‘The gloomy and sublime kind of terror’ of Ann Radcliffe and Shakespeare

In an essay written in 1920, Clara McIntyre argues that the very term Gothic is a misnomer, that:

The novels of Mrs Radcliffe and her followers … are not an expression of the life and spirit of the Middle Ages, if this is what the term Gothic means. They are, rather, an expression of the life and spirit of the Renaissance, as Elizabethan England had interpreted the Renaissance.

Haunted castles, violent and unnatural murder and bloody revenge are the stuff of Renaissance tragedy, and they are also the essence of Gothic literature. In our modern understanding of the term Gothic this can be traced from characters such as Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, through to Edgar in King Lear, and from Shakespeare’s earliest to his later plays, from Titus Andronicus to The Tempest. There is a strong cross-fertilisation between Shakespeare and the Gothic novel. The novels of Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, are so dependent on this cross-fertilisation as to make the two forms near inseparable with regards to the conception of character, plot, and textual choices.

Essayist Nathan Drake referred to Ann Radcliffe as ‘the Shakespeare of Romance writers.’ Ann Ward was born in Holborn, London, in 1764 – the same year as the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. Her most famous novel is probably The Mysteries of Udolpho, published in 1794. Her portrayal of the rapture and terrors of her characters’ imaginations is vivid and compelling, and she is one of the first novelists to use descriptions of landscape, weather, and the effects of light as mirrors to the emotions and circumstances of her leading characters. Although Otranto is considered the first Gothic novel, it was Radcliffe who took up the mantle, defined the genre and inspired other writers in new form. As Camille Paglia pointed out, ‘it is a rare example of a woman creating an artistic style.’

In 1826, Radcliffe wrote an essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry,” for The New Monthly Magazine which not only helped define the Gothic but espoused Shakespeare as the major proponent of ‘the Sublime’ as described by Edmund Burke in his 1757 treatise on aesthetics, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. The essay took the form of a dialogue between Willoughton, “the apostle of Shakespeare,” and Mr. Simpson, “the representative of Philistine common sense”:

[W____:]”Who ever suffered for the ghost of Banquo, the gloomy and sublime kind of terror, which that of Hamlet calls forth? though the appearance of Banquo, at the high festival of Macbeth, not only tells us that he is murdered, but recalls to our minds the fate of the gracious Duncan, laid in silence and death by those who, in this very scene, are reveling in his spoils. There, though deep pity mingles with our surprise and horror, we experience a far less degree of interest, and that interest too of an inferior kind. The union of grandeur and obscurity, which Mr. Burke describes as a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror, and which causes the sublime, is to be found only in Hamlet; or in scenes where circumstances of the same kind prevail.”

“That may be,” said Mr. S____, “and I perceive you are not one of those who contend that obscurity does not make any part of the sublime.” “They must be men of very cold imaginations,” said W____, “with whom certainty is more terrible than surmise. Terror and Horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them. I apprehend, that neither Shakespeare nor Milton by their fictions, nor Mr. Burke by his reasoning, anywhere looked to positive horror as a source of the sublime, though they all agree that terror is a very high one; and where lies the great difference between horror and terror, but in uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreaded evil?

Radcliffe’s knowledge of Shakespeare was encyclopaedic, her books permeated with borrowings from the Bard – direct quotes, borrowed language, plot devices, castle and forest settings. She regularly prefaces her chapters with quotes from Shakespeare and she displays a particular love of Hamlet. This love may well be traced to a period in her youth when, staying at Bath she was fortunate enough to see the great actress Sarah Siddons act in some of her most famous roles. At a special benefit performance at Bristol Theatre Royal, on 27 June 1781, Sarah Siddons performed Hamlet for the sixth time, and this performance may well have had a profound effect on the future novelist. An examination of her novels shows the extent to which, what may be called ‘the Siddons effect’, informed Radcliffe’s creative imagination. In her essay ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’ she writes:

