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 2018

Introducing the Women of Windrush

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Guyana-born writer and teacher Beryl Gilroy with her pupils, image courtesy of the Estate of Beryl Gilroy.

On Monday 25 June the British Library in association with Wasafiri, the Magazine of International Contemporary writing, will be hosting Windrush Women: Past and Present. When the Empire Windrush sailed from the Caribbean 70 years ago, there were 257 female passengers on board, 188 of whom were travelling alone. There are many stories missing from the Windrush narrative, not least those of bold and pioneering women, leaving everything behind, to better their own and their family’s lives. This evening of poetry and readings will launch the latest issue of Wasafiri, which features a special section on Windrush women from across the generations.

Wasafiri's Editor-in-Chief, Susheila Nasta, says: ‘For better or worse, the stories of the post-war Windrush generation have become more than evident in recent months. Though little known, there were women on board the SS Windrush as well as the other boats that sailed after the second world war. The experiences of the women were as varied as their ages and backgrounds. Join Wasafiri, the Magazine of International Contemporary writing, to hear the voices of Windrush women across the generations and find out more about their lives as well as the complex challenges they continue to face’.

Appearing with Susheila on Monday will be Valerie Bloom, Jay Bernard, Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, Alison Donnell, Hannah Lowe, Catherine Ross and Susheila Nasta. Tickets are still available from the British Library Box Office. As an introduction to Monday’s event, we are publishing here an excerpt from Susheila Nasta’s editorial from Wasafiri No 94.

If this whets your appetite for Caribbean women’s writing, there is more to see (and hear) in the Library’s free exhibition Windrush: Songs in a Stange Land which continues in the Entrance Hall Gallery until 21 October. On display are Beryl Gilroy’s long-lost manuscript for her novel In Praise of Love and Children (1996), Andrea Levy’s working drafts of Small Island (2004) and Jean Rhys’ revisions to Wide Sargasso Sea (1966); plus migration memoirs from Floella Benjamin and Verona Pettigrew and performances by poets Louise Bennett (reading her brilliant patois poem ‘Dry Foot Bwoy’ about a haughty Caribbean man putting on an upper class English accent), Grace Nichols, Hannah Lowe, Maggie Harris, Kim O’Loughlin, Marsha Prescod and Merle Collins. These literary legacies of Windrush are interspersed with recordings of Caribbean women speaking about all aspects of their lives, from working in the NHS to the difficulties of courting in England compared with back home, and music too – there is much in the exhibition to investigate, explore and be inspired by.

 

Excerpt from Wasafiri No 94 (2018):


‘History, as James Baldwin once famously observed is not the story of the past but the present. Coinciding with the seventieth anniversary of the docking of SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury in June 1948, this issue shows us how the many global intersections of Britain’s mixed cultural past continue to reverberate in today’s migrant present. When Andrea Levy’s award-winning historical novel, Small Island, first appeared in 2004, it was applauded for its fictional portraits of the forgotten voices of ‘Windrush’, for bringing the nation’s post-war migrant history centre stage and its timely intervention into what had largely been a male founding narrative of arrival and settlement. Reviewers were often unaware of earlier Caribbean and black British fictions of this era; whether classics, such as The Lonely Londoners (Sam Selvon, 1956), The Emigrants (George Lamming, 1954) or, more significantly here, given the objective of our special section focussing on ‘Windrush women’, Beryl Gilroy’s belatedly published 1950s novel, In Praise of Love and Children (1994). Despite such gaps, the appearance of Small Island was significant; not only was Levy, herself a daughter of Windrush, presenting her story through a range of narratives – male and female, Caribbean, Irish – but its engaging depiction of Britain’s diverse migrant histories began to touch a wide public readership — I once saw over five people reading the paperback version in one carriage on the London Underground just after the novel’s winning of the Orange Prize was announced. Interestingly Levy’s title, which playfully signalled Britain’s shrinking post-war global status – once ‘great’ empire, now ‘small island’ – was not only powerfully ironic but remains prescient, especially given ongoing Brexit debates over a decade later around ‘Englishness’, national identity, the rights of belonging or leave to stay. There is no doubt, as Grace Aneiza Ali and many of the other contributors to this issue differently observe, that migration continues to be the ‘defining moment of the modern era’ and ‘few’ can be ‘untouched’ by its ‘sweeping narrative’.

