English and Drama blog

142 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

30 March 2022

P. G. Wodehouse Society launches international Essay Prize

Written by Helen Melody, Lead Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. 

The British Library has been home to the P.G. Wodehouse archive since September 2016. It is a large collection of 481 folders and volumes, which provides a real insight into the life and work of the writer, humourist and lyricist.  

The archive contains material relating to Wodehouse’s literary career, his theatrical and cinematic work, the Second World War period and his private life. Also included are papers relating to fans of Wodehouse, research and articles about his writing, events and commemorations organised after his death, and adaptations of his work.

Image is black and white and shows P G Wodehouse reading a book in front of shelves of other books

The archive is catalogued and more information can be found by searching the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue using keywords or the reference Loan MS 129. Anyone with a reader’s pass can consult the archive in the Manuscripts reading room on the second floor of the Library. Please see the Reader Registration pages of the Library’s website for more information about how to register for a pass if you do not already have one.

The Wodehouse archive is a resource for everyone but it could be particularly useful for anyone who is planning to submit an entry for the international Essay prize that has been launched by the P.G. Wodehouse Society (UK). The initiative was launched in late 2021 to mark the 140th anniversary of Wodehouse’s birth and coincide with the 25th anniversary of the creation of the society in 2022. Two prizes of £1000 and £250 will be awarded to the adult and junior winners respectively by a judging panel that includes Paula Byrne, Stephen Fry and Sophie Ratcliffe.

Image shows actor Stephen Fry holding a copy of  P G Wodehouse's novel Code of the Woosters

The prize is open to all. The judges ask that entries focus on Wodehouse’s novels, stories, plays and journalism with the hope that they will throw scholarly new light on aspects of his writing.

Entries, which must be original and previously unpublished, should be submitted to essayprize@pgwodehousesociety.org.uk  by 12 noon BST on Wednesday 1 September 2022. Full details and Terms & Conditions can be found on the Society’s website.  Good luck to anyone who decides to enter.

21 March 2022

Celebrating Beryl Gilroy

By Eleanor Dickens, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives and Manuscripts.

 

The British Library has recently announced the acquisition of the Beryl Gilroy Archive, which was donated to the library in 2020.

Beryl Agatha Gilroy (1924–2001), was an acclaimed writer, teacher and ethno-psychotherapist.

Her archive includes drafts of published and unpublished manuscripts, notebooks, research and reflective essays on her own writing. As well as correspondence, material from her counselling practice and born-digital material.

Highlights of the archive include two drafts of In Praise of Love and Children, a rare fictional account of a woman’s experience of migration from the Caribbean. These two drafts, one typed and annotated and the other hand-written, show successive versions of Gilroy’s first novel, which was written in 1959 but not published until 1996.

Image shows the first page of Gilroy's novel In Praise of Love and Children which is typed but also heavily annotated by hand
BL Deposit 11286/5/10 With kind permission of the Beryl Gilroy Estate

Another highlight, and quite unique, aspect of Gilroy’s archive are the series of essays she wrote analysing and reflecting on her own fiction. Her archive contains such writing for all of her published novels and they are a fantastic additional insight into her work.

The archive also contains unpublished manuscripts of Gilroy’s work, both fiction, for example, a historical novel set during the 1780 Gordon Riots based on the life of a woman known as ‘Black Harriot’ who is thought to be depicted in William Hogarth’s painting The Rake’s Progress. As well as non-fiction, including a non-fiction draft about teaching, which works as a sequel to her memoir Black Teacher, and explores the ways that racist attitudes pervaded her experience of education.

Gilroy said herself that she ‘[…] belonged any place where there were children.’ And her passion, care and dedication for children’s well-being and education shines throughout her archive. Not least in the manuscripts of her contributions to the Nippers series, published by Macmillan, and her own notebooks and research into teaching and inspiring creativity in children.

