[EXHIBITION & TALK] Magdalen’s Wilde

wilde-poster-1-768x1086The current Old Library exhibition at Magdalen is on Oscar Wilde – I curated it, alongside our former Fellow Librarian Christine Ferdinand. The exhibition is open to the public on 15, 22 and 29 November, and at other times by appointment (contact library@magd.ox.ac.uk ). Displaying the very best of Magdalen’s holdings on one of our most famous alumni, the exhibition includes a little-known MS of Lady Windermere’s Fan, an array of first editions (and pirated editions!) from the UK and Europe, odd appropriations, Cecil Beaton costume designs, theatre programmes, salacious details from the trials, and (slightly heartbreaking) original letters.

On 21 November at 5.30 p.m. I’m giving a talk to accompany the exhibition, followed by a reception and viewing of the exhibition. To attend the talk, please email library@magd.ox.ac.uk – it’d be wonderful to see you there. Pia de Richemont reviewed the exhibition for Oscholars over the summer: read her review here.

P.S. this is a (reasonably) rare opportunity to get inside Magdalen’s beautiful Old Library and see the petrified wig. To give you an idea, it’s the central image in my blog header (if you’re reading this on RSS, click here).

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Red Velvet at the Garrick

Back in 2012, I was historical advisor on the original production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet, the theatrical biopic of Ira Aldridge. Aldridge was the first African-American actor to gain fame in Europe, and the play tells the turbulent story of his 1833 Othello at Covent Garden. My job was to introduce the cast to the world of 1830s theatre, and (the best part of all) help them recreate the melodramatic acting style that gives Red Velvet’s play-within-a-play sequences both humour and power. I drew on my expertise in the history of acting style, and images I’d worked with both at Oxford University and in the collections of the Garrick Club. The play ran at the Tricycle & has since toured to Brooklyn. Now, brilliantly, it’s part of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s season at the Garrick Theatre. I was delighted to be invited back  to work with the new cast, who are absolutely lovely, and full of curiosity about the characters and their world.

Working with theatre companies is one of the very best parts of my job: play in the truest sense. Red Velvet has taken me places I never expected to go, and it’s enriched every aspect of my research. Even completely unconnected activities somehow link back – for example, as part of the final throes of Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siecle (out soon!), I was watching a 1988 film of Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (1891–1992) giving, as a nonagenarian, a masterclass for young Juliets. One of them was Lolita Chakrabarti herself – and thus I was able to get a first-hand account of the intergenerational mentoring that’s so crucial to my book.

I’ve also written academically about Red Velvet in Staging the Other in Nineteenth-Century British Drama (ed. Tiziana Morosetti, and published by Peter Lang, 2015). My chapter is entitled ‘A Progressive Othello: Modern Blackness in Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet (2012)’ and examines intersectional politics, race and biography. I talked about my experience as an historical advisor in Oxford and London, and you can read more about my work on Red Velvet in Guardian article which Adrian Lester wrote at the time.

Theatre and theatre history have different priorities. As a rehearsal-room advisor I constantly strike a balance between historical enthusiasm and encouraging the company I’m with to jettison anything that’s only historically, rather than artistically useful. Actors, directors and designers are always meticulous and their enthusiasm is so rewarding – never more  than on Red Velvet, where Indhu Rubasingham, the director, has been especially generous. I’m so proud the show now has its West End transfer. Go and see it, and on your way in, pay particular attention to the statue just opposite the theatre. Ira Aldridge [as played by Adrian Lester] now faces the Irving Memorial, D.F. Cheshire’s statue of Sir Henry Irving (1838–1905). Irving was Britain’s first theatrical knight, and the most powerful actor- and actor-manager on the late Victorian stage. It’s great to see two ground-breaking nineteenth-century actors in such proximity, and even better when it comes as a sign that Aldridge is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

Elizabeth, Victoria, and Ellen

This evening, Elizabeth II becomes Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. This is interesting to me not merely because I have deeply conflicted feelings about royal babies and their great-grandmother vs. workshy princesses and the amount of social housing you could build at Highgrove.