‘Highlighting the diversity of the period of migration following ‘Windrush’ and looking within and outside the parameters of what still figures as a powerfully constructed icon, this issue brings together Caribbean and black British voices from across the generations. Loosely defined here as the ‘Women of Windrush’, our special section comprises a range of genres and a mix representing the contemporary writing and works from past generations. It is a small sample which is by no means representative or comprehensive. Hannah Lowe’s feature-interview with three contemporary poets (Grace Nichols, Karen McCarthy-Woolf and Jay Bernard) points to the icon of ‘Windrush’ as ‘that huge fiction of a ship’ (Jackie Kay), a fiction which continues regardless to impact on many imaginations. In interrogating the enduring legacy of this myth, we feature an extract from Beryl Gilroy’s pioneering novel, In Praise of Love and Children, as well as providing the transcription of two interviews, originally conducted at the ICA in 1986, to celebrate the publication of Gilroy’s Frangipani House and a first novel, Timepiece by Janice Shinebourne. Like the 2004 moment when Levy’s Small Island was first published, the mid-1980s was a critical period for the publication of black and Asian women’s writing in Britain. Publishers influenced by the success of African-American writing in the US began to see the migrant black experience in Britain as a potentially profitable market. And it was at this moment that adventurous publishers such as Virago and the Women’s Press began to commission anthologies such as the groundbreaking Watchers and Seekers (edited by Rhonda Cobham and Merle Collins, Women’s Press, 1987).This volume of stories, essays and poems, featuring only the work of women, included, amongst many others, now well-known writers such as Collins herself, Amryl Johnson (who sadly died in Britain in 2001), Meiling Jin and Valerie Bloom. Above all, it was a moment when black women writing in Britain began to get the long-awaited recognition they deserved. Too often anthologised or out of print, the many women who contributed to such vital anthologies are not always remembered. Moreover, as Maria del Pilar Kaladeen’s memoir ‘Windrushed’ painfully evokes, amnesia was generated not only from without, but from within, as some of the older generation chose to sidestep their own histories, shrouding their own pasts from their black British offspring.’

 

 

20 June 2018

Virginia Woolf's Haunted Walk

A guest post by artist Liz Mathews describing the inspiration and process behind her recently acquired book, The Strand of the Thames, as part of World Refugee Day.  For more information about Liz Mathews' work, including Paper Wings -- a collaboration with Maureen Duffy -- see her gallery blog, Daughters of Earth.

 

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Wednesday 23 June 1937
I went shopping, whitebait hunting to Selfridges yesterday, & it grew roasting hot, & I was in black ... As I reached 52 [Tavistock Square], a long trail of fugitives—like a caravan in a desert—came through the square: Spaniards flying from Bilbao, which has fallen, I suppose. Somehow brought tears to my eyes, tho' no one seemed surprised. Children trudging along; women in London cheap jackets with gay handkerchiefs on their heads, young men, & all carrying either cheap cases, & bright blue enamel kettles, very large, & saucepans, filled I suppose with gifts from some Charity—a shuffling, trudging procession, flying—impelled by machine guns in Spanish fields to trudge through Tavistock Square, along Gordon Square, then where? —clasping their enamel kettles.  -- The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume 5 1936 - 1941

Virginia Woolf's chance sighting of refugees from the Spanish Civil War in London at midsummer 1937 brought tears to her eyes - 'tho' no one seemed surprised' - and burnt on to her mind's eye an unforgettable image: children, women and young men driven from their country by war, trailing homeless, displaced, dispossessed through the Bloomsbury Square that was her home. This sight, with its implications and consequences, was to return to her vividly on another solitary walk many months later in the winter of 1939:

Tuesday 31 January 1939
Took the bus to Southwark Bridge. Walked along Thames Street; saw a flight of steps down to the river.  I climbed down—a rope at the bottom. Found the strand of the Thames, under the warehouses—strewn with stones, bits of wire, slippery; ships lying off the Bridge (Southwark? —no, the next to Tower Bridge [London Bridge]). Very slippery; warehouse walls crusted, weedy, worn. The river must cover them at high tide. It was now low. People on the bridge stared. Difficult walking. A rat haunted, riverine place, great chains, wooden pillars, green slime, bricks corroded, a button hook thrown up by the tide. A bitter cold wind. Thought of the refugees from Barcelona walking 40 miles, one with a baby in a parcel.

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These two entries from her extraordinary diary - both so observant of detail, so evocative of the physical setting and of her state of mind - stayed with me, and I was reminded of them in Gordon Square one afternoon some 70 years later, like Woolf combining shopping - but not for whitebait - with a walk through Bloomsbury observing the London summer.  We, too, met small groups of refugees, some aimless, some more purposeful: one grizzled man sitting on a box playing a melancholy Balkan air on a battered accordion, one old woman in black sitting on the pavement outside the Co-op, her hands joined in the international gesture of supplication, one young man on a bench in Gordon Square who, when we'd given him some change, asked hopefully if we would buy him a mobile phone, another older man - speechless, wordless, with hunger and despair in his eyes.

