English and Drama blog

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


From Shakespeare’s First Folio to live recordings of experimental theatre, from Charlotte Brontë’s love letters to Wendy Cope’s emails, our collections offer unique, fascinating and unexpected sources for your research. Discover more about our manuscript, printed, digital and audiovisual collections here. Follow us on Twitter: @BLEnglish_Drama. Read more

23 April 2014

More Shakespeare

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To commemorate 450 years since Shakespeare's birth here is a rough list (Download Shakespeare Recordings BL) of live theatre audio recordings of Shakespeare plays held at the British Library.

A total of 368 productions from the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company (plus Renaissance Theatre Company and some others), mainly recorded between 1963 and 2013.

The plays are listed alphabetically by title. Each brief recording entry includes: production year; Library call number; director; and in the case of Hamlet, the name of the lead actor.

Hamlet is the best represented play in the collection, with twenty three recordings. It is also the first play recorded by the Library’s live theatre recording programme (22 October 1963 at the National Theatre in the Old Vic, starring Peter O’Toole and directed by Laurence Olivier).

Over the decades, many of the nation’s greatest actors have appeared in these various productions. Find out full cast of each production, the venue and further details by typing the call number into the Sound and Moving Image catalogue.

This is an ongoing collection: the RSC send us their own audio recordings. We no longer record at the NT, since they have had their own video recording programme since 2008.

All the recordings listed are available to listen to free at the British Library but you may need to make an appointment.

I would be happy to answer any enquiries about the collection. Please feel free to use the comments box below.

17 April 2014

Laurie Lee's lost diary discovered

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by Zoë Wilcox, Curator of Modern Literary and Theatrical Manuscripts

IMG_8740 - Copy
Photograph by Janet Benoy

If you visit the British Library’s Treasures Gallery from today you can see a special display about Laurie Lee’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War. It is the poet’s centenary this year, so we have dedicated three cases in the gallery to an exhibition largely drawn from his archive, which was acquired by the Library in 2002. You have the chance to see a page from a draft of his most famous book, Cider With Rosie, but the main focus of the exhibition is Lee’s experiences in Spain in the 1930s. Years later he wrote about his part in the Spanish Civil War in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969) and A Moment of War (1991), but a controversy blew up in the press over the accuracy of his story. Why had the account taken him so long to write? Was he nearly executed? Did he really kill a man? If only Laurie Lee’s diaries from the period hadn’t been stolen when he returned to Spain to make a documentary in 1969, we might be able to answer these questions.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 Laurie Lee was busking around Spain with his violin. He was evacuated by the British Navy soon after the outbreak of war, but he wasn’t home long before a feeling of guilt set in. ‘I feel sick at all that has happened [in Spain] and the vast reproach of my having lifted not a finger to help,’ he wrote in his diary in September 1937. Despite being physically weak and epileptic, Lee returned to Spain in December that year to join the International Brigades fighting Franco’s Nationalist forces.  He was there for just 11 weeks before leaving Spain feeling he had ‘done nothing’ to help the Republican cause. This feeling of dishonour was to remain with him for the rest of his life, despite the fact that International Brigade records show his conduct to have been ‘exemplary’.

Questions about the veracity of Laurie Lee’s account only came to public attention after his death in 1997. Some British veterans from the International Brigades thought he had exaggerated his part in the conflict. They didn’t believe that he would have seen frontline action (though he doesn’t actually claim that he did) or been assigned to ‘special duties’ tracking down political undesirables. In his critique of A Moment of War, Bill Alexander—a commander of the British Battalion in Spain—even claimed that Lee had never joined the International Brigades. This claim was disproved by Dr Barry McLoughlin and Lee’s biographer Valerie Grove in the late 1990s, and you can see an official document  proving that he was a member of the Brigades in this display. Some other aspects of the story are impossible to verify and you will have to make up your own mind.

If only we had those diaries…. Well actually, it turns out that we do have one of Lee’s diaries from 1936-1937. Somehow this one escaped being stolen in 1969 and has been here in the British Library since 2002, albeit misdated in the catalogue due to a mistake on the inventory supplied at the time of acquisition. It turns out that even Laurie Lee’s biographer wasn’t aware of the diary’s existence until now.

