigh’s costume from this production is displayed in the Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition at the British Library, which runs until 6th September 2016. Here is the link for details of the exhibition: http://www.bl.uk/events/shakespeare-in-ten-acts

Critics such as Kenneth Tynan raved about Olivier’s Macbeth but were less impressed with Vivien Leigh’s Lady Macbeth. Tynan didn’t think much of any of her performances at this time, but apparently changed his mind in later life. The following files relate to this particular production: Add MS 80299 Correspondence and papers relating to Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, and Twelfth Night. Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon; 1954-1958; Add MS 80682 Cuttings relating to Plays at Stratford, and elsewhere; 1954-1957: Macbeth; Twelfth Night; Titus Andronicus; The Deep Blue Sea; The Entertainer; Add MS 80731 Photograph Album of Olivier and Vivien Leigh in the Stratford productions of Titus Andronicus and Macbeth. Some of these photos are currently on loan to the Library of Birmingham for their Shakespeare exhibition, which runs until 3rd September 2016. Here are details of the exhibition: http://www.libraryofbirmingham.com/event/Events/ourshakespeare.

Imagine how fabulous a film, with Laurence Olivier as Macbeth and Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth, would have been! Olivier put a huge effort into planning a film version of Macbeth but, unfortunately, lack of funding prevented it. The archive holds nine folders (Add MS 80508-80516) of papers relating to Olivier’s unsuccessful attempt to make the film, including set designs, photographs of potential locations and production budgets. There are also 13 drafts of screenplays (Add MS 80534-80546).


BL Add MS 80537. Unbound sheets from one of the 13 draft screenplays of Macbeth, with extensive annotations in ballpoint pen by Olivier. These pages show the scene where Macbeth and Banquo encounter the witches.

The BL holds the archives of many other 20th century theatre greats, who were contemporaries, friends and colleagues of Laurence Olivier. These include: John Gielgud (Add MS 81306-81590) Alec Guinness (Add MS 89015) Kenneth Tynan (Add MS 87715-88472) All of the above were involved in various Shakespeare productions, including Macbeth, whether it be as actor, director or writer. I’ll save their archives for next time! 

If you’re planning to visit the BL Shakespeare exhibition, you might like to enhance your experience with a talk from a reference expert about Shakespeare-related items in the BL’s vast collections (not all of which could be included in the exhibition). See this link for details: http://www.bl.uk/events/shakespeare-revealed-into-the-collections



04 April 2016

Investigating the Price of Kindness

Laura Farnworth on the creation and development of ‘Calculating Kindness’

Laura is a director and theatre maker, Artistic Director of Undercurrent, and Associate Director of Shared Experience. This is an edited transcript of a talk from the North American Panel session as part of History Day at Senate House Library, 27 November 2015


For Undercurrent I am currently developing our new show, Calculating Kindness, which is based on the life of American evolutionary geneticist George Price, 1922 - 1975.

Price is hardly known outside of evolutionary biology and yet his story illuminates important ideas and questions about how we behave and understand ourselves.

The development of this show brought me to the British Library, where his collection of manuscripts is kept, and also that of his collaborators, William Hamilton and John Maynard Smith.

First let me tell you a little about George Price.


George Price, courtesy of Wiki Commons

Price was an eccentric American who arrived in London in 1968 hungry to make his name.

He spent weeks visiting thirteen different libraries - until he stumbled across a paper by William Hamilton, nicknamed “second Darwin”, that discussed several aspects of social behaviour, one of which was that we are genetically predisposed to be kindest to our kin.

If this were true, Price found the idea bleak. Did real selfless kindness exist?

An outsider to evolutionary theory he taught himself the basics of evolutionary genetics, and ended up formulating an equation widely acknowledged as the mathematical explanation for the evolution of altruism - something science had been trying to do since Darwin. His equation proved Hamilton right.

The Price Equation was so extraordinary that University College London gave Price an honorary position within ninety minutes of him walking in off the street.

Up until then, Price had been a militant atheist. But writing the equation had a strange affect on him. He started to look at all the coincidences that had happened in his life. Incidental things, like he’d had several girlfriends called Anne, phone numbers, calendar dates. He worked out the probability of each coincidence. He finally worked out the probability of him being the man to write the equation. The outcome was so remote, that he concluded it could only be a gift from God and he converted to Christianity overnight.