Virginia Woolf's discovery under the warehouses was the inspiration for my artist's book, Strand of the Thames, which has recently been acquired by the British Library. In setting this text, the sense of history repeating itself was very strong for me. My partner Frances and I are inveterate mudlarkers, and the Thames low-tide beaches between Waterloo and Southwark Bridges have long been a favourite haunt, yielding a rich and often rather pungent harvest of driftwood, eternal claypipes, button hooks, and yes, the green slime that Woolf observes, along with the occasional shard of ancient terracotta or exquisite porcelain.

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One sunny winter's day in 2009, we followed Virginia Woolf on that sacred bus-route and then in her footsteps, choosing our time so that the river would be at low-tide, seeing the sights that she saw - still all there - and reminded inevitably of the other sight she had recalled in that place - perhaps by the river itself, running through time and linking all our days. I photographed each stage of her journey, trying to catch something of the transient light on the water, the darkness of the slippery flight of steps, the ships lying off the bridge, the solid ironwork of the bridge itself, the crusted warehouse walls, just as weedy and worn, the great chains, the immensity of the wooden pillars and the curious sense of separation from the bustling world of the city. We looked for and found the bits of wire, broken glass, stones and chains. We slipped on the ancient wharf stones, smelt the green slime, flinched at the bitter cold wind, and felt ourselves at some unimaginable distance from the clear-lit city we could see through the wooden pillars. 

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And at the end of our walk together, with the winter sun low on the water silhouetting a couple deep in talk with their patient dogs waiting beside them, we too thought of the refugees, Virginia Woolf's fugitives, homeless exiles with their precious burdens and their useless well-intentioned charity kettles fleeing from machine guns to our home city, and as she says - then where?

Back home in my studio, I translated the photos into 15 grisaille watercolours on sheets of rough handmade paper approximately 21 x 30cm. To draw the material presence of the river itself into the views, I mixed the watercolour paint with Thames water, drawn in a jam-jar from the river as Turner did, and I used a small driftwood stick - picked up on the strand, carved by the tides into a rudimentary nib - as my pen, dipped in ink made from the same paint and Thames water. I looked for individual textures, flaws and quirks of the handmade paper pages that I could use to reflect aspects of the text - for example, the page with the strewn-about stones and bits of wire has a gnarled knotted fibre within the fabric of the paper that I just highlit with paint to embody a bit of wire, so that you can feel it with your fingertip; similarly the textured paper surface produces either a flickering effect of light on water when painted with a fairly dry brush, or the chiaroscuro of stones and rubble when painted with a wet one, as the liquid paint puddles darkly into the shadowy hollows between small raised clumps of paper-pulp. (This kind of paradoxical effect that materials can produce unexpectedly is the sort of thing that fascinates me - I enjoy collaborating with materials in making a physical embodiment of the words, allowing the materials and the words to do their own thing.)

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After I'd made the paintings and lettered them, I constructed the lettered images into a battered book made from black handmade paper like our grandparents' photograph albums with their precious wartime portraits and sepia views. And then I made a quarter-size (10 x 15cm) facsimile edition (limited to 20 signed and numbered copies), identically constructed, with the grisaille images re-translated back into black and white photographs, fixed to the album with acid-free photo-corners. The original and one of the edition copies is now in the British Library's permanent collection. Most of my work is one-off, but a few of my artist's books lend themselves well to editions; and this is one of them, where the photo-album concept gives a reference point for both the original and the edition, and a uniting rationale. As an artist, my concern is to make work where form and concept are fully integrated, where words and images are as one, inseparable, rather than co-existing as text and illustrations. Typically, this results in books and artworks whose individual material form is of its nature an expression of the text and therefore difficult or impossible to reproduce; but I do like to enlarge the scope of my books in terms of audience and affordability where it's possible to do so without compromising their integrity, particularly where, as here, the edition adds another aspect to the original, and enhances the meaning of the work.

I have shown Strand of the Thames at many of the artists' book fairs I've been to in the last 10 years, each time hoping that it won't still seem as though nothing changes - that we will have found an answer better than the metaphorical enamel kettles. And every time, with each audience, this book really strikes a chord with people, and together we say again 'Nothing changes', and we honour Virginia Woolf for her engagement with her world, her refusal to ignore the plight of her fellow humans, her recognition of their humanity and her un-fatigued compassion in weeping for dispossessed exiles seeking refuge in Tavistock Square.

 

 

31 May 2018

Past Visions of the Near Future: The Afterlife of J.G Ballard’s High-Rise on London History Day

By Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives and Manuscripts. More information about London History Day can be found here.  Material from the J.G. Ballard Archive has been digitised and discussed here and is available to consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room at shelfmark Add MS 88938. Laura Oldfield Ford's Savage Messiah is available to consult in our Reading Rooms at YD.2014.a.735, and further material is available here.