Mrs Siddons, like Shakspeare, always disappears in the character she represents, and throws an illusion over the whole scene around her, that conceals many defects in the arrangements of the theatre. I should suppose she would be the finest Hamlet that ever appeared, excelling even her own brother in that character; she would more fully preserve the tender and refined melancholy, the deep sensibility, which are the peculiar charm of Hamlet, and which appear not only in the ardour, but in the occasional irresolution and weakness of his character – the secret spring that reconciles all his inconsistencies. A sensibility so profound can with difficulty be justly imagined, and therefore can very rarely be assumed. Her brother’s firmness, incapable of being always subdued, does not so fully enhance, as her tenderness would, this part of the character. The strong light which shows the mountains of a landscape in all their greatness, and with all their rugged sharpness, gives them nothing of the interest with which a more gloomy tint would invest their grandeur; dignifying, though it softens, and magnifying, while it obscures.’(p.163)

The last part of this is instructive. Radcliffe, echoing Edmund Burke, likens the light upon a mountain to the light that an actor – in this case Siddons – and indeed she herself, throws upon her heroines. She eschews ‘rugged sharpness’ in favour of a gloomy tint which magnifies ‘while it obscures’. The conditional ‘would’ here, covers the fact that the seventeen year old Ann Radcliffe did see Sarah Siddons as Hamlet at the Theatre Royal Bristol on 27 June 1781, and that on that night the Radcliffian heroine was born in the mind of the author. James Boaden ‘imagined that she [Siddons] must have far surpassed her brother Philip in communicating the Prince’s “real feminine alarm”.’ This Siddonsesque ‘tender and refined melancholy’ and ‘deep sensibility’ and, most of all, ‘real feminine alarm’, are keynotes to the characters of Julia in A Sicilian Romance, and are developed further in Adeline in The Romance of the Forest, and Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho.

Where there’s a Hamlet there’s a Ghost and in Udolpho, the ghost of Hamlet’s father is summoned at the start of the novel by Radcliffe’s use of the epigraph to Volume 1 Chapter 2, ‘I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul’. Following Emily’s father’s death, Emily’s fancy that she ‘almost … saw him before her’ is reminiscent of Hamlet’s mental vision of his father before he sees his ghost, ‘in my mind’s eye, Horatio.’ (1.2.184).

The dead St. Aubert appears before Emily in an armchair – and she is immediately after described, like Hamlet, as being susceptible to the ‘thick coming fancies of a mind greatly enervated’ (memories of Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth also obviously playing in Radcliffe’s memories here).

As ever, Ann Radcliffe meters up the gloom, tension and fear for her central protagonist. Udolpho, like Elsinore, continues to be bedevilled by mysterious sightings. Emily herself perceives the mysterious figure on the ramparts which has so petrified the watch. Radcliffe writes:

Her scattered thoughts were now so far returned as to remind her, that her light exposed her to dangerous observation, and she was stepping back to remove it, when she perceived the figure move, and then wave what seemed to be its arm, as if to beckon her, and, while she gazed, fixed in fear, it repeated the action.

Parallels with Hamlet continue when it becomes clear that the villain of the piece, Montoni, is a Claudius-type character. He usurps St. Aubert and inherits Udolpho by villainous means – in much the same way that Claudius inherits Elsinore.  He murders his wife and plans to bury her ‘hugger-mugger’ so to speak, until Emily entreats him otherwise. Radcliffe is at her sublime best in the ensuing description of the pitiable Madame Montoni’s funeral. She cites the painter Dominico Zampieri openly as an influence, but she scarcely needs to. Her plangent gothic description, as gleams of light play in and out of the vault surrounding the torch lit grave, suffices to give the scene an almost filmic quality, as if Radcliffe wants to stage Ophelia’s burial with proper decorum.

Radcliffe’s Shakespearean Gothic had a massive influence on literature and her contemporaries – one need only look at the affect she had on Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis. Matthew Gregory Lewis was born in London on 9 July 1775, the son of a Deputy Secretary at the War Office. He left Oxford University intending to follow a career in the diplomatic office like his father, but on his journey towards the Hague where he was due to take up a position as attaché, he read a novel which was to change his life. The nineteen-year-old Lewis picked up Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho whilst on the boat over to the Netherlands and fell under it’s spell declaring it to be ‘one of the most interesting books ever published’.  It was during this period, before his father recalled him back to England, that he wrote The Monk in the space of ten weeks. Lewis’s The Monk caused so much of a sensation that the title even worked itself into his name. The Monk, which scandalised late-eighteenth century literary society, is partly driven by a Shakespearean osmosis. Indeed, as if prepared for the storm the novel would provoke, Lewis apes Hamlet in his Preface ‘An Imitation of Horace’:

Go then, and pass that dangerous bourn

Whence never Book can back return:

Book One of the novel proper opens appropriately with a quotation from Measure for Measure:

Lord Angelo is precise;

Stands at a guard with envy; Scarce confesses

That his blood flows, or that his appetite

Is more to bread than stone.