From then on he started to apply mathematics to the Bible - aiming to decode the true meaning of the Bible.

He then underwent what he referred to in his letters as a ‘real conversion’. Jesus appeared to him. He understood it as a message that decoding the Bible was not important, what really mattered was helping people.

Price then embarked on a radical quest towards altruism - helping complete strangers. He would go to extraordinary lengths, giving away everything he had, including his flat, which he opened up to homeless people, until he became homeless himself.

The show weighs up the question: was Price mentally ill, or consumed by a spiritual desire to disprove his own theory: that man is only kind to his own kin?

Three years after writing the equation, Price was discovered in a squat having had slit his throat. Seven men attended his funeral - five homeless and two of Britain’s greatest evolutionary biologists, William Hamilton and John Maynard Smith.

Research begins to inform the show…

Calculating Kindness is a completely new show, developed from scratch and so the process began with research.


Scene from 'Calculating Kindness' © Photographer Richard Davenport.

To begin with I mainly focused on The George Price Collection. What I found were personal letters, grant applications, manuscripts and pieces of work.

Having been slightly obsessed with Price for so long, to now hold his letters in my hand I must admit gave me goose bumps. Often it was the very ‘normal’ letters that evoked the most for me. Such as letters to his daughters ‘Dear Babies’ from when he first arrived in London, stories about favourite Indian Restaurants and freezing cold libraries.

What started to happen was that Price began to come to life for me - with each letter I got to know him a little more. His scientific writings and grant applications I understood less but with each reading I would pick up the odd gem, even if it might be a pencil annotation that gave me a clue to what he might be thinking. I started to understand better what preoccupied Price, how he thought about things, and what was important to him. This research was invaluable and has become the bedrock of all the development work we have done over the last few years. It is material I keep coming back to, and I find that as my understanding of Price’s science improves, so I see new things in his writings, which then help me make the work stronger.


Scene from 'Calculating Kindness' © Photographer Richard Davenport.

To be scientifically accurate and sensitive to Price has always been paramount to the development of this show. Price wrote a long letter to Hamilton describing an equation he had developed to address the issues of life on earth, versus the afterlife, from both the perspective of an atheist and a Christian. He then gave extensive, very complex, reasons to justify his belief about life on earth being equivalent to an examination. This became one of the main access points into George’s state of mind. My conversations with Dr Isabel Valli, from the Institute of Psychiatry, based on this research, finally helped me begin to connect seemingly contradictory aspects of Price’s character together.

More recently, I have been lucky enough to receive the help of Rachel Foss, Jonathan Pledge and Cara Rodway from the British Library. They granted me access to Hamilton’s collection that is otherwise not open to the public. Here I found some real gems, several letters between Hamilton, and Price’s brother, and daughters, following George’s suicide. Suddenly, here was new information about conversations I did not know had happened, and fond reflections of what they thought of Price. I almost missed it, but on a torn scrap of paper, with faint pencil markings, I realised I was looking at Hamilton’s annotations about Price’s inquest, where he considered Price’s very brief suicide notes. These moments help me feel closer to Price and all the more compelled to tell his story.


Scene from 'Calculating Kindness' © Photographer Richard Davenport.

When Price died, Hamilton was called to his squat to tidy up his papers. Hamilton sent some of his manuscripts to the British Library; and the rest back to Price’s daughters in America. I’d like to finish with a quote from one of Hamilton’s letters, that he wrote after clearing Price’s squat, that for me sums up rather well my own experience of researching Price.

‘I regard his ideas as of such originality and of such significance for evolutionary theory that I believe that some time some one may think it worthwhile to find out something more about him and wish to go through his letters and papers with some care - - and of course the strange life he has led for the past few years makes it quite a story.’

'Calculating Kindness' is on at the Camden People's Theatre until 16th April 2016.

See the 'Calculating Kindness' website for details of post-discussion talks, including one featuring British Library curators.


Price rehearsal

Read more about the development of this production here: Science and Art in the Rehearsal Room

All images used with kind permission of Undercurrent UK.

31 March 2016

‘Is this a forgery I see before me?’

Vortigern and Rowena: A Shakespearean April Fools’ Day farce?