Image shows a selection of covers of the children's book series Nippers, which were written by Gilroy and published by Macmillan
BL Deposit 11286/3/1 With kind permission of the Beryl Gilroy Estate

One of our favourite items in the archive is a copy of a zine Gilroy made with students at Beckford Infants School (now West Hampstead Primary School), where she was head teacher between 1969-1982.

The zine is called ‘BIM’, which probably stands for ‘Beckford Infants Magazine’, and contains poetry, drawings and creative writing by the students at the school. The zine is a wonderful example of Gilroy combining her beliefs in child-centred learning, creative expression and positive self-image.

Image shows one of Gilroy's handwritten notebooks in which she is devising a creative writing exercise for children
BL Deposit 11286/1/6 With kind permission of the Beryl Gilroy Estate

As part of celebrating Beryl Gilroy and her exceptional archive, there will be a free display in the Treasures Gallery, Celebrating Beryl Gilroyrunning from 17 March until 26 June. The display includes highlights from the archive.

As part of this display, the British Library also commissioned the Liverpool-born Nigerian-German artist and filmmaker Amber Akaunu to respond creatively to the archive. Amber has created a zine, The Blueprint and a short film celebrating black women who help educate, nurture and develop children, which will also be on display.

Amber worked on the zine with Lana Maugé, a former student of Gilroy’s, and their contribution in the form of the zine feels like an excellent way of connecting with the zine Gilroy created with her students.

Amber Akaunu, said: ‘Spending time with Gilroy's archive was a luxury that visitors of the British Library will now also get to experience. The contents of the archive are honest, deeply reflective, and unique to the experiences of Dr. Beryl Gilroy. I created my film and zine response with these same attributes in mind, and centred around the idea that Black women, and their archive, are the blueprint to which we build from.’

Image shows the front cover of the zine made by artist Amber Akaunu with the designer Lana Mauge. It includes an image of Beryl Gilroy with her students
The Blueprint by Amber Akaunu

The acquisition of the Beryl Gilroy archive expands the Library’s existing collections of Caribbean and Black British literary archives, including those of Andrew Salkey, Andrea Levy, James Berry and Wasafiri magazine. It will be available for research on completion of cataloguing in autumn 2022.

For further information or enquiries please contact: eleanor.dickens@bl.uk

16 March 2022

Celebrating John Berger and the 50th anniversary of Ways of Seeing

by Helen Melody, Lead Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. 

John Berger was an art critic, writer, painter and poet. January 2022 marked the 50th anniversary of his seminal television series, Ways of Seeing, which he made for the BBC with TV producer Mike Dibb. The BBC recently marked the anniversary with a series of programmes on Radio 4 entitled ‘Viewfinders: Ways of Seeing at 50’ in which writers Geoff Dyer, Olivia Laing, Tom Overton, Sinéad Gleeson and Melissa Chemam celebrated the original series and talk about looking at pictures.  

I was interested to hear about the Radio 4 series, as the Library is the home to John Berger’s archive, which was donated by Berger and his wife, Beverley, in 2009. The archive is one of the collections, which I look after as a member of the Contemporary Literary and Creative archives team and I have worked with it quite a bit over the years answering enquiries and selecting items for exhibition.

Image shows John and Beverley Berger with British Library curator, Jamie Andrews, at their home in France, when he collected the archive in 2009
With kind permission of the John Berger Estate.

The archive is large and consists of 379 files, boxes and books containing literary manuscripts, drafts, research notes and unpublished material, correspondence, press cuttings and professional papers. Although the archive contains some early examples of Berger’s graphic work, the majority of the archive is literary. The archive provides a fascinating insight into Berger’s life and work and particularly the collaborative way in which he worked and the international interest there was in what he created.

Unfortunately there is not a huge amount of material in the archive relating to Ways of Seeing aside from a file containing reviews of the series (and accompanying book) and a file relating to artwork used for different editions of the book that Berger created in collaboration with the graphic designer, Richard Hollis. Nevertheless I thought that the anniversary would be a wonderful opportunity to highlight the fact that the Library holds Berger’s archive. Anyone who is interested can find out more by searching the Library’s Archives and Manuscripts catalogue either by reference number (the reference for the Berger archive as a whole is Add MS 88964) or by keyword. This photograph is of one of several notebooks in the archive that contain research notes and drafts of A Painter of Our Time. I particularly like this one as it shows how Berger reworked his draft with blue annotations and corrections.