  1936-37 diary Wanting to Return - Copy
A page from Laurie Lee's recently discovered 1936-37 diary (Add MS 88936/5/66). In the entry at the top of the page from September 1937 Lee describes his reaction to seeing Picasso's painting 'Guernica' (created in response to the bombing of Guernica) in the 1937 World's Fair in Paris. Three months later Lee returned to Spain to fight for the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. © Laurie Lee Estate

The 1936-37 diary comes to an end the month before Lee crossed the Pyrenees to join the International Brigades, so unfortunately it can’t answer any of those big unsolved questions, but it does cover the three months leading up to the outbreak of war in 1936. During those three months Laurie Lee describes the growing unrest in the Andalusian fishing village where he was living. He recounts the accidental bombing of the village by a friendly warship (which he later wrote about in As I Walked Out) and observes a tax collector being driven out of town by angry villagers. There are more details about his hand-to-mouth existence on the road, but most moving of all are the entries from the autumn of 1937. Laurie Lee had fallen in love with Lorna Wishart, wife of the publisher Ernest Wishart (and later muse to Lucian Freud), and the diary entries from the days he spent with her in France before returning to war make for difficult reading – his happiness with Lorna serving to deepen his guilt at leaving Spain.  You will see one of these entries on display in the exhibition.

Other highlights are autograph draft pages from As I Walked Out and A Moment of War. The manuscripts show Lee crafting his narrative with a poet’s care and attention – seemingly redrafting passages over and over till he was satisfied with the rhythm of his sentences, as well as the words. The drafts are displayed alongside mementoes such as the violin permit from Lee’s first trip to Spain and the meal tickets issued to him as a new recruit to the International Brigades. There are letters from Wilma Gregory – who is not mentioned by name in Lee’s books but supported him financially in 1936-37 and led a campaign to have him sent back from the war. We’ve also drawn on our Philatelic collections to put Lee’s story in context with the experiences of other British volunteers. Laurie Lee: Memories of War will be on display in the British Library Treasures Gallery (which is free to everyone) until 20 July 2014, so you have plenty of time to come and see the lost diary and the other items on display.

This display isn’t our only tribute to Laurie Lee. We’re also hosting a celebration of Laurie Lee’s life and legacy on 6 June with Louis de Bernières, Tim Dee, Adam Horovitz, P.J. Kavanagh and Brian Patten. Before that, on 30 May, writer P D Murphy will talk about Laurie Lee’s Spanish travels in the conference Spain Through British Eyes. Tickets for both these events are available now from the British Library Box Office. Then in August we are publishing an audio CD of Laurie Lee recordings – a selection of readings and interviews drawn from the British Library and BBC collections. For more information on Laurie Lee events elsewhere, and publications have a look at the official centenary website.



11 April 2014

‘Don’t rip up old stories’: repeating oneself in Beckett’s Echo’s Bones

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By Matthew Riddell

Samuel Beckett in 1977, by Roger Pic

Visitors to the Library’s Rare Books and Music Reading Room can consult the first edition of Samuel Beckett's More Pricks Than Kicks, an unprepossessing dun-covered hardback stamped by the British Museum soon after publication in May 1934. (Check out the Beckett Collection at Reading for the richest hoard of Beckettiana). But this first and all subsequent editions of MPTK were a story short.

Eighty years since Chatto & Windus published MPTK, Beckett’s first collection of fiction, Faber & Faber have published Echo's Bones (the title comes from Ovid’s Metamorphosis), a final 'recessional' to the Dublin vagaries of its protagonist, Belacqua, whose name alludes to the lazy Florentine lute-maker appearing in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

In 1931, Chatto had printed Beckett’s monograph Proust, an astonishing hybrid of art and criticism dismissed as ‘cheap flashy philosophical jargon’ by its own author who, in a copy that surfaced in a second-hand bookshop in Dublin, appears to have annotated it thus in a curious caveat emptor to his reading public. But the publisher rejected in 1932 the highly experimental novel A Dream of Fair To Middling Women (posthumously published in 1992).