The plays of William Shakespeare are full of star-crossed lovers. Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra, Ferdinand and Miranda, Vortigern and Rowena…

Well, maybe not that last pair, although there was a time when many people cherished high hopes for Vortigern and Rowena being a valuable addition to the list of Shakespeare’s known plays; hopes that unfortunately ended in catcalls, derision and farce at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on April 2nd 1796 (the performance thus avoiding going down in history as arguably the most lamentable April Fools’ Day event ever by a handful of hours). The play, although it only enjoyed the one shambolic performance, did achieve a certain enduring notoriety and the story behind it is of considerable interest in terms of the light it sheds upon our enduring fascination with Shakespeare and his work.


Above: A handbill defending the authenticity of Vortigern, commissioned by Samuel Ireland and distributed outside the theatre before the performance on 2nd April 1796. Folger Shakespeare Library

Vortigern, although presented to the world in 1796 as a lost play by William Shakespeare was in fact the product of William Henry Ireland, a poet and playwright of immeasurably more modest talents. William Henry Ireland was the son of Samuel Ireland, an antiquarian and devoted admirer of William Shakespeare. Samuel Ireland was continually hoping to turn up documents and papers that shed a greater light on Shakespeare. Following the 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee, a celebration of Shakespeare’s genius masterminded by the actor David Garrick, interest in Shakespeare and his life had become intense. More the pity then that Shakespeare the man remained essentially unknowable. The plays survived, as did a few legal documents containing his signature, but the thoughts of Shakespeare himself were seemingly lost. What did he think of his fellow actors and playwrights? What did he make of London, or of his native Warwickshire? What were his religious beliefs? Alas, with no surviving letters or personal papers it appeared the answers would remain forever hidden in the darkness of time. William Henry Ireland, seeing at first hand his father’s frustration at being unable to unearth any genuine letters or documents by Shakespeare, sought to remedy the situation by filling the numerous gaps in our knowledge with forgeries.

Ireland began by forging legal documents, using paper he had access to via his work as a clerk in a lawyer’s office. To present them first to his father, and then to the world, he had to come up with a story about where he had found them. Enter the mysterious ‘Mr H’. Ireland claimed that an acquaintance of his, Mr H, had in his possession a large oak chest that contained a number of old documents. Emboldened by the success of his first forgeries William Henry Ireland returned to his father’s house with an increasingly varied array of documents, all supposedly from the capacious trunk of Mr H. There were letters from Shakespeare to his wife, Anne Hathaway, often complete with locks of hair; there were documents in which Shakespeare outlined his religious beliefs (Protestant, of course); there were fragments of plays and then finally complete plays, including one called Vortigern and Rowena, based upon figures from 5th-century British history.


Above: ‘The Oaken Chest, or the Gold Mines of Ireland, a Farce’, a print by John Nixon satirising the ‘discovery’ of what turned out to be forged Shakespeare manuscripts, 1796. William Ireland is on the far left. His father, Samuel, is kneeling at the chest, a lock of Shakespeare’s hair at least a yard long in his hand. British Museum, London.

As the procession of documents emerging from the oak chest of Mr H increased then so did the amount of interest, and suspicion, surrounding them. The Irelands began charging admission for people wishing to visit their house in order to view the papers. Many believed the documents to be genuine. The writer James Boswell was so overcome during his visit that he fell to his knees, kissed the edge of the papers and announced that having seen them he could die in peace, which he duly did some three months later. Others, however, were less convinced. Newspapers, noticing the somewhat comic attempts at Elizabethan spelling attempted to outdo each other in the publication of ludicrous Mock-Elizabethan letters: one supposed to be from Shakespeare to Ben Jonson ran: ‘To Missteeree Beenjaammiinnee Joohnssonn: Wille youe doee meee theee favvourree too dinnee wytthee meee onnn Friddaye nextee attt two of thee clocke too eatee somme muttone chopps and some pottaattooesse?’

The charade could not continue, and as more knowledgeable individuals began to study the papers, including the critic Edmond Malone, the more obvious it became that the documents were forgeries. The final nail was hammered into the Ireland coffin of shame on April 2nd 1796 when Vortigern was performed on the London stage. The actor John Philip Kemble, who was clearly aware that the play was not the product of Shakespeare’s considerable genius but rather that of a less-accomplished talent, originally pushed for the play to be staged on April 1st (April Fools’ Day) but that was seen as perhaps a mockery too far. All the same, the production on April 2nd rapidly descended into farce. Kemble delivered his lines shamelessly for laughs and with his particularly pointed delivery of the line ‘and when this solemn mockery is o’er’ the play was revealed for what it was, a shambles. The performance staggered to a conclusion, at which point scuffles broke out in the pit bringing the evening’s events to a fittingly farcical end.