Image shows handwritten notebook of Painter of Our Time, written by John Berger and showing his detailed annotations
BL Add. MS 88964/1/6 Reproduced with kind permission of the John Berger Estate.

Everyone wishing to find out a bit more about the archive could also listen to Tom Overton’s programme as part of the Radio 4 series, which provides some lovely insights into his work cataloguing the Berger archive. The warmth of Berger’s personality is clear from Tom’s comments and although I never met Berger in person I also have fond memories of an encounter that I had with him.

One day in around 2012 I had a phone call from someone who introduced themselves as a friend of Tom’s who was trying to track him down. I explained that as a collaborative PhD student working at the Library Tom did not have a phone extension and that unfortunately he was not in on that day. We chatted pleasantly for a few minutes and then I said that I would be happy to pass on a message to Tom and ask him to return his friend’s call. When I asked the person’s name I was surprised to find that I was actually talking to John Berger himself. I have been lucky enough to meet and speak to many interesting people through my work but I have to say that I have not met that many celebrated writers who would introduce themselves as being a friend of the person cataloguing their archive! It has stuck with me ever since and reminded me that you never really know who you are speaking to on the phone until they introduce themselves.

See the Search Archives and Manuscripts catalogue (using Add MS 88964* as your search term) for further details.

02 November 2021

Andrew Salkey: “Too Polemic. Too Political”

By Eleanor Casson, Archivist and cataloguer of the Andrew Salkey Archive (Deposit 10310). Last few days to get tickets to Artist, Mentor, Friend, Activist: Andrew Salkey a Man of Many Hats a British Library conference held in collaboration with Goldsmiths Centre for Caribbean and Diaspora Studies, MA Black British Writing (Goldsmiths) and The Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.

The Conference is free to book and everyone is welcome. Book your place now.

Black and white photograph of Andrew Salkey in profile

Andrew Salkey, a Jamaican writer, emigrated to the UK in the early 1950s to study at London University. Salkey was one of a few Caribbean writers swept up in the boom of interest in Britain for the ‘exoticism’ of colonial countries, particularly after the migration of Caribbean workers to Britain.[1] His successful, critically acclaimed debut novel A Quality of Violence was published in 1959. In 1960, he followed this with a significantly more controversial novel Escape to an Autumn Pavement, which has, over time, become an influential piece exploring the Caribbean diasporas portrayal of heterosexual and homosexual relationships.

This early success as a Caribbean writer in Britain led Salkey to become an instrumental figure in developing a diasporic consciousness among Caribbean artists and intellectuals at home and abroad. Salkey experienced the majority of his literary success in the 1960s-1970s with the steady publishing of his children’s novels alongside his adult fiction and poetry. This early success reflects the appetites of British and American publishers during this period. Salkey’s literary works are often underpinned by a political message or influenced by Salkey’s experience of ‘exile’ from his home, Jamaica. By the 1980s the popularity of this type of writing had waned and Caribbean writers often found it more difficult to be published in the UK and also in the US. Salkey continued to write prolifically regardless of his works being published less often. His archive, held at the British Library, includes unpublished manuscripts and typescripts of work he attempted to publish without success. All of the unpublished novels in the archive are children’s novels: The Multi-Coloured Bear of Moscow Road, Luisito, and Norman Kelly. This blog will focus on his unpublished children’s novel Luisito and his unpublished long poem In America.

