75th Anniversary: ‘Theatre in the Chocolate Factory’ an interview with Catherine Hindson

Ahead of her upcoming inaugural professorship lecture on 12th of April, I met with Professor Catherine Hindson, and discussed her research on theatricality at Cadbury’s around the turn of the 20th century and beyond. Her lecture is just one of the many exciting events being held to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Department of Theatre at Bristol.

OC: So, exactly what are you doing for this inaugural lecture?

CH: Inaugural lectures – they’re a slightly odd event, in some ways, because you’re talking to all sorts of different audiences. They’re designed to be a celebration of professorships, and, kind of, reaching that level. And you have friends and family, and I’ve got people coming from external organisations, either online or in person. And then you have fellow academics, and hopefully for me, some students, (because for me, it doesn’t mean much if students aren’t there!) listening, because you know, I am absolutely an academic who loves research and teaching in equal measure. And you talk about research you’ve been doing, but you try and weave in your life story at the same time, your professional life story, into the lecture. So it’s actually quite a challenge to write these things and pull them off.

Mine is going to be about my research that I’ve been doing for far too long, thanks to COVID and various leadership positions in the university, on theatre at Cadbury’s, and the use of theatre in that industrial community. What I’m trying to do is slightly dislodge the notion of what was going on in late 19th and early 20th century industry. It’s a controlling, paternalistic management of people through lifestyle and through professional life, but also tipping into recreation and leisure and how people live their lives. And I’m trying to dislodge that gently and suggest that perhaps there’s something going on there that was actually quite revolutionary, and innovative, and something that we could learn lessons from today. And I think we see the continuity of those lessons, actually, in companies like Google and Lego, which get a similar response from some people who, again, see this as a very controlling lifestyle. But what I’m trying to argue is that the injection of creativity into everyday working life is actually hugely beneficial to mental and physical health, and was at the beginning of the 20th century at Cadbury’s.

This book wasn’t supposed to be a book about gender – my last two books have been about gender, they’ve been about women on the popular musical stages of London and Paris and about women at the end of 19th century, actresses doing charity work to carve out social and political agency that they’re not getting necessarily through their stage careers. So this book wasn’t supposed to be about women. But it has turned out to be quite a bit about women. Because what I found out while I was doing the work is that this creativity, the combination of this focus on creativity, and recreation and education, in a Quaker-led business, led to women having  managerial or leadership potential that just wasn’t really available to them in many other places in the world in the first decades of the 20th century. Because Quakers believe in a form of gender equality, they’re much more advanced around gender equality at the beginning of the 20th century than most of society. If you were a woman and working at Cadbury’s – and you didn’t get married, that was the crux of it – Then you could  advance and you know, they have women sitting on their executive teams on their executive boards in the early decades of the 20th century, and a lot of these women are charged with leading on education and recreation and well-being.

I came across this community of women who were leading work and who were really pushing forward ideas around how you needed to educate and look after a workforce in order to get their full potential. And in order for society to work, really, what Cadbury’s were doing, they believe was inherently connected to the good of society, they didn’t see what they were doing as being a kind of Bournville bubble, where, only good things happen there. They saw what they were doing as feeding into government and local civic policy, around education around developing young people, around recognising that when you put a workforce into manual labour, particularly, they needed, or they believed they needed, some form of recreation and education for their brains as well. And so they were working on sort of balancing of life and well-being through that provision.

And that’s how I’m weaving that story into my lecture. I’m going to talk about leadership and my role as being a woman leader, my decisions that I’ve made throughout my professional life. I went down to four days a week, about 14 years ago, which was ferociously unpopular as a decision at the time. But it has absolutely allowed me to thrive and find my place and advance through the university into quite senior leadership positions now.

I’m going to be talking about that balance, the importance of creativity, to me the importance of people and well-being in the workplace, the importance of education and nurturing students alongside of delivering content. And I’m going to try and bring all that together with the history of Cadbury’s and women leadership there. That’s kind of what it’s going to do. And I will do that through the lens of theatre at Cadbury.

