I’ve been working with the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme on Abbey Wright’s forthcoming production of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. At one point, one of the actors thanked me for “all my work” with them. Now, obviously I used “work” twice in that sentence, but a better definition for this part of my job would encompass “playing around in a rehearsal room whilst simultaneously making my research do something practical and seeing amazing characters come alive in front of my face” (this is, for me, the greatest joy and secret of directing or dramaturging plays: people voluntarily act out your favourite plays for you, in front of you, in ways influenced by your suggestions and wishes), rather than anything suggestive of painful industry or anxious effort. In addition to knowing the texts with a terrifying and hungry accuracy, actors routinely and almost upsettingly ask the best questions. This is true whenever I get into a rehearsal room. Generally these questions nag me forever. Usually, answering them (when I can) exposes something fascinating, offensive or just plain weird about the way theatre works and has worked. Days spent in theatres are my best professional days. I can’t wait to see Ghosts in action.
I’m also researching for my new project at Magdalen College’s Calleva Centre. At the moment, I’m hugely interested in (and reading everything possible about) casting in theatre – especially Shakespeare. The above trip to the New Vic was very helpful, since (PLOT TWIST) actors have quite a lot to say about the casting process (rather more, in fact, than existing scholarship). So far, I’ve been reading lots about colour-blind casting, gender-blind casting, and disability-conscious casting (in order of volume). I’m definitely looking for more actors, directors, and (above all) casting directors to discuss this with.
I have moved into my new office. It is up a lot of stairs. I am working to publicise a charity abseil (more on that soon). That will involve a lot of stars too.
This is my fifth term as a doctoral student, and a New Year to boot. Thinking about academic goals for the year, I’ve decided I want to spend more time thinking about, and practising public engagement.
Already, there’s a problem. I don’t like the phrase. It’s too jargony, redolent of patronising bussed-in audiences with why your research is a) brilliant and b) beneficial; particularly when the benefit is relevant only as a justification for ongoing funding.
I’m also anxious about the consequences of enforced public engagement for very arcane, specialised, or technical research whose benefits are not instantly explicable or financially clear. It’s important, and (in the Humanities) often difficult to strike a balance between celebrating research with clear “real-world” application, and reducing everything to pound signs or buzzwords. Kat Gupta‘s blogged about the latter issue and Alex Pryce has written several good posts about the kinds of public engagement she does as a poet. I want to keep both models in mind.
However, when it comes to public engagement, I think I’m quite lucky. I do the kinds of research which – for better or worse, mostly just for luck – are easy to discuss outside the academy.
My theme – Shakespeare performance history – is self-explanatory, and benefits from centering on the most famous playwright in the world. My actresses are often still well-known, especially Ellen Terry, Lillie Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt. Basically, I have the kind of topic that makes people look pleasantly surprised when I answer their enquiries about what, exactly, I am (still) studying at Oxford. Ironically, while Victorian performance remains quite a niche interest within the academy, in the wider world, I believe that female performance history is something with which most people can engage. In my totally unbiased opinion, of course.
Cultural events such as the National Portrait Gallery’s First Actresses exhibition, and Michael Holroyd’s prize-winning A Strange Eventful History keep the profession’s past in the public imagination. More broadly, Britain remains a nation obsessed with history. The last three big British films focused on, in succession, the outbreak of World War II, 1970s spy culture, and our first female Prime Minister(this last makes me feel quite ill). Meanwhile, as X Factor passes its expiry date, ITV’s current flagship drama (whether you love it or see it as the fourth opiate of the apocalypse, after Cameron, big jumpers and the Honourable Kirsty)* turned 1920 in the Christmas episode. Although essentially a frothy confection of frocks, plague-as-plot-twist, and some Very Special Trenches, Downton still tries to take its historical responsibilities seriously. This mostly takes the form of Goodness Me It’s 1912, I Bet That Boat Won’t Sink, but still.