Luisito is a children’s novel based on the true story of the assassination of a ten-year-old boy, Luis Alfonso Velasquez Flores (Luisito), by the Somoza Regime in Nicaragua during the Nicaraguan Revolution. Luisito was a child revolutionary fighting against the oppressive Somoza Regime in the late 1970s. Salkey wrote in his notes that he first read about the assassination of Luisito in Gramma the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party on 2 September 1979. He began his research notebook on the events surrounding the event and Luisito’s life on 12 October 1980.  He lists the ‘characters’, ‘events’ and ‘places’ in the story based on his research of the events in much the same way he did for all of his novels. To ensure he had the correct information Salkey contacted the Office of the National Network in Solidarity with the Nicaraguan People in Washington DC, and the Nicaraguan Mission at the United Nations in New York. He also wrote to the Nicaraguan government twice, in October 1980 and September 1981, but did not receive a reply. Salkey’s friend, the American writer and activist Margaret Randall, was living and working in Nicaragua at the time. She had interviewed Luisito’s mother for her own work about Nicaraguan women. She sent Salkey copies of photographs of his mother and his passport. It is clear from the level of detail how invested Salkey became not only in Luisito’s death, but the cause he was fighting for against the Somoza Regime. Salkey wrote in his diary ‘I haven’t experienced this before, this extraordinary personal identification with the life and death of someone I’m trying to write about. A very odd feeling and equally odd behaviour on my part’.

There are similarities between this children’s novel and his earlier children’s book Joey Tyson. Both look at a ‘real life’ event from the perspective of a child and attempt to engage the reader in adult issues in a way they can understand. There is a clear educational undertone to the work that can be found in most of Salkey’s children’s story writing. The story was sent to publishers in the UK and the US, but was ultimately rejected by them all. Salkey was told by one US publisher that it was ‘too polemical. Too political’.

Salkey began the long poem In America in July 1976, just before his permanent move from the UK to the US, and completed it in August 1981. He had originally allocated four years to write the four ‘books’ (chapters) that make up the poem. In the notebook he kept for this work he wrote a set of notes for this period and a further “late extra notes” for the additional work he did on the poem. This literary project was a deeply personal one for Salkey. He writes in his diary ‘it’s a kind of diarist’s long poem, a record of the poet’s slow acquaintance of his new situation in America, and of America as an experience capable of being written about in poetry’. Alongside this exploration of America, the long poem also delves in to Salkey’s feelings of self-imposed exile from Jamaica and the mixed feelings of living closer to the Caribbean than before. Salkey wrote his novel Luisito within the same time period, which influenced his writing of In America:

In the same breath, the very same poet reminds us:

    Somewhere, right now, someone, or system clever as

    mustard, is busy building a Somoza castle of sand on an

    unsuspecting shoreline. Stop it, if you can!

This verse also encapsulates Salkey’s call to arms style of literary activism. Ultimately the polemic tone of some of the poetry in the long poem contributed to publishers rejecting the manuscript. US publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux Inc. were interested in the long poem but ultimately turned it down to focus on younger poets. William Morrow also turned it down. Salkey writes in his diary in November 1981 that he was not surprised that US publishers rejected the work; ‘I don’t think most of them are ready for the quirky experience the manuscript tends to deliver. In a sense, they never will’. Unfortunately, Salkey was equally as unsuccessful in the UK. He sent the manuscript to Hutchinson Publishing Group, Allison & Busby, and Faber and Faber; they all turned the manuscript down. The UK publishers saw merit in the work as an ambitious, interesting and diverse long poem. However, the did not think that there would be a viable audience for this type of work in the UK.

Source

[1] The George Padmore Institute: Why Publish Independently (online) Accessed 2nd April 2020 https://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/the-pioneering-years/new-beacon-books-early-history/why-publish-independently

21 September 2021

Registration opens for Artist, Mentor, Friend, Activist: Andrew Salkey a Man of Many Hats

by Helen Melody, Lead Curator for Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. Mentor, Friend, Activist: Andrew Salkey a Man of Many Hats is a British Library conference held in collaboration with Goldsmiths Centre for Caribbean and Diaspora Studies, MA Black British Literature (Goldsmiths) and The Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.

The conference is free to book and everyone is welcome. Book your place now.