I suspect, and it’s a hunch, that people haven’t really looked for a history of theatre at Cadbury because they’ve assumed that because the Cadburys were Quakers there was no theatre. Quakers have a long strong history of anti-theatricalism, but really by the turn of the 20th century, that’s receding. So there’s a shift in Quakerism, at that time, largely, or certainly jointly, collaboratively, co-led by Cadbury and by Rowntree in York, towards something they called New Quakerism, which is a sort of a refresh on Quakerism. And an attempt to make it map on to what they see as a changing world. As part of that, they, I think really briefly, question some of the inherited ideas around what’s right and what’s wrong.

With George Cadbury in particular, I talk about it in the book, there’s some kind of documentation of his nner wrangle around dealing with the idea of theatre. He kind of finds a way through that, I think, by supporting open air theatre. He’s a really profound believer in the healthiness of fresh air – as many people are in the early 20th century – in the power of gardening, as a kind of recreational positive mental health activity as well as physical health. They have big greenhouses at Cadbury where gardening is encouraged, there are gardening clubs that you can go to as an employee. And he kind of comes around to the idea that doing theatre in the fresh air, pageant theatre, or big outdoor plays, is a way where theatre can be really clearly connected to all of the other stuff he believes in around education, recreation and health.

So there’s a history of massive outdoor plays at Cadbury with audiences of up to 3000. They built a big open-air theatre on one of the Girls’ Recreation Grounds. It’s kind of like earthworks it’s designed to be disguised. It gives us an amphitheatre that appears like it’s always been there in the ground, which I think is really important if you think about his kind of need to align theatre with nature. And then increasingly, you get theatre indoors too. So you get a big concert hall built within the factory in the 1920s. That’s still there. They built a girl’s swimming baths in the first decade of the 20th century. And someone worked out that if you drain those swimming baths and build a platform out, you’ve got a perfect indoor venue. So they do that for Christmas entertainments quite regularly. Both of these sites are still there, they’re mothballed. I was lucky enough to get into both of them although the spiders in the swimming bath were something to be seen! But you know, I did get to squidge along and try and work out how big the spaces would be.

And so you have this history of regular theatre as part of staff parties, as part of a dramatic society, which they set up in the factory in the second decade as part of education, the continuation schools where factory staff would be on day release to go – makes it sound awful, doesn’t it? – But it’s further education, and we’re talking post-14 at this point, although that changes during the period I’m talking about and becomes later. And it’s everywhere. It’s absolutely everywhere, this kind of theatricality from and about Cadbury’s.

I spent two days in the archives to start with, and went: “wow”. And then I spent the next six years researching and writing. I’ve also written a little bit in the book about Port Sunlight, which is Lever’s soap factory and village, up in The Wirral, about Rowntrees of York, as the two other kind of models from around the same time. Does that answer what it’s about? it’s really hard to condense it down. But that’s what it’s about. It’s about people. It’s about local people.

One of the things I love is that I’ve been writing about people whose stories I can unearth, through the Cadbury’s employees records and genealogical research. I’ve been pulling those two strands in to write about people who you normally wouldn’t hear about in the histories of theatre. But who, arguably, theatre had a hugely significant impact on between, say, 1900 and 1935.

OC: Wow. It just sounds fantastic. I’ve driven through Bournville before and I’ve seen those beautiful houses with the bay windows so there must have been, I believe, from reading that I’ve done, built obviously by the Quakers for the workers of a factory. I think, am I correct in thinking that?

CH: Sort of! It’s a bit of a misnomer with Bournville… Cadbury never intended Bournville to be a village just for his workers. It was a side project. It’s completely divided from the business. At least from the early 20th century, I think a little bit earlier, I need to go back and check the date. And it’s set up as a trust. He has workers from all over living in the village. Although there are some Cadbury workers who lived there, but certainly by the time I’m writing about, the number of workers in the factory massively overran the amount of house space in the village.