Queen Victoria in 1897 (slightly after becoming our longest-reigning monarch, celebrating her Diamond Jubilee! …I say ‘celebrating’…).

Until 5.30 this evening, our longest-reigning monarch is still Queen Victoria, who reigned 1837–1901. Victoria became the longest-reigning monarch by outlasting poor old George III (1760–1820), exceeding the length of his reign on 23 September 1896. The morning papers were, as you’d expect, full of adulatory editorials on the Queen’s longevity and popularity.

But 23 September 1896, coincidentally, was also the day that the Victorians’ best-loved actress, Ellen Terry, woke up to hyperbolic reviews of her own British royal. The evening before, Terry had opened at London’s Lyceum Theatre as Imogen, the British princess who’s the heroine of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. Victoria was queen of the British Empire, and Terry was the queen of British theatre.

Ellen Terry as Imogen, 1896 (Creative Commons).

Just after finishing my DPhil, I wrote about the 23 September coincidence for Platform‘s Spring 2014 issue, and this morning seemed quite a good time to revisit it! So, if you want to read about theatrical curation and memory with a royal twist, “Dynasty, memory, Terry: curating the 1896 Cymbeline” is now open-access via academia.edu and in its original home on Platform

[CFP]: Victorian Dirt

Victorian Network is an open-access, MLA-indexed, peer-reviewed journal dedicated to publishing and promoting the best postgraduate and early career work across the broad field of Victorian Studies.

The tenth issue of Victorian Network (Summer 2015) will be guest edited by Professor William A. Cohen (University of Maryland) on the theme of Victorian Dirt. Dirt – its causes, consequences, and control – obsessed the long nineteenth century, from the fuels and detritus of the Industrial Revolution, to the obscene books sold on London’s Holywell Street (which boasted fifty-seven pornographers by 1834). Technological advances brought increased pollution, while cities’ growth generated more dirt and the new urban workforce crowded together in sickness and in health. Meanwhile, public legislation and agitation tried to clean, civilise and purify the populace in both body and mind. Writers and cultural commentators debated the middle and upper classes’ responsibility to relieve the plight of the poor and dirty, but also drew on the metaphorical valences of dirt to explore cross-class attraction and repulsion. Rubbish mounds and the filthy, sewage-infested Thames are the iconic images of Charles Dickens’s exploration of class relations in Our Mutual Friend; Hannah Cullwick, diarist and domestic servant, documented her relationship with the barrister Arthur Munby – a secret connection based on the potential eroticism of dirt on the working-class body; and ‘slumming’ emerged as a term and practice in the 1880s, as well-to-do Londoners went on organized or individual tours of the East End. Recent scholarship and exhibitions have revealed the changing nature and status of dirt in the nineteenth century, taking an interdisciplinary approach to uncover (quite literally) the science and significance of the filthy, disposable or disgusting in Victorian life.

We are inviting submissions of no more than 7,000 words, on any aspect of the theme. Possible topics include, but are by no means limited to, any of the following:

  • Dirt in industrial processes and products: coal, smog, smoke or ashes.
  • Dirty money: blackmail and corruption; smuggling; the sex trade.
  • Filth: scandal, gossip, obscenity and pornography.
  • Disgust and horror; dirt and the Gothic; dirt and the atavistic or bestial; dirt in the laboratory.
  • The earth: dirt as life source; dirt as land; possession; burial ground and charnel house.
  • Roads, woodlands, waysides and canals.
  • Ashes to ashes: dirt and putrefaction; decay; decomposition and death.
  • Dirt and disease: overcrowding, sanitation; refuge, dust and disposal; the relationship between dirt and poverty.
  • Washing, cleanliness, purification; moral and physical dirt.
  • Housework and domestic service
  • The use of dirt in racialised imagery; dirt and the exotic; dirt and the colonial mission.
  • The dirty body; sweat, grime, and other fluids; eroticised dirt.