I am delighted to announce that registration has opened for a virtual conference on the Jamaican writer and broadcaster, Andrew Salkey (1928-1995). The conference will be held on the afternoons of Friday 5th (13.30-17.00) and Saturday 6th November (13.30-16.40).

The conference will celebrate the legacy of Andrew Salkey (1928-1995) by exploring his various writing projects and his contributions to the Caribbean literary community through his involvement with the Caribbean Artists Movement, and black publishing in Britain. Andrew Salkey was a co-founder of the Caribbean Artists Movement and lynchpin of the BBC’s Caribbean Service. He embodied the Black Radical Tradition in his writing, his politics, and in his support for other creative individuals. Twenty-six years after his death, this conference seeks to reclaim his legacy and amplify his voice.

 

Black and white photograph of Andrew Salkey

The programme will include a keynote by Professor Robert A. Hill, a leading scholar on Marcus Garvey and Research Professor at the Department of History at the University of California, Los Angeles who was a friend of and collaborator with Salkey. There will also be ‘in conversation’ and panel sessions, guided readings of Salkey’s work, and a chance to see items from the Salkey archive, which is held at the British Library.

For a taste of sense of the archive, you can read previous English and Drama Blogs such as:

Andrew Salkey: A Man of Many Hats by Eleanor Casson, Cataloguer of the Collection

Andrew Salkey: I into History Now by Eleanor Casson, Cataloguer of the Collection

08 July 2021

Birds, Bees and Waste in Christina Rossetti’s Nature Poetry

a guest-blog by Clara Dawson, Lecturer in Victorian Literature at the University of Manchester. She is currently working on a project about birds and poetry from 1790 to the present. Twitter @DawsonClara. The blog is illustrated throughout by images taken from Rossetti's 'Sing Song': a volume of 121 nursery rhymes which she illustrated throughout with nature images, particularly of birds.

‘Honey of wild bees in their ordered cells
Stored, not for human mouths to taste: –
I said, smiling superior down: What waste
Of good, where no man dwells’

                                                Christina Rossetti, ‘To What Purpose is this Waste?’

Manuscript showing a short poem with pencil drawn image of a bird on top

The recent overturn of the ban on neo-nicotinoids, a bee-killing pesticide, brings a bitter resonance to the words of Christina Rossetti, written in 1853. Though she could hardly have anticipated the detail, her vision of an earth which stands ‘ashamed and dumb’ because it is ‘exposed and valued at [man’s] worth’ seems to predict human destruction of the natural world that followed in the wake of industrial development. In the last year, the value of the natural world has come to the fore, together with a clearer appreciation of how human activities continue to undermine it as a functioning home for ourselves and other species. Lockdown dismantled networks of anthropogenic noise to reveal the soundscapes of the natural world and the dawn chorus filled our streets and gardens once more.

Manuscript showing a short poem with pencil drawn image of a dead bird on top

Birds visiting our gardens do not serve an economic purpose, but bring pleasure, curiosity, respite, and beauty. How might we learn as a society to put these gifts before profit? In silencing human noise, the Covid-19 pandemic created an opportunity to rediscover the emotional and psychological benefits of seeing and hearing other creatures. But how might poetry written in the nineteenth century, under the same dominant system of industrial capitalism, help us with these ethical challenges? In ‘To What Purpose is This Waste’, Rossetti dramatizes the arrogance and folly of supposed human superiority to plants and animals. The honey produced by the bees for themselves can only be imagined as waste if we think that human consumption is the natural goal of all production. Rossetti outlines how we often look down on small and seemingly insignificant creatures, like birds and insects. But in a vision offered by religious experience, the poet learns to silence her ‘proud tongue’ and instead listen to the sounds and murmurs of hedges and rivers, which ‘swell’ to ‘one loud hymn’. In order to change, she moves deeper into the countryside and re-orients her senses to ‘behold/ All hidden things’ and to hear ‘all secret whisperings’. Perhaps for the first time in a long time, those ‘secret whisperings’ have been heard in towns and cities across the UK, when noises from transport and construction were reduced and birdsong filled the air. We were able to experience what had been drowned out by cars, planes, trains, our busy trafficking to and fro. Rossetti’s vision of the ‘utter Love’ found in a natural world without human interference is ultimately founded on Christianity, where God is both presence and cause. Though her firm Christian belief is less persuasive today, her poetry offers a response to the urgent challenges facing plants and animals – including ourselves – under threat from the climate crisis.