… thus signalling to us the incipient hypocrisy and underlying concupiscence of the eponymous Monk Ambrosio, who in the course of the novel sells his soul to the Devil with fatal results having along the way indulged himself in obscene occult and sexual practices.

Radcliffe received an unprecedented £500 advance for The Mysteries of Udolpho. Udolpho. She outsold every other author of her day. Unfortunately, unlike Shakespeare, very little documentary evidence remains of Radcliffe’s life.  Gothic scholar Robert Miles commented:

Ann Radcliffe was, in her day, the obscurest woman of letters in England. Her contemporaries despaired of learning anything about her, while Christina Rossetti abandoned her planned biography for lack of materials.

In the British Library’s 2014 exhibition on the Gothic ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’ a rare letter from Radcliffe to her mother-in-law was displayed for the first time – one of the few personal documents of her life remaining. 

Newly discovered Ann Radcliffe letter, 31 August, London. Photography (c) British Library Board

In the 20th century Gothic studies have revived an interest in the works and life of Radcliffe and especially her relationship to the works of Shakespeare::

Shakespearean Gothic / Christy Desmet and Anne Williams.
Cardiff : University of Wales Press, 2008 (SI Library PR2973)

Gothic Shakespeares / edited by John Drakakis, Dale Townshend.
London : Routledge, 2008 (SI Library PR2976)

For more information check out the British Library’s Introduction to Ann Radcliffe.

You can also read more about editions of her work in this piece by Chawton House Library.

A audio version of Udolpho can be found on Box of Broadcasts: The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

Karin Brown (Shakespeare Institute Librarian) & David Brown (Alumni of the Shakespeare Institute)

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Touring Shakespeare in India with Wendy

Transcribing the Wendy Beavis Archive

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog may remember one from this time last year, written by Kate Welch, describing the recent acquisition of a collection of letters and other ephemera relating to the actress Wendy Beavis, who toured India in the 1950s with the theatre company, Shakespeareana¸ run by Geoffrey and Laura Kendal. Work on transcribing this collection is now well under way, with the added impetus that it is now being used by a Shakespeare Institute alumnus, Thea Buckley, to put together a book proposal about Shakespeare in India. This archive certainly provides plenty of useful material for that.

Wendy B 1Wendy was born near London in 1932, but grew up in Sutton Coldfield, was educated at a convent school in nearby Erdington and attended the Birmingham School of Drama where she studied acting for two years. She also trained as a model, which is possibly when this photograph was taken. In her letters to her parents from India, Wendy often asks them to send ‘repros’ of the big photographs, as ‘we are always being asked for photographs, and they would be handy’.

After leaving the BSD, she joined the Rex Deering Repertory Company, touring around the Midlands in the early 1950s, before joining Shakespeareana and setting off for India in June 1953. She returned home in October 1956 and, as far as we know, never  acted again.

Transcribing the letters has proved a fascinating project and as time goes on,  (for us and for Wendy), it is possible to build a picture of this young woman who left for India over sixty years ago. After getting used to some of her foibles (always writing ‘+’ for ‘and’; peppering every sentence with dashes; squeezing everything into one small airmail letter with no paragraphs in order to make economical use of the paper; always employing the ‘i before e’ rule, but often forgetting the exceptions – ‘wiegh’,’ viel’), we encounter a letter-writer who takes pleasure in using an unusual green ink, or in mailing her letters in long envelopes. All this of course has to be recorded in the transcripts: although it is very easy to ‘correct’ small mistakes without even noticing, it is important that the letters appear as Wendy wrote them – warts and all. This is how we get to know her. Always darting from one topic to another, often leaving the letters half-written (on one occasion, because she was due on stage!), then coming back to them, once, twice, three times.

