David Garrick at 300

A print of David Garrick as Richard III

Events to mark the 300th anniversary of David Garrick’s birth have been taking place all year. Born in 1717, Garrick burst onto the London stage in 1841 in the role of Richard III. The Museum of London has held an exhibition relating to him. A man of many talents, he combined the functions of writer, actor and theatre manager and became the most famous person to be associated with the theatre for the rest of his lifetime, and long beyond his death.

He was a talented writer of plays but it’s as an actor that he is best remembered. Garrick knew that making his image widely known, particularly showing him in character,  would help to make him famous and increase his audiences. He was also a collector and The Garrick Club in London’s website notes:

“There are over 250 portraits of Garrick, in private and stage character, original and engraved, more than those of any other actor, and exceeded in the “Catalogue of Engraved British Portraits in The British Museum” only by those of Queen Victoria. The Garrick Club holds some 21 of them, along with his life-mask, chair, silver and other memorabilia. Important caches of material and documents about him are in the Garrick Club Library, the British Library, the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Victoria and Albert Museum. When the British Museum was established in the latter half of the eighteenth century, Garrick’s fine collection of old plays formed the nucleus of its library.”

On the subject of those 250 portraits, Dr Johnson’s House in London will continue to mark Garrick’s tercentenary into 2018 with a lecture by Sheila O’Connell entitled Prints of Me: portraits of Garrick on 31 January at 7pm.  Sheila is the curatorial advisor to Dr Johnson’s curator of prints, formerly working at the British Museum.

Garrick’s stage career is also being celebrated at Dr Johnson’s House where, on the 26 November, 3 and 10 December they are staging Star, a monologue by the Palimpsest company, featuring actor Nick Barber as Garrick. It’s set in September 1747, “as a wave of ‘Garrick Fever’ hits London for the opening of the Drury Lane Theatre under the actor’s management. With the reputation of theatre at an all-time low, Garrick sets out to make himself rich and his profession acceptable. With a Prologue to the new season written by Samuel Johnson, Garrick promises to throw new light on elocution and action, banish ranting and bombast and to restore simplicity and humour to the British Stage.”

I’ve recently been re-reading Vanessa Cunningham’s book Shakespeare and Garrick that concentrates on Garrick’s literary career. Garrick wrote a number of his own plays and the Ode that formed the main event of his Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon. He is often given credit for restoring Shakespeare’s texts to the stage after many decades when they had been plundered in order to create crowd-pleasing entertainments. Vanessa Cunningham examines this theory, looking in great detail at Garrick’s versions and how they compare with both Shakespeare’s original and other stage versions.

Vanessa Cunningham’s Shakespeare and Garrick

David Garrick had a very long relationship with Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear. He first played the part in 1742, less than a year after he had first performed in London and aged only 25. At this time audiences were used to seeing the version put together by Nahum Tate, best known for its un-Shakespearean happy ending. Tate removed words and phrases deemed offensive, invented a romance between Cordelia and Edgar, and omitted the Fool.  Early in his career Garrick would have used this adaptation more or less as written. Over his career Garrick was to play Lear eighty-five times, the last time in 1776 just before his retirement from the stage. He therefore had plenty of opportunity to restore Shakespeare’s text, and Vanessa Cunningham charts, as far as it is possible, how he changed it. In fact by the 1770s, although Garrick had reinstated 255 lines of Shakespeare he had not put back the tragic ending of the play, nor had the Fool made an appearance.

We shouldn’t judge Garrick harshly for not doing more. Audiences knew and loved the play as Tate had adapted it, and would have been outraged by major changes. Vanessa Cunningham also points out that Garrick’s theatre was very much an actor’s theatre. As well as spectacular entertainment they wanted their leading actors to dominate the plays they were in, and to provoke emotional responses. Garrick was enormously successful at appealing to his audiences.

The theatre for which Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote relied on the skill of the writer to conjure up compelling characters and situations. Although most Shakespeare performances stay close to what Shakespeare wrote, one only has to take a look at a few modern prompt books to see how many lines are cut, and how many words are changed.  The gap between stage and page is smaller than it once was, but still remains.

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Ovid and Shakespeare: the world’s greatest storytellers

Ovid: The Poet and the Emperor

Anyone who’s interested in Shakespeare will have heard the name Ovid, but how much do we really know about him? I’ve written a couple of posts on Ovid myself, but I have never really investigated the story of this great Roman poet. At last the BBC, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the independent company MayaVision have begun to do him justice. I for one would love to see more programmes on this great subject.

Two programmes were screened one after the other on 16 November 2017 on BBC4: the first, Ovid: The Poet and the Emperor was written and presented by historian Michael Wood, who examined the life and work of the poet, not just the bits that Shakespeare recycled. He visited Ovid’s birthplace where he is still celebrated in Sulmona, central Italy, Rome itself, and the cost of the Black Sea in what is now Romania, where Ovid was banished and died.

