‘Audace, toujours de I’audace’: the Bicentenary of the Old Vic

‘Dare, always dare’ wrote Lilian Baylis, that great stalwart of the Old Vic. Her words must be the most fitting motto for the world-renowned theatre whose Bicentenary falls this month. A special season to celebrate its landmark anniversary includes a new Dickens adaptation, an Ayckbourn play, a new musical dance production, a Birthday street party and Open House, marching bands and various community activities.

Yet the survival of the Old Vic for over two centuries is little short of miraculous: if its spirit is daring, its continued existence has always been precarious in the extreme. It has borne a variety of names – The Royal Coburg Theatre, Royal Victoria Theatre, New Victoria Palace, Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern. It has been sold and resold, refurbished, gutted and refurbished again. Neglected, bombed and fallen into disrepair, it has even been threatened with demolition. At the outset, it was built on the dubious wasteland of the Lambeth marshes. Managements, transient and money-grubbing, or else comprising those passionately committed figures who have made the Old Vic their life, have come and gone. It has been notorious for drunken, low-life audiences and then, in total contrast, become a temperance hall. It was claimed as the London home of Shakespeare and was the proving ground for many of our greatest actors. The National Theatre had its beginnings there and an adult education college grew up on its premises. And throughout its long history, the Old Vic has lurched through financial hardship and disaster, beset by that traditional curse of all theatres: money, money, money.

old vic1The theatre – The Coburg –was built near to the grand new Waterloo Bridge.  There were immediate difficulties with money, the projected cost of £4,000 becoming £12,000. The Waterloo Bridge Company, aware of the tolls it could collect from large audiences crossing the river, stepped in with funds. At last, in May 1818, the theatre opened offering melodrama and pantomime. The season was a success and the house underwent its first ever re-embellishment, showing off the famous, five tons looking-glass curtain. This comprised sixty-three mirrors in a gilt frame, which reflected the audience, but was so heavy that it damaged the roof and eventually had to be removed.

The Coburg went on to offer spectacular productions: an enormous ship ploughed through Arctic ice, while an Indian piece featured slaves, a real elephant, music and cannon fire. By 1824 a new impresario, George Davidge, had taken over the lease and the first attempts at Shakespeare – of a sort – were put on. As a minor theatre, The Coburg was constrained by ancient royal licences which forbade presentation of Shakespeare or any straight play.  To get round the law, a melodrama of Richard III was presented, which contained various musical interludes and which, to the chagrin of several actors hoping for a juicy part, starred a real horse called ‘White Surrey.’ Davidge pushed his luck further with the Three Caskets – an adapted Merchant of Venice – while Lear became The King and His Three Daughters. But in a bold coup the great and outrageous old vic2Shakespearean actor, Edmund Kean was engaged to play Richard III, Lear and Othello over six nights. Kean’s appearance on June 27th 1831 is legendary, for this was the occasion on which, fancying that Iago had received greater applause than himself, he railed at the audience, calling them ‘a set of ignorant, unmitigated brutes.’  Davidge had to appear before a Commons Select Committee to explain his flouting of the law. He got away with it: Shakespeare was to be preferred to the doggerel of melodrama. But again, money ran out, and the lease was sold.

The new owners redecorated the auditorium, built a new stage and re-named the theatre. But the entertainment at The Royal Victoria became even rougher and more raucous. It became known as the most notorious drinking den in town, where low-life patrons packed in, 3.000 at a time. Both Charles Dickens and Charles Kingsley wrote of audiences teeming with all ‘the beggary and rascality of London…from…neighbouring gin palaces and thieves’ cellars.’  A false alarm in 1858 caused a panicked stampede from the theatre in which people were killed or badly trampled. There had been no outbreak of fire but the incident did nothing to rescue the Victoria’s reputation.

By 1870, the Victoria had become badly in need of repair. Sold to a limited company, it was marked for demolition. A new splendid theatre was to be created. But money again dictated events and the New Victoria Palace was built between the original side-walls and the original roof. But, while still The Palace, the theatre did not thrive and was put up for auction twice more in the 1870s.

