THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

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

Introduction

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

28 July 2016

Richard Burbage and The Dead Man's Fortune

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

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

  Dead Mans Fortune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burbage portrait Dulwich College

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

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

21 July 2016

Zine but not heard: printed ephemera and research

by Fearghus Roulston, PHD student working on the British Library's zine collections

The British Library’s Punk 1976-1978 exhibition, marking punk’s 40th anniversary, hits some familiar and satisfying beats. Malcom McLaren as Situationist svengali; the Sex Pistols as trend-setting provocateurs; the cut-and-paste, DIY aesthetic of the posters and record sleeves that mushroomed up between 1976 and 1978. More than 100 audio selections feature everybody from the Adverts to X-Ray Spex. A less familiar element emerges from a glass box of fanzines – Alternative Ulster, Bored Stiff, Suburban Press, Secret Public, – that testify to punk’s status as a national scene that reverberated far beyond the King’s Road and the Roxy.

Chrislow1

Fanzine created by and reproduced with kind permission of Chris Low

In Roger Sabin’s excellent 1999 collection of essays on the cultural legacy of punk, Paul Cobley makes an obvious point that bears repeating. Describing the hassle-laden experience of being a teenage punk in 1970s Wigan, he says: “Among the many myths of punk rock, probably the most insidious is that it was an entirely London-based phenomenon.” This myth has been pretty thoroughly deflated, of course, but a look at the zines in the library’s collection adds another puncture – Cobley adds that although provincial punk rock may be less spectacular than its London counterpart, “this is no reason to write it out of history”.

We have punk zines from Cardiff (Oh Cardiff, Up Yours!), as displayed in another recent blog post), from Nottingham (Repeated Patterns), from Belfast (Alternative Ulster), from Cornwall (Barricade) and from Aberdeen (Granite City). They display a lively and self-conscious engagement with the myth of punk on the part of participants in the scene, many of whom identify not only against a putative mainstream culture but also against the metropolitan, or trendy, London punk scene. For a researcher trying to understand punk as inchoate and localised and specific, or trying to map its regional manifestations beyond the usual periodization of 1976 to 1978, these are an invaluable resource.

BLZines

Zines from the British Library collections. Top row: Intrusion (Orpington) ZD.9.b.109; Its different for grils (Sheffield) ZD.9.b.108; City fun (Manchester) ZD.9.b.257; Repeated Patterns (Nottingham) ZD.9.b.555 Bottom row: Blades 'n' shades (Birmingham) ZD.9.b.986; No solution (Liverpool)  ZD.9.b.1416; Granite city (Aberdeen) ZD.9.b.1411; Sunset gun (Glasgow)  ZD.9.b.1414

Looking at zines as a way of historicising and contextualising the punk scene allows us to re-map its connections to other youth cultures of the 1970s and 80s, creating a fuller and more colourful picture. As Matt Worley has shown, zines also help to chart the line between punk and politics on both a local and a national level. At their best they offer up very personal, very direct evocations of cultural affiliation that both complicate and enrich our understanding of what is meant by ‘punk’.

And on International Zine Day, it is worth stressing the importance of these kinds of publications within the library’s broader remit. Punk is only one aspect of a multi-faceted and eclectic group of self-published pamphlets and booklets. The library holds zines on radical politics, activism, veganism, football, race, mental health, gender and a range of other topics. This esoteric subject base is worth listing at length because it suggests the rich possibilities such a collection offers for researchers interested in engaging with social life outside of the mainstream. It also allows us to think about this kind of social life in its own terms, rather than on terms that have been refracted through the national press or a retrospective historical lens.

Chrislow2

Fanzine created by and reproduced with kind permission of Chris Low

The sample of punk zines above could be read as skewing very white and very male (More On, the genesis of which is described here, is an interesting exception to the general rule). Given that one of the most exciting elements of the contemporary revitalisation of zine publishing is the platform it has provided for non-white and non-male voices, particularly in the form of perzines (or personal zines), it’s exciting that as the library’s collection develops it can seek out other voices from outside of the mainstream in the form of this new wave of zines.

But this raises a new set of problems to finish on. What’s the relationship between archiving these documents and incorporating them into a culture they are trying to critique? Classification is difficult, especially for zines that range across a number of different topics. How does a curator or a librarian balance the demands of accessibility with the need to respect and engage with the creators of zines and their wishes? Some zines, especially those that deal frankly with personal topics, may have been intended only for a select and sympathetic audience. A sensitive, radical approach is proposed in the Zine Librarians Code of Ethics, but the conversation about how libraries engage with this kind of material is one that will continue as long as zines continue to proliferate. For researchers as well as zinesters and librarians, this conversation should be a productive and interesting one.

Further Reading

Punk Rock So What? The Cultural Legacy of Punk, Roger Sabin (ed), Routledge, 1999

Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, Greil Marcus, Faber and Faber, 2011

‘Punk, Politics and British (fan)zines, 1976–84: ‘While the world was dying, did you wonder why?’, Matt Worley, History Workshop Journal, 2015

http://zinewiki.com/

http://zinelibraries.info/                                                                                                                                                      

19 July 2016

The Mystery in the Mystery Novel: Does William Henry Fox Talbot appear in Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White?

by Jonathan Pledge, Curator, Contemporary Politics and Public Life

Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) was a popular Victorian novelist who is credited with publishing both the first ‘sensation’ novel The Woman in White (1859) and the first modern English detective novel The Moonstone (1868). One of the many reasons his novels were so popular was his clever characterisation and his sharp satirical observations concerning the social conventions of Victorian England.

