Monkey Business in the SIL Archive

In 2003 a newspaper reported that the Arts Council for England had paid £2000 to test what became known as the Infinite Monkey Theorem. This claimed that an infinite number of monkeys, bashing random keys on an infinite number of typewriters would eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Six macaques were recruited for the study but only managed to produce five pages of text, mainly composed of the letter s. The experiment was taken further in 2011 when an American computer programmer claimed that his monkeys (virtual ones, this time) were 99.99% of the way through the Bard’s works. Academic scepticism naturally followed: ‘to type the complete works would take longer than the age of the universe.’ was the Daily Telegraph’s riposte.

These intriguing snippets were drawn from the Shakespeare Institute Library’s Cuttings Collection. Unique in the University of Birmingham, our archive includes articles from 1902 to 2017 – and ongoing – about every conceivable aspect of Shakespeare. No single day goes by without the appearance in the press of some reference or allusion to the man, his world or his works. Among a huge miscellany of topics, the language of Shakespeare is a constant thread throughout the Collection.

Tower of Strength
Among the earliest articles, Shakespeare is regarded as an architect of the English language: ‘Without (him)’ declares one columnist ‘much expression would vanish into thin air. We would be tongue-tied. He made English a tower of strength; those who think otherwise may knit their brows’. (1936). Another cutting, early in the last century, claims that Shakespeare’s treatment of English history elevates it to an artistic subject as great as the history of Rome. ‘His national self-dramatisation…made the English regard themselves as special – perhaps it still does.’

Exactly the same sentiment, over 50 years later, appears in an article by Neil MacGregor, former Director of the British Museum. He writes:

‘Shakespeare gave England a new confidence in its own language and culture; at last there was a writer who was the equal of the greatest of the ancients… [he] forged a language that has certainly shaped how the English see themselves even today in relation to the world.’

With unconscious irony – this was pre-Brexit – MacGregor concludes that Shakespeare’s influence ‘still shapes the language in which to craft a proper place for the UK in relation to the European Union.’

Shakespeare’s legacy of words and phrases which have become permanent fixtures in the English language is considered regularly in the Cuttings Collection. An article from 1935 reports that compilers of a new English Dictionary at the University of Michigan, had counted 83 words (a number of them used or invented by Shakespeare) describing physical assault in Elizabethan English. There seems, too, a fascination with Shakespeare’s neologisms: ‘ Leapfrog, monumental and pedant’ were his coinings, a letter of 2009 informs us. Elsewhere, mention of the 17,000 words Shakespeare gave to the language is frequent. We are reminded of ‘eyesore, scuffle, buzzer and dedazzled’ but also ‘Bardic duds’ which never caught on such as ‘dispunge, fracted’ and ‘oppugnancy.’ The journalist Lynne Truss in 2000 offers more Shakespearian successes – ‘majestic, barefaced’ and ‘dwindle’- and more failures: ‘tortive’ and ‘vastidity’.

‘You vile standing tuck’
Newspaper articles across the Collection seem perennially to be fascinated by Shakespearean insults. A columnist from 2011, far from deprecating insulting language, suggested that 21st century swearing is too limited. We should emulate Shakespeare’s elaborate verbal inventions and avoid ‘the relentless barrage of four-letter words…(and)… the same flat monosyllables used in the present day.’ We know what he means. Shakespeare, meanwhile offers, ‘Pish for thee, Iceland dog,’ ‘Lazer kite of Cressid’s kind,’ ‘Viper vile’ and ‘Hound of Crete.’ Any of these, suggests the writer, might serve as ‘useful standbys in heavy traffic’.

One article of 2007 similarly laments the demise of the inventive and original insult and exalts Shakespeare as ‘the master of the well-turned slur.’ In fact, it usefully informs us, the Bard’s range of offensive terms is so large that there exists an insult kit for all occasions on the internet. Another columnist (2010) describes the birthday jumper given him by his daughter, emblazoned with Shakespearean abuse – ‘you bull’s pizzle, you stockfish.’ He hopes it marks a turning point in her education.

Historically, however, certain Shakespearean language has caused offence. A report from 1945 describes how Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V contravened the Hays Code – the set of moral guidelines that was then applied to motion pictures in America. The words ‘damn’ and ‘bastard’ were deplored, along with undesirable references to ‘the Deity.’ Olivier was required to reshoot the ‘offensive scenes.’ before the film could be released. Later that year, the crisis was over: ‘Profound thought’ says the Evening Standard sarcastically ‘has produced a solution. The word is now ‘dastard’.’ One imagines the difficulties had the play been King Lear – (think Edmund, think bastard). Times have changed though: there is actually an ‘Insults Chair’ in the RST, mentioned in the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald’s 2009 article about the creation of new theatre complex. For only a small fee one can sit enthroned and enjoy a barrage of Shakespearean invective through headphones.

‘Stage knee-deep with debris‘
A striking concentration of references to Shakespeare occurs in newscuttings from World War 11 (1939-45). It appears that his is the only language adequate to expressing the mood and events of those critical years. ‘Words of comfort’ appear regularly in the Daily Mirror, offering short quotations from Shakespeare to cheer and rally its readers. As the end of the war approaches, the historian A.L. Rowse, contributes an article in which he comments on events:

‘It was Shakespeare’s fortune to live, as we do ourselves, in a heroic time for our people. He gave expression…to the soaring spirit and pride…having come through…the struggle with the great world-empire of Spain…we are one country that has held on against a stronger foe…until now… we stand on the threshold of the last assault.’

Numerous theatre productions of Shakespeare went ahead during these years, regardless of air-raids, and seemed to epitomise the true spirit of gritty English resolution and defiance. ‘Dared to put on Shakespeare in Bombed London’ declares a headline from 1940. The subsequent article relates how the actor-manager, Donald Wolfit, chose scenes and sonnets for lunchtime performance at the Strand Theatre. ‘[the actors]…work under difficulties’ says Wolfit, ‘Bombs have destroyed the dressing-rooms, blown away costumes and covered the stage knee-deep with debris.’ He continues, ’I chose Shakespeare… [because he] represents the fighting spirit of our country. Only the best is good enough…sirens or even…a bomb exploding do not distract.’ Similarly, Robert Atkin’s Regents Park Theatre Company, continued to play in the open air ‘though bombs…fell unpleasantly close and some theatrical equipment was destroyed. But the players played on and there was always an audience.’

It was hugely significant that Olivier’s film of Henry V was produced during these years. What other play could have so meaningfully addressed the times? A review headline describes it as the ‘D-Day of 1415’ inevitably linking Shakespeare’s Agincourt with victory over Germany. Comparisons to Shakespeare’s bloodiest tyrants serve to describe Nazi leaders and a line from Richard III – ‘ ‘the bloody dog is dead’ ‘ – occurs on several occasions to celebrate the death of Hitler.

Even after the war had ended, Shakespearean language continued to be prominent. At the trial of William Joyce (the traitor known as Lord Haw Haw who had broadcasted morale-sapping wireless addresses from Germany) lines from Henry V were quoted by the prosecution. And, in 1953, at the trial of 21 SS stormtroopers, accused of murder, a line from Richard III – ‘Say that I slew them not’ was quoted in a demand for a verdict of guilty.