Manuscript showing a short poem with pencil drawn image of a bird singing from a tree branch on top

A key ethical problem for conservation scientists is to solidify the reasons that we defend and promote conservation. It is clear that in saving other species, we save ourselves, but there is also an ethical claim that requires us to recognise the rights of plants and animals to thrive. It is possible to find ways that humans and other species can flourish together but what might be necessary to persuade us to give up on putting ourselves first? Nature currently has to live with us, adapting to our needs and demands, but it will only thrive if we recognise and respect interconnection and integration rather than human dominance.

Christina Rossetti’s poem invites us to reflect on the utilitarian way in which we see nature, protesting against the belief that ‘as if a nightingale should cease to sing/ Lest we should hear.’ Poetry has a unique capacity to act on us emotionally through its sounds and images and Rossetti uses poetic language to heighten the beauty of the ordinary. Her poem opens with two compelling images:

    A windy shell singing upon the shore:
    A lily budding in a desert place;
    Blooming alone
    With no companion
    To praise its perfect perfume and its grace:

The alliteration of ‘s’ in the first line performs the singing sounds of the windy shell, the short second and third lines single out the lone beauty of the lily, and the rhyme of ‘place’ and ‘grace’ magnify the beauty that exists without human presence. She describes ‘Wondrous weeds and blossoms rare’ as ‘good and fair’: again the alliteration of ‘w’ and the rhyme of ‘rare’ and ‘fair’ create beautiful and appealing sounds, enabling Rossetti to draw our attention to the small and insignificant. ‘The tiniest living thing/ That soars on feathered wing’ has ‘just as good a right…as any King’, disrupting human hierarchies. The word ‘soars’ gives power and beauty to this tiny bird, and the rhyme of ‘thing’ and ‘wing’ creates a harmonious sound which solidifies its right to delight. Having invited us to appreciate the beauty on offer, the poem’s ethical questions land with greater force: ‘Why should we grudge a hidden water stream/ To birds and squirrels while we have enough?’

Manuscript showing a short poem with pencil drawn image of a bird on top with a snail underneath

17 February 2021

“Slow” Biography and the Ted Hughes Collection

a guest blog by Heather Clark, Professor of Contemporary Poetry at the University of Huddersfield, whose book, 'Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath' is available now from Penguin Books. If you have recently used the Library's literary collections in your published research, please get in touch at @BLEnglish_Drama on Twitter to be featured in another guest blog.

Plath Red Comet

When I set out to write a biography, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, nearly nine years ago, I knew I would need to devote a significant amount of time and space to another great twentieth century poet: Ted Hughes. Plath and Hughes were married for nearly seven years, during which time they produced some of the most important works of the postwar period, including The Hawk in the Rain, The Colossus, Lupercal, The Bell Jar, and Ariel. I have long been fascinated by the creative dynamics of this literary partnership, which I explored in my second book, The Grief of Influence: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Writing Red Comet gave me the chance to dig even deeper into the British Library’s Ted Hughes archive, which, along with Emory University in Atlanta, holds the world’s most important collection of Hughes’s papers.