She writes to her parents at least once a week for the entire three years that she was away, and the things she chooses to write about are revealing. It becomes increasingly clear that there are aspects of life in India that she chooses NOT to tell her parents about, and when reading this archive, it is important to bear in mind that she was writing for a very specific audience. She describes the places the Company stays, from the grim boarding houses in rural areas of India, to the occasional sojourn in a luxurious hotel in Calcutta or Simla; the weather – of course! – and the food – at first strange and exotic, but then, she discovers, absolutely delicious! She learned quickly, as many a traveller does, that eating local food is far more rewarding and tasty than expecting to find chips or a decent shepherd’s pie. She complains that meat in India is ‘awful’ and more than once, she considers becoming a vegetarian.

img211

She writes a lot about her clothes (or lack of them) – although she often has new dresses made locally; money (or lack of it); how she spends her free time – swimming, going to the wrestling (!), visiting coffee houses, trips to the cinema. She talks a lot about her fellow actors, and some she clearly gets on better with than others: Jennifer (the Kendal’s eldest daughter) becomes a great friend, but Nancy and her untidy ways does not meet with much favour. Seven-year-old Foo (Felicity Kendal) however, is everybody’s darling! Wendy often comments on what Foo has been up to in her letters. She seems to miss a lot of things from home –  whether this might be exaggerated for her parent’s benefit is anybody’s guess – but she talks longingly of the garden, her cat and ‘mummy’s’ home cooking. She remembers birthdays and anniversaries  and often sends presents home, although the vagaries and frustrations of sending and receiving international mail take up a great deal of her attention. Letters are lost, delayed and cross in the post, while some parcels sent from England have to be sent back unopened because the duty charged is too high for her to pay.

It has been noted before that one of the common frustrations of reading an archive of letters is that we only get one side of the story. However, in this case, Wendy is so meticulous at responding to the details of her parents letters in her replies, that in fact, we have a very good idea of the contents of their letters to her. We also learn in this way about the home she left behind, neighbours, friends and relations who are all mentioned in her replies to her parent’s news about them. She shows concern at the death of the neighbour, Mrs Mason, and wonders what will become of her dog, Nip. And she apparently feels very badly that she is not at home to see her mother through a serious operation and its aftermath, although we might suspect that she was spared much of the detail here by her protective ‘Mummy and Daddy’.

Wendy B 2As well as all the day to day details of her life, Wendy does make occasional mention of the work she is there to do – the staging of theatrical productions for audiences around India. Although we can glean the company’s repertoire, some of the parts she played (the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, Mrs Higgins in Pygmalion), and occasional details of her costumes and make-up, there is in fact frustratingly little information about the productions, how they were staged and how they were received. Perhaps she thought her parents wouldn’t be interested, or perhaps they didn’t quite approve of their daughter gallivanting off to foreign parts to be an actress, so she doesn’t dwell too much on this – who knows? But work she did, sometimes a punishing schedule with several performances a day: other times there was less work, but this of course was accompanied by less money. All carried out against a background of searing heat, monsoon rains, inevitable illnesses, the general frustrations and inconveniences of being on the road – and mosquitoes!

Much is already known about the work of Shakespeareana from Geoffrey Kendal’s book and then the subsequent film, Shakespeare Wallah, as well as Felicity Kendal’s later White Cargo, which tells the story of her childhood in India, touring with her parents’ theatre company. What the Beavis archive adds is another valuable facet to this story – and one which we hope to see in print in Thea’s book in the not too distant future.

Jill Francis and Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistants

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.

‘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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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‘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.

Richard Burbage died #OTD 1619

In 1598, in the last days on the year, a group of men tore a building down in Shoreditch. Giles Allen, who owned the plot of land had claimed that the building being dismantled belonged to him, since the lease on the land had expired. The men disagreed, and when Allen went off to his country home for Christmas, they picked the building apart, and transported it, timber by timber, to a warehouse in Bridewell. That spring they rebuilt that building, the Theatre, and adorned it with a new, more imaginative name. The Globe had come into being.