Historic England’s ‘London History Day’ implores us to “reflect on and celebrate the pioneering spirit, heroism, initiative and kindness layered in the city’s history”. A dedicated app developed for the day even allows its users, on walks through the capital, to experience its deep architectural and social histories in the form of archival materials – photographs, text, videos – which reach out from the slick, glassy world of their smart-phones and onto the streets. This activity, despite its peculiar newness, echoes the activities of Guy De Bord and the Situationists International in the middle of the twentieth century, who famously drifted through, re-purposed and re-interpreted their own over-determined and over-regulated urban environments. London History Day aims to open up the city to play and new interpretations, allowing people to imagine the areas where they live and work in new ways.

J.G Ballard, whose extensive papers are held at the British Library, was interested throughout his career in this interplay of urban and architectural spaces and individual and social behaviour; in the mutually constitutive relation between space and psychology often called Psycho-geography. London was particularly interesting to Ballard because of the tendency for its limitless appetite for space and convenience to sprawl and carve out liminal spaces at its edges. Airports, motorways and shopping centres were to Ballard what mountains, lakes and streams were to Wordsworth, both infinitely fascinating and utterly terrifying. These non-places represented an attempt to imagine a new form of pragmatic and manageable urban space which could be cleansed of its messy social, cultural and material relations. (Precisely the things which London History Day wants to bring to the fore). By bringing these so-called non-places into the realm of imaginative literature, Ballard was able shed light on what was already literally and figuratively over-lit; to finally see this world of bland uniformity which had tried to position itself as a vanishing point of the spatial, the ideological and the social.

In High-Rise (1975), Ballard’s narrator Laing seeks precisely this retreat from the messiness of urban life. His ‘over-priced cell, slotted almost at random into the cliff face of the apartment building’ situated presciently in London’s now-redeveloped Docklands, promises ‘peace, quiet and anonymity’ but delivers nothing but a ‘regime of trivial disputes and irritations’ which eventually leads to terrible violence, seeing him nonchalantly barbequing a neighbour’s Alsatian on his balcony before the first page is turned. What appears at first to be an escape, whether from the ‘rundown areas around [the building], decaying nineteenth-century terraced houses and empty factories already zoned for reclamation’ or from ‘crowded streets, traffic hold-ups, rush-hour journeys on the Underground’, becomes instead an amplification of these same petty frustrations borne of (perceived) inequality and merely living together.

Ballard High-Rise MSThe first page of High-Rise in  typescript, heavily annotated by Ballard in 1974, with the famous first sentence already in place.

 

The ‘ragged skyline’ of the old city is visible from Laing’s 25th floor balcony, but it appears to him as an ungraspable spectre, an abstraction which ‘by contrast with the calm and unencumbered geometry of the concert-hall and television studios below him resembled the disturbed encephalograph of an unresolved mental crisis’. That this crisis remains unresolved is, we know, an understatement.

More recent Psycho-geographers have been criticised for typifying a barely concealed Romantic-colonial logic, of imposing themselves on an outer-world to which they claim to be preternaturally sensitive. Laura Oldfield Ford is a contemporary Psycho-geographer working against this, in a mode which is highly critical of the so-called ‘yuppie-dromes’ which Ballard imagined in High-Rise and which now dominate the former wastelands of London’s in-between districts. Her zine collection Savage Messiah (Verso, 2011) takes the form a kind of textual augmented reality walk. Oldfield Ford’s fragmented narrator appears as a simultaneously direct and distant, personal and impersonal guide through London’s rapidly gentrifying liminal outskirts. These spaces are haunted by the spectres of past communities, enclaves, subcultures and alternative ways of living which have been swallowed, or are being swallowed up, by the Ballardian logic of the high-rise. Even the form itself, a kind of kitsch but sincere punkish collage, seems to be possessed by the voices of (im)possible futures, utopian social movements subsumed under the utopian dream of the post-social.

It’s this ghostly quality which so often surfaces when the deep social history of urban space, so often obscured by the new, is brought to the fore. A walk through Soho on London History Day, smart-phone in hand, will transport the drifter to a haunted neighbourhood of queer resistance and play. Some will turn off their phones and look carefully around them, at the almost total commodification and unviability of present reality in one of London’s most expensive districts; they will see chain stores, luxury apartments and calculated, cynical seediness everywhere. For some it will even give way to a sense of mourning, perhaps even a desire to live in that world – the world of ghosts, of an imagined past. But for others, hopefully, it will inspire a sense of possibility and a way to creatively re-think what living in cities – that is, living together -- might mean in the future, even as the ragged skyline of the past recedes from view.

 

24 May 2018

Artists’ Books Now: Here and Now

By Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications and Emerging Media. Artists’ Books Now is curated by Egidija Čiricaitė, Sophie Loss, Jeremy Jenkins and Richard Price. The next Artists’ Books Now evening will be held on 5th November at the British Library, with tickets available in the Autumn.