All submissions should conform to MHRA style conventions and the in-house submission guidelines. Deadline for submissions: 15 January 2015.

Contact: victoriannetwork@gmail.com


This is my first issue as Editor of VN, and I am extremely excited. And resisting (temporarily) all manner of “send us your dirtiest work in Victorian Studies” puns. And slightly alarmed by the kind of google searches that might lead people to this post. Fifty-seven pornographers, though.

 

Rehearsal notes: thoughts on The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith

Today, I was back with the cast and crew for Primavera’s production of The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith, Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1895 play about the relationship between a radical female demagogue, and the young MP who abandons his wife and career for her. Living as political comrades and lovers in Venice, Agnes Ebbsmith and Lucas Cleeve are visited by his rakehell uncle, the Duke of St Olpherts, who plays the very longest of games in attempting to neutralise Agnes’s influence over her lover, and return Lucas to his wife.

Writing that summary caused me great pain, because re-reading the text and working with the company has reminded me what an ambiguous, complicated and wonderful play it is. It’s also one that I find incredibly sad (which is somewhat unfair, given that I laughed out loud frequently during the run I watched). As well as the standard historical advice bit (pockets! Wedding rings! What is Dr Kirke doing in Venice?), I also gave notes to a cast for the first time in years, which was a daunting but enjoyable– and also one that reminded me how illegible my note-taking is, during a run. I should say that I only gave notes at the behest of Abbey Wright, the marvellous director who has cast the production incredibly cleverly (full disclaimer: she’s an Orielensis and from Warwickshire, although I didn’t know either of these facts when I took the job. Disclaimer son of disclaimer: also just discovered she directed the 2012 run of Bitch Boxer, which I saw in 2013). In particular, her casting resists the temptation (and I think thereby doing a rather better job than Pinero’s original text might have done) to turn the supporting female roles – Gertrude, a young widow from Yorkshire, and Sybil, the MP’s aristocratic wife – into mere foils. Julia Goulding and Sarah Madigan are as strong and arresting as the eponymous lead.

Primavera’s production is the first since 1895, which is remarkable given that The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (his 1893 work, to which this was the career sequel) is done fairly regularly – and that this, in all its ambiguity and obsessive negotiation of gender and class, is actually a great play for today.

The Duke of St Olpherts reminds me of those better known fin-de-siècle flaneurs, Lord Henry Wootton, Lord Darlington and Lord Goring. He’s actually more dangerous and more interesting than all three. Although patently attracted to Agnes (and not pace Gladstone, “in the missionary spirit) and a lifelong rakehell, he doesn’t have an emotional crisis and offer her his hand (Darlington), or preach aesthetic philosophy (Wootton), or offer witty salvation to the hero, as Goring does to Lord Chiltern, Wilde’s version of the compromised “coming man”. Thackeray called Vanity Fair “a novel without a hero” and this is a play without a hero – Lucas Cleeve isn’t Robert Chiltern. But although Olpherts isn’t Wootton, he is Wildean. Responding to Agnes’s frankly splendid account of his outrageous and enterprising past, St Olpherts declares “I detected the tendency of the age”. This reminded me of what Wilde wrote in his prison his prison letter to Lord Alfred Douglas (which, although subsequently titled De Profundis, George Bernard Shaw saw as Wilde in excelsis). Comparing himself to Lord Byron (actually a far better role model for St Olpherts than Wilde), Wilde wrote ‘I was a man who stood in symbolic relation to […] my age”. St Olpherts stands in symbolic relation to Agnes, to Lucas, and to all of monied, dissolute fin-de-siècle society. Agnes calls him a torturer; at times he seems like a natural Pandarus forced into precisely the opposite role. There are also moments when he’s the most shocking character in the play.