OC: Ah, okay!

CH: There are some connections which I talk about in the book. I talk about the Bournville Village Festival, which is a summer event every year. It’s a bit like a massive scale fete. The village council let the villagers use the recreation grounds, of which there are two massive green grass spaces in front of the factory. If you’ve driven past you’ve got that really iconic 1920s factory build. Then you’ve got a massive green space in front of it. And just over the road, there’s another massive green space. And they’re separate recreation grounds for the men and the women at that point, and so they let them use this space. As part of these festivals, they stage a children’s play every year, which is performed by children at the village schools. And the factory staff who are involved in theatre quite regularly are writing the scripts for these plays, and then are coming in, to – ‘direct’ is probably bit overblowing it – but you know, trying to produce these performances, and also sometimes to supplement the casts.

I talked about that a bit in the book as well. But the book is primarily based within the industrial boundaries of the factory. In other buildings around Bournville, like the Quaker College and The Beeches which was a big house that Cadbury transformed into a holiday space for inner-city children who were suffering from the impact of living in really unhealthy cities. There were quite a lot of charities around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries that worked on getting these kids out of the city on a regular basis letting them run around in the front and go back to the fresh air because the fresh air is really important! You know, eating healthy local food, doing gardening, that kind of stuff. So I mean, he was an extraordinary man. Most of the book doesn’t talk about him so much, it talks about the next two generations – the rollout of Cadbury’s gameplan through the next two generations of the Cadbury family.

OC: Gosh, yeah. I love that idea of creating holiday houses for those who don’t necessarily get to go out into the countryside. I’m from the countryside myself. So I definitely appreciate the idea of getting outside and appreciating nature especially if you come from inner city it’s definitely something you don’t get to see very often.

I’ve got a couple more questions for you if that’s all right. One of them is: what was the most surprising element of your research? What was something that you really weren’t expecting to uncover whilst you were doing all this?

CH: I think the scale and the amount. I was expecting, to be honest, to write a book that looked in equal parts at Rowntree’s and Levers. So Port Sunlight, New Earswick, and Bournville. And it became really clear to me quite early on that actually, I wanted this book to be about Cadbury’s. That was partly because of the comprehensiveness of the archive, partly about having access to those employee records, and to the works magazines, the full run of works magazines, which you know, are in place at Port Sunlight and at New Earswick. But the combination of those and the employee records that I can access really easily, the material remains of the theatres, which I could get to and see and experience. And just the amount – the sheer amount – of theatre and the way that theatre was knitted in to the operation, it was really clear to me – it wasn’t something that was happening on the side – that it’s absolutely embedded right at the heart of these decades of what Cadbury’s were trying to achieve as an organisation.

And I would argue that in terms of their commercial wing as much as anything else, the way they’re playing this theatre as publicity, the way they’re pulling imagery from the firm. And from their advertising. They were incredible, as you might suspect, because they still are incredible advertisers. That kind of history of innovative catchy advertising starts at the beginning of the 20th century. That’s being pulled into the theatrical activity as well. And it just became really clear to me that there was a massive amount of stuff I didn’t expect to find going on. And then it was right at the heart, it’s absolutely entangled in the whole operation.

I think that makes it slightly different to both New Earswick and to Port Sunlight, although I’d argue that the closest comparison is New Earswick, which is interesting because, of course, it’s another Quaker firm. I’m talking with both Port Sunlight and New Earswick at the moment about rolling out some of my research in other ways with and through them either by doing talks or contributing to other projects that they’re doing. So that’s exciting.

OC: Sounds it. I really could listen to this for hours and hours.

CH: I could talk for hours so you’re alright! Haha.

OC: Funnily enough I have lived next to a chocolate factory in the past, and on a rainy morning you would be able to smell, what I thought, smelled like brownies – would you get that there?