Given this enthusiasm for (in roughly descending order) history, scandal and frocks, people can be as interested in nineteenth-century actresses as in their modern successors. I’ve been reading Sexualities In Victorian Britain, edited by Andrew H. Miller and James Eli Adams, a book which points out on the first page that Victorian views of sex (however we reconstruct them) are essential to our own understanding of modern sexuality. Oscar Wilde is practically a one-man creation myth for British male queerness.
Beyond sexuality, I’d argue that Victorianism is formative in almost every area of social life – the nineteenth century and the ideas with which it is associated. Everybody has their own concept of Victorianism, whether conservative (repression, doom, stiff collars, the Tories) or updated (Sherlock, jet jewellery, Matthew Sweet’s Inventing The Victorians). Dickens is never off our screens, a “new” Wilde play was “discovered” a few months ago, and this winter I watched four Jack The Ripper ghost-walks jostle for space in the square where a victim died.
Enter the actresses. Confections of beauty, multiplicity, celebrity and scandal, they fulfil our contemporary interest (however prurient) in the desirable, the taboo, and the popular all at once.
Today’s culture creates escapism from lavish displays of historical bling: it’s no coincidence that as the recession and cuts really bit, TV tastes switched from soberly-bonneted, sweetly curly Cranford to jet-beads-and-sex-bomb Lady Mary, an Edwardian Scarlett O’Hara in a frankly massive castle. Our fashionable passion has been labelled “retro porn“: with their Worth gowns, their fascinating lovelives, and their sometimes frenziedly emotional performances, Victorian actresses like Langtry, Terry and Bernhardt still satisfy those desires.
At the same time, theperformers I’ve mentioned were skilled businesswomen and consummate professionals. Victorian actresses constitute an essential part of women’s history. After all, in the nineteenth century , acting the only profession in which women could achieve public acclaim, independence and (eventual) respectability without being accused of stealing men’s work. They often earned more than their male counterparts, and were frequently more popular.
Actresses became politically active. In 1899, the International Women’s Congress (held in London) ran a committee on Women in Professions: the chair was the actress Madge Kendal. In 1911, the Actresses’ Franchise League was the most prominent contingent in the Women’s Coronation Procession: forty thousand women, marching through London to demand the vote. Their leader was a woman on horseback dressed as Hedda Gabler, Ibsen’s Victorian heroine who killed herself to escape pregnancy, marital and sexual subjugation.
The best-loved British actress of her day, Ellen Terry, lectured on Shakespeare’s characters to feminist groups including the Leeds suffrage society, modelling female public speaking to emerging feminist activists. Moreover, by focusing attention on Shakespeare’s heroines in her lectures and autobiography – as other actresses did in letters, memoranda and memoirs – Terry began to redress the balance that emphasised male characters, and male performance, in criticism. Above all, as female professionals, Victorian actresses’ negotiations of workplace harassment, misogynist smears, and the conflict between job and family make them relevant models for working women today.
Finally, a thesis is never just one thing. God knows I have even more problems with the phrase “transferrable skills” than I do with “public engagement” (see also “competencies”, “directional work”, “impact” and, recently, “bleeding the radiator” for Words I Don’t Like), but I’m realising that there are numerous aspects of my research with which I can engage people. Because I am a research student, I do genealogy; I work with databases; I source permissions for artwork; I balance freelance research commitments with my own thesis; I teach (with all the mentoring/interpersonal/professional development issues implied); I’m a member of an union; I’m self-employed and I know a lot of really odd facts about such fascinating topics as Dracula, circumcision, whether smoking gives women facial hair, Judy Garland’s coffin handles, fur, infanticide, tuberculosis, where to see a lot of pickled foetuses, and murder. Some of these are skills or experiences I could share [NB: I am not a murderer or a mohel]; the arcane topics are at least new points of contact between my weird interests and those of the outside world. I’ve got lots of starting points for public engagement – but it’s time to make more concrete plans. Hopefully, as I formulate and act on my ideas, I’ll be able to share them here.