A remarkable metamorphosis was at hand when a Company devoted to temperance took out the lease. A music and dancing licence was secured for what now became The Royal old vic3Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern. A tavern it most certainly was not, for no alcoholic drink was served at the bar for the next fifty years. Under the Company secretary, Emma Cons, variety acts innocent of innuendo, indecency or vulgarity were put on. Their purpose was the moral improvement of the lower orders. Supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, and employing a clergyman as stage-manager who monitored the modestly-proper length of the lady performers’ skirts, the Royal Victoria was praised in the Birmingham Daily Post for its ‘civilisation of the roughs’ and for creating an ‘atmosphere of purity and truth which must cause rejoicing in Heaven.’

And then Lilian Baylis was invited to join the Victoria. She was a niece of Miss Cons and had had a remarkable early life touring South Africa with her parents’ concert party. She was a woman of parts: could sing, play various instruments and had taught dancing and music. She began work at the age of 24 and earned £1 a week, gradually assuming more managerial duties and taking over the lease on the death of her Aunt in 1912.

Miss Baylis’ real love was opera; she had already staged The Bohemian Girl, but one nightold vic4 a male voice spoke to her as she lay in bed. She had quite often had nocturnal dialogues with Jesus but this voice instructed her to produce his plays. It was Shakespeare’s. We know, of course, what great days were to come and how the arrival of the actor-manager Ben Greet was viewed as a further Act of God by Miss Baylis. Under Greet, the Old Vic Shakespeare Company was formed and performed the entire First Folio over the course of seven years. Hamlet was given in its entirety, a stint of five hours, and became an Old Vic tradition. The theatre could now properly be called that after Miss Baylis formally adopted the popular local nickname as its official title.

The Old Vic offered both classical drama and opera at moderate prices which meant that performers’ pay was low. When asked for a rise, Miss Baylis would reply, ‘Sorry, dear, God says no.’ But she had the knack of attracting talented young actors who then had the chance of playing a wide range of great Shakespearean roles. ‘God send me a good actor, and send him cheap’ was another classic Baylis saying. And God evidently obliged with the provision of some of our finest twentieth-century actors: Sybil Thorndike, Edith Evans, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft…..  These were among the greatest years of the Old Vic. When Miss Baylis died in 1937 she had secured Michael Redgrave, Alec Guinness and Laurence Olivier. At least one of them would have a marked effect on the future of theatre in Britain.

The Old Vic was bombed during the Blitz and restored in the 1950s. Again the money gremlins struck and a budget of £30, 636 had risen to £75,000 by the time the works were finished in 1957. By 1961 the idea of a National Theatre situated on the South Bank had been revived, and Olivier was asked to be its Director. But not yet: in the meantime, the new N.T. was to be housed in The Old Vic. Yet another rather unsatisfactory refurbishment took place but it was not until 1976 that the N.T. eventually moved to its new home. ‘It is the chief labour of my life’ said Olivier.

The closing night remembered Lilian Baylis in Tribute to the Lady, with Peggy Ashcroft repeating the Lady’s threat to come back and haunt them all should her work, or the theatre itself, ever be put at risk. The Old Vic changed hands again in 1982 and was restored by the Canadian entrepreneur ’Honest Ed’ Mirvish to the tune of £2.5 million – before being put on the market yet again. Plans to make it a pub, bingo hall or lap-dancing club caused wide outrage and protest. The ghost of Miss Baylis undoubtedly played its part.

The Old Vic Theatre Trust 2000 acquired the building in 1998 and in 2003 Kevin Spacey was appointed Artistic Director. In his time there, Spacey mounted a series of screen projects, played Richard 11 and Richard III and numerous other parts. No other actor-director has received such consistent publicity as he did; the glamour of Hollywood clung to him and informed everything he attempted. ‘He’s done an incredible job’ was one comment when Spacey stepped down, ‘He’s totally revitalised the place.’