The programme’s website explains more:
“Unique among ancient poets, Ovid left us an autobiography, full of riveting intimacy, as well as ironical and slippery self-justification. Using Ovid’s own words, brought to life by one of Britain’s leading actors, Simon Russell Beale, the film tells the story of the poet’s fame, and his fateful falling out with the most powerful man in the world, the Roman emperor Augustus…

“By his twenties he was a literary superstar and a thorn in the emperor’s side, his poetry of sex and seduction falling foul of the emperor’s new puritanism, which had even outlawed adultery. In the midst of a sensational sex scandal involving his daughter, the Emperor Augustus banished Ovid to the farthest edge of the empire – the wilds of the Black Sea coast and the marshes of the Danube delta. It’s a tale full of sex, drama and scandal, but his banishment is still a mystery- as he put it, ‘my downfall was all because of a poem – and a mistake- and on the latter my lips are sealed forever’.”

Simon Russell Beale delivering one of Ovid’s poems

What I found intriguing is that Ovid continued to write after he was exiled, and these poems of separation and loss have been immensely influential ever since. The connection with the story of Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is strong: Ovid’s own banishment, his being sent to a distant place by sea, is mirrored by Prospero’s experience. Ovid’s magic, and his book, is his poetry. Was Shakespeare referring to Ovid’s own fate when he wrote that speech about how Prospero came to be on his island? Here, actor Simon Russell Beale, the RSC’s most recent Prospero, delivers both Ovid’s original and Shakespeare’s version of one of Prospero’s most famous speeches.

The second programme Ovid from the RSC: The World’s Greatest Storyteller focused in on the Metamorphoses themselves, one actor at a time delivering a story to camera using Ted Hughes’ modern translation, punctuated by discussions with Gregory Doran, the RSC’s Artistic Director. The rather static presentation, reminiscent of the RSC’s Playing Shakespeare series led by John Barton in the 1980s, allowed viewers to concentrate on the words, and the precision of the actors’ delivery. It’s perhaps not fair to single one out from a fine series of performances, but here is the link to Fiona Shaw telling the story of Echo and Narcissus.

From the documentary’s website again: “Ovid’s own words reveal an engaging personality: a voice of startling modernity. ‘He is funny, irreverent, focused on pleasure and obsessed with sex’ says Prof Roy Gibson. But, says Greg Doran, he is also a poet of cruelty and violence, which especially fascinated Shakespeare. Ovid raises very modern questions about the fluidity of identity and gender, and the mutability of nature. He also explores the relationship between writers and power and the experience of exile, themes especially relevant in our time when, as Lisa Dwan observes, exile has become part of the human condition. But above all, says Michael Wood, Ovid is the Poet of Love, and 2,000 years after his death he is back in focus as one of the world’s greatest poets: ironical, profound, and relevant.”

Michael Wood in discussion with members of the Shakespeare Club after his Presidential Address

I can’t end this post without mentioning that this year 2017-8 the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon is honoured to have Michael Wood as its President. As it happened he delivered his Presidential Address on Tuesday 14 November not on Ovid, but on Shakespeare’s Memory, in particular his Warwickshire background including the stories he would have heard at his mother’s knee. It was a wonderfully memorable evening in a season that will continue until May. Anyone wanting to know more about the Club and its activities should head to the website for full details.

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In Remembrance of Richard Spender

Richard Spender

Had Shakespeare died at the age of 21 we would all be the poorer. He would never have written anything of note: without knowing it, we would have lost his insights into human life, expressed in unrivalled poetry through vivid characters and situations. The sense of loss for young lives unfulfilled is always felt most sharply in November, when we honour those whose lives have been cut short by war, and this year in Stratford-upon-Avon it has been a particularly vivid remembrance weekend.

In March 1943 the young soldier Richard Spender died in action in North Africa. He was 21, and was beginning to make his mark as a poet. Because he died so young it’s impossible to say how successful he might have been, but there are enough clues in what he wrote to be sure that he would have been a writer of note. Spender came to live in Stratford-upon-Avon as a child and from 1930 to 1940 he studied at King Edward VI School, where Shakespeare had been a pupil. The School has now honoured Richard Spender with a brand new building that houses the school library and both the English and Computer Studies Departments. Also last week a collection of his poems together with a biography was published, altogether offering a fitting and permanent recognition. *

The Laughing Cavalier, Spender’s Collected Poems

Over the last few days I’ve been reading the book, enjoying the poetry and finding out more about Richard Spender’s short but eventful life. He was a charismatic, charming young man, hence his nickname “The Laughing Cavalier”. He became Captain of the School, and was gifted academically: in 1940 he could have gone to the University of Oxford to read History, but chose to enlist in the army instead.