‘Blingtastic rewritten cod Shakespeare’
In the last two decades, the vexed topic of Shakespeare in education has loomed large.Should he have a place in the National Curriculum or not? Should young people study the actual text, or should the text be diluted, translated, dumbed down,updated?
Several articles call for Shakespeare to de dropped altogether: ‘Force-feeding children…can only produce nausea and a lifelong aversion…it’s like handing children treasure in a locked chest’ says a writer in 1968. ‘The Bard’s language is inaccessible without a very expensive education’ is another, pompous contribution. A letter from a teacher of English states: ‘It makes perfect sense to update the language. I really think we should start with Shakespeare. No one knows what that bugger was on about.’ Yet another joins the chorus with ‘What sort of dullards…think that Shakespeare, so long out of date…could ever get through to the minds of rebellious fourth and fifth formers and convey anything at all to them except revulsion?’

In fact, there has been a relatively recent great upsurge of Shakespeare ‘in translation.’ It appears to have done him no harm at all and, if anything, has increased his standing. In 2011, the Globe theatre under Dominic Dromgoole put on a great multilingual Shakespeare festival. It entailed all 37 plays in 37 different dialects or languages, performed by 37 international companies. It was enthusiastically reviewed in the press. The success of this daring project seems to be a measure of the adaptability, timelessness and universality of Shakespeare’s texts, while stressing the validity and increasing acceptance of non-standard forms of expression.

The development of the internet, the rise of social media, texting and emailing, together with the flourishing of television, cinema and radio, have inevitably had an impact on Shakespearean text. Even a TV series can involve him, as The Times reports in 2011: evidently the Klingon Language Institute (based on the Star Trek series) has translated Much Ado About Nothing (pagmo’ tin mis). Who would have guessed? But even those whose Klingon is patchy will recognise the inevitable quotation: ‘taH paghh taHbe.’

In 2012, a student was reported to have translated Act II of Romeo and Juliet into ‘text-speak’ so that Juliet’s balcony speech became ‘O rmo rmo, were4 art thou rmo.’ Accounts of a modern take on 15 of Shakespeare’s plays appear in two newspapers from 2005. This was the work of Martin Braum, author and self-proclaimed deviser of ‘Yoof-Speak’ and it features such titles as Two Geezas of Verona and Romeo And His Fit Bitch Jools. In ‘Amlet, Braum comes straight to the point with the opening line ‘Dere was somefing minging in the State of Denmark.’ Outrage! Sacrilege! But Baum believes that anything that introduces young people to Shakespeare is ‘a good thing.’

Well-wicked. He’s rad, man.
Shakespeare also gives a voice to the disadvantaged in society and raises self-esteem, writes the actor Paterson Joseph in his interview of 2007. ‘Coming from where I’ve come from (West London)… feeling I wasn’t worthy to say anything at all… But then I learned what it was like to have Shakespeare in my mouth. It is an empowering thing to be able to speak like that and have people listen.’ Joseph went on to make a documentary of his production of Romeo and Juliet, casting young offenders from the urban area of Harlesden. He was warned there would be few takers but, in fact, over 300 volunteers turned up, eager to derive the same benefits from Shakespeare as he had.

In the same spirit, the Intermission Youth Theatre (with the backing of the RSC) produced Wasted in 2007. It was a reinvention of Julius Caesar and, under the direction of Darren Raymond – himself a former resident of gangland Hackney -the play addresses the issues of violence and knife crime in urban London. It is written partly in the street slang which forms a large part of the identity of many young people, and the cast comprised teenagers who had fallen foul of the law.

Elsewhere, the veteran Shakespearean actor Janet Suzman recalls ‘I have worked with prisoners who have no education whatsoever, as well as homeless men in South Africa, and their response is shatteringly powerful. There’s an instinctive emotional connection: you don’t have to have an education to respond to it.’

And it is both moving and telling to read the articles reviewing the British Museum’s ‘Staging the World’ exhibition of 2012. Placed as the final exhibit, as if it is the one volume which sums up and defines our culture is the ‘Robben Island Bible’: the smuggled-in copy of Shakespeare’s plays which sustained Nelson Mandela and his ANC colleagues in prison.

Overall then, Shakespeare is good for us.He remains in the bones and blood of our culture however much we tweak, tinker with or try radically to reconstitute his language. And so perhaps the final word should go to Professor Phillip Davies of Liverpool University. An article of 2011 reports Davies’ investigation of the effects of Shakespeare on the brain. Using EEG and MRI scanning, he has concluded that Shakespearean language provokes a powerful neurological response in humans:
‘The Shakespearean functional shift appears to prompt activation in the visual association cortex, i.e. in regions normally activated by visualisation: that is, the mind’s eye.’
You WHAT??
I wonder how those monkeys are getting on.

Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant

The Shakespeare Institute Library’s vast Cuttings Collection is available to view anytime during library opening hours.

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‘Each night a new lost Shakespeare’: The School of Night

The Shakespeare Institute Library is delighted to be receiving the archive of The School of Night. Connected by name but not to be confused with Sir Walter Raleigh’s secret society, the improv company originated in a celebration of Shakespeare devised by the late, great Ken Campbell in 2005 for The Globe.

img017i

img015This initial gift from the company to the SIL by actor Oliver Senton contains publicity material for many of the School’s performances including details of Ken Campbell’s In Pursuit of Cardenio, 2006 – a series of performances inspired by audience suggestions promising ‘Each night a new lost Shakespeare. Never seen before and never to be seen again!’

As actors and audience mingled, a series of semi-spontaneous routines emerged through word suggestions and associations from the audience. Riffing in blank verse, iambic pentameter and sonnet form, Campbell’s troupe of actors improvised in Elizabethan style around possible scenes for Don Quixote that may have formed the original story of Cardenio. The Stage described how:

The irrepressible serial enthusiast Ken Campbell turns all the force of his intellect and personality to the art of dramatic improvisation, leading a small company of actors in what amounts to a series of masterclasses meant to culminate at the end of this brief run in the group creation of the supposedly lost Shakespearean play Cardenio.

The audience participation with the actors at these performances gave them a sense of inclusion in the creation of the work rather than just as spectator. This actor/audience dynamic created something fresh every night, new approaches inspired through that night’s engagement with the performance. Campbell praised his actors: ‘They’re fantastic at improvising Shakespeare, without making it boring because they’re fascinating to watch. It’s Shakespeare delivered with a fresh energy and should be inspirational to the young with new ideas on traditional work.’ As one journalist put it ‘This was an ode to the Bard with audience input.’

Campbell died in 2008 but his troupe continue to ‘channel’ the Bard, improvising in the style of poets and playwrights suggested by the audience, presenting us each night with a lost Shakespearean masterpiece. Recent members of the company include Sean McCann, Adam Meggido, Oliver Senton, Alan Cox, Josh Darcy, Dylan Emery, and Joseph Chance.