The present Artistic Director, Matthew Warchus, has a new vision for the Old Vic. A fuller programme comprises world premieres, revivals, dance, musicals and variety shows which build on the preceding 200 years of creative endeavour. ‘We hope to be a surprising, unpredictable, ground-breaking, rule-breaking, independent beacon of accessible, uplifting and unintimidating art.’ Is his new mission statement.

old vic5

Happy Birthday, Old Vic.

Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant


Good Queen Bess meets Master Shakespeare

All in the playhouse have fallen to their knees as the Queen herself, glittering in gold, emerges from the gallery. Master Shakespeare bows before her. ‘Next time you come to Greenwich’ Elizabeth tells him, ‘we will speak some more.’ Then, leaving, she tosses an afterthought over her shoulder: ‘Tell Master Shakespeare, something more cheerful next time….for Twelfth Night.’


Whatever you think of Shakespeare in Love, this scene in the film reveals a great deal about how Elizabeth and Shakespeare are perceived. In the same scene, Elizabeth addresses first a boy among the groundlings, and then a Lord. She appears truly democratic, able to mix with her people and communicate freely with them. But more importantly she is portrayed as keenly interested in the new genre: theatre. Master Shakespeare is known to her – she has just seen Romeo and Juliet, with Shakespeare himself playing Romeo. Evidently Master Shakespeare is, in some capacity, a regular at her palace at Greenwich and now she invites him there for a personal conference. She also actively commissions a new play for Twelfth Night and so appears as the patron and enabler of Shakespeare’s plays. He is her protégé, classless in being elevated above his rural origins, and enjoying a relationship with a Queen whose remarkable insight has recognised his genius.

Elizabeth and Shakespeare are each individual icons but together they are even more powerful. We enjoy the traditional perception of a celebrated ruler and revered poet jointly producing the birth of national greatness and national literature. The picture of an Elizabethan Golden Age, of ‘Merrie England’, of Good Queen Bess, of the plays and characters of Shakespeare is attractive to us. We relish the idea of an imagined relationship between Elizabeth and Shakespeare. It is so deeply ingrained  in our culture and occurs so frequently that we cling to it, without bothering much about historical truth.

The scene in Shakespeare in Love is complete fiction. There is no evidence that playwright and Queen ever met. Many anecdotes have Elizabeth visiting a playhouse – usually the Globe – but the monarch would not have done so. Playhouses were situated on the notorious south bank of the Thames and were regarded as dens of vice. It would have been so shocking and sensational for Elizabeth to have gone there that such an event must have been reliably recorded.

Players traditionally had been summoned to great houses and palaces. If Elizabeth and Shakespeare did meet, the most likely place was at court, at the performance of a Shakespeare play. Shakespeare himself was the leading member and resident playwright of the company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Records show that 33 performances by them took place at court between 1594 and Elizabeth’s death in 1603, and Shakespeare’s plays must often have been performed.

It is likely that Elizabeth would have seen Shakespeare perform: in the First Folio, his name is first in the lists of ‘The Names of the Principall Actors in all these Plays’ He might even have been presented to the Queen; this was not an unusual practice. He might have seen her on the river – the ornate royal barge was kept near the playhouses – or have watched her setting out on, or returning from one of her Royal Progresses. Early on, these took her to Charlecote and Kenilworth in Warwickshire, and the boy Shakespeare might have glimpsed her from among the crowds. But there can only be educated guesses, based on scanty and inconclusive references, as to whether the two ever came face to face, exchanged words or enjoyed any sort of relationship.

Shakespeare-Beginner-Workshop-770-x-430It is in the posthumous ‘lives’ of Shakespeare and Elizabeth that they begin to flourish as a dual icon.   Far from being a ‘golden’ age, England was violent, unstable and divided. Yet both in her life and after her death in 1603, Elizabeth retained the status of national icon. Shakespeare died in retirement in SUA in 1616 but his passing caused hardly a ripple in the short term. Would his work have been lost had not The First Folio appeared in 1623?