He’s also, physically, the sickest person in a play that’s overwhelmingly about sickness – what it means to be healthy, unnatural, or mad. Anyone interested in health, class, or gender should see this play. Between 1898 and 1918, the trades union movements grew especially fast, and the political rhetoric Pinero gives the working-class Agnes anticipates much of the language of the suffrage and socialist movements. But back to sickness. In a tiny cast of characters, there are two doctors, and two nurses: Agnes is professional, and Gertrude has helped with nursing Lucas because of her devotion to her (Amos, it seems, may have made a third nurse). Lucas has been recently violently unwell, although it’s unclear whether his troubles are more mental or physical. Gertrude has terrible bouts of depression and has experienced the deaths of husband, lover, and child. Agnes faints and is attended by Kirke in the course of the play; we subsequently see her with a burned and bandaged hand. “Mad Agnes” also discusses the extent of the misery and privation she’s suffered in the past – until her “bones were through [her] skin”. The original, in fact the only other Mrs Ebbsmith was Mrs Patrick Campbell, who in 1895 was considered horribly thin. Sadly, today her physique is the default and pinnacle for film acting, although theatre remains (mercifully) more diverse.  It’s also a play in which characters desperately try to alleviate each other’s suffering, with Amos and Gertrude ultimately presenting spiritual healing as Agnes’s only possibility of an effective “cure”.

I’m so glad I was able to be involved with Primavera, and I can’t wait to see the full show: today’s run was a joy. It was also my first visit to the Jerwood Space, via Jubilee line chaos, an emergency cab dash, and a fascinating chat to the driver about The Knowledge (3 years! full time! 400 routes to memorise). These are rambling notes, but I’m trying to make the blog more active and not let the perfect (eloquent) be the enemy of the good (published).

Finally, I hope my UK readers aren’t suffering too badly from the smog. My eyes are itching horribly and London today was so polluted that, in comparison, the half-a-dozen trees beside the Tate as I walked up to Blackfriars smelled like a verdant meadow. And then my journey back to Oxford took 90 minutes longer than expected, thanks to a diversion. I feel I could now win Mastermind with my specialist subject as the backstreets of West Wycombe.

Where I’ve been: on 12 March, I gave my talk at the Tricycle, which sold out! I was delighted, both to see so many friends there, and that people were attending other than my compassionate family & friends. Plus, as well as introducing E & my mother to Adrian Lester (who deteriorates in neither charm nor good looks, it must be said), the Tricycle’s AD, Indhu Rubasingham appeared from nowhere to introduce my talk in an incredibly kind and complimentary way. The audience looked surprised, because until then I think they’d been assuming that the child in the jumper faffing around the projector cable was some sort of admin assistant/work experience minion, rather than the speaker…

Christopher Ravenscroft and Rhiannon Sommers in The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith.

Then on 14 March, I went in to Primavera Productions’ rehearsals for Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith, to talk about Pinero, Venice, 1890s theatre, and 1890s morality. I am always willing to discuss AT LENGTH my great love of working with actors. They ask the best questions. This company asked ferociously intelligent questions, and there’s been some great follow-up chat by email. Ebbsmith is enjoying its first revival since 1895, which I initially assumed had to be wrong, but, no – it genuinely hasn’t been done since then! I am so looking forward to the production, not least because (as I discovered after taking the job), fin-de-siecle rakehell the Duke of St Olpherts is being played by Christopher Ravenscroft, who has been a personal hero of mine ever since (as a small child) I saw the film of Kenneth Branagh’s Twelfth Night (1988). Admittedly, I was mainly torn between wanting to be Frances Barber as Viola (hair, eyeliner, waistcoat) or Anton Lesser as Feste (hair, eyeliner, fingerless gloves- I swear Captain Jack Sparrow was a ripoff), but after that, it was Ravenscroft’s Orsino, who languished about in the snow, indulging Orsino’s self-indulgence in what was (and is) one of the most beautiful British verse-speaking voices in history. He was infinitely better than Toby Stephens, and with Frances Barber’s sad-eyed, exquisitely-spoken Viola, they made up a kind of melancholy duet of 80s Chekhovian languor. Plus, Richard Briers was Malvolio, so you should definitely go and watch. So, yes. I got to work with Christopher Ravenscroft, and he’s absolutely lovely. Everyone was absolutely lovely. The actress playing Agnes Ebbsmith (of the title) is Rhiannon Sommers, who is probably wasted every minute of her life she’s not playing Anne Boleyn or Scarlett O’Hara (ignore her Spotlight. Those eyes are green), but who will doubtless be brilliant. The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith runs from 8 April to 3 May 2014 at the Jermyn Street Theatre, and is directed by Abbey Wright.