In June 2016 the School celebrated all things Shakespeare along with Slung Low and Rash Dash on the banks of the Avon in the RSC’s wonderful Fairy Portal Camp.

We’re incredibly grateful to the company for considering us a suitable home for their archive and to Oliver Senton and for coordinating and starting the deposit of material with the University. We hope to receive more contributions to this exciting new archive from the actors who have worked with the company in the upcoming months.

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian

 

 

Jarman’s Renaissance

jarman_illustration_1392995088_crop_550x370

This summer the Shakespeare Institute Library is celebrating the work of Derek Jarman in an exhibition focusing on his engagement with Renaissance works.

On 7 July we were fortunate to launch the exhibition with a fascinating lecture by Dr Pascale Aebischer entitled, “To the Future”: Derek Jarman’s Edward II in the Archive. Through her researches at Prospect Cottage, Jarman’s home in Dungeness, she revealed a long-term fascination with the play from the edition of the play he used at King’s College University (UCL), through to workbooks and edited scripts for various adaptations, including Sod Em, 28,  Pansy and the film which got made, Edward II.  Pascale’s abstract for an essay she wrote on this theme:

I argue that the play Jarman first read as a student and admired for its rhetorical figures and portrayal of same-sex love took on a political edge in 1986, when Jarman was diagnosed as HIV-positive, and homophobic legislation was first debated by Margaret Thatcher’s Government. The truncated film treatment 28 and the scripts for Sod ‘Em composed in response to these events use Marlowe’s tragedy as a structuring device that lends historical depth to the struggles of Jarman’s modern protagonist. In 1988, Jarman physically stood this script on its head as he started to rework it as Edward II in a script that imagined a Renaissance setting for the tragedy and stuck remarkably close to Marlowe’s words and Ranulph Higden’s chronicle account of the life of King Edward II. The screenplay Jarman eventually used for Edward II moves back in the direction of the political rage and focus on the present of Sod’Em and shows Jarman hesitating over the ending of his film and the significance of young Edward III. The return to Sod’Em is completed in Jarman’s Marlowe-inspired screenplay for the satirical musical Pansy which imagines a hopeful future for its young queer king Pansy, who vanquishes the conservative forces of repression and dedicates his rule to sexual freedom.

24 - Edward II

It’s clear that Jarman found an expression of sexual freedom in Renaissance literature which has never been surpassed.

Whatever life threw at Jarman he transformed it into art. He had an amazing ability to see and translate the most painful situations using film, painting and photography into works of beauty.

Jarman’s films are works of cinematic poetry; in his creations, imagery and atmosphere impress as strongly as thematic content. To Jarman the camera was another artistic medium through which he expressed his unique vision. He wields the camera like an artist manipulating a brush – utilising the language of cinema. Using basic technology and Super 8 cameras in his early works, you can particularly see the influence of early cinema; dissolves, montage, silhouettes, reflections, stunning compositions, blocking, lighting and colour designs which take on form and substance. When given the big budget for Edward II he took full advantage of the richness it could offer. It’s difficult to come away from a Jarman film without an unforgettable image impressed and lingering in the imagination.

angelicconversation16

The exhibition focuses on The Angelic Conversation (a sequence of Shakespeare’s Sonnets read by Judi Dench), The Tempest, and Edward II. As part of the exhibition you can view various stunning clips from Jarman’s films.

I have always felt that Shakespeare translates rather badly into film. There is a great rift between the artificiality of stage conventions and the naturalism of film settings.’ Jarman (Programme notes, London Film Festival, 1979)

Jarman’s version of The Tempest still stands as one of the most original of all British Shakespeare films. Relocated to a crumbling mansion off the Scottish coast, Jarman taps into the anti-establishment spirit of the punk era. The actor and political poet Heathcote Williams was cast as Prospero; the magic, power and creativity of director, actor, playwright and character melded into a dark, hypnotic brew.

temp5

‘Forever a cinematic alchemist – a sage that conjured and devoured celluloid before the eventual ritualistic sacrifice- Derek Jarman is the perfect suitor to Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1979); a play whose heart is bathed in the tragedy and power of magic.’ Adam Scovell, Celluloid Wicker Man blog

 

It’s clear that Jarman felt a strong connection with Shakespeare and Prospero as artists and creators whose art conjured worlds and possibilities beyond the mind’s imagining.

‘When, shortly after Jarman’s HIV positive diagnosis in 1986, he deliberately broke ‘Prospero’s wand, Dee’s hieroglyphic monad,’ the magic staff which had been used in the film, this was not a repudiation on his previous identification with Prospero-Shakespeare, but rather a confirmation of it and, like Shakespeare, he was to die just after his 52 birthday.’ Rowland Wymer, Derek Jarman (Manchester University Press, 2005)

The exhibition will run until the end of September. Great thanks to Dr Pascale Aebischer for all her support and an inspiring lecture; to Dr Phil Wickham, the Curator of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, University of Exeter for his advice and loan of rare materials from the wonderful Don Boyd and James Mackay collections; and to Neil Bartlett for his beautifully evocative description of his installation of The Angelic Conversation to mark the 20th anniversary of Jarman’s death.

Heathcote Williams

img347Whilst putting up the exhibition the actor and poet Heathcote Williams died. Jarman and he tried to channel the spirit of John Dee into his performance of Prospero. A magician himself he was perfect for the part. According to one obituary ‘he loved magic, because it gave the illusion of breaking rules’. His poetry, like Jarman’s films, often had a lyric beauty but had the visceral power to shock and expose. We also pay tribute to the great man with this exhibition. Obituaries from The Economist, The Guardian, and The Financial Times

 

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian

SIL Book of the Week : An occasional series

This week: The selected writings of Jonathan Miller, 1954–2016

Received into the Shakespeare Institute Library this week,  this selection of essays, lectures and interviews spans seven decades of the varied (an understatement) life and career of celebrated intellectual Jonathan Miller. The title of the volume, One Thing and Another, encapsulates precisely the range of subjects to which Miller contributes and upon which he reflects – that is, anything which interests him!

NPG x27384; Beyond the Fringe (Peter Cook; Jonathan Miller; Dudley Moore; Alan Bennett) by Lewis MorleyThe ultimate polymath, Dr Sir Jonathan Miller studied natural sciences and medicine at Cambridge, qualifying and working as a medical doctor. At the same time, he became involved with the Cambridge Footlights, the University’s amateur theatrical club which initiated many a famous career in comedy and acting – including his own. Miller made his name as a member of the quartet who brought us the inimitable satire show, Beyond the Fringe, starring Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as well, of course, as Miller himself. He then took up a position at the BBC, where, apparently, he picked up the art of directing ‘as he went along’. Here he produced and directed a wide variety of programmes  from plays and adaptations to various documentaries including series on the human body, the human mind, madness and the complexities of language.