CH: Yes. Where I was working – when I was doing research – I would stay at the Old Farm Hotel, which is really close. You’ve got the factory in the green area, you’ve got the main road coming through, and the old farm is there on the other side of the road, and it’s the oldest inn and hotel in the area. And, and yeah, you could [smell it], when I got up in the morning, it depended on the day and where they were in the production cycle. But some mornings you would get up, walk out the hotel and go. “Mmmm!” It was just delicious. And I talk about that in the book a little bit as well as a sensory experience of working there. And being in that area, because some of the press of Cadbury bring the press down from London for special visit days on the train and wine and dine them to make sure they’re getting good publicity and take them on tours around the factory. And some of the journalists talk about getting off that train and just being hit by the smell of chocolate. So yes I think it’s very similar, but it’s not every day.

OC: It’s been a pleasure to chat with you today and I’ve got one more question if that’s alright – I’d like to know what is your favourite type of chocolate? And has this changed since doing all your research?

CH: That’s a great question. I’ve got two answers to that. The first is that my favourite will always be a Strawberry Roses, which the archive team realised quite quickly and one of the benefits of working in the Cadbury archive is that there is quite a lot chocolate about so you know, Strawberry Roses will always be my chocolate of choice. But what I would really love to do is resuscitate some heritage brands that I came across when I was doing the research. By looking at some of the tableaux vivants – the performed frozen pictures staff performances included  – as replications of their chocolate adverts: the stuff that’s in the press, they will then perform as tableau vivant as part of entertainment for  the staff and one of the great chocolates I came across was something called the Greengage Cream. And that’s the chocolate I would like to eat. If they could just start making it again for me that’d be great.

OC: Ooh, what is in a Greengage Cream?

CH: Greengage – you can buy greengage jam, my Gran used to make it, and it’s closest fruit is a plum. I’d need to check that it’s got a kind of plummy taste to it, but it’s slightly sharper. It’s plum sized and green. And so it’s the equivalent of a Strawberry Roses but with a greengage filling.

OC: Very nice.

CH: So, Strawberry Roses are the ones I can get. Greengage Creams are the ones I’d like to eat.

OC: If you could!

CH: I can really confidently answer that question! Haha.


Professor Hindson’s inaugural lecture takes place on 12th April 2023 at 2pm in 43 Woodland Road. Everyone is warmly invited to learn more about this fascinating time for chocolate and theatre!


The Iphigenia Project


Portrait of Jane Fitzalan, Lady Lumley, by Steven van der Meulen, 1563

This academic year the Department of Theatre at the University of Bristol celebrates its 75th anniversary. The founder of our Department, Glynne Wickham, regularly utilised practice-as-research methodologies to stage rarely performed early modern plays.  The Iphigenia Project aims to honour his legacy, celebrating the unique role that the University of Bristol has played in establishing Drama as an academic discipline.

Believed to have been written in 1554, Lumley’s Iphigenia is the first translation of Euripides’s play into English and the oldest surviving work of English drama by a woman. It’s a really important part of our theatre history, but has tended to be neglected in performance.  We’re excited to bring Lumley’s work to the stage as one of many activities celebrating the Department’s 75th anniversary this year.

As part of the project, we will be staging two public performances, one in January and one in March. In preparation for these performances we have been running a series of workshops, designed to equip students with a range of skills in staging classical texts. We’ve welcomed students from the Departments of Film, English, and Classics to these sessions, as well as those studying in Theatre.

In January, students will collaborate with professional actors on a script-in-hand performance of Lumley’s text, supported by the Institute of Greece, Rome, and the Classical Tradition. This staged reading will provide an opportunity to explore the dramaturgical significance of the chorus in Lumley’s work.  It’s a rare chance to engage with this important piece of theatre history in performance.

In March, students and staff in the Department will collaborate on a creative response to Lumley’s Iphigenia. Building on the staged reading, this performance will interrogate the relevance and theatrical value of the play from the perspective of contemporary theatre-makers.

