The Society for Theatre Research’s Annual Address
Presented on 20 May 2014, by Professor Richard Foulkes
Indoors and No Heavy Lifting: 50 Years of Theatre Research
I am not at all sure about the origin of my title –‘Indoors and No Heavy Lifting’- this evening, but I feel instinctively that it should be spoken with a Scottish accent (‘Indoors and No/Nay Heavy Lifting’) and that the speaker should be a porter. As to his interlocutor rather than some scion of Scottish nobility I favour an academic, let’s say a university Vice-Chancellor, the point being that the porter is hearing a string of moans, complaints even, about his job from a whinger, someone who in the porter’s estimation is singularly fortunate, hence ‘indoors’ and ‘no heavy lifting’. The relevance of this to my theme tonight is that I consider I have been very fortunate to have earned my living for over 40 years through my interest in Drama and more especially Theatre History, which for many other enthusiasts can never be more than a pastime separate from the day job. Though over the years moving from office to office I have lifted a good many heavy boxes of books.
I start by asking myself when, where and how it all, my interest in Theatre History, started. This is not the same as the beginnings of my play-going enthusiasm which can be traced to pantomimes and -a little later- a compelling adaptation of Dickens’s Great Expectations at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton where the beauty of Phipps’s building invariably enhanced whatever was taking place on stage. Even back then, I remember, I attached considerable importance to the acquisition of a programme into which I would insert the review from the drama critic (Ray Seaton) of the local newspaper the Express & Star. In fact the first profession to which I aspired was that of a dramatic critic, but of course reviews are of crucial importance to a theatre historian, though I would not have known then that such a species existed. Nevertheless some of those reviews increasingly resourced from the national press, not in all cases (The Times) with the author’s byline, still stick in the memory especially one for Christopher Plummer’s Richard III, one of my earliest visits to Stratford-upon-Avon: ‘Crookback from Canada is first-rate’.
The early working of UCAS took me to University College, Swansea, which was still basking in or recovering from the Kingsley Amis effect. Two rather less celebrated members of the English Department had a formative effect on me: Professor Cecil Price & Dr J.O.Bartley. Price, whose habitual tweeds suggested a country squire, was, as some of you will know, an authority on 18th century theatre especially Garrick, and Ulsterman Bartley, whose ruddy complexion owed something to his years in India and his fondness for certain beverages, was an expert on Charles Macklin. His edition of Macklin’s plays -published after Bartley’s death- is a handsome volume. From both Price and Bartley I realised that plays have a life that poetry and novels do not have and that it is a legitimate, indeed a necessary, area of academic investigation. So far so good, but with two eminent 18th century scholars, surely that should have become my period, whereas of course I was drawn to the Victorian theatre. Architecture may have been a factor, the Grand Theatre Swansea, the creation of Newcastle-upon-Tyne theatre architect William Hope, certainly has its period (1897) charms though no competition for Phipps, but I think the turning point was a visit, with fellow theatre buff (Allan Cook) to London in the summer of 1964, itself a very significant year for the future author of The Shakespeare Tercentenary of 1864, during which I acquired a couple of playbills: one for the Theatre-Royal, Worcester dated April 11 1817 when the performance of the Revd Maturin’s tragedy Bertram was ‘For the benefit of Mrs. Lawrence, Bill Deliverer’ (how unusual was this?); the other for a performance of Bulwer Lytton’s Richelieu at Sadler’s Wells with Samuel Phelps in the title role. I do not think these were acquired from Barry Duncan, but it must have been at this time that I discovered his treasure trove of a shop off St Martin’s Lane and bought (for a then not inconsiderable £5) a promptbook for another Bulwer Lytton play The Lady of Lyons inscribed : ‘Fredk Dewar from George Loveday Edinburgh 1853’.