870px-British_-_Richard_Burbage_-_Google_Art_ProjectRichard Burbage was 31, already a successful actor, when he rebuilt his father’s Theatre. When he played a part in creating the Globe, Burbage erected a stage he would come to rule. If the marble slab to his – and James Burbage’s, Cuthbert Burbage’s, William Somers’, Richard Tarlton’s, Gabriel Spencer’s, William Sly’s, and Richard Cowley’s – memory in St Leonard’s is to be believed, his most memorable thespian achievements took the form of Richard III and Hamlet.

He was a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who would become the Queen’s Men, and then, with James’ ascension, the King’s Men. Shakespeare left him money in his will, alongside John Heminge and Henry Condell, for mourning rings. Burbage overtook Shakespeare on the final stretch of road, while Heminge and Condell went on to become the driving forces behind the First Folio in 1623.

When Burbage died, in early March 1619, the sorrow that enveloped London and particularly the theatrical world of the capital was so all-encompassing it became the subject of an anonymous mocking verse, punning on the opening lines from Henry VI part 1:

Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets importing change shoot through the sky:
Scourge the foul fates that thus afflict our sight!
Burbage, the player, has vouchsafed to die!
Therefore, in London is not one eye dry:
The deaths of men who act our Queens and Kings,
Are now more mourn’d than are the real things.

A second Globe stood where the Theatre’s timbers had turned to ash in 1613, but it was a hollow world, the poet complained:

Hereafter must our Poets cease to write.
Since thou art gone, dear Dick, a tragic night
Will wrap our black-hung stage

 

For more information on Richard Burbage check out these books:

C.C. Stopes Burbage and Shakespeare’s Stage (PR3095)

Bart Van Es Shakespeare in Company (PR2957)

Evelyn Tribble Early Modern Actors and Shakespeare’s Theatre – Thinking with the Body (new)

 

Sara Westh, Library Support Assistant

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

Shakespeare in 1950s India: Wendy Beavis writes home

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The Shakespeare Institute Library has recently acquired the letters of Wendy Beavis, an actor with the Shakespeareana Company touring India and Pakistan in the 1950s. Run by Geoffrey and Laura Kendal, the company performed in schools, theatres and sometimes the open-air and experienced long, cramped train journeys, basic accommodation and prickly heat as well as staying in palaces, riding on elephants and seeing the Himalayas, together with the camaraderie and petty squabbles of a small touring group of actors.

 

Wendy wrote to her parents in Sutton Coldfield every few days and her letters are full of the everyday experiences of being away from home: trying new food, making her limited money last, dealing with other company members and their foibles but also of the specific problems of a theatre troupe: trying to keep the costumes clean and pressed, coping with inadequate electrical supplies in remote villages, playing to audiences who don’t speak English and the constant shortage of greasepaint which Wendy frequently asks her parents to send her. The searing heat caused the Macbeth witches’ rubber masks to melt and the costumes to be drenched in sweat, monsoon rains flooded the theatre and drummed on the tin roof and, during a performance of Othello, an earthquake caused the audience to stampede from the theatre, endangering Jennifer Bragg (the Kendals’ daughter) who was lying on stage as the dead Desdemona.

Shakespeareana performed a varied repertoire, not just Shakespeare but also Gaslight, The Importance of Being Earnest, Charley’s Aunt and She Stoops to Conquer, here shown in a performance in Simla with Wendy on the far left.

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The company performed for and met many notable people including Prime Minister Nehru, Tensing Norgay, Countess Mountbatten, the Maharajah of Mysore and Gopi Krishna, the famous Kathak dancer.

The main sequence of letters runs from June 1953 when the company set sail on the TSS Jal-Jawahar from England to Bombay (performing several shows on board ship) until October 1956 when Wendy and fellow actor John Day returned on the MS Batory, with her final letter on the 20th ending ‘only another 17 days’. Having told her parents back in March that she would be coming home in the autumn and would be at home for Christmas, by the time she left India the ever-changing Shakespeareana schedule had changed again. The plan then was for the company to tour America and Canada and for Wendy to join them in Antwerp in November for the transatlantic crossing. However this tour never materialised, the company travelled on to Singapore and Malaya and Wendy never rejoined them. How her parents or Wendy herself felt about this we shall never know.

