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

22 June 2016

Delving into the Laurence Olivier Archive: fan letters and Macbeth

by Zoë Stansell, Reference Specialist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

 

 

15 June 2016

P is for Printess: New Acquisition

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Christina Tacq’s latest artist’s book Printess & the p is a reimagining of the timeless Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a young woman who proves her nobility to her suitor prince, by detecting a pea through twenty feather mattresses. Only a princess would be so sensitive to be awakened by a pea. In this version, it is a woman printer, or ‘printess’, who is the person of discernment.

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The first thing that is striking about Tacq’s latest work is the interspersed monotone plates sit in sharp contrast to the vibrant rich imagery of the colour spreads illustrating the narrative. This contrast is beautifully underpinned by using different paper. The colour reliefs are printed on Zerkall paper, while, intaglio collagraphs are on Fabriano paper. By cleverly changing the medium it reinforces the initial contrast at the physical as well as on a visual level.

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The theme of contrast extends to the depictions. The seven richly coloured double-page spreads juxtaposed with the far more vulnerable black and white which offers an intimate glimpse into an inner darker world. Some of these prints spill out from the confines of the frame with hard edged intaglio  printing as if attempting to burst out from the page and ape the freedom a vibrancy depicted in the colour plates.   

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Tacq’s skill as a book artist are illustrated in the way this volume unravels and draws in a complex range of themes and concepts, techniques; - and then presents them in such an appealing way. Her use of Optima for the text balances with the rich relief collagraphs

The Printess &the p was published in July 2014, it is a first edition of twenty five copies. The volume was printed by p’s &q’s Press, Thame in Oxfordshire and bound at the Fine Book Bindery.  

The covers are bound in hand-printed linen designed with relief-blocks and comes in a linen slipcase.

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The images are created using the collagraphy technique in which the plate is constructed of adhered elements and inked with a roller or brush to produce in both relief and intaglio, and an embossed impression can be obtained by printing the plate dry without inking.

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The way the imagery and the narrative intertwine to create this volume weighted with powerful subtexts which engage with concepts of feminism and identity. In some respects it offers a self-portrait of a printer.  

On returning the volume to its slipcase one evening after working with it I noticed a small piece of paper squashed in to the back of the slip case. On retrieving and unfolding it, it read:

“18 Excellent Copy, British Library? Excellent”

Because of the way the creases appear it was possibly placed on the spine as part of the quality assurance process. Nevertheless, to come across such a note adds to an authenticity of the artistic process and speaks to the huge range of skills and processes it takes to create a tome of such outstanding quality.

 

The Library’s copy of the Printess &the p will be accessible at British Library shelfmark RF.2016.b.35. in the near future.

Images reproduced with the kind permission of Christina Tacq.

Blog by Jerry Jenkins, Curator, Emerging Media, Contemporary British Published Collections

09 June 2016

Peter Brook and A Midsummer Night’s Dream

by Greg Buzwell, Curator of Shakespeare in Ten Acts

William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream lends itself to spectacular visual excess. After all, if you can’t go over the top with a comedy set in a magical moonlit-woodland and populated by mischievous fairies then when can you? Many Victorian productions of the play concentrated almost exclusively on spectacle, cutting Shakespeare’s text and adding hosts of Amazons and allegorical processions celebrating the triumphs of Theseus, including his victory over the Minotaur. Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s production of the play in 1900 even went so far in its efforts to heighten the air of woodland magic as to include live rabbits hopping across the stage.

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An extract from an 1847 playbill for A Midsummer Night’s Dream Playbills Vol 262, item 261

Later, in the 20th century, film adaptations of the play appeared. A 1935 Hollywood film of Dream directed by Max Reinhardt and starring James Cagney as Bottom included dozens of extra fairies and a Satanic-looking Oberon on horseback accompanied by a troop of bat-winged henchmen. The set included sixty-seven truckloads of trees and shrubs (including a transplanted redwood tree) and covered over sixty-six thousand square feet. Blending in with this jungle-like excess Mickey Rooney, according to one observer at least, played Puck as though he were ‘the son of Tarzan’. The spectacular dance scenes featuring Titania’s attendants were choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska, formerly of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. For Hollywood, if A Midsummer Night’s Dream was worth doing, it was worth overdoing.