With graduation in prospect I evidently wished to extend my interest in theatre further and accordingly applied for the MA in Drama and Theatre Arts at the University of Birmingham for which I was interviewed by Professor John Russell Brown in the canteen at Cardiff station which looked like the set for Brief Encounter. Brown, to whose Shakespeare’s Plays in Performance (1966) Harold Hobson devoted his Sunday Times column one week, had recently left the Shakespeare Institute to set up the Department of Drama. The MA had a practical component taught by Clive Barker who quickly realised that this was not my forte and happily I was soon able to concentrate on theatre history (the domain of Marion Jones and Jocelyn Powell) in particular my dissertation which was to be on Bulwer Lytton’s Richelieu. Leafing through it now I am struck by how slight and frankly amateurish it looks, but I certainly took it seriously as my entree to libraries to most of which I was to return frequently in pursuit of many other subjects during the coming years.
The University of Birmingham had a good library with a decent collection of programmes; the Shakespeare Institute library was then housed in Westmere (a large Edwardian house in Edgbaston) long before Stanley Wells raised funds for a purpose built-library at Mason Croft in Stratford-upon-Avon. Back in the 1960s the city of Birmingham had rather more to offer. There was a newspaper depository in the suburb of Lozells, definitely more Colindale than Bloomsbury, and, far more impressive, the Shakespeare Library (in the Central Library in Ratcliff Place) the origins of which dated back to the Shakespeare tercentenary of 1864, though the Shakespeare Memorial Room, was constructed in 1882 as part of the Central Library, the work of architect John Henry Chamberlain. Greatly admired at the time the Shakespeare Memorial Room was in the Elizabethan style with period details supplied by local craftsmen. In the 1960s it was presided over by the formidable Waveney R.N. Payne and her ever-helpful (though hampered by a considerable disability) assistant Barbara Hancox (sic?). Later the Shakespeare Memorial Room fell on hard times and in 1974 was threatened with demolition, but instead it was dismantled and stored away. It was eventually reassembled in a corner of the Civic Works complex with very limited access, but happily I gather it is now restored as the highlight of the new Central Library close by the Repertory Theatre.
Rather the reverse has happened at the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford-upon-Avon where the 1960s reading room, every bit as much a product of its time as the Birmingham Shakespeare Library, has been taken out of commission. I hope it will survive for the appreciation of future generations. In the 1960s its librarians were Mrs Darvell and Miss Eileen Robinson (one of whom was employed by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the other by the Royal Shakespeare Company as it had just become), together with the much younger Christine Penney. Mrs Darvell was a rather remote figure whereas Eileen Robinson a cherubic Liverpuddlian bustled around the reading room, which, I suppose in emulation of the British Library, was circular though a fraction of the size.
The British Library was of course then located in the British Museum where one’s searches might lead one from the iconic Reading Room to the North Library and to the Manuscripts Department where the Lord Chamberlain’s Collection of Plays was not actually housed, that was in some outpost from which requested items were retrieved, but could be read once the essential information had been extracted from the card index. Another outpost was Colindale for the Newspaper Library, journeys to which were cut by the realisation that Westminster Public Library, just off Leicester Square, possessed a run of Era, now thankfully available on-line. The new British Library, surely one of the finest public buildings of the 20th century, has undoubtedly improved access for theatre historians and thanks to the like of Dominic Shellard opened up prospects for the acquisition of major collections.
If the improved status of theatrical material at the British Library is the success story of recent years, that of what began as the Enthoven Collection has been altogether more chequered: becoming part of the V&A, absorbing other collections such as the Harry Beard, being relocated in the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden and then returning to the V&A, where happily its function and facilities for exhibitions and research (Blythe Road) are now firmly established. The return to the V&A has completed the circle. In the 1960s one made one’s way to the Enthoven Collection by a confusing route that usually involved passing the Great Bed of Ware several times, but once arrived George Nash and Tony Latham (sometime Hon Treasurer of the STR) were at hand to minister to one’s needs, drawing not on any very obvious catalogue, but on their detailed knowledge of the collection.
The other substantial and largely complementary collection to be merged (1974) with the V&A holdings was the British Theatre Museum Association housed at Leighton House (see Jean Scott Rogers Stage by Stage 1985). Very much the product of the efforts of members of the profession, led by Donald and Diana Sinden, this was a wonderful setting in which to display treasures such as Mrs Siddons’s dressing table.