Some of his poems were published during his lifetime in prestigious periodicals including the Times Literary Supplement and The Observer. Many of the poems, though, are published for the first time. They bear witness to his love of the school and of the town and surrounding countryside: rowing on the Avon was a favourite pastime and the river often finds its way into his poems. This is part of River:
The river moves beneath a breath
Of mists that swirl and whirl and eddy
In currents of a faery book. 

Dark descends, and the trees retreat into the pillow of the soft black night.
Banks fade within the breathing silence
And the river is a long glass road
Cutting the velvet of the sleeping fields
And chuckling elfishly beneath the boat.

The river too is central to a 1942 poem, The Happy Pain where he writes yearningly for peace in a world of war, even the peace of death.
I shall not know
The clouds of death that creep
In numbing suffocation slow
Over a stifled, palsied brain,
But I shall be with you and sleep
Beneath the willow trees again,
And breathe the peace the river bears,
The peace the river bears, and you.

And in the second part of Embarkation Leave he writes about Big School, the ancient schoolroom which is still in use today.
Amid the silence and the coolness of this roof,
Where the hewn beams meet upon the plaster’s white
Like fingers raised in prayer – somewhere here
Watch the spirits of a host of wise and daring men.
I stood in this music-filled stillness –
Eternity stole from the warehouse of Time –
Hearing in the distance the stamping runs and shouts
Of boys playing. I heard grave voices speak.
They have taken me by the hand and led me;

They have strengthened my heart and made it see a Truth
Which, yesterday, my eyes were feared to look upon.

Until the end of 2017 an exhibition celebrating Spender’s life is being held in Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall, including some of his original notebooks.

Tim Pigott-Smith

At the opening of the Richard Spender Building the new Library was also opened. This has been named after another formed Head Boy of the School, Tim Pigott-Smith, who died in April 2017. One of the leading actors of his generation, Tim attended the school from 1962 and 1964 and like Richard Spender remained in close contact with it. In 2013 he performed in their production of Henry V that celebrated a production of the play staged exactly 100 years before, just before the outbreak of the 1914-18 war. In this project the school has successfully made connections between several of its old boys, united as headmaster Bennet Carr has said, by “a common passion for the English language”. It has also shown the school’s extraordinary determination to celebrate its history and the achievements of its students, past, present and future.

For in this happy place is no brown winter leaf, no fallen petal.
Nothing but wild beauty in the flowers of youth.

*The Laughing Cavalier is edited by Richard Pearson, School Archivist for King Edward VI, and Perry Mills, Deputy Headmaster of King Edward VI School.

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Playbills in the spotlight

In the Spotlight

The British Library’s Digital Scholarship blog has today, 9 November 2017, launched their new crowdsourcing site In the Spotlight. This project encourages the public to help transcribe information about historic performances from the BL’s major collection of theatrical playbills dating from the 1730s to the 1950s. I first saw an announcement of this project a couple of months ago.

I’ve long been a lover of playbills, some of the most ephemeral of materials, always printed on flimsy paper in a wonderful variety of styles. They bear witness to developments in theatrical entertainment as well as the evolution of printing techniques. Early bills were small, text-only and factual, while later bills could fold out into several pages, and included illustrations and vivid descriptions of what was on offer.

A combination of publicity material and programme, people made their own collections, but just as easily could have used them to start the fire in the grate the day after the evening out. The very first production of Shakespeare known to have been performed in Stratford is recorded in a single playbill that is now in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. It was for a performance of Othello, at the Town Hall on 9 September 1746. There is no other surviving record of the performance but because of the bill we know it was put on by John Ward and his company (Ward was to be the grandfather of the great actress Sarah Siddons). We also know that it was designed to raise funds to restore “the curious original monument and bust of that incomparable poet, erected above the tomb that enshrines his dust, in the Church of Stratford upon-Avon Warwickshire [that] through length of years and other accidents become much impair’d and decay’d”.

An As You Like It Playbill from the British Library’s collection

Quoting from the website,  “these playbills list entertainments at theatres, fairs, pleasure gardens and other such venues. Small ‘handbills’ were circulated amongst theatre-goers enjoying the performance while larger ‘great bills’ were posted on walls and windows. The Library’s collection of approximately 234,000 playbills has been bound into over 1000 volumes, some of which have been digitised – and now we need your help to bring them back into the spotlight.”

“These playbills offer a wealth of historical detail with thousands of personal names of actors, playwrights, composers, and theatre managers. Less well-known and even forgotten plays are preserved alongside popular performances and much-loved dramas. Some of these plays may not have been independently recorded in printed form, while some songs may not have been committed to any printed score – transcribers may well discover previously lost plays or songs.”

Their interest to Shakespeare-lovers is obvious. Shakespeare is the author whose plays have been most consistently performed over the centuries since he worked. Many performance histories have been written, but working on the BL’s collections, covering many regional theatres as well as those in London, is certain to expand our knowledge of what was being performed, when, by whom and in what form. If you want to join in the fun, go to the website and sign up.