We’ll share regular updates on our work as it progresses, as well as invitations to the public performances.  In the meantime, if you’re a student who would like to participate in the January performance you can find out more and register your interest here.

“Mrs Yates’s Indisposition” by Professor Elaine McGirr

“Mrs Yates is too grateful for the generous partiality with which she has long been honoured by the public, not to be under the greatest concern for the disappointment the audience met with on Saturday last, by the omission of the Epilogue to Braganza. Mrs Yates was really extremely ill, and the fatigue of having performed for ten nights almost without intermission, with the very great exertion necessary in the last scene, rendered her totally incapable.”[i]

So begins Mary Ann Yates’s letter to the public on the 6th March, 1775.  In it, Yates neatly defuses a brewing public relations disaster for having left the theatre early, explaining that the mental and physical labour of acting to the level the public deserved was so draining that she was physically incapable of also speaking the comic epilogue, a task, she stresses, that had not been advertised and one that she was not contracted to undertake that night.

In this and similar public letters, Yates not only makes the case for the labour of acting,[ii] but also deploys or performs exhaustion strategically to resist overwork and unremunerated labour: her letters are less about educating the public than about getting it onside in her ongoing labour disputes with theatrical management. Her exhaustion is a badge of professionalism, but also a line that cannot be crossed. In her public letters, Yates outlines a position we’ve come to know as ASOS (Action Short Of a Strike) or working to contract.

For instance, in November 1776 she publishes a letter she wrote to her manager R.B. Sheridan reminding him of his contractual obligation to give her 24 hours’ notice of all new roles or changes to programming so that she has time to “think on the part [she] was to play.”[iii]

As it my first wish, whilst I have the honour to appear before the Public, to do all in my power to merit their approbation, I took care to have it stipulated in my articles, that I should always have twenty-four hours notice of the Character the Managers wished I should appear in; I insured myself this little notice, in order to have time to think on the part I was to play; and hoped in some sort to be the better enabled to justify the partiality that Public has honoured me with.[iv]

This letter is a response to the escalation of hostilities between Yates and the management of Drury Lane Theatre. The previous night, Sheridan had  taken the unusual step of announcing to the public that Yates had refused to perform for them and was sulking instead of acting. Sheridan’s strategy in going public was to attempt to attempt to transform a dispute between theatre management and its staff into one between Yates and her audience. Yates was having none of it. Sheridan’s public appeal licensed her public response, and she not only firmly placed the blame for her non-appearance on Sheridan, who, she explained, was trebly at fault for failing to programme efficiently, failing to manage rehearsal schedules, and failing to give due notice to actors to ensure word-perfect performances. Yates then ups the ante, arguing that Sheridan’s slap-dash planning and rehearsal practices are the real insult to audiences and show a lack of respect not just to the actors he is attempting to bully, but also to the audiences who pay for the best theatre and deserve the benefit of better planning, rehearsal strategies and actors who have been given the materials to succeed. Yates reminds the public that her working conditions dictate both the pleasure and the value of their play-going experiences.

In the 1776 letters, as in 1775, Yates emphasises the work of acting; while it is received as a pleasure by audiences, creating that experience is hard, exhausting work.  Yates stresses the physical and emotional toll of performing tragedy night after night. It is “a very great exertion” and causes “fatigue.” She reminds Sheridan of this in 1776, complaining that his last-minute rehearsal changes are impossible to accommodate because they don’t take necessary rest periods into account: ‘I am not sufficiently perfect to play without a rehearsal; and the only one called, was the morning after I had played Medea, when it was highly improbable I should be able to come out; and when as all my family knows, I actually kept my bed that whole day.’[i] Yates’s performances were known for the power of her voice, which soared and screamed with rage, terror and despair. Such performances were physically as well as emotionally taxing and her vocal cords needed time to recover.