Of particular interest to Shakespeare students is his role as director of six plays in the BBC Television Shakespeare series in the early 1980s. He also worked in theatre, producing and directing Shakespeare on the stage. Of this he observes, ‘It’s extremely unlikely that Monteverdi [Miller is also an opera enthusiast] and Shakespeare ever in their wildest dreams imagined that their works would be bequeathed to others who were so fundamentally and recognizably different from them and from their audiences. It’s very hard to put ourselves back into the imagination of people in the sixteenth or seventeenth century and conceive the notion of posterity as visualised by them’. But Miller has apparently coped with this difficulty admirably: His most recent directing role, in 2015 and at the age of 82, was Northern Broadsides critically acclaimed production of King Lear.

He also pursued his love of opera by directing productions for Glyndebourne and the English National Opera, this immediately following the holding of a research fellowship in the history of medicine at University College London. Later he studied neuropsychology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, before taking up another research fellowship in the same subject at the University of Sussex. And so on.

And all these fascinating facets of his life are represented in this book: his thoughts on theatre, opera, comedy, philosophy, atheism and scientific debate; his undoubted intellect and his rigorous scholarship accompanied by his acerbic wit and humour. There is something here for everyone, for all of us, like Miller himself, must be interested in ‘one thing and another’. In a library devoted to Renaissance studies,  Jonathan Miller is surely the epitome of the ‘Renaissance man’.

Dr Jill Francis

Jonathan Miller, One Thing and Another: Selected writings, 1954-2016, edited by Ian Greaves. (Oberon, 2017). PN2598.M7.

Available in the Shakespeare Institute Library now.

The Roundhouse: the best railway shed in town

‘It was the bunker for exploratory beliefs, in the form of plays, philosophical debate, poetry and marshal-amplified rock that quaked round the fat and lime-mortared drum like a constantly replayed pile-up on the M1’.

‘A Victorian train-shed built like a brick privy….’

‘A big, butch bothy…’

‘Surplus army coats, body odour…charred and onion-ringed comestibles from the dodgy concession stands, tinnitus…like angry wasps on helium…wedged in your ears.’

‘anarchic….’

The Roundhouse / Camden

So the Roundhouse at Chalk Farm was variously described during its second great incarnation from 1964 to 1983. If the term ‘arts arena’  means a laboratory for thinking about and presenting arts from all cultures and disciplines,  in a way that energises connections between exhibition, performance, debate, festival, lecture and conference, then it was the first of its kind in this country. And it was the brainchild of an eminent English playwright.

sketchThe Roundhouse was a historic original, purpose- built in 1865 to service locomotives. A turn-table encircled by 24 cast iron columns dominated the interior, with an intricate cat’s cradle of thin interconnecting supports above. Though completely pragmatic in design, the interior had that stripped back, aesthetic beauty that some Victorian industrial architecture seems to acquire by accident. The symmetry and spareness of linked Doric columns around a central space evoked the design of classical theatre. Even in early etchings ,the interior has a sense of enigma and presence.

 

The building went on to function as a warehouse after becoming redundant as an engine shed, and fell into disuse just before World War 11. It was not to be re-opened until the early 1960s.

In London, post-war austerity had given way to a new wave of self-expression and liberation: there was a sense of disillusion with the existing order and the era of the Swinging Sixties was poised to begin. The anti-establishment feeling had already made its impact on the arts and the so-called angry young men’ of the mid-1950s – dissenting, radical and even anarchic in their views – were focusing on ‘gritty’ social realism. In the theatre, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was a landmark play, sparking off a new genre – shocking and deeply distasteful to some – known as ‘kitchen sink drama.’  In both theatre and the novel there was a new emphasis on working class people and their disenchantment with an intelligentsia seen as largely upper-class and hopelessly out-of-touch.

weskerProminent among the new dramatists was Arnold Wesker. The commercial success of his ‘Trilogy’ of 1960 enabled him to put into action his liberal-radical ideas. The arts in Britain were ‘a mean joke’, he declared; culture should be freely available and accessible to all, not just to an elite.

His bold plan was to establish an inclusive arts centre which would provide a secure venue for performers. A permanent company of actors, a resident orchestra and jazz band were envisaged, along with provision for a wide variety of concerts, plays and other forms of artistic expression. There were, over a twenty year period, to be an art gallery, library, dance hall, work-shops, a youth club and a restaurant.But where to find a suitable space?

1855-original-fitandcrop-550x823Wesker’s recognition of the potential of the Roundhouse was inspired. A campaign to raise funds to refurbish it was launched and, re-named as Centre 42, it opened as a live entertainments venue in October 1966. The event was variously described as ‘epic’, ‘legendary’ and a ‘revolutionary event in English thinking and alternative music.’  An underground newspaper – International Times – was launched that evening and sugar lumps, handy for ingesting LSD, were allegedly handed out at the door. An unknown new group called Pink Floyd performed. They would be followed over the next few years by Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and bands such as The Rolling Stones, The Clash and The Yardbirds.

brook_tempestThe Roundhouse was very far from the plush West End theatres where plays were usually performed.Its spare, graceful interior; the almost limitless potential of playing in a large circular space (no stuffy proscenium arch here) stimulated directors to experiment and innovate. Their treatment of Shakespeare was radical and the young director Peter Brook, already known for his convention-defying work, produced an account of The Tempest which provoked a critical storm. Tradition was swept aside in a house which had no seats and so blurred the line between audience and actors. Brook’s direction managed to include rape, sodomy and domination and the text was interspersed with mime, chanting and guttural noises. Some critics were baffled and begged to be told what it all meant; others declared that it was not Shakespeare at all but merely made occasional reference to the original.  But in general, the production was acknowledged as something extraordinary and it was conceded that experimentation was healthy and necessary.

In 1969, the maverick director Tony Richardson cast Nicol Williamson in his production of Hamlet. Williamson was the notorious bad boy of the theatre but his talent was not in doubt. John Osborne judged him to be ‘the greatest actor since Marlon Brando’ and Olivier was quoted as saying that Williamson was his ‘closest challenger’ as the leading man of English-language theatre.

hamletWilliamson‘s Prince was biting and hostile. Unlike the beautifully articulated oration of former actors, his voice snarled with a nasal twang somewhere between Brummie and Glaswegian. Many playgoers had not experienced theatre in the round, or such an alarming proximity to the actors. They had never seen saliva fly. This Hamlet was nobody’s fool but had assessed the corrupt Danish court with the most penetrating acuity:  the text was loaded with his loathing and blistering contempt. But, in contrast, his affection for Horatio showed him as warm and endearing, and the scene in Gertrude’s ‘closet’ was almost unbearably intimate: some felt like intrusive voyeurs and wanted to creep away in embarrassment. The bar, at the interval, was packed with people in passionate discussion of the play.

The performance was judged as ‘iconoclastic’, ‘touched by genius’and ‘a benchmark’.  Michael Billington called it the most exciting Hamlet for more than a decade, while the P.M. Harold Wilson described it at length in a meeting with the U.S. President, Richard Nixon. The role had been redefined.

