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)