Wendy discussed news from home both domestic and national. She always responded to details in her parents’ letters and constantly asked questions about their garden, her relatives and Candy the cat. She also mentioned the 1955 general election, an outbreak of myxomatosis, a serious crash at Sutton railway station (still Birmingham’s worst rail disaster) and asked ‘How is this commercial T.V. going? Are you getting any better programmes, or is it more irritating?’

One of the common frustrations of reading an archive of letters is that you only get one side of the story.  A rare treasure therefore are two letters written to Wendy in November 1954 which were returned to sender covered in redirections: one from her father and one from her mother. Mrs Beavis went into hospital in 1954 for an operation; it’s clear Wendy worried about her and even offered to come home but we don’t know how much she knew about it or whether her parents withheld the details. Mr Beavis wrote that while his wife was in hospital he has put two coats of paint on the kitchen as a surprise for her and reports she was ‘bucked’ to get a letter from Wendy with snaps and flowers. Mrs Beavis wrote from Ward 2 of the Women’s Hospital and on page 11 of a 16-page letter mostly talking about other people she mentioned she has had a hysterectomy. We know Wendy did not get this letter but we have those she sent her mother in hospital, one enclosing two sprigs of bougainvillea, exotic blooms in Sparkhill, Birmingham.

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Kate Welch, Senior Information Assistant

The Art of Deception: Kurosawa’s ‘The Bad Sleep Well’

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This morning on Twitter a stunning poster of Ran reminded me of my awe and wonder for Kurosawa’s films. Yes, I’ve blogged about Kurosawa before but it struck me that Throne of Blood and Ran get much attention while the marvellous The Bad Sleep Well is less known and less praised. Here’s a short piece about that film which contains moments of pure cinematic genius.

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In his book Theatre of Chaos William Demastes states that ‘Hamlet is like a sponge. Unless produced in a stylized or antiquarian fashion, it immediately absorbs the problems of our time… its philosophical dimensions are as rich and culturally moveable as its political dimensions.’

Kurosawa sets his version of Hamlet in contemporary post-war Japan. During the 20th century Japan transformed from a feudal empire to an industrial super state, and the transition was not a smooth one. When Japan surrendered at the end of the Second World War the emperor declared, “We must endure the unendurable”, and for the first time in their history Japan became an occupied country. Traditional feudal values were repressed by the American occupiers, there were political and economic reforms, democratic institutions were set up. A whole new way of life had to be adopted – some threw themselves into it with a self-destructive force, others, like Kurosawa, approached it carefully, adapted to it and made it their own. He was given the chance to make films about subjects that had never been tackled before – one of them being the social chaos of the post war years. Wartime austerity had been replaced by indulgence and excess. He said:

I wanted to make a film of some social significance. At last I decided to do something about corruption, because it has always seemed to me that graft, bribery, etc, on a public level is the worst crime that there is. These people hide behind the façade of some great organisation like a company or corporation and consequently no one ever really knows how dreadful they are, what awful things they do. Exposing them I thought of as a socially significant act – and so I started the film.

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Kurosawa’s resulting screenplay examines the effect that political decisions can have on the personal, and by association, national psyche – how will the human soul be affected? The Bad Sleep Well shows us a complete warping of traditional values – a sickness brought about by corruption within new and established institutions disturbed by the war. Speaking later he said: ‘Maybe it was because I came from the old samurai class, but even back then I remember hating anything crooked or underhanded’.

Important traditional qualities such as loyalty and honour are manipulated for self-interest. Employees are encouraged to commit suicide in order to save the skins of their superiors. Self-assertion was seen as immoral in pre-war days and self-sacrifice as a sensible course in life. In Kurosawa’s film the old levels of Japanese society, their ways and values are still in place but have been perverted for diabolical ends and a hidden agenda. Nobility and virtue no longer apply in a capitalist environment. Beneath the veneer of duty, ritual and obedience to authority is a wealth of personal trauma. The ‘Hamlet’ character, played by Toshiro Mifune (and by association Kurosawa himself), wishes to explode the facade, and takes on the important responsibility of trying to expose these men who hide behind the mask of respectability and act like gangsters.