At the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Shakespeare’s plays were revived and became part of the core repertoire, though greatly altered and revised. The ghost of Shakespeare began to appear in epilogues and prologues, encouraging excellence in dramatic and national endeavour. Then, in the first biography of Shakespeare, in 1709, Nicholas Rowe stated that “Queen Elizabeth had several of his Plays Acted before her, and without doubt gave him many gracious Marks of her Favour.” Rowe could not say what these favours were and, in any case, had drawn his information from oral sources, but this picture of a warm relationship had enduring appeal and influence.

Rowe also details the episode at Charlecote where the young Shakespeare was allegedly imprisoned for deer poaching. His account is embellished in the Biographica Britannica in 1793 where the story goes that Shakespeare petitioned the Queen in writing and owed his release to her kindness. It is highly unlikely that Elizabeth would intervene in the case of an unknown young man in rural Warwickshire, but it was a chance for the biographer to show how her mercy took Shakespeare to London – and was thus the indirect catalyst of his career – along with the suggestion that her amazing acuity had spotted a genius in embryo.

Shakespeare1aIn the 1750s Shakespeare’s status had soared and five editions of the plays were in existence. A memorial statue was placed in Westminster Abbey, showing Shakespeare, noble and pensive – far from the wayward deer-poacher – with the masks of Elizabeth, Henry V and James I placed  below him.  Dictionaries, books of quotations, essays and poems on Shakespeare began to be current and were collected in the libraries of great houses. To know Shakespeare and to quote from him was becoming the mark of a cultivated mind, of status and of education. Garrick’s Jubilee in 1787 in Stratford-upon-Avon, attended by the great and the good, cemented Shakespeare’s position as ‘The Bard of Bards.’

Another connection between Queen and Playwright was provided by one John Dennis who had revised The Merry Wives of Windsor. ‘I knew very well’ he declared boldly ‘that it had pleased one of the greatest Queens that ever was.’  Elizabeth, he went on to claim, wishing to enjoy the spectacle of Falstaff in love, had commissioned the comedy with a fourteen day deadline. Shakespeare, however, wrote the play in only ten. This anecdote is still current among the many others relating to the pair, and had the effect of merging Elizabeth’s reputation with the now high-flying status of Shakespeare, so that her regal power and his literary genius became closely associated.

shakes and liz

The myths roll on with Robert Ryan’s retelling of a story which has Elizabeth watching a play in which Shakespeare had taken the role of a king. To attract his attention, she throws down her glove and, without missing a beat, Shakespeare, retrieves it, effortlessly ad-libbing with ‘And though now bent on this high embassy/Yet stoop we to take up our cousin’s glove.’ When Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth  appeared in 1821, Shakespeare is produced in conversation with the Queen, as an adult and an accomplished playwright, though the novel deals with the year of the Princely Pleasures: 1575, when Shakespeare was only eleven.

Floods of novels, plays and paintings followed Kenilworth, often flagrantly distorting the chronology of the lives of Elizabeth and Shakespeare so that they meet, talk, flirt and even discuss or quote from plays not actually written until after the Queen’s death. Shakespeare-based paintings appeared regularly in the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition, many of them depicting Shakespeare and Elizabeth together. They were so numerous as almost to constitute a new genre and the fact that a female monarch now occupied the British throne gave new relevance to Elizabeth’s Golden Age. It was important to the self-image of Victorian Britain, that Queen Victoria asserted its imperial authority and national identity, as Elizabeth had done. And so, a Shakespeare play was performed every Christmas at Windsor before the royal family, much as Shakespeare’s troupe had been summoned to perform at Greenwich Palace.


Shakespeare Reading to Queen Elizabeth I by John James Chalon (1778-1854)

Shakespeare and Elizabeth continued to be represented together in the 20th century. In the USA they became icons associated with ideas of democracy , freedom, and  female power. It was a major Hollywood studio which financed Shakespeare in Love and constructed an artistic package which was British in essence, but which was designed to succeed in America, with record box-office takings and multiple Oscars.