Above: Playbill for the only performance of Vortigern at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, 2 April 1796. Although the play was widely touted as a newly discovered work by Shakespeare, the theatre manager, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, refused to print Shakespeare’s name on the bill. British Library 937.c.14

William Henry Ireland was never really forgiven for the Shakespeare forgeries. When Ireland bumped into the eminent man of letters James Boaden in Bond Street some twenty-five years later Boaden exclaimed: ‘You must be aware, Sir, of the enormous crime you committed against the divinity of Shakespeare. Why the act, Sir, was nothing short of sacrilege; it was precisely the same thing as taking the holy Chalice from the altar and pissing therein’. William Henry Ireland died in poverty, as did his father, but, ‘crime against the divinity of Shakespeare’ or not, Vortigern undoubtedly retains its fascination as a curious chapter in the story of our enduring love for all things relating to Shakespeare.

Examples of William Henry Ireland’s Shakespeare forgeries, and a wealth of material relating to Vortigern, will be on display in Shakespeare in Ten Acts, which opens at The British Library on the 15th April and runs to 6th September 2016.

by Greg Buzwell, Curator of Shakespeare in Ten Acts

29 February 2016

Bringing a Liverpool Heart to Moliére

by Deborah Dawkin, currently working on a collaborative AHRC PHD project with UCL and the British Library focussing on the archive of Ibsen translator Michael Meyer.

Last week the British Library had the pleasure of hosting the 2016 Sebald Lecture, given this year by Roger McGough. His subject was the translating and adaptation of Molière’s plays, including Tartuffe (2008), The Hypochondriac (2009) and The Misathrope (2013) for the English Touring Theatre. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given McGough’s renowned skills in performance and public speaking this was anything but a dry lecture: we were treated to a vibrant and entertaining as well as thought provoking insight into the process of translating seventeenth century French comedy for the contemporary British theatre – one which highlighted the difference between the requirements of theatre translation and literary translation – the difference of creating a text which “preserves history” and one that breathes new life into a play while at the same time respecting the original writer’s message and intentions.


Roger McGough (right) who gave this year's Sebald Lecture together with Duncan Large, Academic Director of the BCLT who chaired the event.

The Sebald lecture is an important date on the British Library calendar for all those interested in international literature and translation. Sponsored by the British Centre for Literary Translation. The Sebald Lecture is given annually on an aspect of literature in translation. The event is named after the acclaimed German writer WG Sebald (1944-2001), whose novels and essays include The Emigrants, The Rings of SaturnAusterlitz and On the Natural History of Destruction. Despite writing almost exclusively in German he lived in the UK, lecturing in German at University of East Anglia where he founded the British Centre for Literary Translation in 1989.

In true story teller’s style McGough began at the beginning, and took us back in time to his first lessons in French at the Irish Catholic Brothers school for boys in Liverpool, where the tyrannical Brother O'Shea used the fear of the strap (specially sewn and crafted by the local nuns) to get his students to learn their verbs and vocabulary. Despite this unpromising start McGough went on to study French as well as Geography at the University of Hull. If the audience were expecting then to hear how McGough had developed an undying passion for French literature and language, they were disappointed. Instead we were regaled with a story in which McGough’s accent was so bad (having missed the French Exchange programme due to a family bereavement) that he was discretely removed from the aural exam. Slightly disingenuously - as he worked as a French teacher in the sixties - McGough left us with the impression that his French language skills were sketchy at best. But perhaps McGough wanted emphasise the point that these are not literal or academic translations, but adaptations designed to bring the spirit of Moliére to a contemporary audience: Molière with a "Liverpool heartbeat".

McGough was first approached in 2008 by Gemma Bodinetz to create a translation/adaptation of Tartuffe for her production with the English Touring Theatre. He was initially uncertain about undertaking the task, but promised to give it some thought. Taking several translations of Tartuffe with him on a Saga cruise (as an entertainer he hastened to tell us, not a guest) he read them on the journey to the Bay of Biscay. This allowed McGough to enter the play without the struggle of reading complex 17th century French verse, and to allow the characters and plot to inhabit him; to set his imagination free. By the time he had returned to the shores of the UK, McGough had started to write his version. Now McGough, concerned that he should be true to Molière’s intentions, turned to Molière’s original text, to check his own version against it, thus taking the script to a new level.