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A play not noted for its restraint: a scene from the spectacular 1935 Hollywood adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Warner Bros / The Kobal Collection

In 1914, attempting something different, the theatre director Harley Granville Barker staged the play at the Savoy Theatre in a fashion that eschewed extravagance in favour of suggestion and symbolism. When the production came to Manhattan in 1915 Barker explained his challenge to realism and visual excess by observing: ‘What is really needed is a great white box. That’s what our theatre really is’. The world may not have been ready for such an interpretation in 1915, but in 1970 ‘a great white box’ is exactly what it got.

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Poster for the RSC’s 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring Sally Jacobs’s famous white-box set design. Courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The director Peter Brook probably knew nothing of Barker’s comment, but Brook effectively restated Barker’s challenge to illusionistic theatre a half century later. Brook, along with his designer Sally Jacobs, devised a white box setting for their 1970 production of the play in Stratford-upon-Avon. Large metal coils represented the woodland; a spinning plate on an acrylic rod became the flower containing the magic potion Puck fetches for Oberon; Puck entered the stage on stilts while Oberon descended to the stage on a trapeze. Circus tricks replaced the fairy magic. The intention was to move the play away from realism altogether and into the heightened realm of metaphor. Originally black drapes had hung behind the white box stage design but during the Paris leg of the world tour Brook removed them. Suddenly everything could be seen, including the tower-like structures from which the cables supporting the trapezes were fixed. The actors playing the fairies could be observed on the catwalk that ran around the top of the set, watching the action during the scenes in which they were not required. The creation of artifice and illusion was no longer of paramount importance.

The small cast was also at odds with traditional productions. Brook liked the dream-like associations of doubling given by many of the actors playing dual roles, recognizing that a small ensemble of performers would not only enhance the quality of actor involvement but also heighten the sense of dream-like theatrical metaphor. The costumes were far removed from the usual elaborate designs, rich fabrics and gossamer threads. Puck, played by John Kane, wore a yellow jump suit and a blue skull cap inspired by the costumes Brook and Jacobs had seen Chinese acrobats wearing in Paris. The young lovers meanwhile, the men in their tie-dyed shirts and the women in long white dresses, brought a touch of the ‘here and now’ to the production. The first staging of the play in Stratford took place in August 1970, not long after the 1967 summer of love and the student riots in Paris the following year. A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be seen as many things, but on one level it is a drama about youthful rebellion - perfect for the late-1960s zeitgeist of sexual freedom and the desire to escape stale orthodoxy.

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Alan Howard as Oberon, Sara Kestelman as Titania and John Kane as Puck in Peter Brook’s 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC.

Reviews of Brook’s Dream, as it became known, were largely positive. The reviewer in the Sunday Times wrote: ‘more than refreshing, magnificent, the sort of thing one sees only once in a lifetime, and then only from a man of genius’. Inevitably there were a few dissenting voices – the New Statesman commented that Brook had ‘remoulded’ the play ‘with the help of Billy Smart, Walt Disney, J. G. Ballard and … his own sleeping, hallucinating self’ (although that in itself sounds utterly amazing). Perhaps above all else the production showed that it was possible to put a completely new spin on Shakespeare, transforming a play with a tradition of performance stretching back over 350 years into something new, strange, challenging, inventive and wonderful.

Peter Brook’s 1970 staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the productions explored in detail in Shakespeare in Ten Acts. Peter Brook will be giving a talk entitled The Esoteric and the Profane in Shakespeare’ at the British Library on the afternoon of Wednesday 15th June and there will be a panel discussion about the 1970 production of Dream, featuring Peter Brook, Sir Ben Kingsley (who played Demetrius) and Frances de la Tour (who played Helena) later that evening.