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

30 June 2016

In Defence of Shakespeare: Tolstoy and Orwell

by David Fitzpatrick, Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Shakespeare is almost universally respected among those writers who have followed him into the literary canon. However, as a recent European Studies blog post reminded readers, Tolstoy was one notable exception.

Towards the end of his life Tolstoy wrote an extremely harsh essay on Shakespeare entitled Shakespeare and the Drama, which was first published in English in 1907, in Tolstoy on Shakespeare, a small volume which, in addition to Tolstoy’s essay, includes Shakespeare and the Working Classes, an essay by Ernest Howard Crosby, author, fellow Georgist and friend of Tolstoy, as well as a letter from George Bernard Shaw to Tolstoy’s translator, which is somewhat more subdued in its criticism of the Bard.


Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy shoeless, 1901 by Ilya Repin (1844-1940)

In Shakespeare and the Drama, Tolstoy writes that his various attempts to read Shakespeare’s plays – in Russian, English and German – invariably produced feelings of ‘repulsion, weariness and bewilderment’. Using King Lear as his example (the main body of the essay is a scene-by-scene criticism of the tragedy), Tolstoy argues that ‘[i]n Shakespeare everything is exaggerated: the actions are exaggerated, so are their consequences, the speeches of the characters are exaggerated, and therefore at every step the possibility of artistic impression is interfered with.’

At this stage of his life Tolstoy was a committed Christian anarchist, and many of his objections to Shakespeare’s universal popularity appear to derive from perceived moral shortcomings, both in Shakespeare’s works and in the works of those who admired him. In his essay Tolstoy suggests that the fundamental reason for Shakespeare’s fame, both in Shakespeare’s time and in Tolstoy’s, was that Shakespeare’s dramas ‘corresponded to the irreligious and immoral frame of mind of the upper classes of his time and ours’. In Tolstoy’s view, over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, the exaggerated praise of Shakespeare’s dramas, sustained by an ‘unreasoning state of hypnotism’, allowed for the development of ‘a low, trivial understanding of the drama’, which resulted in the dramas of Tolstoy’s time (his own included, Tolstoy adds) being devoid of any spiritual substance.


George Orwell, 1933

Some forty years later, an essay by George Orwell entitled Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool examined Shakespeare and the Drama and discussed the possible reasons behind Tolstoy’s hatred of Shakespeare. In his essay Orwell highlights the weaknesses in Tolstoy’s arguments (for instance, he refutes Tolstoy’s claim that no motive is given for King Lear’s abdication), and suggests that Tolstoy may have attacked King Lear in particular because its plot bore some resemblance to his own life (Tolstoy, like Lear, renounced his title and estate in old age). As Orwell points out, although Tolstoy could not have foreseen it, even the ending of his own life (he died in a small village railway station, after fleeing his family home in the middle of the night) can be seen as a kind of ‘phantom reminiscence’ of Lear.


The family circle at Yasnaya Polyana, circa 1905

In Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool, Orwell regards Shakespeare’s works as having a predominantly humanist attitude, and suggests that this may be the main reason why the deeply religious Tolstoy could not appreciate them, nor understand why anyone else could. Moreover, Orwell argues that Tolstoy’s essay hardly deals with Shakespeare as a poet, and so fails to grasp the real reason for his enduring popularity (‘[h]is main hold on us is through language’).

In defence of Shakespeare, Orwell concludes that Tolstoy’s arguments are ultimately unanswerable since ‘[t]here is no argument by which one can defend a poem… [i]t defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible.’ By this measure of literary merit Orwell finds Shakespeare, in answer to Tolstoy’s charges, to be ‘not guilty’.

A first edition of Tolstoy on Shakespeare is on display in the British Library’s exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts, which runs until 6 September 2016.


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: .

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: . 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.


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:

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:

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).


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:



15 June 2016

P is for Printess: New Acquisition


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.


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.


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.   


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.


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.


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