Back in May 2017 the Folger Shakespeare Library that I mentioned above also wrote a piece about how they are trying to get to grips with their collection of over 200,000 playbills. [If you want to read it you may have to search for “playbills” as the most recent post comes up first]. They haven’t yet taken the plunge into photographing the bills and allowing people to mark them up or enter information as the BL has, but they are working on entering data from their old card catalogues onto their online catalogue so that at least some information can be found, with bills being grouped by theatre. In her post Sarah Hoyde explains the limitations of the current approach: “The records…don’t include exact dates for the playbills at this time, identification of the playbills’ printers, or any information about the shows or actors they advertise.” Plenty of scope for the future there then!

Having worked with the relatively modest (only around 15,000) collection of playbills kept at the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford myself I’m very aware of the pitfalls for cataloguing: bills are often not dated, there are masses of inconsistencies in the names of theatres, the names of plays, authors and performers (some of whom adopted stage names). Their fragility also means that handling has to be kept to a minimum: just working through a folder or box containing playbills inevitably adds to wear and tear.

I’m thrilled, though, that attention is being given to these neglected items, often dismissed as ephemera but that convey the excitement and immediacy of live performance across the centuries.

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The importance of image: Martin Luther and the 95 Theses

Greg Copeland’s painting of Martin Luther

It’s one of the most famous of images: a simply dressed monk takes a hammer and nails, the symbols of the crucifixion of Christ, and fixes a large document to the wooden door of a church. The date was 31 October 1517, the monk was Martin Luther, and the document was his Ninety-five Theses or Disputation on the Power of Indulgences. The story goes that this act of revolutionary defiance began what came to be known as the Reformation when the Roman Catholic Church in Europe began to break up. Luther fixed his sights on the corruption of the overwhelmingly powerful Church, instead preaching the importance of individual faith and responsibility.

The bronze sculpture of Thomas Benet, “Exeter’s Luther”

Like most of the best stories, though, it’s not true. On 31 October 1517 Luther took the much less public course of writing to Albert of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz, hoping to provoke a discussion about reforming the Church from the inside. If the rather academic document was ever nailed to the church door this happened later, but came to be seen as a symbol for what followed. The now-common pictures of Luther and his document only became popular in the nineteenth century. This post from The many-headed monster blog records that the Protestant Martyr’s Memorial in Exeter includes a bronze panel showing “Exeter’s Luther”,  Thomas Benet, affixing papers to the door of the city’s Cathedral, an event which actually did happen. Benet, inspired by Luther, wrote his own thoughts about Church corruption, for which he was condemned for heresy and executed in 1532. It took until 1909 for this monument to be erected. A more recent copying of this symbolic gesture took place in 1966 when Martin Luther King nailed a set of demands for racial justice to the door of Chicago’s City Hall. Peter Marshall has written a fascinating piece on the history of this symbol here.

What, though, did Luther have to do with Shakespeare? In England the Reformation was adopted only in the reign of Henry VIII, when the Pope refused to annul his marriage. In 1534 Henry declared himself the head of the Church in England and dissolved the monasteries, confiscating their wealth. The ruins of places like Tintern Abbey are melancholy and picturesque, but it’s hard now to imagine how great the impact of their closing must have been. Religious establishments had a strong social function in addition to their overwhelming spiritual importance.

Across the country change took decades. Stratford-upon-Avon’s Guild of the Holy Cross was abolished, its governmental responsibilities taken on by a new Borough Council in 1553, and the school was refounded. Shakespeare’s father John was among the first to become involved in this new Establishment, rising to become  one of the principal burgesses and bailiff. The Council oversaw changes to the Guild Chapel, protestantizing it by whitewashing the frescoes. This removal of decoration in churches was supposed to do away with superstition and the worship of idolatrous images, but also symbolically signalled a new order.

Donald Sinden as Henry VIII, RST 1969

Shakespeare’s parents lived through some of the worst upheavals, but even under the relative stability of Queen Elizabeth’s long reign England was still a dangerous and uncertain place. When he came to write his own plays, Shakespeare knew it paid to tread carefully, especially when it came to telling a version of a true story. In his only play that deals with the period of the Reformation, Henry VIII, no blame attaches to the King. Rather than discussing religious dogma the play is mostly a series of personal tragedies. Cardinal Wolsey, disliked by all for his arrogance and power, is brought down by greed and his underhand communications with the Pope. He intended to prevent Henry from marrying Anne Boleyn, “A spleeny Lutheran”, destined to be the mother of Queen Elizabeth. Here Archbishop Gardiner warns of the strife that could erupt in England as in Saxony following the religious upheavals there:

Commotions, uproars, with a general taint
Of the whole state, as of late days our neighbours,
The upper Germany, can dearly witness,
Yet freshly pitied in our memories.