There is one passage in the The Woman in White that deals with Frederick Fairlie Esquire, the misthanthropic, hypochondriac aesthete, who having married off his ward, the beautiful Miss Laura Fairlie, and freed from his responsibility towards her, sets about recording his real love his ‘treasures and curiosities’.

‘His last caprice has let him to keep two photographers incessantly employed in producing sun-pictures of all the treasures and curiosities in his possession. One complete copy of the collection of the photographs is to be presented to the Mechanics’ Institution of Carlisle, mounted on the finest cardboard, with ostentatious red-letter inscriptions underneath. ‘Madonna and Child by Raphael. In the possession of Frederick Fairlie, Esquire. Copper coin of the period of Tiglath Pilesar. In the possession of Frederick Fairlie, Esquire.’ ‘Unique Rembrandt etching. Known all over Europe as THE SMUDGE, from a printer’s blot in the corner which exists in no other copy. Valued at three hundred guineas. In the possession of Frederick Fairlie, Esquire.’ Dozens of photographs of this sort, and all inscribed in this manner, were completed before I left Cumberland, and hundred more remain to be done.’

What Wilkie is satirizing here is the mania for collecting and categorizing all manner of objects which, presaged by the establishment of the British Museum in 1753, reached a manic apotheosis in the Victorian era. Wilkie’s description of two photographers producing ‘sun-pictures’, or photographs, of various objects to order is an unusual one and the inspiration for this passage, I believe, is William Henry Fox Talbot today recognised as the originator of negative-positive photography.

  Talbot-im2

Detail of a cover for a programme produced by the Reading Camera Club for the ‘W. H. F. Talbot Commemoration, 9th June, 1951'. Despite events like this, much like Wilkie Collins, Talbot languished in relative obscurity until being rediscovered in the late 1970s. NTA: 30727. (Add MS 88942/3/2/1).

At the time of the publication of The Woman in White Talbot was well-known as the former patent holder of the Calotype photographic process in which a negative image was produced by exposing chemically treated paper to light. Multiple positive images could then be produced from this negative. This idea was the basis for all photography until the advent of digital photography.

Talbot had been working on producing photographs, although at the time they were known as ‘sun pictures’, since 1839. He had patented the Calotype process – also known as the Talbotype - in 1841 and had become somewhat unpopular among both amateur and professional photographers for his numerous legal prosecutions in defence of his patent. He responded to criticism by pointing out that he had spent nearly £5,000 of his own money developing the Calotype process.

Talbot-im3

‘By Royal Letters Patent. Sun Pictures or the Talbotype photographic process’ (undated). NTA: 24281 (Add MS 88942/1/350). The Regent Street establishment was started after the Reading one but neither was successful.

In 1843 Talbot provided the capital for the setting up of a photographic ‘establishment’ at Reading, run by two associates Nicolaas Henneman and Thomas Malone, in order to mass produce photographs. Wilkie’s image of ‘two photographers incessantly employed’ would seem to suggest some sort of industrial process and indeed the publicity image for the Reading establishment below shows photographers with a variety of objects and people both taking and developing photographs.

Talbot-im4

Photograph of The Reading Establishment (1846). W. H. F. Talbot and Nicolaas Henneman. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/283065

A year after setting up the Reading Establishment Talbot published The Pencil of Nature a volume of original photographic prints, the first of its kind, of various scenes and objects complete with descriptive text.

Talbot-im5

Image and text for ‘Articles of China’ from The Pencil of Nature (1844). Talbot saw the potential of photography not only as an art, but also as a way of objectively recording objects. http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/pencil-of-nature/

Below is part of the text that accompanied plate III ‘Articles of China’,

‘From the specimen here given it is sufficiently manifest, that the whole cabinet of a Virtuoso and collector of old China might be depicted on paper in little more time than it would take him to make a written inventory describing it in the usual way. The more strange and fantastic the forms of his old teapots, the more advantage in having their pictures given instead of their descriptions.’

Reading this text it’s easy to imagine that this may have been the source of Wilkie’s satire. However, by 1859, there were many photographers producing any number of photographs on any number of subjects and doing so in studios set up precisely for that purpose most of them using the wet collodion process, developed by Scott Archer in 1851 in which a photographic negative was created by exposing a glass plate painted with a photo-sensitive solution. This technique had largely superseded Talbot’s own process primarily because Archer hadn’t patented it; he died penniless and destitute.

So besides Wilkie’s passage being about photography and its use as an instrument for cataloguing and recording objects by a team of photographers what specifically points to Talbot being the inspiration behind it?

Talbot-im6

Detail of the cover of ‘Inscription of Tiglath Pileser, B.C. 1150’ (1857). (Add MS 88942/3/1/7).

In the early 1850s Talbot had become interested in Assyriology, the scholarly study of the history, archaeology and culture of Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq).

The lexicon for Assyrian cuneiform had been developed primarily by Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson (1810-1895) and Edward Hincks (1792-1866) and there was much scholarly scepticism regarding the accuracy of translations. To counter this Talbot organised the simultaneous translation, by himself Rawlinson, Hincks and Julius Oppert (1825-1905) of a recently discovered text relating to the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser I (c. 1115-1077 BC). When the translations were examined by a panel of independent experts they were found to be so similar that it was concluded that Rawlinson and Hincks’s lexicon was indeed valid. These collected translations were published as a single volume Inscription of Tiglath Pileser I by the Royal Asiatic Society in 1857 only two years before the publication of The Woman in White.

Therefore it is Wilkie’s specific reference to ‘Tiglath Pilesar’ that, in my opinion, confirms William Henry Fox Talbot, as the most likely inspiration for this passage in The Women in White.