Comparison of correspondence between Beckett and Chatto’s editor Charles Prentice, with that to friend Thomas MacGreevy reporting the latest reply from ‘Shatton & Windup’, testifies to Beckett’s frustrations in publishing his early work. So when Prentice proposed an additional story to extend MPTK, Beckett was quick to oblige; presumably with misgivings, for Belacqua had died under a Royal Surgeon’s scalpel in the story 'Yellow' and had now to be resurrected. A reply from Prentice is dated three days after receiving Beckett's manuscript:

It is a nightmare. Just too horribly persuasive. It gives me the jim-jams … People will shudder and be puzzled and confused… I am certain that Echo's Bones would depress the sales very considerably ... the only plea for mercy I can make is that the icy touch of those revenant fingers was too much for me ... Please write kindly.

‘Profoundly discouraged’, the 26 year-old Beckett lamented the rejection of a story 'into which I put all I knew.' Snippets were rapidly salvaged for use elsewhere in MPTK and he later bestowed the title on a collection of poems, Echo’s Bones: And other precipitates (1935).

But here it is at last in all its strangeness, brilliance, difficulty. A queasy précis: Belacqua finds himself smoking a cheroot in a fairy-tale Purgatory and sitting (significantly) on a fence penning Galloway cattle. He who spent his earthly existence ‘between a bottle and a mirror’ no longer casts a shadow or appears in a glass. A prostitute offers him compassion and Cuban rum with fried garlic. The male-heirless, aspermatic giant Lord Gall begs Belacqua to save his estate by assisting in Lady Gall’s conception which, notwithstanding her syphilis, Belacqua does. But it’s a girl. There is also debate about how much God there is in an elephant vis-a-vis an oyster, a rogue ostrich named Strauss, and asphodels. The story closes rompingly in a seaside cemetery, the groundsman and Belacqua exhuming his own grave with a wager on its contents.

Note nerds and puzzled readers (fair cop, Prentice) are helped along the way by editor Mark Nixon’s caravan of annotations, which, hitched to the well-travelled bathchair of John Pilling (do Beckett scholars ever retire?), exceeds the text itself in length, allowing us to trail Beckett camouflaging the foraged chestnuts of his favourite authors in Belacqua’s jungle. This is the prevailing intertextual method to Beckett’s pre-war fiction culminating in the tighter, high-wire act of Murphy (1938)

Particularly fascinating for the fanatics will be the autoplagiaristic patterns disclosed fore and aft in the oeuvre by Echo’s Bones. A few: the mandrake believed to sprout from the emissions of the hanged in Waiting for Godot (1953), the dog of Proverbs chained to its vomit symbolising Habit in Proust, and the mysterious Mr Quin of Mercier and Camier (1946), Malone Dies (1951) and Watt (1953)… a nod, perhaps, to the man in the mackintosh in Joyce’s Ulysses.


(Detail) A mandrake chained to a dog which pulls it from the ground. Originally published/produced in S. Netherlands (Liège); circa 1175. © The British Library Board



Samuel Beckett, Echo’s Bones (London, Faber & Faber, 2014)

The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1, 1929-1940: v.1 (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Deidre Bair, Samuel Beckett: A Biography (London, Jonathan Cape, 1978), 109.


For Beckettiana in the BL collections see:

  • More Pricks Than Kicks (Cup.410.f.549)
  • Playscripts in directors/actors archives, such as the script of 'Catastrophe' in the Gielgud archive (Add MS 81371) and scripts in the Peter Gill papers.
  • Correspondence with Harold Pinter (Add MS 88880/7/2)
  • Correspondence with B S Johnson (Add MS 89001/5/1/4)
  • Copies of letters: ‘Letter Signed from Samuel Beckett to Harry Sinclair, written shortly after having been stabbed in Paris, 2 February 1938’ (RP 7757/2), and further letters and postcards to Sinclair at  RP 4309/1 and RP 7938/2, and an early draft of 'Words and Music', dated 15.2.61 (RP 9947)