This weekend, on 3 and 4 November 2017, a two-day conference is taking place at the National Archives in Kew focusing on research into the Reformation that has been carried out using records from the National Archives themselves. Entitled “Reformation on the Record” it will feature more than 30 speakers from academic institutions across the UK and to quote their publicity “It is our intention to create a network of scholars and postgraduates researching the Reformation using our documents, and to develop the profile of The National Archives as a hub for Reformation studies.” A Facebook research group has already been set up and there are some great educational resources in place.

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Shakespeare in Soviet Russia

Innokenti Smoktunovsky as Hamlet in the 1964 Russian film

On 25 October 1917 (following the Julian calendar, 7 November on the Gregorian Calendar), the Bolsheviks took over Petrograd. The following day they took the Winter Palace and with it control of Russia. Thus began the Russian Revolution, one of the most influential political events of the twentieth century.

Shakespeare had long been popular in Russia. Even in the 17th century English touring players performed there, and in the eighteenth century adaptations appeared along with a few translations. It was in the nineteenth century though that Shakespeare became really popular when the poet Pushkin began adapting his plays and the first collection of the collected works was published in 1841. Productions,  particularly Hamlet, were staged in Moscow and Petersburg and in the 1850s and 1860s the black actor Ira Aldridge toured with Othello and The Merchant of Venice.

After the 1917 revolution Shakespeare, like all cultural figures, was examined with suspicion. To some in the Soviet Union, Shakespeare’s work was aristocratic and therefore to be condemned, to others he showed a love for ordinary people. As a major world cultural figure Shakespeare was difficult to condemn and eventually his work was officially approved. In Stalinist Russia many writers found it impossible to write for themselves and Boris Pasternak found a way of expressing himself in translating Shakespeare. The Folger Shakespeare Library’s The Collation blog notes: “Unable to publish his own work, Pasternak was able to speak, at least somewhat, through the mouth of a man who had been dead for three hundred years.”

The Folger Shakespeare Library contains some fascinating correspondence from 1942 between the Library’s then Director Joseph Quincy Adams and a group of Russian writers suffering as Pasternak was. They wrote how Shakespeare’s works gave them the strength to carry on: “today the sublime idealism embodied in the works of Shakespeare serves as a living bond for the unity of all progressive mankind in the tremendous battle against the dark forces of violence and falsehood.”

Productions of Shakespeare’s plays, especially Hamlet, came to be enjoyed for their subversive qualities. A BBC article about a production of Hamlet in Lithuania brought to London in 2012 notes “In Soviet-era Lithuania, there were productions of Shakespeare for which people queued through the night for tickets. Shakespeare was culture with official approval, but as one of the few alternatives to tales about earnest Soviet heroes, it was also a way for theatre directors to symbolically address forbidden issues. Going to the theatre had an excitement it perhaps lacks nowadays”

Andrius Mamontovas as Hamlet in the Lithuanian production, 2012

Andrius Mamontovas who played Hamlet said “I miss those secret messages… there were always little secret messages from the artist to the audience. But there’s no need for that now because you can say what you want openly”.

Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s we have moved into a post-Soviet world. Looking back, Soviet Russia achieved distinction in three Shakespeare films: Othello, directed by Sergei Yutkevich in 1955, Grigori Kosintsev’s Hamlet  in 1964 and his 1971 King Lear. The stunning black and white Hamlet is the best-known, and extremely striking. It uses Pasternak’s translation with a score by Shostakovich, and is based on a 1954 production staged in Leningrad just a year after Stalin’s death. The film is given added edge by the knowledge that the actor playing Hamlet, Innokenti Smoktunovsky, had been sent to the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin.  Kosintsev himself commented that “Hamlet is tormented by what is happening in the prison state around him”, a reference to Hamlet’s line “Denmark’s a prison”.

On a less political level we also remember Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, first staged in 1935-6, appearing in Moscow from 1946, one of the most popular of ballets based on a Shakespeare play.

If you’d like to read more on this subject, this article by Andrew Dickson considers the history of Shakespeare in Russia.

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Theatregoing with Luke McKernan

Luke McKernan

Following on from my post about the MOOC that began 23 October 2017, I’ve only just discovered a relatively new site that reproduces lots of material relating to going to the theatre, put together by the British Library’s prolific Lead Curator of News and Moving Image, Luke McKernan.

Entitled Theatregoing, here is Luke’s description of what the site does:

“The aim of this site is to document the experience of going to the theatre. It does this by gathering eyewitness testimony from diaries, letters, blogs, newspaper articles, memoirs, reports, travel books, pamphlets, histories, photographs and illustrations. By ‘theatre’ is meant all forms of live theatrical performance: stage plays, opera, musicals, concerts, dance, music hall, variety and more. The interest is not in formal reviews (though there are some of these) but rather in informal documents that document the audience’s particular engagement with theatregoing.”

What I particularly like about this approach is that he brings to the fore descriptions often written by ordinary people, not just professional critics. There are links to online versions if they exist and “no distinction or qualification is made about the form of the memory recorded. All written records, and all memories, are subjective”.