April saw the launch of Artists’ Books Now, a series of events to explore the artists’ book and its place in contemporary culture. The British Library has a significant collection of artists’ books and, in the nature of a national library, has not only many examples of its ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ forms – children’s books, poetry pamphlets, zines – it has centuries of examples of its ancestors (bestiaries, herbals, illuminated books, and so on).

 

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From the outset the term ‘artists’ book’ seems to stimulate a range of questions and contradictions. Is it art or is it a book?  When is a book art, when a literary object, or a work of new information?  Can it be handled, thumbed through or should it be admired (even revered) from behind glass? 

In the first evening, entitled “Here and Now”, the aim was to bring the artists’ book and the audience closer to each other, leaving the glass case behind. Indeed a central goal was to introduce the artists and their books directly to the public, bringing the artists’ own works to a live audience. It seemed to the curators of the event that this was one of the best ways to demystify the artists’ book.

Beyond the theatre-style ‘proscenium’ presentation of traditional events, the first Artists’ Books Now placed the books and artists at the centre of the audience, seated on three sides around two central book tables. This inevitably lead to some Brechtian craning of necks and audience members balancing in on window sills in order to view the proceedings, but the atmosphere was quite unlike conventional events, and we think all the better for it. 

Following a welcome from the Head of Contemporary British Collections, Richard Price, who emphasised the continuities between artists’ books and other book forms held within the Library, the series host for the evening, producer of books and builder of publishing spaces Eleanor Vonne Brown, began introductions.

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Visual artist and graphic designer Danny Aldred speaks on contemporary practice in Artist’ Books.

First to be welcomed was the visual artist and graphic designer Danny Aldred whose talk offered a whistle-stop tour of creative practice in artists’ books, noting, for example, the rise of the distinctive productions of the risoprinter in the contemporary practice of making artists’ books. 

Eleanor then moved on to the first of the artists’ books tables, inviting us to share the work of maker of zines Holly Casio. Holly exhibited and discussed her passion for Bruce Springsteen with her series of zines, Me and Bruce Springsteen.

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 Eleanor Vonne Brown and Holly Casio

Under the surface of artists’ books there is a radical tornado of creativity, practice, vision, and rebellion, all of which feeds in to creating published works which many, including their makers, would not identify as artists’ books. The idea of Artists’ Books Now is not to worry too much about classification where there is clearly enough in common to share ideas and enthusiasm. Zines fully fit that bill: this was a presentation which reflected on class, sexuality, daughters and fathers, and of course, the Boss – all through the prism of the zine, with its own graphic traditions.

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Holly Casio’s zines Me and Bruce Springsteen &  Me and Bruce (and my Dad).]

Visual artist and performer Lydia Julien talked us through her largely autobiographical works including Super Hero Washing Line in her artists’ book table. In her conversation with Eleanor, Lydia explained her use of sequences to grow a narrative based on lived experience. Following Lydia and Holly the evening adjourned to allow the audience the opportunity to more closely examine their work and talk to the artists themselves, again a break from conventional events and deliberately designed to get people closer to books.

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Lydia Julien explaining her work  during her section

Following the interlude Eleanor was in discussion with Gustavo Grandal Montero, from the library of the Chelsea College of Art, as well as an authority on artists’ books and concrete poetry. The ranging discussion came back to focus on the work An Anecdoted Topography of Chance which Grandal Montero  highlighted, for him, as a central work in speaking about artists’ books.   

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Eleanor Vonne Brown in discussion with Gustavo Grandal Montero

 

First in the final set of artists’ tables which Vonne Brown introduced were the works of Amanda Crouch. Amanda’s works cut across media in her journey to research and reimagine the digestive systems. This is far more spectacular than such a description might indicate: as Amanda talked through her extraordinary works, she also held them up, with the scale of the unfurling of one particular concertina’d work surely astonishing the audience, watching frankly in awe and wonder.  

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Amanda Crouch unfurls her work to Eleanor Vonne Brown and the audience

The final artists’ books table was that of artist and researcher John McDowall. John talked about making his work Atramentum (2012), a work which pools the inky contents (theoretically) of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. Perhaps the result is a kind of dark almost overwhelming teardrop. For our event it was a fitting full stop, bringing the sessions neatly to an end.

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John McDowall displays an opening from Atramentum during his segment

Not a complete end, however, just a pause: the next Artists’ Books Now evening will be on the 5th November at the British Library.

Images are reproduced with the kind permission of Lydia Julien and Sophie Loss

28 April 2018

Harold Pinter and ‘The Birthday Party’: Don’t let them tell you what to do…

by Jamie Andrews, Head of Culture and Learning. The Harold Pinter Archive is held at Add MS 8880 and free to consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room. For more information about the Lord Chamberlain's Plays, also available in the Reading Room, please see our collection guide. To learn more about the Birthday Party, click here.