In Britain, the two World Wars created both national pride and national insecurity while theatre direction and literary criticism moved away from the portrayal of a stable world over which Shakespeare and Elizabeth presided. History began to be viewed differently. New ways of looking back and understanding the past produced new Shakespeares, new Elizabeths and new encounters between them. It was suggested that they had been lovers or that Shakespeare was Elizabeth’s son. In the ultimate merging of two glorious icons,  Elizabeth actually becomes Shakespeare and is the author of the plays.


Upstart Crow Christmas Special, 2017 with Emma Thompson as Elizabeth I and David Mitchell as Shakespeare

Now, in the 21st century, Shakespeare and Elizabeth enjoy an active afterlife in the digital realm, via Facebook and other social networking platforms. They have met many times, go on meeting and are likely to go on meeting for some time to come.

Bettina Harris, LSA

SIL Book of the Week – The ‘stuff’ of early modern history

The latest addition to the Routledge Guides to using Historical Sources, Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources has been received into the Shakespeare Institute Library this week. Edited by Laura Sangha and Jonathan Willis, this book is an invaluable resource for the student of early modern history. Every student knows that primary sources are the lifeblood of the historian and without them, as the Introduction clearly states, history would be impossible to write. But where to start?!

understandingFor the student, the array of material ranging from state papers, printed books, literary sources, manuscript letters, diaries, wills and inventories, visual sources such as paintings, buildings, clothing etc. etc. can be daunting, if not overwhelming. The first part of this book offers a practical guide to approaching such sources, providing information on how the material was produced in the first place, how it has been preserved and how it can be accessed. There are pointers as to where to look at original material as well of course as how to access the vast and ever-increasing  digital resources now available. There are hints on the kind of questions to ask when approaching such sources together with case studies and examples.

The second part of the book approaches its subject thematically, examining what kind of sources can be used to explore a range of major themes such as popular culture, political culture, gender, science, warfare, religion and so on.

A must for the student of early modern history as well as the student of Shakespeare who is interested in setting the work of the bard within the wider context of the world in which he lived.

Dr Jill Francis, Library Support Assistant

SIL 20th Anniversary – The History of The Hut

the hutLong-standing members of the Institute may remember The Hut – the shed that used to stand in the Paddock behind the thick hedge. Access was gained via a tunnel cut through the hedge behind the gazebo.

The Hut was built by the National Fire Service as a temporary structure in 1943. They took over use of the Paddock after Marie Corelli’s will had been declared null and void, the house contents had been auctioned and the Air Ministry had requisitioned Mason Croft for war-time use.

The University of Birmingham bought the building and grounds in 1951 and established The Shakespeare Institute. The Hut was used by external groups and eventually housed the collections of microfilms and the viewing equipment and it became a study room for students. Many an essay was written out there by students lucky enough to be assigned a desk in the Hut and not minding the chill or the spiders, or the inky blackness crossing the garden at night.

In 1992 Westmere, the Institute’s base in Birmingham, was vacated and the Institute, formerly split between the two sites, was reunited in Stratford together with its Library. Lack of space meant books were fitted into every corner of Mason Croft and the Hut. Re-shelving was a particular problem as the books had to be carried in armfuls across the garden come rain or shine.

the hut2

Finally the wonderful new Library was completed in 1995 and all the books were safely housed in a new purpose-built modern building.

No longer needed and now over 50 years old the Hut was finally demolished in 1999. The passageway through the hedge has been allowed to grow over, Friday footballers run across the site and no trace of it now remains.

Kate Welch, Information Assistant

What is a theatre archive?