Inevitably many of the reports are for Shakespeare productions, including the famous writings of Thomas Platter and Samuel Pepys. Here is Pepys’ judgement from 1662 on what is now one of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies:

I sent for some dinner and there dined, Mrs. Margaret Pen being by, to whom I had spoke to go along with us to a play this afternoon, and then to the King’s Theatre, where we saw “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream,” which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life. I saw, I confess, some good dancing and some handsome women, which was all my pleasure.

A country theatre, 1790, from the British Library

The site includes lots of material I haven’t encountered before. Here’s an extract from a record of a performance of The Merchant of Venice staged in some kind of put-up theatre in Keswick in 1792, written by Joseph Budworth and reproduced in his book A Fortnight’s Ramble to the Lakes in Westmoreland, Lancashire, and Cumberland (full details are on the website):

In the evening we went to see the Merchant of Venice in an unroofed house. The sky was visible through niches of boards laid across the upper beams. The walls were decorated, or rather hid, with cast-off scenes, which shewed in many places a rough unplastered wall. Some of the actors performed very well, and some very middling. Their poverty shall stop the pen of criticism; and their endeavours were well expressed by their motto – “TO PLEASE.”

Between the acts a boy, seated upon an old rush chair in one corner of the stage, struck up a scrape of a fiddle. By his dress, which was once a livery, we suppose he was a servant of all work, and had belonged to the manager in better days. But I must do Shylock the justice to say, he performed well; and although no person bawled out “this is the Jew that Shakspeare drew,” when he was expressing his satisfaction at Antonio’s misfortunes, a little girl in the gallery roared, “O mammy! mammy! what a sad wicked fellar that man is!”

It’s interesting to see how often these descriptions talk about other members of the audience and their reactions, as well as subjects don’t have much to do with the play.  Some of them, like Thomas Platter’s writings, have provided us with lots of information about what Shakespeare’s theatre was like. This entertaining site is regularly updated and very much worth signing up for. While you’re at it do take a look at Luke’s companion blog, Picturegoing, that does the same thing for film history. You’ll find a link from the About page of Theatregoing.

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Aphra Behn, the first professional woman writer

Aphra Behn, painted by Mary Beale

In England, after Shakespeare’s death there followed a period of tremendous change, with the Civil War and execution of the reigning king, Charles 1, followed by the Commonwealth under Cromwell. When the monarchy was restored in 1660 and Charles II made king everything was different again. Charles II, often known as the merry monarch, encouraged the arts and attitudes to women and sex were also transformed.  Nowhere was this seen more than in the theatres, reopened after nearly two decades, where women were for the first time allowed onstage. The presence of actresses on stage, particularly in breeches parts like Shakespeare’s Viola in Twelfth Night, where they showed their ankles and legs, ensured an audience. A career in the theatre might have sometimes been equated with prostitution but it was certainly a step up.

Women were liberated in other ways too. Aphra Behn was the first professional female writer, and born in 1640 she came along at just the right time to make the most of Charles II’s accession. Little is known of her background though her father is thought to have been a barber. She led an exciting life, marrying young  (it isn’t clear whether her husband died or they separated), going abroad as a successful spy, then returning to London where she became a celebrated author. Between 1670 and her death in 1689 at the early age of 49 she wrote around 19 plays, short stories, poems and novels. This genre didn’t really exist before.

Her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, on the subject of unhappy marriage, was a success. Her plays often featured tragic women trapped by their sexual desires and victims of circumstance. Many of these roles were written for Elizabeth Barry, one of the most famous actresses of the time. Today her most often-produced play is The Rover, first put on in 1677, in which Nell Gwynn starred. Her fictional tale Oroonoko which she wrote shortly before she died was an exploration of slavery and race, and as such has become well known.

Behn’s fame resulted in several portraits being painted: one by Peter Lely, court painter to Charles II and his court, a lost painting by John Riley and another by Mary Beale. Mary Beale was another woman who made her way in a man’s profession following the Restoration, being the first female to make her living  as a painter, very much influenced by Peter Lely. Like Behn, her work is now becoming better known, and coincidentally she is one of the subjects of a recent BBC TV documentary Britain’s Lost Masterpieces. This is a clip from the show and here is the link to the whole programme, available to watch again until 10 November 2017.  Peter Lely’s painting of Aphra Behn featured in a 2016 exhibition about Samuel Pepys at the Royal Museums Greenwich. There’s a lot more information here.

On Aphra Behn’s death in 1689 an anonymous poem by “a young lady of quality” was published. An Elegy Upon the Death of Mrs A Behn, the Incomparable Astraea asks:
“Who now of all the inspired Race,
Shall take Orinda’s Place?
Or who the Hero’s Fame shall raise?
Who now shall fill the Vacant Throne?”