I think I’m lucky to get to write & read & think about all of the above. At bottom, I also think that receiving public money gives me the obligation to try and share the benefits with the public. There you go – a moral imperative. How very Victorian.
*I would like to make it clear that I am a big fan of the Hon. Kirsty (also the delectable Phil), am currently enjoying a box set of the 1980 Nancy Mitford mini-series, own a splendid tetris-like jumper and am, to quote Bloomfield (2011), “the sort of gel who likes the Pre-Raphaelites”.
At the moment, I’m researching Mrs. Patrick Campbell (born Beatrice Tanner; familiarly called Stella). Mrs. Campbell is most famous for her “Pinerotic” roles in the 1890s, such as The Second Mrs Tanqueray and The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith; for her Hedda Gabler; and as the original Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.
I, however, am interested in her Shakespearean roles. In the late 1880s and until about 1893, she had several successes in roles like Rosalind; then, at the other end of the decade, she played the trio of tragic roles that most interest me. These were, in order, Juliet (1895), Ophelia (1897) and Lady Macbeth (1898).
With the Bodleian Library doing various interminable and obscure things in the way of moving book depositories, I wasn’t able to get my hands on Mrs. Pat’s autobiography for weeks, and ended up reading everything but; finally, I caved, and bought it myself, on Ebay.
I originally conceived my doctoral project as a study of Shakespearean actresses’ autobiographies (and later, as a study of writings by actresses on the women of the Late Plays), and even though my textual focus has shifted (both in and out), I feel as if, until now, my research has been hobbled by not having My Life and Some Letters in front of me.
I may say that Mrs Pat’s name-dropping makes Madge Kendal and Constance Benson look positively restrained. I enjoy old theatrical memoirs very much for their own sake (and am looking forward to reading Irene Vanbrugh’s, on Simon’s recommendation), but this one balances incredibly useful, challenging/problematic insights (v. wholesome and good for thesis) with delicious and irresistible snobbery. Bless her, it seems she had no friends without titles. She makes me want to be called Frances something, COUNTESS of MADEUPPLACE. And then write gushy, borderline-homoerotic letters to actresses. An impulse which society cruelly demands I subdue.
Campbell is much more open about her life than Langtry (although omitting the affair with Johnston Forbes-Robertson) and – unlike Ellen Terry – absolutely fascinating in her detailed discussion of her children. I’ve just got to the bit where her son, Beo, dies in the First World War. For the first time reading one of these memoirs, I found myself welling up.
I’m also interested in Campbell’s apparently disastrous second marriage, which goes from huge affection (her son, particularly, seems to have held him in high esteem) to breakdown in a very few pages. Reading about the suicide of Elizabeth Robins’s first husband, who put on a suit of armour, then jumped into the Charles River; and about the complicated life of William Hunter Kendal has interested me in theatrical husbands.
Mrs Patrick Campbell’s second husband was George Cornwallis-West. Major Cornwallis-West (who had been rumoured to be Edward VII’s lovechild) first married the stunning Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Winston and twenty years his senior; he remarried to Stella Campbell just five days after their divorce. The marriage broke down in 1921; Cornwallis-West also seems to have been plagued by financial troubles for most of his life. In 1940, the year of Stella’s death, he remarried for a third time, to a Mrs. Georgette Hirsch. In 1951, while suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, he took his own life.
Never a dull moment, with this lot, but what sad & eventful stories.
45 student speakers from Oxford and around the UK will be delivering papers on the concepts of ‘famed’ and ‘forgotten’, interrogated in the broadest possible terms across genres and periods encompassing Old English to the literature of the present day.
A panel discussion on “The Future of Reading” featuring representatives from Oxford University Press, SHM Productions consultancy and the Oxford English Faculty will take place, and we will hear a keynote address from Booker Prize winner Penelope Lively.
The £15 attendance fee covers lunch, snacks and all conference materials. Please register via our website – http://graduate-conference.english.ox.ac.uk/ – or with an email to claire [dot] waters [at] ell [dot] ox [dot] ac [dot] uk.
Then, confirm your place by sending a cheque or postal order for £15 made out to the University of Oxford to Claire Waters, St Catherine’s College, Manor Road, Oxford, OX1 3UJ.
Before its June 1889 premiere at the Novelty Theatre, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was twice staged in the capital; once in 1885, and once in 1886. In 1886, it was given in a private performance in a Bloomsbury lodging-house, with George Bernard Shaw as Krogstad, and ELEANOR MARX as Nora. ELEANOR MARX (interesting 2005 article here from the Socialist Worker). Can you imagine? How wonderful to have been there.
My, but there’s a lot to be said for reading your tutor’s book. I love theatre history. The 1889 premiere of A Doll’s House starred Janet Achurch as Nora, Herbert Waring as Torvald and Achurch’s husband, Charles Charrington, as Dr. Rank. Achurch gave a famous interview in the midst of the critical furore which followed (Clement Scott, predictably, managed to get nearly as angry about Nora as he would about Hedda two years later – and he called Hedda the most ‘morally repulsive woman to appear on stage’), saying that Nora was ‘perfectly right’ to leave her husband, as she famously does at the end of the play (also notable, but less positive, was Achurch’s morphine addiction, following a disastrous labour and stillbirth, which eventually killed her). She even defended Nora’s abandoning her children, which the Daily Telegraph critic said ‘no women breathing’ would have done. Other reading delights today have included Alan’s Wife by Elizabeth Robins (my new obsession – apparently late Victorian & Edwardian Britain was full of awesome feminist playwrights), wherein woman kills disabled child. In, you know, 1893. If you have Muse access, Katherine E. Kelly has a really interesting article here.
The ‘British Wildcats‘, the group massing behind the ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ union-rejected strikes, is BNP-affiliated, as revealed by The Ministry Of Truth. Proof? here.
Wednesday’s Front Row on Radio 4 had an interesting item on the history of Sex Education films. There are some hilarious examples of teen information films on YouTube (I love What To Do On A Date, from 1950), as well as a parody from Colbert, Dinello & Sedaris, How To Be Popular.
And, finally, Clamorous Voice has been listed on WordPress’s Feb 02 list of Growing Blogs! Okay, so it’s small, but I’m still pleased. I love watching where people are coming from (bizarrely, a lot of people seem to find this blog by searching for ‘Michelle Obama’… fortunately the other popular search terms, like ‘bodleian’ or, er, ‘david tennant’ make a lot more sense), it’s sort of addictive.
4.5 members of our seminar group (Sam, Michael, Lisa, Lisa’s-boyfriend-who-has-a-reader’s-card and myself) are in the Bodleian. Through the windows, we can see snow falling on the Rad Cam, the New Bodleian, and the colleges beyond Broad Street.
The power has gone out.
And, this morning, the age-old editor’s dilemma: do I send my reviewer to London in semi-blizzard conditions, knowing that the buses are delayed and there are at least fourteen closures/disruptions on the Underground?
Yes. Yes I do. (‘Look, you’re only doing Notting Hill to Sloane Square, and there are plenty of people you can stay with…’).
If she dies in a snowbank, I’m going to feel terrible (1,000 words!).
Oxfordshire Snow Linkspam
As ever, the meterological freakery that is Oxford gets BBC attention!
Carfax webcam; the dome in the top left corner is one we can see from our window.
Keble mathmo posts this beautiful picture of Pusey Quad. I haven’t been over to my college yet today (I’m in this evening), will try and get some photos.
Back to reading A Doll’s House(1879) (the only play I ever saw that made me worried I’d stand up and shout at the stage. I remember digging my nails into the armrests).