The many unpublished sources in this archive enriched my biographical narrative of Plath. Hughes’s 1957-59 letters from America to his sister Olwyn, for example, reveal his disdain for American culture, and, paradoxically, its stimulations. He wrote in detail to Olwyn about his impressions of New York City, Cape Cod, Wellesley, Northampton, and Boston in letters full of cynicism and humor. He described the impact of philosophical and literary ideas by Lorca, Crowe Ransom, Baudelaire, Graves, and Lawrence on some of his most well-known poems, such as “View of a Pig,” “Hawk Roosting,” and “Pike,” as he wrote Lupercal. Hughes’s letters from this period also shed light on some legendary contemporaries. He writes of meeting Robert Lowell, with whom he felt an immediate kinship, and his first impressions of Lowell’s watershed collection Life Studies, which Hughes read before its publication in spring 1959. Hughes made rough journal entries, too, in Boston: I learned that he wept with relief when Plath told him he had won a Guggenheim fellowship. These were important years in Plath and Hughes’s literary lives, made more vivid by the materials in the British Library.

Hughes’s unpublished notebooks were another rich source of detail (that is, if one can decipher his notoriously difficult handwriting). Some of these notebooks contain unpublished poems by Hughes about Plath that are less well-known to the public than those of his bestselling, elegiac collection Birthday Letters. Perhaps the most interesting poems, from my biographical perspective, are in the “Trial” sequence that Hughes wrote in the 1980s when he was involved in a U.S. libel lawsuit over a film adaptation of The Bell Jar. In these poems, Hughes remembers visiting Plath at her new London flat to celebrate the publication of The Bell Jar; conversations about the novel’s heroine, Esther Greenwood; Plath’s anxiety surrounding the book’s reviews; his own decision not to read The Bell Jar until after Plath’s death; and his promise to Plath’s mother never to publish the novel in America. Hughes struggles to understand why Plath wrote The Bell Jar, and to what extent the act of writing and publishing it exacerbated her depression in 1963. The “Trial” sequence, scrawled with changes and excisions, offers a rare glimpse of Sylvia Plath as Ted Hughes remembered her in 1962 and early 1963. It confirmed, for me, the value of “slow” biography—of long weeks spent in the archive, sifting through layers of the writing left behind.

02 February 2021

The Library acquires Theatre Royal Stratford East and Theatre Workshop archive

by Helen Melody, Lead Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. You can read more about the Library's existing collections of Joan Littlewood material online at Discovering Literature 20th Century, and more about the new acquisition in our latest press release.

I am delighted to announce that the Library has acquired the archive of Theatre Royal Stratford East and Theatre Workshop for the national collection. Comprising 140 boxes of scripts, correspondence, posters, flyers, audio visual material and props the archive provides a wonderful insight into the work of the award winning theatre and the highly innovative theatre company which was based there from 1953 until 1979.

 Watch this film made by Theatre Royal Stratford East about the archive with Murray Melvin, actor, Theatre Workshop alumnus who for nearly thirty years was the honorary archivist of this collection, and my former colleague, Zoë Wilcox, to find out more.

The archive is an exciting addition the Library’s rich theatrical collections and fits particularly well with Joan Littlewood’s archive which we acquired in 2015. Joan Littlewood (1914-2002) was an internationally-renowned theatre and film director who has been described as ‘the mother of modern theatre’ for her radical vision and her innovative working methods. The archive documents her work at the theatre including a number of significant productions such as A Taste of Honey, The Hostage and Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be. It also includes some early material relating to the predecessor of Theatre Workshop, Theatre of Action (later known as Theatre Union) which was set up by Littlewood and her then husband, Ewan MacColl (1915-1989).

Theatre Royal Stratford East first opened its doors to the public in 1884 and the archive includes material from those early days, through Theatre Workshop to the tenures of the artistic directors, Ken Hill, Maxwell Shaw, Clare Venables, Philip Hedley and Kerry Michael, taking us right up to 2017. The depth and breadth of the archive mean that its contents will allow research on a wide range of subjects from agit prop theatre of the 1930s and the work of the dance artist and theorist, Rudolf Laban, through to Black and Asian theatre, and ideas of urban geography explored in Joan Littlewood’s Fun Palace project. With such a wide ranging archive it is not possible to describe everything here so I will just highlight some of the interesting items I’ve discovered so far.