Steven Berkoff’s Hamlet of 1980 followed. The director wanted to offer ‘simple uncluttered Shakespeare in the round’ but the audience was unprepared for a totally bare stage surrounded by actors in black, humming wind noises on the non-existent battlements of Elsinore. Props were minimal – there was even an absence of rapiers in the duel scene. But, after all, Shakespeare himself had set the trend, and the playwright turned out to be a member of the cast. Berkoff, in the leading role, wore a striped blue suit with punk-inspired accessories. Notices were unfavourable, however, and at least one reviewer was so negative that the inflammable Berkoff threatened to murder the man.

The Roundhouse went on to stage Catch My Soul, a rock musical based on Othello in which a blacked-up chorus line danced to Mexican music. It was unusual, but its impact was slight compared with the outrage and controversy caused by Kenneth Tynan’s Oh! Calcutta! Described in the tabloids as ‘The Nudest Show on Earth’, it contained ‘adult material’ and full-frontal nudity. The pro-censorship campaigner and battle-axe for ‘public decency’, Mary Whitehouse, claimed that the arts and the country in general were morally at risk from such a show. More moderate reviewers described it as ‘tasteful pornography for the thinking voyeur’.

We are used to all this today, but fifty years ago such productions were emphatically ground-breaking. No other venue had offered a programme where the works of Shakespeare, in particular, had been so deconstructed and reconstituted, so often violent and disturbingly surreal. They were, too, disrespectfully sandwiched between ear-splitting rock ‘n’roll gigs, where the audience circulated in a fog of cannabis smoke and alcohol.

In 1883, funds ran out and the Roundhouse fell silent. But its third incarnation was at hand: it was bought by a local businessman and remodelled as a performance space. A new wing was added and the underground area housed a ring of practice rooms, recording suites and digital resources. The great, circular main space, the iron columns and the rotunda remained untouched.

main-space-2-smallThe new Roundhouse reopened in 2006. Its programme today is multidisciplinary and multicultural, reflecting every nuance of present day arts. Could this have happened without the almost-twenty years when it was the most controversial venue in London? It had been an icon of cultural change, through the hippy era to punk and post-punk. It spoke to the Free Love movement, to women’s ‘libbers’, civil rights activists, striking miners and black and musicians blasting out subversive music. It shocked and outraged, overturned traditional thinking and blatantly challenged establishment perceptions of what a work of art should be.

Wesker could not have known how comprehensively his vision was to be realised, or with what uninhibited and full-blooded vigour the arts at the Roundhouse were to develop and flourish. He would approve of what his performance arena had become and what it had achieved. The work goes on.

Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant

SI Old Stager on New Blood & a New Academic Year

Then nightly sings the staring owl.

A time of change is upon us here at the Shakespeare Institute Library.

I know it’s part of the academic year, as sure as the seasons roll on, and a great deal more punctual for that matter. Yet I’m always surprised by it. My inbox is flooded with good advice to new students – the system doesn’t seem capable of differentiating between the new and the continuing learner – who to write, what to write, how to find a housemate, where to file supplications for council tax exemption.

I knew it was coming, and it caught me completely unawares. It always does.

waitingLast Sunday saw the new MA students gather for the welcome tea, and from behind my desk at the Library entrance I hardly noticed. The old academic year has come to an end, and the new one is about to kick off. I haven’t met any of them yet. I haven’t met enough of the old MA’s yet, and they’re leaving this little, little stage, bowing out with Rosalind and Prospero.

It’s strange; the old MA students don’t seem so very old to me, and I find it hard to believe they’ve been here a year. I find it equally hard to believe that even younger students are about to embark on the same journey through Shakespeare scholarship I undertook not that long ago. The whirligig of time brings in more students.

I know they’re here in all their ripeness. I’ve seen a few of them in the library already. At least, I think I’ve seen them. They have the slightly overwhelmed, preoccupied look of people finding their feet on new ground. They pull at doors that should be pushed, and fumble with the card readers. Each of them reminds me a bit of Ferdinand and Viola, looking at the Institute island and trying to decide where they fit into it all.

Perfectly timed to coincide with the hurly-burly of seasonal scholarly change, we have implemented a new loans system across the University of Birmingham Libraries, which should, hopefully, make things run a little smoother all around. Loans will now automatically renew, to be recalled only when someone else requests the book. This will give our patrons the liberty to use our material with the greatest amount of freedom possible, restrained only by the needs of their fellow scholars. To the new students, this will not be a change. To them, this will be the system that always was.

Change is a natural part of the business of learning – when early career scholars are told to publish or perish, this is as much born of the necessity to contribute something preferably measurable to an academic field that often deals with things boundless as the sea, as it expresses the need for movement and for change. The day we stop moving is the day we become a museum. I feel a deep nostalgia for the past year, but I wouldn’t want to relive it.

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I will miss the old ones. I look forward to meeting the new ones.

I was new once, too.

Tu-whit, tu-whoo! – a merry note.

Sara Marie Westh, LSA and PhD student at the Shakespeare Institute

Shakespearean Popcorn: Snacking in the Playhouses of London

popcorn_jf10_310After a recent performance of Doctor Faustus, theatre producer Richard Jordan was an unhappy man. Writing in The Stage, he declared the West End audience to be:

‘Possibly the worst…I have ever encountered…Many of them… (were) talking, eating…often vocally commenting…There was also…an interval for bar and ice-cream sales – here was a Friday night commercial audience out for entertainment.’

With rising outrage, he continues:

‘A couple saw nothing wrong in producing…a box of … Chicken Nuggets and a large side of fries…Munching certainly seemed to be the order of the day. The couple to my left ate their way through a large tub of popcorn…while the couple on my right chomped through a packet of crisps. It was like listening to eating in Dolby stereo.’

References to ‘fast’ food and technology aside, Mr Jordan might almost have been in a 16th century playhouse.

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We know from contemporary records that Elizabethan audiences could be unruly and raucous. In our century, recent excavations of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and, more comprehensively, the Rose, have uncovered a wealth of historical and archaeological information about the structure and organisation of the playhouses. The discovery of huge quantities of food detritus reveals what was eaten there and, to some extent, by whom.

By the 1590s, the commercial theatre as we know it, was firmly established in London. It was an innovation in mass entertainment as radical as television in the 1960s and, for the first time, dramatic productions took place in purpose-built, permanent and secure venues. London’s commercial life was thriving and an increased population meant large audiences and large takings, which sustained both actors and the fabric of the buildings .The new genre was assisted by the flowering of the talent of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

theatrePublic playhouses were usually circular or many-sided in shape, and open to the air. A roofed stage jutted out from the lowest of three galleries, with standing room in front of it. This cost a modest penny and accommodated the ‘groundlings’: Hamlet’s word, and uncomplimentary, since it referred to the small fry who feed on sludge at the bottom of streams and rivers. Superior positions in the galleries cost more while the ‘Lords’ Rooms’ were closer to the stage and catered for more prestigious playgoers.

This provision for all classes of society underlines the fundamentally commercial nature of the new theatres, some of which could accommodate up to three thousand people at a time. If theatre shows us to ourselves, then the new professional playwrights drew audiences by peopling their dramas not just with Kings and nobles, but with ‘ordinary’ folk: servants, door-keepers, porters, constables and young blades on the street. So do soap operas in our own century.