With no woman to succeed her,
“Let all our Hopes despair and dye,
Our Sex for ever shall neglected lye;
Aspiring Man has now regain’d the Sway,
To them we’ve lost the Dismal Day…”

Tod Randolph as Aphra Behn in Or, performed by Shakespeare & Co

As predicted by the writer of the poem, Aphra Behn had no successor, and her work went completely out of fashion.  Her work may still be a rarity on stage but her extraordinary life and achievements are gradually becoming better known. Janet Todd wrote her biography Aphra Behn: Her Secret Life in 1996 and in 2017 has updated and republished it. On 12 October 2017 Behn was the subject of the excellent Radio 4 series In Our Time, in which Todd spoke. An extended version of the programme is available from the BBC, and a bibliography of works about her is also on the site.

Behn has also been the subject of at least three recent plays including Liz Duffy Adams’ 2010 play Or , which has been performed by both Shakespeare & Company in Lennox Massachusetts and the Southwest Shakespeare Company in Arizona.

Aphra Behn’s gravestone in Westminster Abbey

Aphra Behn’s grave, still to be seen in Westminster Abbey, celebrates her wit and the transience of her fame:
Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be
Defence enough against Mortality

The restoration of her reputation began in the early twentieth century when she was championed by Virginia Woolf who wrote in A Room of One’s Own: “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn,… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds”.

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Shakespeare: Print and Performance

The 1599 Second Quarto of Romeo and Juliet

For many years, even centuries, there was a huge divide between Shakespeare’s plays as they were performed and how they appeared in print. Scholars wrestled with the numerous different editions of the plays issued in the early modern period, trying to establish what Shakespeare actually intended to write, and quibbling over variant words and spellings. Meanwhile acting companies carried on performing the plays, heavily cut or adapted as suited the fashion of the day. Nobody much cared about how the plays had originally been performed. But gradually the two different ways of looking at Shakespeare came closer. Academics, realising that actors could often shed light on the plays, began to take the study of performance history and original performance techniques seriously. In the theatre, the rise of directors with an academic rather than theatrical background ensured that close examination of the texts became more important. Studying Shakespeare from page to stage has now become the norm.  

The Futurelearn MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) Shakespeare: Print and Performance, that first ran last year is now being re-run beginning on 23 October 2017. It promises to be a really interesting introduction to the subject that will take up 2 hours a week for 4 weeks. It’s been developed by King’s College London in partnership with Shakespeare’s Globe and the British Library, three organisations that traditionally would represent  different approaches to Shakespeare.

While the teaching comes from King’s, those on the course will be told about both current and early modern stage practices. “We’ll meet practitioners at the Globe and we’ll step into the world of the early modern actor to examine the processes and conditions that were at the heart of Shakespearean playhouse.” The British Library will supply priceless manuscripts and early printed texts, and the course will look at how the early modern book trade shaped the journey of Shakespeare’s text.  

One of the team, Erica Moulton, gives some details:
Shakespeare likely had nothing to do with the printing and distribution of his own plays, and at first many of these printed editions did not even bear his name. For instance, Romeo and Juliet was printed in 1597 and then again in 1599.

The “first quarto”, sometimes called the “bad quarto” is often thought to be a memorial reconstruction rather than based on Shakespeare’s own “foul papers”, a fact that the printer of the second quarto draws attention to when he writes that his edition is “newly corrected, augmented, and amended” in 1599.

As Shakespeare’s name and reputation as a playwright grew, publishers and booksellers began to use his name on the title pages of his plays (and even on plays that he did not write). It was a full seven years after his death that two of the players from his company, John Heminges and Henry Condell, compiled his works for the First Folio in 1623.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

During his lifetime, Shakespeare’s focus remained on the playhouse, or playhouses, as was the case when his company finally acquired the right to perform at Blackfriars in 1608. After that, they split their time between the indoor Blackfriars during the winter and the Globe in the summer.”

One of the highlights of the course will be the sessions filmed in Shakespeare’s Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, their intimate theatre that reproduces as closely as possible the indoor theatres at which Shakespeare’s plays were performed, very different from the big open air playhouses like the Globe.

The aim of the course is to get closer to Shakespeare and to enrich people’s engagement with the plays whether they encounter them in print or performance. As with all MOOCs, it is free and very easy to register. Those taking part will be able to join in online discussions where they will be able to share their experiences of Shakespeare on stage.

Stationers’ Hall

I recently heard about another online resource that would enable those whose interest has been whetted to dig a bit deeper. The Stationers’ Company is a London livery company that regulated to early book trade. From 1557-1923 all published material had to be registered by them. The Stationers’ Company Archive contains rare documents dating from 1554 that relate to printing, publishing, bookselling and bookbinding. The documents digitised include their registers of new books, including Shakespeare’s First Folio from 1623, and membership records dating from 1555 to the late 20th century documenting the history of the printing and publishing community.