Whilst visitors were not invited to put this to practical use I do remember receiving personalised hospitality from Jennifer Aylmer when one glorious summer day I visited to inspect a promptbook of, I think it was, Phelps’s Cymbeline which Jennifer assured me I was welcome to take into the garden and peruse in a deckchair. I cannot claim to have received such treatment on my visits to the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle though the ambiance is of course incomparable, as in its way is that of the Garrick Club to the library of which admission (£5) was limited to Wednesday mornings the only time at which librarian Enid Forster was present. Happily we are in a more accommodating era now.
I will not return to the saga of the Covent Garden Theatre Museum for long save to recall that invitations to the opening in April 1987 were spread over three evenings depending on the status of the guest, personally I only merited the third and last, but Henry Bird the artist (of the wonderful act drop or The Sipario Dipinto -‘the separator painted’- as Henry preferred at the Royal Theatre, Northampton: another Phipps gem) and scene designer had donated some of his work and was invited to the first night which, having been enlisted as his chauffeur, I attended. The principal guest was HRH Princess Margaret, who graciously made her way through the museum being introduced to various notables including Jack Reading (a confirmed bachelor in the parlance of the time) and Kathleen Barker, whom she took to be husband and wife.
I suppose the most distinctive partnership over the years was that between Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson, whose theatre collection was housed in their own home in Sydenham. I must be one of the few people left to have visited it there and inspected, I think it was Laroche photographs of Charles Kean’s Princess’s Theatre Shakespeare revivals in the 1850s in their front room.
The M&M collection is now safely housed at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection which in those days was the preserve of Anne Brooke-Barnett, a sometime actress who treated readers as her personal audience. The relocation of M&M to Bristol would be a source of great satisfaction to Bristolian Kathleen Barker, for so long a mainstay of the Society for Theatre Research including serving as Joint Honorary Secretary. As the first university Drama department Bristol not surprisingly was the home of several leading scholars of the day, notably Glynne Wickham and George Rowell both of whom took an active interest in the STR, in due course serving as president and chair respectively. From an even earlier generation into the 1970s Allardyce Nicoll made an annual visit, which it was for a time my duty to arrange, from Malvern to Stratford-upon-Avon accompanied by the second Mrs Nicoll, though Rebecca-like sparking off recollections of the legendary first Mrs Nicoll. Nicoll had of course spent many years in the USA, and was a leading member of the transatlantic network of theatre historians, to which membership of the STR was an intrinsic part. Amongst the cadre of American scholars who maintained close ties with the STR was Arthur Colby Sprague from whom I find I still have a letter which concluded with ‘it would be a pleasure to meet you for lunch’ which alas did not happen, though I do recall him at a STR lecture with his customary green eyeshade. An encounter that took place entirely by chance was in the Forster Library at the V&A where I was attempting to find my way through several Macready promptbooks of King Lear as an aid to which I had taken my copy of The Shakespeare Promptbooks by Charles Shattuck with me only to discover that the helpful fellow reader across the table modestly identified himself as Charles Shattuck. American universities were ahead of their British counterparts in recognising Theatre History as a discipline, but we must not forget that the founders -Sybil Rosenfeld et al- of the STR were not in university posts and the Society has always encouraged what used to be called independent scholars of whom J.C.Trewin, whose studies of Benson and Macready are still invaluable and to whom like many others I was greatly indebted, stands as a model.