Harold Pinter’s so-called ‘political phase’ is often seen to have developed in his writing during the 1980s. It’s certainly true that during this period ‘closed rooms open[ed] to an international community’, as the Chairman of the Nobel Committee put it during the award ceremony speech. But, surely, it is also the case that Pinter’s work has always been political: a challenging, provocative scrutiny of power relations and justice. In one of Pinter’s earliest full-length plays, The Birthday Party recently revived in a starry revival at the Pinter Theatre in London’s West End and celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of its first ever performance this weekend – he writes what he will later describe as ‘one of the most important lines I’ve ever written’. In a strained plea to resist hierarchies and establishments of all kinds, a powerless Petey urges ‘Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!’ as McCann tries to lead him out of the door of the coastal boarding house and into his car. Forceful from the start, the line continues to draw attention from critics and audiences, featuring prominently in many reviews of the recent production.

Pinter LCP


LCP 1958 No. 20 The Birthday Party as submitted to, and censored by, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office in 1958

Yet when The Birthday Party was first performed, all new plays had to be submitted to the office of the Lord Chamberlain for so-called ‘licensing’- essentially pre-censorship. This set-up, of course, was exactly the kind of establishment hierarchy that Pinter battled throughout his career. After theatre censorship was finally abolished in 1968, the thousands of play-texts that had been submitted by writers over the years came to rest in the British Library. Looking at the draft of ‘The Birthday Party’ that was submitted to the Lord Chamberlain in April 1958 reveals a surprising difference with what we think we know of the play. The vital line—‘Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!’ —, one of the most important lines Pinter had ever written is nowhere to be seen in the text. Instead, the play ends with a somewhat grotesque recourse to violence, when Stanley is struck on the side of the neck by McCann and knocked out (echoing the violent climax of ‘The Room’, his earlier short play).

In law, only the text as approved by the Lord Chamberlain could be performed, and it is not known when the famous line was added, although it does appear in the play-text first published by Encore in 1959, a year after its premiere. In theory, as no subsequent correspondence with the Censors is recorded, any addition of the line to the play would have been illegal…a rather delicious irony that I feel Harold would have appreciated.

Talking to The New York Times in 1988 about the importance of the legendary line, Pinter added: ‘I've lived that line all my damn life. Never more than now.’ Quite when, and how, the line came into being is uncertain. But from whatever moment it appeared, Pinter did adopt it as a design for writing…and living. He stood true to it ‘all [his] damn life’...and today, almost ten years after his death, and with ‘The Birthday Party’ still provoking and entertaining London audiences, the charge of its direct appeal (to Stanley…and to us) still resonates.

26 April 2018

T S Eliot in Margate: Writing ‘The Waste Land’

In 1921, T S Eliot and his wife Vivienne came to Margate whilst convalescing from illness. Both were suffering from nervous disorders and it was a period of great strain on their marriage. During this period of both mental and physical fragility, Eliot worked on ‘The Waste Land’ while sitting in the Nayland Rock shelter on Margate Sands.

The Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate is currently running an exhibition, titled ‘Journeys with The Waste Land, in which they explore the significance of this work through visual arts, and tell the story of Eliot in Margate as he worked on the poem. Included in the exhibition are about 100 objects from over 60 artists, as well as a letter by T S Eliot on loan from the British Library (Add MS 52918).

 

 

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Add MS 52918, f 31r - Letter from Thomas Stearns Eliot to Sydney Schiff, 4th November 1921. Reproduced with the kind permission © Estate of T. S. Eliot. 

In this letter to his friend and fellow author Sydney Schiff (also known by his pen name Stephen Hudson), Eliot writes ‘I have done a rough draft of part of part III, but do not know whether it will do’, and how he has ‘done this while sitting in a shelter on the front’.

 

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Add MS 52918, f 31v. Reproduced with the kind permission © Estate of T. S. Eliot. 

Whilst in Margate, Eliot ‘read nothing , literally – I sketch the people, after a fashion, and practise scales on the mandoline.’ He also writes of his feelings of nervousness about returning to town, as ‘one becomes dependent, too, on sea or mountains, which give some sense of security in which one relaxes’.

 

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Add MS 52918, f 32r. Reproduced with the kind permission © Estate of T. S. Eliot. 

The exhibition has been developed by local residents, coming together as The Waste Land Research Group, who have chosen the exhibits, designed the layout of the show, and written the exhibition texts. Since opening in February the exhibition has been incredibly successful.

 

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‘T.S. Eliot’ by Henry Ware Eliot: vintage gelatin silver print, 1926: NPG Ax142531: © National Portrait Gallery, London

The exhibition at the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate runs until 7 May 2018.

by Stephen Noble,  Modern Archives and Manuscripts

20 March 2018

[sic] Thus it was Written: Rachel Hand’s Ash

By Jeremy Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Published Collections and Emerging Media.