While I’m sure this is a wonderful resource for those who can access it,  I’m very disappointed to find that unless you are affiliated to a university you can’t get past the  homepage. It’s really irritating to be welcomed and encouraged to explore only to find that nearly all options lead to a blank sign-in sheet. I completely understand that digitisation has to be paid for, but in these days of Open Access surely it would be possible to provide some free content, or a pay per view option? As the growth in MOOCs shows, the interest in lifelong learning is widespread, and family historians would also be keen to search these biographical resources. But good luck to anyone able to enjoy the site!

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A German Hamlet: Fratricide Punished

Photographs taken during the puppet performance of “Der Berstraffe Brudermord” by The Hidden Room theatre company on the fourth day of the Blackfriars Conference at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia on Saturday, October 26, 2013.
Photo by Pat Jarrett

There are many unanswered questions regarding Shakespeare’s plays, many of which relate to Hamlet, Shakespeare’s best-known play. The German Der Bestrafte Brudemord, known in English as Fratricide Punished, is one of the earliest known versions of Hamlet in a foreign language. The play was published in Germany in 1781 but the text itself dated from 1710, years before a proper translation had been made. Rather typically the original text has since vanished. It was translated into English in 1865.

At only a fifth the length of the original play it has often puzzled academics. Tiffany Stern writes “It tells an exaggerated, action-filled version of the story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet that is often hilarious. The Ghost of Hamlet’s father sneaks behind the sentries to box their ears;… Hamlet rids himself of two murderers by asking them to shoot him at the same time. He ducks and they shoot one another instead.”

Most of the philosophical musings of Shakespeare’s play have been ditched along with the poetry. You’ll remember that the death of Ophelia is announced by Gertrude in one of the most memorable speeches in Hamlet. Not here:

Queen:  Gracious Lord and King, I am the bearer of sad tidings.
King:  Heaven forbid; what is it?
Queen: Ophelia has climbed a high hill, and cast herself down and taken her own life.

This might not seem to owe much to Shakespeare’s play, but here is Claudius’s first speech, even in translation sounding much more familiar:

King:  Though yet our brother’s death is fresh in memory of all and it befits us to suspend all state-celebrations, yet from this time it is needful for us to change our black mourning garb to crimson, purple, and scarlet, since my late departed brother’s widow has now become our dearest spouse. Wherefore I pray you, let everyone show himself joyful and make himself a partner in our mirth. But you, Prince Hamlet, pray you, be happy. See here your mother, how sad and troubled she is by your melancholy. Also we have learned that you have resolved to go back to Wittenberg. For the sake of your mother, do not do so. Stay here, for we love you and like to see you, and should not wish any harm to overtake you. Stay with us at court, or, if not, betake yourself to Norway, to your kingdom.

Tiffany Stern again: “What is this slapstick bawdy romp of a Shakespeare tragedy? And how did it come about? For years Shakespeareans have been confused by ‘Der Bestrafte Brudermord’. Is it a unique record of the play preceding Shakespeare’s Hamlet? A corrupt version of Shakespeare’s play? An adaptation?”

There is thought to have been a lost version of Hamlet that was a source of Shakespeare’s play. This is known as the “ur-Hamlet” and Fratricide Punished was closely examined as it might relate to this early play. The first known performance of Hamlet in Germany was put on by English actors in 1626, which might account for an early version being found there.

Wolmark, Alfred Aaron; William Poel (1852-1934); Royal Shakespeare Company Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/william-poel-18521934-54992

As a text clearly written for performance there have been a number of explanatory productions in England. The earliest was put on by the pioneering director William Poel on 11 October 1924. Poel had founded the Elizabethan Stage Society in 1895 in order to re-create original staging conditions, and even before this date, in 1881, he had staged Hamlet using the First Quarto text with minimal scenery and props. With a number of “Globe” theatres now operating around the world it’s perhaps hard for us to imagine how daring this was but in his own time Poel was extremely influential.

More recently academics have been looking at the play with renewed interest. I’ve already mentioned Tiffany Stern’s 2014 paper, followed by a lecture at the Britgrad Conference in 2105. From that 2014 paper she explains her continuing interest: “Yet what gave me pause was a stranded marionette now residing in The Collection of Zanella-Pasqualini, Bologna. Called “Amleto”,this Hamlet puppet was apparently carved by Pietro Resoniero (1640-1735) for performance in the Judenmarkt, Vienna, in 1667. That means that a puppet Hamlet did indeed circulate abroad before the play was formally translated.”

Her talk was followed by a puppet version of Fratricide Punished by Hidden Room Theatre, whose director Beth Burns is convinced that the play was intended to be a puppet show. The version has also been put on in different venues, but the idea remains controversial as June Schlueter has written a more cautious article noting that there is a lack of documentary evidence for performance of puppet-plays on the Continent. So more research into this very Shakespearean puzzle is required.

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