the-bad-sleep-well-noirAppropriately, The Bad Sleep Well is photographed like a film noir. This was a style born in America by directors who fled Germany at the start of the Second World War. They used expressionistic techniques, chiaroscuro, angled camera positions, and disturbing cityscapes. This genre of film told stories of people who found it difficult and sometimes impossible to wade through the dark underbelly of their country – characters that are severely tested in their adjustment to civilian life after the war – having fought for justice, they find only corruption, and the fates against them in their own city streets. The noir style fits Kurosawa’s subject. Beautifully photographed in ravishing black and white widescreen, the film flows between the clinical corporate world of offices and meetings to the darkened suburban streets where ersatz ghosts and would-be-killers lurk in shadows, only to disappear in car headlights moments later.

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Japan, like Denmark, is a prison. This feeling of entrapment is cleverly created with Kurosawa’s visual style. The majority of his shots in this film have a symmetrical composition. Characters stand on opposite sides of the screen reflecting each other and framing the action. The actors are often blocked to form converging lines or triangles so that the viewer subliminally feels as though he is being fenced in or pushed into a corner.

The settings also emphasize this eerie claustrophobic aspect with long corridors lit by strips of light, darkened streets lined with fences that block off sight-lines: a police office with horizontal blinds lit from outside creates bars of light across the walls; home interiors of plain walls with bars of wood again creating the idea of being closed in.

 

This film is a myriad of mousetraps, as Nishi tries to expose his father’s murderers and bring down the company. The centre-piece to this film is a breath-taking and extraordinary scene which occurs directly after Nishi has saved Wada, another company pawn, from committing suicide. Wada, who is believed dead by everyone, is forced by Nishi to watch his own funeral. This is Nishi’s incredibly cruel ‘play within the play’ which Wada must endure in order to spur the revenge plot. (The scene is first up in this trailer for the film).

It is a scene that reflects the concerns of the entire film. It is about truth and the juxtaposition of conflicting ideologies, and is completely cinematic – what we see and hear are completely at odds and so the horror of it is accentuated.

Nishi and Wada are in the constricted environment of the car, the windscreen itself acts like a cinema screen, and Nishi produces his own soundtrack – a recording of the corporate villains of the company Dairyu in a nightclub. So, we are watching a film within a film. The soundtrack is completely at odds with what we are watching, thus making it more grotesque. A grieving widow and child unknowingly receive the would-be murderers of the man they have lost. The very traditional funeral mount and the national costumes of the women, place them in traditional Japan – a funeral service for a man who believes in the validity of old values – the belief of which has ironically resulted in his attempted suicide and presumed death. The men from Dairyu, their dark suits representing the corporate world, appear reverential and humble, they pray – their deception in the outside world goes unnoticed. But we hear, with Wada, from their morbid drive-in, the truth. The westernisation of Japan and the corporate identity that the executives represent is echoed in the swinging western music of the night club, we see them bow in reverence but hear them laugh about the man’s death and talk about celebrating his demise with drink and women.

There is a great sense of corruption here, of guilt and the gullibility of innocence and, of course, of betrayal. In Hamlet, those in power act above the law – as in Macbeth they show a face that hides a much darker self.

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Although he is alive, Wada is the ghost at his own funeral. He says, ‘after this I cannot go on living’. The rights have been performed and he is dead in the eyes of the world. Nishi leaves him no option but to join him in his revenge plot. But his role is that of a ghost, a visitor from the grave exposing the crime committed against him. Like Banquo’s ghost he repeatedly appears to his murderer and drives him out of his mind. His would-be murderer is also one of the men indirectly responsible for the death of Nishi’s father. He is left a gibbering wreck and in his madness, acknowledging his guilt, can only utter ‘Forgive me Furuya’.

Sons seeking revenge, corruption, murder for personal gain, madness, appearance versus reality, ghost and mousetraps – they are all here, joined by the pervading theme of deception. Kurosawa succeeds in exposing the corrupt interlocking of business and government in post-war Japan. Nishi’s attempt to impose justice on a world in which justice is absent is futile. As in Ran the chaos that ensues leads to madness and loss.

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian

Many of Kurosawa’s film are available on Box of Broadcasts including:

Ran

Throne of Blood

See the Bfi’s page on Kurosawa vs Shakespeare