Anyone who has read McGough’s translations of Moliere, or had the pleasure of attending a performance, will be struck by their dexterity and their sharp, playful wit, and their cleverness in offering us a contemporary text, with contemporary references, yet never quite losing the link back to 17th century France.

This event was supported by Arts Council England and Writers’ Centre Norwich.

Past Sebald Lectures can be heard in full on the British Centre for Literary Translation website.

15 January 2016

Cataloguing begins on the Joan Littlewood Archive

The Joan Littlewood Archive takes up three inconspicuous bays of storage, just shy of one hundred boxes in rather uniform box-files. We’re not supposed to talk about dusty archives these days but more than one member of the department introduced me to the collection mentioning it as ‘the dustiest collection I have ever seen’. This, it turns out, is incredibly accurate but the contents of the collection promises to be as vibrant and interesting as Joan was herself. Joan Littlewood and her company were an incredibly important part of post-war theatre and opening up her collections will be invaluable to many people.

Joan began her theatre career at RADA - which she attended on a scholarship - but despite very promising beginnings she quickly dropped out, stifled by the stuffiness. Seeking what she imagined to be a ‘truer’ theatre experience Joan walked from London to Manchester, sleeping in hedgerows and eating foraged turnips. The photos below show the reaction to the ‘Girl Tramp’ and her explosive entrance to Manchester.


Newspaper cutting featuring Joan Littewood's story

Following her arrival she joined the Manchester Reperatory but again, despite high praise, she quit after just two seasons. From Manchester she wrote for the BBC (before being temporarily banned for her communist allegiances) and then began Theatre Union with her then husband Ewan MacColl. Theatre Union later developed into the Theatre Workshop for which Joan is most renowned and which eventually settled in the Theatre Royal, Stratford, where during the early years much of the company essentially squatted. Theatre Workshop’s most famous out-put included: ‘Oh What a Lovely War!’, ‘A Taste of Honey’ and ‘Fings aint wot they used t’be’ as well as producing the first British production of Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage and her Children’. However, the scope of Theatre Workshop is far wider than these pieces and it is incredibly exciting to gain a greater understanding of the company as the collection unfolds.


Poster for a Berlin Festival performance of 'Oh! What A Lovely War' by Theatre Workshop London 

The collection contains what you might expect of a personal archive of this sort: lots of correspondence, personal and professional, accounts of the theatres and productions, diaries, photographs, posters and scripts. What is initially striking is the organisation and annotation from Joan herself, she is incredibly present in her collection. Half I think as she organised her papers in order to write her autobiography but also with the knowledge that her papers would likely be of interest after her death. Her interference is both helpful and unhelpful to the cataloguing process. She adds detail and colour to events, clarifies names and organised a lot of her correspondence chronologically. But, she is also annotating things with a reflective eye, sometimes even copying out early diaries and editing them. Luckily, she has very distinctive hand-writing and tends to use capitals for her later additions and sometimes her control slips and little glimpses of an unguarded Joan peek through.

Littlewood early bio

An early headshot and bio for Joan Littlewood

I am a little under half-way through creating a box list of the collection and have already been deeply moved, shocked or found myself laughing out loud. The collection moves from official company business to passionate and emotional letters between her and her long-term partner Gerry Raffles to biting notes on members of the company and then to evidence of her self-imposed exile to France after Gerry’s death – the letters reaching her during this period seem to have gone unanswered, people crave her response or a visit to England and are peppered with her own hand scrawled notes and stray sentences revealing her emotions at the time.

   Littlewood correspondence

Some correspondence between Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles

What is clear about this collection, even at such an early stage, is how valuable it will be to a variety of researchers and how important it is to put this evidence of Joan out there within the narrative of theatre history. There is a little section of this archive for everybody: formal theatre accounts and evidence of an endless battle for funding, an account of the struggle to make approachable working class theatre, Joan’s unwavering dedication to current social issues and the more personal aspects of Joan’s private life often supplemented with the strength and wit of her own later thoughts and observations.


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