The playwright, Thomas Heywood, recorded:

‘Playing is an ornament to the Citty, which strangers of all Nations repairing hither, report of in their Countries, beholding them here with some admiration;  for what variety of entertainment can there be in any Citty of Christendome, more than in London?’

The church and the authorities did not agree: a part of Southwark and its highway, Bankside, which ran beside the river, was already the site of inns, gambling dens, animal baiting rings and brothels. It was, however, outside the city limits and its laws. Not surprisingly, the building of the new theatres was only permitted in that area. They were generally regarded as dens of vice: actors had traditionally been seen as dubious individuals, but now cut-purses and prostitutes were attracted to mass audiences who were already held responsible for spreading the Plague. Heywood, having praised the theatre, also admitted, ‘Pay thy tuppence to a player (and) in (the) gallery mayest thou sit by a harlot.’

Julian Bowsher of the Museum of London Archaeology, the moving force for the playhouse excavations, describes the procedure for going to the play:

‘You entered through a main door and paid a one penny entrance fee to the ‘gatherer,’ who would have a little money box rather like a piggy bank with a bright green glaze on it and a slot through which to put a penny…they were smashed open when they were taken back stage.’

Thousands of fragments of these money boxes were found on site. But having entered the playhouse, the buying and consuming of food became a major part of the experience.

The importance of readily available snacks was made clear by one Thomas Platter (no pun intended) who wrote that ‘during the performance food and drink are carried round the audience, so that for what one cares to pay one may also have refreshment.’ Many theatres had tap rooms attached to them and, at the Rose Theatre, surviving accounts reveal that a grocer by the name of John Chomley purchased what we might now call a ‘catering franchise.’  Chomley’s house, at the south-west corner was ‘to keepe victualinge in’ to sell to theatre goers.

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Many samples collected on site indicate the consumption of native species: walnuts, hazels, almonds, elderberry, blackberry, raspberry, plum, pear, peach and cherry. That huge amounts of shellfish were eaten is evidenced by the remains of cockles, mussels, periwinkles, whelks and cuttlefish. It was the popcorn of the day. The standard dagger, carried by every man, was as much a tool as a weapon, and was used to winkle out the cheap shellfish. Oysters were a popular cheap treat and were associated with the groundlings.  Cheap food equalled cheap standing room and was identified with those at the bottom of the social scale.

A visitor to London, Paul Hentzner, recorded seeing apples, pears and nuts on sale according to season. The cores might be hurled at the stage by unruly audience members unimpressed by the play, and there are references to ‘pippins’ and nuts being used as missiles. With the opening of new trade routes, much fruit was imported into London and raisins, dates, currants, figs and prunes were popular. Oranges from southern Europe arrived in large quantities but were expensive and regarded as exotic. Numerous pips were found at the Rose excavations. While the privileged in London might afford to buy them, they had also reached other areas. I am indebted to my colleague Dr Jill Francis for informing me of accounts which show that oranges were given as gifts in the provinces, reiterating their status as luxury items. The seeds of marrow, pumpkin, squash and gourd represent relatively early evidence of contact with the New World.

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Apart from ‘water-bearers’ in the playhouse yard, the only other beverage seems to have been ‘bottled ale.’ This made a loud fizzing noise when opened and, along with the continual cracking of nuts, formed what may have been a disturbing accompaniment to the play. ‘When (a playwright) hears his play hissed, hee would rather thinke bottle-Ale is opening’ wrote a sardonic commentator. Ale did, however, fulfil a practical purpose when, on the occasion of the burning down of the Globe Theatre, it was used to extinguish the burning breeches of an unwary man.

forkThe privileged, meanwhile, brought their own more glamorous food along with their own wine, glasses and cutlery. An iron fork found at the Rose excavations bore its owners initials inlaid in brass, and would have sported an elegant wooden handle. This was upmarket cutlery identified as a ‘sucket’ fork, used to spear sweetmeats such as marchpane (marzipan), sugar-bread and gingerbread – the equivalent of a box of quality chocolates today. Its owner must have been someone of sophisticated tastes and some social status for such an item would not have been associated with the groundlings.

The variety of foodstuffs available in the playhouses was remarkably wide. It was also organic, and packed with the antioxidants, vitamins and enzymes which we are encouraged to consume today. The mass-produced, ‘fast ’food of our own century, laden with artificial colouring and chemically-derived flavourings may, in nutritional terms, be far worse for our health.

Bring on the whelks!

Bettina Harris (Library Support Assistant)

Howl, howl, howl, howl! Lear is mad again…

2016 sees a glut of King Lear productions, which our current exhibition in the SIL explores. LSA and PhD student at the Shakespeare Institute, Sara Westh explores Lear’s enduring fascination.

The by now quite venerable Arden Shakespeare Lear characterises its subject as “a colossus at the centre of Shakespeare’s achievement as the grandest effort of his imagination.”

Whether a fan of the play or not one cannot deny the influence of Lear as an iconic moment of narrative and drama in our age, something that Kott’s praise of it as “above all others the Shakespearean play of our time” seems to bear out. Of course, the date of publication of Shakespeare Our Contemporary suggests that rather than being the sigil of one age in particular, Lear has, as the rest of the Shakespeare gang, shown an aptitude for eternity. Maybe Lear speaks to us because the divide between age and youth is always instantly recognisable as well as being infinitely adaptable; the issues that prompted Kott to claim a singularly powerful status for the mad king in the mad world, cut off from human kindness, suffering in a hell as much of his own making as created by the people closest to him, are issues of humanity, and they are no less poignant today.

As we once again embrace the heath for its familiar barrenness, the inevitability of Lear seems closer than ever before. Our world is growing old, the tempests that rage just outside the castle walls are all too real, and the twitterings of our Fool companion are a constant buzz in the back of our minds. When everything appears to spiral out of our control in spite of well-laid plans and best intentions, we all howl with Lear. Unlike the king, however, we know how the story ends.

Turning to the play itself, to the king that staggers across the stage rather than through our minds, its enduring influence can be traced in part to its history, and in part to the fascination it engenders among the audience. There is, apparently, something at once deeply satisfying and unsettling about the gradual destruction of the elderly, followed by the revival (and un-blinding) of everyone involved through the magic of applause. Freud and Lacan can probably offer very incisive analyses of the play, in particular its use of sharp objects, and Barthes and Derrida can beyond doubt oblige us with new worlds of verbal slippage and dead gods from within the lines. And while all of this forms part of the reason why Lear is mad again this year, there is almost certainly more to it than penetration, castration, repetition, and perpetuation in our communal cultural memory.

The reviews of this year’s offerings help us suck the marrow from the bone:

“Through Warrington, Lear’s madness is made at one with the storm […]. He emerges from it transformed: fragile, human, as authentic as Cordelia, whose love – and whose death – he movingly shares.”

“Pennington’s performance charts Lear’s course from overconfident folly to humbled self-knowledge via the storms of madness with moving craft, culminating in scenes of extraordinary loving tenderness, first with blinded Gloucester (Pip Donaghy) and then, heart-wrenchingly, with the hanged Cordelia (Beth Cooke).”