I’d also recommend you catch Darker Purpose’s production of King Lear at the Cockpit Theatre, which runs until 29 March. David Ryall stars, in a great cast with strong performances throughout all the principal roles. I particularly enjoyed Nikki Leigh-Scott and Ian Hallard as blood-loving aristocrats, the Cornwalls; Charlie Ryall’s intelligent, New Woman Cordelia, and Dominic Kelly as Edgar. Until now, I have always been more bored by Edgar than is printable (even online) but he is excellent throughout. David Ryall’s Lear is as moving as you would expect, and the blinding scene, played entirely in the round with near-universal lighting, provoked both SPATTER and genuine yelps. Go and see it. If you buy a programme, you’ll have not merely a handy blood-shield, BUT ALSO 700 words by me on late-Victorian ennui, poisoned zeitgeists and morbid modern women. Re: Gloucester’s blinding, I discovered a very similar scene, the other day, in Robert Greene’s Selimus, a little-known 1594 play, which was performed by the Globe’s Read Not Dead actors, and introduced by Dr Jenny Sager, at a great if gory conference on Bodies and Body Parts. This was the first Oxford-Globe Forum, and I hope to attend many more.

So, that is where I’ve been. Also, term is over. Can you tell?

Performing The Nineteenth-Century Stage: 12 March, Tricycle Theatre, London

On 12 March, I’ll be giving a pre-show talk for Red Velvet, the award-winning play by Lolita Chakrabarti, directed by Indhu Rubasingham, and starring Adrian Lester, that’s currently on at the Tricycle Theatre. I was historical advisor on the first production and have been asked back to recreate my work in the rehearsal room (scary participation absolutely not required) and to give a seminar-cum-workshop on the process of bringing the nineteenth-century theatre to life! Adrian Lester’s already talked a bit about this process in an article for the Guardian (note the quoted source *cough*), and, seriously, do come along, because it will be awesome. There will be stuff about race, nineteenth-century acting technique, gesture, theatre history, the importance of such vital artistic theories as “big legs” and “the teapot” and how we might represent past acting styles in a way that engages a twenty-first century audience.

And Shakespeare. There’ll be lots of Shakespeare. I’ll also be suggesting the very GOOD things that 1830s acting has to offer us, in our emotion-terrified, minimalist, self-conscious age, now that “melodramatic” is such a perjorative term… there will be race, gender, history of gesture, history of slavery, a lot of original images, and the anecdote about the time Adrian Lester had to fix my old laptop with me. Unlike my original version of this talk, I will not be giving it while sitting on the lap of my audience, with everyone crammed onto a chaise longue behind me. I’ll also be using lots of exciting eighteenth- and nineteenth-century images from theatre productions, some of which are extremely rare!

Tickets are £2.50, and the talk starts at 6.30 on 12 March. Seating is unreserved, and we’ll be in the James Baldwin studio, above the Tricycle’s auditorium. To book tickets, click here. Access information, including how to get to the Tricycle is here. Please do get in touch with any questions, and I really hope to see some of you there.