I have referred to Kathleen Barker as one of the notable scholars of her day, yet hers was the first doctorate that I supervised, or rather, since it was my first, co-supervised with Geoffrey Martin, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Leicester and subsequently director of the Public Records Office/National Archives (at Kew), though as far as I could tell he had no claim to theatre expertise apart from serving on an educational committee of the National Coal Board with Jack Reading. Kathleen was of course a most methodical and meticulous ‘student’, invariably meeting deadlines, attending – sometimes hosting- supervisions and so on. Her work on entertainment in six provincial Victorian towns was subsequently published in Theatre Notebook. Other supervisions have included Katharine Cockin, now professor at Hull and editor of multiple volumes of Ellen Terry’s letters, on the Pioneer Players; T. Hughie Jones on William Bodham Donne; Anjna Chouhan, now at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, on ‘Shakespeare the Church and the Victorians’, Anjna featured in the Michael Portillo ‘Great Train Journeys’ visit to Stratford-upon-Avon; Don Chapman on the Oxford Playhouse published by the STR with the UHP; and Janice Norwood (The Britannia Theatre) and Jenny Bloodworth (Clo Graves) who are as of a few minutes ago elected members of the STR committee as Lecture Programme Organiser and Joint Honorary Secretary respectively.
Approaching completion is Kris Tetens on Henry Irving and Hall Caine’s play ‘Mahomet’. Kris undertook the first two years of her registration in her home country the USA, but is in the UK for her final year. Kris’s experience exemplifies the technical advances over many years, though especially the last decade, from laborious transcription and card indexes to photocopying, on-line access with the facility to download and digital photography…’Snap now, Read later’ might be an apt motif. It was Kris who drew my attention to a report entitled: ‘Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians’ which focused on the MIT library citing a professor in the USA directing his graduate student’s work in European archives over thousands of miles and several time-zones. Notwithstanding the power of technology there are still incontrovertible advantages in actually travelling and exploring the relevant archives personally. This has certainly been the case with Kris who by spending her third doctoral year in the UK has discovered resources of which she had previously been unaware. Serendipity remains one of the researcher’s most valuable assets.
This is where access to funding can be crucial. The establishment of the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the early 1990s has made a huge difference. I was fortunate enough to receive an award under the Research Leave Scheme for my book Performing Shakespeare in the Age of Empire and others (Kate Newey, Jeffrey Richards) have received six figure awards spread over 3 years for projects such as those on Ruskin and pantomime. At a more modest financial level are the nevertheless highly valued awards made by the British Academy which are ideally suited to research trips. Over many years I have been a beneficiary enabling me to visit American libraries notably the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC and the Harvard Theatre Collection, most recently for research on William Charles Macready for the volume on him in the Pickering and Chatto Lives of Shakespearian Actors series. Nor, tonight especially, should we overlook the STR’s contribution with several recipients of our Research Awards here to collect their bounty. These awards have been funded by bequests principally one by Kathleen Barker; to date they total £100.000.
I began by recalling my early years in Theatre History when I first joined the STR in I suppose 1966/1967. I think it was a little time before I attended a meeting here at the Art Workers Guild. I remember only too well submitting my first article (on Samuel Phelps’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to Theatre Notebook and the thrill of receiving Sybil Rosenfeld’s letter of acceptance; similarly that from George Speaight on behalf of the Publications Committee accepting my first ever so slim (much slimmer than I expected) volume The Shakespeare Tercentenary of 1864. In due course roles were reversed and as General Editor of Publications it fell to me to communicate the welcome or disappointing tidings, amongst the former the authors/editors of books on medieval theatrical effects, Hall’s Chronicle, Samuel Beazley, Theodore Fontane, Helen Faucit, Lilian Baylis, Meggie Albanesi and the Round House/Open Space Theatre.
Throughout approaching 50 years the STR has been a source of encouragement to me as no doubt it has been to many others especially as its range of activities has expanded from the long-established annual publication, Theatre Notebook, the Lecture Programme and the Poel event to a whole range of innovations: Research Awards, the Annual Book Prize (of which I can claim to be the ‘only begetter’ though its nurturing has relied upon others notably Howard Loxton), New Scholars Essays and most recently the New Researchers Network. As more and more benefit from the Society’s activities it is important to remember that all of them/us/you rely upon voluntary, nearly all unpaid, input. It has been a great privilege to serve as chair of the Society as the summation of my involvement over nearly half a century. I should have taken out Life Membership much earlier.