Material from the earliest years of the theatre includes flyers for productions and a fragile pencil draft of a ballad entitled ‘Babes in the Wood’ which is believed to have been written by A.E. Abrahams in 1907. The archive also offers a fascinating insight into the workings of Theatre of Action/Theatre Union, the socialist theatre cooperative set up by Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl in Manchester in 1934. The company followed the principles of agit prop theatre that were developed in Russia following the Revolution. Agitprop used popular media such as theatre, literature and film to disseminate an explicitly political message and was performed in the street to audiences who might not go to traditional theatres. The archive includes scripts for a ‘Living Newspaper’ production from 1939, a reading list for the company and costume sketches. The company were trailblazers of new techniques such as their use of back projection for

MacColl’s adaptation of Hašek’s Good Soldier Schweik, the first time the effect was used in Britain. Excitingly the archive includes the original gobos used to create the distinctive effect.

 

A selection of notes programmes and other papers relating to theatre unions work in the thirties

Theatre Union montage: selection of notes, programmes and other papers relating to Theatre Union’s work in the 1930s

Correspondence in the archive also points to the experimental nature of Theatre Workshop. Littlewood was very interested in the work of the dance and movement theorist, Rudolf Laban, and his first assistant in England, Jean Newlove, later become a member of the company and taught the them his methods. The archive contains a fascinating collection of letters from Laban to Newlove in which he outlines his theories that have since became an important foundation for dancers and actors alike. Letters also highlight how the socialist outlook of Theatre Workshop affected all aspects of its work as in this letter from Gerry Raffles to a prospective member of the company shows.

 

Letter sent by gerry raffles theatre workshops manager to a prospective member of the company

Gerry Raffles letter: Letter sent by Gerry Raffles, Theatre Workshop’s manager in 1948 to a prospective member of the company © Joan Littlewood Estate

Raffles explained that “all new members are expected to undergo a fairly rigorous training in the Company’s methods of work, and there is little point in applicants attending auditions unless they are prepared to accept the obvious hardships and financial disadvantages which work in a group such as ours involves.”

As you can see the archive is particularly strong for anyone interested in Theatre Workshop and Joan Littlewood. One final thing to flag is the material relating to Oh What a Lovely War! Littlewood and the company devised the groundbreaking musical which was a satire on WW1 and war in general in line with their usual working practice. The archive includes a wide range of material on the subject from annotated scripts, lighting plots and costume lists to recordings of music for the production and photographs. One of the most interesting parts is a series of the cast notes that Littlewood wrote after each performance. These handwritten notes were pinned up on the wall providing detailed feedback for individual cast members as well as the ensemble as a whole –

 

Joan littlewoods detailed notes on a performance of oh what a lovely war

Oh, What A Lovely War! cast notes: Joan Littlewood’s detailed notes on a performance © Joan Littlewood Estate

 

Theatrical innovation continued to be a cornerstone for the Theatre Royal Stratford East long after Littlewood’s departure in the 1970s. In particular the directorships of Philip Hedley and Kerry Michael saw the development of Black and Asian theatre with highly significant productions such as D’yer eat with your fingers (1998), a satirical state-of-the-nation production derived by a company that included Shobna Gulati, Syreti Kumar and Nina Wadia and directed by Indhu Rubasingham, and The Big Life (2005) the highly successful directorial debut of Clint Dyer, which became the first All Black British Musical in the West End. Other recent examples of innovation under Kerry Michael and documented in the archive include Home Theatre (2013 and 2015), which saw bespoke one person performances in the homes of members of the public and the musical, Tommy, which was performed by Deaf and Disabled artists from Ramps on the Moon in 2017.

I would like to use this blog to pay tribute to Murray Melvin, actor and Theatre Workshop alumnus who for nearly thirty years was the honorary archivist of this collection. Murray’s careful organisation, preservation and curation of the archive mean that it is in very good condition. He also played a key role in the development of the archive as a large number of items within it were donated by former members of the theatre company and their families. This means that the archive really is a collaborative record reflecting the myriad of different groups and individuals whose lives were interwoven with the theatre over the years. I think that the archive is a fitting tribute to all of them.

 

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