Rachael Hand’s latest work Ash (2017) comprises of an edition of 15. Ash is constructed from digital print, laser cut card and an etched engraved cover assembled around a hand painted and bound core to create an artists’ book that plays with a form now almost ubiquitous to reading in the 21st century: the e-book reader.  The word Ash is a play on the word ‘Kindle’.

When Ash is handled it takes on another dimension. The raw materials are the same component parts that are used in the construction of a printed book, and now so finely and precisely assembled Ash actually fools the viewer.  When it is first taken in their hands its tactility tricks the handler by offering the sensation of holding buckram, a sensation commonly associated with holding a book.  On opening the cover, one is presented with, to all intents and purposes, an e-book reader. Ash is in fact a facsimile of an e-book reader. Though fingers are dragged across the “screen” and prod at the “button” in an effort to elicit some life from the card and cloth, the reader of the ‘reader’ will be disappointed.

Ash1

Hand's work is a reminder that, on the one hand, reading books on a “reader” can be a truly liberating experience. A weighty tome translates to a very portable light-weight object. Tight packed text and long paragraphs can be enlarged with a zoom tool and consumed a ‘mouthful’ at a time. Reference works can be stored weightlessly alongside the novel or poetry collection of the day. The typography of Amazon’s Kindle is mimicked in the spelling out of “Ash” and there is a surprisingly nostalgic aura to it, as if the future has already gone by. Yet, Ash also draws attention to the comfort of the printed page – the comfort of that tactility – and the beneficial slowness, sometimes, of the kind of reading necessary for traditionally produced books. It is a minimalist work, but also a rich ambiguous one.

 

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Ash was created as part of the AMBruno coalition of artists who all have been brought together by their common interest in the medium of the book. It is one of  fifteen new books made by sixteen artists in response to the subject brief [sic] (sic erat scriptum - thus was it written) to make a book in some way that is at odds with assumptions of what a book should be or do. The supporting literature describes the work by using a definition of ash which reads as follows:

“Ash n. powdery residue left after the combustion of any substance; remains of human body after cremation. A meditation on our relationship with objects in our current era, and the question of what we will leave behind.”

Sic

 

AMBruno is a coalition of artists, established in 2008 with MA Fine Art graduates from Central Saint Martins (part of University of the Arts, London), which has since widened to include artists based throughout the UK and internationally. Their project, [sic], is comprised of fifteen books, all diverse responses to various forms of reading and writing, now catalogued and available to Readers in the Library's Reading Rooms. Rachael Hand is a member of AMBruno and an artist with an interest in the embodied nature of human knowledge. Her media include artist’s books, video installation, and various forms of chemical photography.

The first in the Artists’ Books Now series is to be hosted  by  the British Library on Monday 23rd April, celebrating Artists’ Books by thinking aloud with the books, their makers and their readers.

 

 

 

 

15 March 2018

The “rich pageant” of historical playbills

By Christian Algar, Curator Printed Heritage Collections

If you will see a pageant truly play’d … like that of Shakespeare’s shepherds in the Forest of Arden, his setting for As You Like It, you can now also see a literal procession of hundreds of thousands of performances advertised on printed historic playbills held at the British Library. Nearly 100,000 intriguing and eye-catching bills have been digitised and are freely available to view online via Explore the British Library

Besides recording a great variety of entertainments (ventriloquism, acrobatics, conjuring and all kinds of performing animals)playbills provide as near an entire historical survey of the performance of British and Irish drama in the 18th and 19th centuries we could hope for. As can be expected, there are a great many examples of Shakespeare’s plays advertised on these playbills. Browsing through a period from the 1780s to the 1860s, we get an impression of the most frequently performed and popular Shakespeare plays such as Macbeth; Hamlet; and Romeo and Juliet. It’s fun to see these famous titles appear in a range of type and font sizes that are characteristic of historical playbills.

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 A collage of 19th century playbills for Shakespeare’s big plays

But to find any level of detail, you have to get your noses in and browse through the playbills because there’s never been the resource to catalogue them; that’s why the British Library has a crowdsourcing project called In the Spotlight to capture core details – like performance titles, genres and dates. This provides opportunity to uncover all kinds of interesting events and details associated with past performances.

Appearing in this procession of playbills is a performance of King Henry IV with a bonus celebration: a pageant to conclude a drama called, Shakespeare’s Jubilee: or, Stratford upon Avon.