Michael Pennington is portraying Lear at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, while Don Warrington takes the king upon him at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Judging from the publicity photos, both productions visually evoke an era past, with costumes suggesting the 1930’s-40’s, and both show their protagonists descending into white shirts as they descend into madness.

Clare Brennan reviewed the two productions side by side for the Guardian and according to her description the two lead actors are comparably magnificent; both combine the air of death that clings to Lear’s shoulders like tar with tender moments of excruciating pain. Both portrayals she describes as “moving”.

Apart from the immediate meaning of emotions that transport us beyond the hum-drum every-day, and maybe even deposit us in that rare embrace of catharsis where our own problems fade into insignificance for a few, brief moments, until the lights go up again, and we once more set out across the heaths we spend our lives cultivating, there is a deeper sense of movement at play. Maybe the “moving” centre of Lear is what makes its particular calamity of so long life; the savage joy of witnessing inescapable suffering, sorrow of a magnitude that goes far beyond what any one of us can reasonably pretend to fathom, and yet witnessed from such a privileged point of view that every moment of the old man’s downfall is available to us in the full technicolour of our own senses.

Glenda Jackson will be portraying Lear at the Old Vic later this year, as will Antony Sher at the RSC. The Lears of 2016, then, are so far looking like an at least approximately representative model of the population. The only unifying feature is age: this year’s Lear must, apparently, be old. Perhaps the traditions that surround this theatrical sacrifice demand a certain stiffness in the joints and toughness in the sinews; an old actor’s offering, much as Hamlet belongs to the young, provided that Uncle Monty’s view of the world in Withnail and I is to be credited.

If the 2016 Lear productions are anything to go by, this is the age of the mad king, of the player who only too late realises that he is the star of his own tragedy. And as such it is, of course, the story of everyone alive. It is, unfortunately, a story we love to watch – in others as in ourselves. And we never start clapping until the lights go down.

Sara Marie Westh, LSA Shakespeare Institute Library

WORKS CITED

Brennan, Clare. “King Lear Review – Two Lears Acting up a Storm”. The Guardian. 10.04.2016. web 01.08.2016. <https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/apr/10/king-lear-royal-derngate-northampton-royal-exchange-manchester-review&gt;.

Foakes, R.A. “Introduction” King Lear by William Shakespeare. Arden Shakespeare 3rd series. gen. eds. R. Proudfoot, A. Thompson, D.S. Kastan. Walton-on-Thames: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1997.

Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Trans. Boleslaw Taborski. London: Routledge, 1988.

 

WORKS CONSULTED

Aebischer, Pascale, Edward J. Esche, and Nigel Wheale (eds). Remaking Shakespeare: Performance Across Media, Genres, and cultures.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2003.

Burt, Richard (ed). Shakespeare after Mass Media. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002.

Henderson, Diana E. Collaborations with the Past : Reshaping Shakespeare across Time and Media. Ithaca; London: Cornell UP, 2006

Holland, Peter (ed). Shakespeare Survey 62: Close Encounters with Shakespeare’s Text. Cambridge: CUP, 2009.

Joughin, John J. Philosophical Shakespeares. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

Kelley, Philippa. The King and I. London and New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011.

Lusardi, James and June Schlueter. Reading Shakespeare in Performance: King Lear. London, New Jersey, Ontario: U of Delaware P: Associated UP’s, 1991.

Mack, Maynard. King Lear in Our Time. London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1966

Massai, Sonia. World-wide Shakespeares – Local Appropriations in Film and Performance. Oxon: Routledge, 2005.

Muir, Kenneth (ed). King Lear – Critical Essays. London and New York: Routledge, 2015.

— and Stanley Wells (eds). Aspects of King Lear. London, New York, New Rochelle, Melbourne, Sydney: CUP, 1982.

Ogden, James and Arthur H. Scouten (eds). Lear from Study to Stage – Essays in Criticism. Madison; Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson UP; London: Associated UP’s, 1997.

Proudfoot, Richard (ed). Shakespeare : Text, Stage and Canon. London : Arden Shakespeare, 2001.

Sun, Emily. Succeeding King Lear. New York: Fordham UP, 2010.

Wagner, Matthew D. Shakespeare, Theatre, and Time. London and New York: Routledge, 2012.

Whereof are you made? Shakespeare’s Inspiring First Folio

A few weeks ago the Cadbury Research Library held a lovely event to welcome the arrival of a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio into the University’s collections. The First Folio itself was on display along with many other Shakespearean related treasures and beautiful editions of the works. The ability of the written word to transmit Shakespeare into different forms and eras, the metaphysical properties of the text itself, were revealed in the pieces presented on the evening; whether through Dr John Jowett’s lecture, the readings of selections of Shakespeare’s works, through the illustrations and various editions of the works. Shakespeare’s presence was evoked through ink and paper, voice and image.

One of the highlights of the evening were the contributions made by the students of the University. This original work written in honour of the occasion by Richard O’Brien wonderfully brought together the themes of the evening and to myself, a librarian, illuminated the physical miracle of the printed word.

Whereof are you made?

Cut rags to ribbons. Bring them to the boil,

then beat them into pulp. Set up a frame.

Remove the frisket. Give the tympan oil.

Lay out the letters of a normal name.

Wait for a wasp to swell an oak with gall,

then crush the growth and stir it in hot piss.

Dampen the paper. Fetch a leather ball,

and roll it in whatever comes of this.

Blacken the type, then lock the page in place.

Push in the press bed. Pull to wind the screw.

Lower the platen. Black marks on white space.

Open the hinges. Lift out something new.

Do this all day, in dim light. Here it stands:

one man’s words, and the work of many hands.

Richard wrote about the idea behind the poem and his discovery of Elizabethan printing techniques.

“When I first spoke with Martin Killeen about writing a poem for the Folio event, I wanted to do something about the proliferation of editions and the fact that all the libraries of Shakespeare texts we have today only exist because of this one little (though not that little…) book. The idea of that contingency was what I wanted to explore: if not for this one volume, we wouldn’t have Twelfth Night, Macbeth, the Droeshout engraving… Martin kindly put together a list of all the historically significant editions the Cadbury could supply for handling, and fetched them up from the stacks. I was scrabbling around for something about mighty oaks and little acorns, but it didn’t quite work and eventually I gave up on the idea entirely, after Martin had gone to the trouble of getting all the books out. (Thanks, though!)

Instead I decided it’d be more interesting to think about the contingency of the Folio as a physical object. I’d recently been to the American Bookbinders Museum in San Francisco – which I highly recommend – where an extremely cool woman showed me how to use a 16th-century screw press and talked to me about the making of rag paper. A few days later my girlfriend showed me a clip from BBC coverage of, I think, the Chelsea Flower Show, with a woman talking about wasps and galls and I thought – that should not be what we have to rely on to print great literature. And yet obviously it is, and all these strange, messy, organic components are brought together in a very labour-intensive, human process, using some quite elaborate machinery, for us to be able to have this book at all. And the works of Shakespeare are sometimes imagined as this kind of transcendent thing, living in the mind – and their existence is completely reliant on some torn-up rags and some tree bark having a bit of an over-reaction. I thought there was something fascinating about that, and I just wanted to convey the sense of process and the work involved. The title comes from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which is similarly trying to struggle with how something – someone – came to be the way they are, and that was the final piece of the picture, really.”