“Theatre history begins when last night’s performance ends.”dewit2

…so reads the Royal Holloway’s web page on Theatre History Research. It’s a great statement which captures the need to explore and document performances as close to their performance date as possible, and by doing so improve the reliability of evidence that we have. But it also points to the very transient nature of performing arts themselves. A performance is one night, never to be repeated, despite adherence to prompt books, directions, technical cues, blocking, etc. As Timothy Wiles wrote in his book The Theatre Event:

 The artwork which is contained in any theatre event changes with each performance: some of the difference stems from changes in the actor’s behaviour, intonation, emotional state, and so on, but an equal part of the theatre event’s uniqueness stems from the differing composition of its audience, the personal contributions made by each audience member as an individual.

As anyone who has been to two or three performances of the same production can testify, one night is rarely like another. This does make performance history something difficult to pin down. Many researchers will go and see a production of a play several times if they are going to write about it. Often, if given the opportunity, they will discuss the production with director, cast and crew, they will sit in on the rehearsals; immerse themselves in the creative process and in doing so enrich their understanding and depth of analysis with that particular production. Of course, that is doable with a production that’s here and now but not so with productions in the past – last month, last year, last century.


Thomas Postlewait, Professor in the School of Drama at the University of Washington points out that:

Various factors contribute to the survival of documents, but seldom is this process systematic and comprehensive. Although concerted effort is often made to preserve certain types of records, as with governmental records, the process of documentation in the archives are almost always incomplete. And they are often faulty. Large national theatres in modern times do a reasonable job of preserving records, but most theatre companies through the centuries, always short of funds, often fail to maintain sufficient records.

Even when records are saved, and perhaps make their way to an archive, they often remain uncatalogued, buried away in boxes. The navigation of so many theatre archives is often heavily dependent on the knowledge of the staff who work with them. Theatre archives also have a hierarchy around what is collected and kept by the company. For example, most theatre archives will maintain prompt books, photographs, reviews, programmes, archival videos, audio recordings, for example. But, what about all the other documentation generated by creative members of the team which all contribute to the end result. What stories are being prioritised and what lost? Digital content and its function in documenting, promoting and engaging audiences is a new media that theatre archives are struggling to contend with – how to store it, access, share it. The print archive has traditionally been seen as the memorialised trace of the now dead theatre production; the digital archive is instead the living, porous, re-interpretable complement to the energy of the original production. Blogs, twitter feeds, production trailers, filmed interviews with directors and actors, online educational resources, sound bites and oral histories, all add to the evidence around a particular interpretation of a play. Nowadays we often find illuminating material from the rehearsal stage onwards on theatre company’s web sites.

ShakespeareThis is an era of transition for theatre archives where the digital and physical meet. As a result it calls for a re-evaluation of current practices, of the way archive material is collected and stored. If theatre companies want to keep ahead of these changes the archive should ideally be created and curated in advance of, or as a part of the live production rather than following as its post hoc supplement. Many theatre professionals see the value of the archive and utilise it in rehearsals and the development of their productions. I for one would like to see theatre archives as ‘live’ and vital – a recognised and important part of the creative process. There are documents which lie unexplored in every theatre. We need to test the future relevance of the archive and examine how it can inform what we collect in the present to share with future generations. Watch this space…

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian

The Cambridge companion to theatre history / edited by David Wiles and Christine Dymkowski. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Interpreting the theatrical past: essays in the historiography of performance / edited by Thomas Postlewait & Bruce A. McConachie (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989)

Postlewait, Thomas. The Cambridge introduction to theatre historiography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Representing the past: essays in performance historiography / edited by Charlotte M. Canning & Thomas Postlewait (Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 2010)

Shakespeare, memory and performance / edited by Peter Holland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Theater historiography: critical interventions / Henry Bial and Scott Magelssen, editors.
(Ann Arbor, Mich.: The University of Michigan Press 2010)

Twentieth century British and American theatre: a critical guide to archives / Christopher Innes with Katherine Carlstrom, Scott Fraser (Aldershot: Ashgate 1999)

Wiles, Timothy J. The Theater Event: modern theories of performance (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1980)