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Playbill for ‘Shakesperare’s Jubilee’ performed 20 February 1834. British Library Playbills 263

This pageant at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth was, “nearly a fac-simile of the Procession” at a festival held in Stratford in 1830. This festival, helpfully described in the exposition on the playbill, was founded on the three-day “Jubilee” of September 1769 in Stratford which was organised by the great actor David Garrick Despite being well attended by dignitaries from across the country, Garrick’s ‘Folly’ as it became known, was actually a bit of a farce. After opening to the salute of cannon and ending with fireworks, heavy rain and flooding postponed the planned grand procession. The idea was to stage a fully-costumed procession of the principal characters from Shakespeare’s plays carrying banners with dramatic quotes, and with recitals of famous lines for those looking on.

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How it might have been: impression of the procession from 1769. British Library C.61.e.2

Garrick made up for the damp-squib in Stratford by staging further face-saving shows in London, but it was not the best start for the history of Shakespeare parades. The next big Stratford celebration in 1827 was met with apathy and after a further Pageant in 1830, the planned ‘triennial’ celebration did not take place again until 1847. But browse through these digitised playbills and you will find evidence that there were other Pageants for Shakespeare being held in regional theatres. Details on the verso of a Bristol playbill from 1821, list the plays and characters in an, “Order of the Pageant”.

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Order of the Bristol Shakespeare pageant. British Library Playbills 204

The local press seemed not to have made much of the show, Shakespeare quotes being predictably used to dub the pageant as “insubstantial” and “faded” (with no apologies to The Tempest).

The Bristol Pageant was held on Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23rd. But, the motive for the Plymouth show, held at the end of February, seems less apparent. Details from the playbill can help explain

A common feature on playbills tells us that the evening’s entertainment was, “For the Benefit of Mr. Henry, Artist, & Mrs. Henry”. Mr Henry’s, “annual appeal to the supporters of the Drama” at the top of the bill is aimed at selling tickets for the performance, the proceeds of which will go to Mr and Mrs Henry. This is a key feature of the economics of theatre history – an annual share of the night’s takings was a major contribution to those labouring to produce theatre.

Checking the local press helps try and trace how performances fared and further details fall into place. There are conflicting reviews of Mr Henry’s first ever performance as Falstaff, “he supported the Great Knight very cleverly and elicited much applause” says the Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse Herald, but other local press reports tell us, “it was a bold attempt – a fearful one – his success was certainly not proportionate to the boldness of the venture.” It seems that though Mr Henry was “fat enough” to pull off Falstaff, he did not know at moments what to say and that his part would have benefited from a more attentive reading, “without which Mr Henry can never expect to completely succeed”!

It would seem the reporter in The Devonport Telegraph is suggesting Mr Henry should not give up the day job and it is in yet another newspaper where we find a detail that explains the true meaning of Mr Henry the ‘Artist’ making reference to his capability for – DRAWING! So it would seem that Mr Henry likely worked on producing illustrated sets to decorate the stage. This is a good illustration in itself of how general theatre workers – not just actors – were given the opportunity to act in plays or performances they concocted for their own Benefit Night performance. Mr Henry, hoped to, “escape the charge of egotism” but clearly wished to associate himself with the works of the supreme English dramatist.

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Review in the ‘Plymouth & Devon Weekly Journal’, Feb 20, 1834 revealing the type of ‘artist’ Mr. Henry is. British Library NEWS6323

Playbills very often provide us with great descriptions and information. Close examination of the order or programme of the procession stimulates thought about the choice of plays, characters, quotations used in the procession. Is there significance in the order?

Playbills provide us with details of the musical elements of entertainment. The playbill tells us that The Mulberry Tree (written for the 1769 Jubilee by Charles Dibdin) was performed after Mr Henry’s pageant.

These advertisements provide a great source for studying dramatic literature and its interpretation on different stages – we are often treated to plot synopses, guides to the ‘action’, and signposts for moral lessons to be drawn by the audience. These can be used to estimate contemporary understandings of historical drama across the regions (all the playbills on In the Spotlight are currently from regional theatres.)

Shakespeare pageants are of historical importance – they are an expression of the Romantic conception of Shakespeare as supreme creator of character. The pairing and prominence of St George also links the identities of Shakespeare’s drama with an English national expression.

Playbills, like historical newspapers are full of potential rabbit holes. Looking for performances of the Tempest? Do try not to get distracted by this Bristol playbill from 1820 announcing that “a celebrated pedestrian’ will arrive on stage after walking 92 miles in 24 hours” - between pubs in Cheltenham and Bristol. All for a considerable sum, it seems.

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From British Library Playbills 204

All these performances recorded on playbills really do form what we all know as, “Life’s rich pageant” (which, disappointingly for armchair Shakespeare aficionados, is not a quote from the great poet, but simply an old English idiom.)

You can get your nose into more historical playbills and play a part in capturing the details by checking out https://www.libcrowds.com/collection/playbills

  Playbills 7

Further reading: https://community.libcrowds.com/d/14-playbills-background-reading-and-reference-sources