Huge thanks to Richard for allowing us to print his great poem on our blog (which may also get framed and hung in the library to remind us of those valued physical items we call books!).

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian

Hand in hand, with fairy grace: midsummer fairy madness

Midsummer is upon us – it’s damp, it’s wet, it’s England. Nevertheless, the RSC, with the collaboration of Slung Low, The School of Night and Rash Dash are seeing in the equinox in style; celebrating, engaging and sharing creativity in their Fairy Portal Camp.

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I, like others from the Shakespeare Institute will no doubt join in the fun this week despite the weather, but from a historical perspective our ancestors would be quivering in their boots at the thought of opening a portal to the fairy world, as much of the folklore around fairies in the British Isles revolves around the dangers and avoidance of interaction with fairies. So when looking through books on fairy lore we do not see much on how to conjure images of fairies but a significant amount on how to avoid them.

Liminality is at the heart of the timing of our engagement with the supernatural and the nature of fairies themselves. They are intermediate beings, somewhere between ourselves, spirits, demons, and ghosts. They are material and yet can make themselves invisible, comprised of the fleshy nature of man and yet able to transform themselves into ‘airy nothings.’ In Elizabethan times fairy encounters were closely linked with witchcraft and it wasn’t advisable to demonstrate too much knowledge of fairy lore. On Midsummer Eve fairy visits were linked with visitations from the dead – if you were to stand in a churchyard and eat something before midnight you would see the spirits of all those who died in the last year lining up at the church door in chronological order. Handy that Holy Trinity is so close! Some believed that fairies were the spirits of the dead.

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Humans are at their most vulnerable to the fairy world at certain liminal times of the year – equinoxes and solstices, when the increase of day or night shifts over to its decrease. The most outstanding of these festivals are Bealltainn, held on 1st of May; Midsummer Day; the feast of the Sun-god Lugh, in August and Samhain, or Hallowmass, on 1st November. Proof that fairies were placated or dreaded at these seasons is evident from the tradition that those who had been enchanted by them in their dances cannot be released until a year after, this indicating “a recurring festival celebrated annually, the observance of which has been transferred in part to the fairies.” Times of the day are also more conducive to fairy encounters. Some days of the week or even hours of the day are connected with beliefs concerning fairies. In the ballad of Tam Lin we are told that: “They begin at sky-setting, ride a’ the evening tide”. Twilight and dawn serves as a liminal time, between day and night – where one is ‘in the twilight zone, in a liminal nether region of the night’, between sleeping and waking, dreams and reality – the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition. In Ireland it was suggested that no mention of fairies should be made on Mondays and Thursdays. Lady Wilde (Oscar’s mum) maintained that on Fridays their power was exceptionally strong; therefore children and cattle had to be strictly watched on that day. Wednesday, says a passage in The Denham Tracts, is “the fairies’ Sabbath or holiday.

With regards to humans, our own liminal states make us susceptible to fairy encounters: birth, puberty, death, for example. Birth is a particularly strong attractant to the fairy world and there are many tales of fairy blessings at birth times (see Sleeping Beauty) or of kidnappings when fairies would replace a new born infant with a changeling.6a00d8345161d869e2019aff309e7e970c

In all lore of the supernatural, eating whilst in the presence of fairies or any other spirits is not advisable – to eat in the fairy world is to risk entrapment in that world. However, the eating of eggs or bathing eyelids with egg whites enabled mortals to see the fairies. Eggs, a symbol of birth and therefore of liminality in folklore gave one the power to see across the borders of reality.

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The great Katherine Briggs in her Anatomy of Puck explains how mortals trapped in the fairy world risked more than entrapment as ‘Time spent with them passes at a different rate than when spent with mortals; seven days in fairyland is generally equivalent to seven years in mortal time. They are dangerous to human beings, their food is taboo and people who fall into their power are carried away and often crumble into dust on their long-delayed return.’ (14)

Anyone in a high passion and thus a vulnerable state will also attract fairy attention. There are many tales of fairies encouraging passions in mortals with their dances, songs or beauty, in order to entrap them. Sometimes people would be trapped forever in the fairy world and on other occasions, they would bestow supernatural gifts on particular favourites. In the case of Thomas the Rhymer, the Fairy Queen confers “the tongue that shall never lie”, a boon which earned him the popular sobriquet of “True Thomas”. One young man of Nithsdale, overcome by the wild and delightful music and signing of the fays, took part in their dance and was presented with a cup of wine of which he drank deeply. He was permitted to return to the world of men, but “was ever after endowed with the second sight”.

Thomas the Rhymer

Thomas the Rhymer

Thankfully, the fairies leave us physical landmarks of where they’ve been. Fairies are known for dwelling in mounds, trees, near graves or standing stones, near water – streams, lakes and wells. Beaumont and Fletcher in The Faithful Shepherdess, make references to a well as a fairy haunt. The fays danced round it by moonlight, and dipped their stolen children in its waters:

So to make them free / From dying flesh and dull mortality.

fairy_ring1However, the most famous natural landmark is the Fairy Ring – a dark, circular patch of long grass. The fairies present in fairy rings could not be seen unless you stood in the middle of their circle dance. Alfred Nutt, alluding to the fairy dance by moonlight, describes it as “the classic manifestation of the fairy folk… in wild and desert places.” He thought that it had a realistic basis in the superstition that “night is essentially the time for growth” and that the ritual which sought to evoke growth was “frenzied and orgiastic.” Fairy dancing was associated with the idea that saltation assists the growth of the corps. Violent action has a magical and sympathetic effect upon the powers of nature, and the emanations of action strengthen the supernaturals in their task and are passed on to them; or, by sympathetic magic, they encourage them to similar exertions. Many primitive dances assume the form of imitative motions pantomimic of the growth of the crops, or of vegetation. Participants forming a circle and dancing with their backs to the centre.

“Let turtle-footed peace dance fayrie rings / About her court.”

Ben Jonson, Every Man out of his Humour

To cultivate or dig the fairy ring caused one’s luck to disappear, but to clean it meant an easy death.

At Chathill farm, near Alnwick, in Northumberland, there was a famous fairy ring round which the children of the locality might dance, but not more than nine times. If they exceeded this number of rounds “they would have been carried off by the fairies.” A house built on ground marked by these rings was fortunate for those who inhabited it.

Blake's illustration from A Midsummer Night's Dream

It is unlucky to pass a fairy haunt without leaving an offering there, a piece of cheese, or other morsel. Offerings of milk are given to brownies. In Derbyshire offerings of clay tobacco pipes found in mounds seem to have formerly been made to the fairies. So, as you pass the Fairy Portal Camp it may be worth leaving a gift in order to appease the beautiful but dangerous spirits that may be unleashed! You have been warned.

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian