My first stable crop of BA (Hons) English Language and Literature finalists start their exams this morning. Everyone not tutoring finalists for the first time thinks I am over-invested. All my peers who are tutoring finalists for the first time agree that the experience is, you know, just a little like taking Finals again, several times, with no control over the outcomes!
My thoughts will be in the Exam Schools every morning this week. I am so proud of them all – which includes my non-student undergraduate friends, especially the wonderful NDK – for getting this far, and know they’ll do well (I’m already dying for July and the results). Oxford Finals are horrendous, and English is particularly tough because it’s so early & intense in the season. They’ll have an exam every morning this week, and then a final exam (which, like most of the others, lasts three hours) next Tuesday. The good thing is that Englishers also finish very early, leading to the GOLD RUSH: three glorious weeks of nostalgia, booze, punting, parties and (when not desperately cramming in aquatinted, heart-melting dreaming-spires experiences for the v. last time unless you just do more degrees) blessed, blessed sleep while everyone else still has exams to do.
In the spirit of things, here’s a picture of me finishing Finals in June 2008. Oh, goodness, just – if you’re finishing your Oxford BA this term, do everything in those amazing weeks which follow. I’ll stop now before, like, Tom Lehrer, I’m so-o-ggy with nostalgia, but, yes. Love is the only education worth having, and I loved (the last part) of that last Trinity term.
…of course, it wasn’t the last term at all, and I hope it won’t be for some of my finalists, but nonetheless…. /recruitment drive for eternal ACADEMIA.
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”.
While Europe’s eye is fixed on mighty things the fate of emperors and the fall of kings While guards of state must each produce his plan and even children lisp the rights of man amid the mighty fuss just let me mention The rights of women merit some attention.
Mrs Blandish, Prologue (first played by Mary Anne Stirling, who lived between 1813-1895, performing everything and everywhere. She was Cordelia to Macready’s Lear, and the Nurse to Mary Anderson’s Juliet.)
We are rehearsing. It’s good. Our cast is somewhat reshuffled and now complete – we’ve welcomed Martha May as the Princess, and Dan McLean as Longaville. I’m sorrier than I can say to see Rob and Ellen go (nothing sinister – work and family commitments) but the new people are great and it’s good to be a secure company. Merton & Oriel are especially well-represented – the latter provides myself, Rebecca Tay as Jacquenetta and Dan McLean. The last two are both JCR Theologians, for added crossover.
The weather, too, is glorious; the pastier amongst us (…that’d be Ed and I) are swooning slightly in the heat, but I wouldn’t miss the chance to rehearse in the space. When I directed the Oriel Garden Show, two years ago, we were lucky enough to rehearse in the quad for a good three weeks or so; now, college red-tape seems to make everything a lot trickier. Thank God Merton is so huge – we’re a long way from any rooms, and the one eye-witness report (my friend Jodie saying ‘this isn’t meant to sound creepy, but I think I watched your rehearsal’) suggested our spectator actually enjoys the sound of a bit of Shakepseare in the afternoons.
I’m playing Moth. No, not the fairy. The page. The small, compulsively clever, unstoppable show-off and occasionally vicious little brat to whose canonical characteristics Krishna and I seem to have added mild hyperactivity. I never stand still. Except on the bench (our sole bit of set!). Moth is the page and comic foil to Don Armado, the Spanish lover-and-or-fighter who brings chaos to the court of Navarre. And he never shuts up. At the moment I think Moth’s about 13-14; a good choice for a page, and, obviously, any boy I’m playing can’t be too mature or adolescent. He’s crueller than I originally thought; the cross-casting of Holofernes and Nathaniel (Ellen Davnall and Eleanor Lischka) means that when he mocks them, it’s a young teenage boy having a nasty go at two old women; different resonances to the usual schoolboy/pantaloon clash. He also has more of an arc than I’d expected – we see him meet & develop a friendship with Costard (Phil Aherne). These notes could become tediously detailed, but one thing that’s really coming out is that not only (as K points out) is he almost always the teacher in what should be a reversed pupil/teacher relationship), but he has more natural authority; in a scene where Armado has to imprison Costard, it’s Moth who actually takes him off to prison, with far less fuss. I imagine him a bit like one of the Magdalen/New College schoolboys you see walking through town all the time.
I must admit that I’m already having the occasional shiver of stage fright. It’s such a long time since I acted, especially acted-without-also-directing, and the usual formula that having directed plays (the biggest possible stress) cured my stagefright (acting = relatively unterrifying) has gone. Gone. I’m worried I’m too old, curvy, female, high-pitched, quiet and clumsy for this part. But then, all the scampering and running I’m doing has gone pretty well so far, although there’s one weird little bit of dancing that (while v effective) is already a possible source of nerves. I have no idea where to practice it – my room doesn’t give me enough of a run-up, and jigging about in the corridors could be interpreted as psychological warfare enacted on my neighbours. Equally, doing it outside (presumably after dark) might easily give rises to suspicions of a satanic rite. Oh the vicississitudes of my life.
Lots of movement is definitely the way to go – not only because Moth has some incredibly wordy speeches to deliver (fortunately my forays into Latin are v brief), but because of the one helpful fact I’ve gleaned from neurotic academic scrabbling through Love’s Labour’s Lost‘s stage history. Well, no, there are two. The first is that the play was written as am-dram, for lawyers, to be performed in the Inner Temple. Hence, you might say, all the Latin and loquacity, and leave it at that. IN FACT, the legal profession clearly have the filthiest minds of those alive today – the play, so sweetly beautiful at the RSC, is actually pure filth. We discovered this at the readthrough. You can get a lot of mileage from the word ‘fructify’. Collapse of cast.
Anyway, my one useful fact is that, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the play has often been staged in a double-bill with The Tempest and, in such cases, Moth usually doubles Ariel.
So as far as movement goes, we’re probably on the right track, then.
Obviously, the rehearsal period is going to get extremely intense between now and our 19 June opening, but that’ll be no change for our cast – 15 of us were in plays in 5th week, a couple more have productions in 6th, and two of us (Ed and myself, fortunately) have Masters dissertations to hand in, four days before we open! Oh, and Phil and James just did finals or something. Whatevs. And everybody else seems to do a lot of rowing (cue lycra, muscles, and plenty of people to finally explain what ‘rowed on’ means – I know, it’s terrible).
Before show week, though, we have workshops oh yes. Propeller is coming to work with us (I AM SO PATHETICALLY EXCITED ABOUT THIS) during their week in Oxford, we’ll be learning ballroom dancing and also choral singing (this last in preparation for the final scene). I think we’re quite a musical cast – although obviously Rebecca has been doing musical theatre all through Oxford – so that should be fun. Workshops seem to be the latest thespy vogue, along with 1) experimental theatre in the O’Reilly (which seems to have edged out Hertford Bop Cellar as Top Place To Wear Leggings In) and 2) thespian blogs. Er. Whoops. I am all in favour; training is such an important part of rehearsals, particularly for student actors who want to turn professional, but for whom having a first degree makes subsequent training much more expensive (and thus necessarily shorter). Obviously nothing we do here can replace drama school training (even Sian [Robins-Grace] who went from Oxford to the RSC in a matter of months had done BADA etc. in the holidays) for actors, but every little helps.
But yes. We are rehearsing. It’s good.
Love’s Labour’s Lost | by William Shakespeare | 19-22 June 2009, performance nightly | Merton Fellows’ Garden | tickets £7, £5 concs, book @ firstname.lastname@example.org | dir. Krishna Omkar and Ellen Davnall | A Merton Floats Production | THE COMPANY: Phil Aherne, Sophie Duncan, Eleanor Lischka, Samantha Losey, James Lowe, Martha May, Dan McLean, Charlotte Mulliner, Krishna Omkar, Emily Roessler, Sam Roots, Michaël Roy, Geraldo Silva Neto, Rebecca Tay, Liam Wells, Ed White |
P.S. Another lesson I am learning from rehearsals – do not look scared and horrified when a co-actor (Michaël, in fact) tells you he reads your blog every day. This is good. This is why you’re writing. You want this to happen (LLL cast, hi!).
Sunday was our photoshoot for Love’s Labour’s Lost. A friend of mine said later on her blog that she’d seen someone inexplicably dressed as a king in Merton Fellows’ Garden – it was Ed! Looking rather like his namesake Edward VII in beard and ermine, our Don Armado put up nobly with the heat (another sufferer was Eleanor Lischka, as our curate Natalia) while black-tied boys and girls in white frolicked about. I suspect some sort of Faustian pact to pay for the costumes – they’re all really gorgeous. I’m still not sure exactly what I’ll be wearing for Moth (parcels are arriving from Cheltenham shortly, so I’m told…) but v1.0 features a little cream jacket that (on closer inspection) turned out to have an interesting tag. Apparently Moth v1.0 was worn by an undergraduate Kate Beckinsane, playing Nina in The Seagull! Above is a picture of our theatre space as it looked yesterday – but for a 360 degree experience, go here and click on ‘The Herm’.
The proper images will doubtless be on Facebook soon, but above and below are some sneak previews. The shoot was so much fun – my last was spent freezing in a cellar while the shirtless leading man developped goosebumps. Our photographers were very well organised, and our four court ladies were gambolling about like something out of the Branagh Much Ado About Nothing. Of course, we had the classic photo shoot mishaps of one dress zip malfunctioning – a certain actress had to keep facing the front – and a gaggle of excited tourists who may have ended up in one of the shots. Meanwhile, enjoy the splash, email for tickets &- oh, I nearly forgot. We now have a co-director, Ellen Davnall – a brilliant addition to the company. She’s also a Mertonian, and will be a huge asset to the company. Our MD is John Murton (the best pun will be rewarded with chocolate) and our Marketing Officer, Yasmin Mitha. Just please let the weather be like this in 8th…
Love’s Labour’s Lost | by William Shakespeare | 19-24 June 2009 | Merton Fellows’ Garden | tickets £7, £5 concs | dir. Krishna Omkar and Ellen Davnall | A Merton Floats Production | THE COMPANY: Phil Aherne, Ellen Buddle, Robert Dacre, Sophie Duncan, Eleanor Lischka, Samantha Losey, James Lowe, Charlotte Mulliner, Krishna Omkar, Emily Roessler, Sam Roots, Michaël Roy, Geraldo Silva Neto, Rebecca Tay, Liam Wells, Ed White | email@example.com
Back in Stratford. Effects of the recession: we are getting a Lidl, parking has gone up (70 pence for half an hour), and everyone who graduated without a law-conversion-training-contract is on Job Seekers’ Allowance. Unemployed at the start of last summer, I passed the time filling in my little dole book & trying not to weep over the kind public sector workers who told me that, what with my double first in English Literature, I should keep from setting my sights too high, and aim for retail. Having been turned down by Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and (you-bastards-the-money-I-have-spent-in-you) Waterstones, I got the best job of my life at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the issue of crippling penury was solved. Now, however, loud sing cuckoo, and I am even a little bit sunburnt – spring is here, so summer soon will be, which means a) I am going to have to Leave Oxford, and b) I really, really need to find a job.
Worse, this time I am actually leaving Oxford – whereas last year, there was the word-made-flesh possibility of a First and my Masters (mercifully realised), this time I have not applied for DPhil and so definitely shan’t be returning. I never intended to apply this time round, but it turned out that not even my best friend believed I would stick to it, and instead assumed my reiterations of ‘but darling, I shan’t be here next year’ were just another form of mental torture. Considering our past relations, etc.
At the moment, I have three job applications current, three possibilities for work experience (one incomplete, one under consideration & one offered but logistically difficult!), one begging letter sent off and another to write. I have a chapter of my thesis due in next Friday, but did manage to spend today partly on the river. Stratford is beautiful – the air is much cleaner than Oxford, as I keep remarking – and since blogging, email & facebook keep me in touch with my Oxford friends, it’s possible to have the best of both worlds.
Stratford – despite the profusion of unemployed twentysomethings largely indistinguishable from holidaymakers, the unabating frothy fury of the local press, and the Tories – really is blooming. We even have a new community radio, with whom I hope to do some work over the next year (quick plug: presenter Debi Ghose, Friday mornings > anything on Radio 1). If I am going to be in Stratford for a while, I want to find out all the cool stuff that’s going on – there must be stuff I missed when I was at school. As far as religious feeling goes, I am apt to be indiscriminate in attaching it to churches, theatres, and libraries; Oxford in summer does look a lot like Heaven, and lamp-lit twilight in Radcliffe Square can be as sacred as anything in the college chapels. The morning after Barack Obama’s election, the Cowley Road Methodist Church (just down from where I live – I was there last Sunday!) changed the Scripture on its noticeboard to the first line of Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims His handiwork”. It was perfect, perfect; perfect for a perfect day and a fact, a single proof of human goodness in appetite and action, that still makes me happy, five months on. The new RST building is taking shape, and the actors performing in the Courtyard now are those who’ll take the stage on the new theatre’s opening night. When I was home at Christmas and in February, the site was still a mess; now, the scaffolding’s shaping a building and not a building site. There must, surely, be new jobs and renewed tourism when the site is finished, for some people, at least. It was great to be back with my friends, on an accommodating river, in a suitably battered boat. And to me, the emerging theatre looked like a symbol of hope.