Yates’s letter to the public, which frames the publication of her letter to Sheridan, goes on to stress that her work schedule includes regular periods of rest to allow her to study and to recover – the art of acting, her letters make clear, is not just her time on stage, but the time spent preparing roles and recovering from the exertions of performance. Her absence is not evidence that she’s the kind of diva who needs to be bribed to even get out of bed, but proof of how hard she has been working: it is evidence not of laziness or diminishing powers but proof of her whole body-mind commitment to excellence. Thus, her exhaustion is not a liability, but a powerful tool of resisting managerial overreach and the expectation that she perform gratitude rather than professionalism. Yates further reminds us that contractual obligations cut both ways: they not only delineate a worker’s duties, but also management’s duty to provide the time, tools and remuneration necessary to perform those duties. Yates’s successful campaigning and weaponizing of her “indisposition” led to tense relationships with a series of successive theatre managers, but not with her public, who appreciated her efforts, respected her need for rest and followed her whenever her disputes with theatrical management led her to take up a position on a new stage. Mary Ann Yates is an inspiration for us all.




[i] ibid.

[i] “News.” Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 6 Mar. 1775. Emphases mine.

[ii] See L. Ritchie, David Garrick and the Mediation of Celebrity pp. 106-7.

[iii] “News.” Morning Post, 9 Nov. 1776.

[iv] Ibid.


by Gareth Osborne

I’m a children’s author, teacher and second-year postgraduate researcher here in the Department of Theatre, co-supervised at Cardiff and Bath Spa. I’d like to share with you how my creative repurposing of a Himalayan salt lamp ended up being archived in the British Library’s Emerging Formats collection.

My research looks at how reading and theatre engagement can be blended in immersive storytelling experiences for children to give them more voice in their fictions. As a writer of children’s books, a teacher of twenty years classroom experience, and father of two daughters I have seen how children’s books can give young people the power to guide their own formative experiences. I wondered how this mentorship that children’s books provide might be harnessed to drive more participative social experiences, in which children could become active cocreators of their fictions, rather than silently imagining into the words of an adult author.

I was in this happy state of academic pottering when the Covid-19 crisis hit. Suddenly children were isolated at home, struggling for the attention of remote-working parents, cut off from their usual adult mentors of teachers and arts practitioners as schools, theatres and libraries closed.

I realised, with no little horror, that my research might be relevant to this situation. How might a story in children’s private sphere be harnessed to reconstruct some of their social experiences again? How much of the mentorship role that teachers and arts practitioners played could the developing narrative itself assume?

Out of this thinking, emerged the idea for Storyhaven, an immersive storytelling experience for children that blends group roleplaying, lone reading experiences and sessions of immersive theatre with an actor. It centres on the town of Storyhaven, deep in Earth’s next ice-age, where stories have become the fuel for life.

Front cover of Storyhaven
Illustrations: Nele Diel. © Gareth Osborne
Illustration from Storyhaven
Illustrations: Nele Diel. © Gareth Osborne.

Now this precious resource is disappearing. Someone is stealing the town´s stories. Deprived of their fuel the town’s fablehearths will go out, the ice will creep back in and families will perish in their beds. In a last roll of the dice, the town’s story shamans develop a perilous means of time travel to allow their most intrepid explorers to journey back into the past to save the town´s tales before they can disappear.

Storyhaven’s main engagement is driven by a reading and roleplaying game that can be played by schoolchildren in virtual or real classrooms. The children design their own characters, then navigate their way through episodes of a branching narrative in teams, talking decisions over together in a way that fosters compromise and social wellbeing.

Illustration from Storyhaven
Illustrations: Nele Diel. © Gareth Osborne
Illustrations from Storyhaven, Episode 1
Illustrations: Nele Diel. © Gareth Osborne

Opportunities for children to cocreate the narrative are woven into the storyline through them having to rewrite the stories they save, so that they can send them back to the present through the shaman´s time portal. This device sets up the two immersive theatre sessions, delivered via Zoom, in which the children perform their stories to an actor playing the character of the town shaman, bringing the children’s roleplaying to life as their performances stoke the town´s fablehearths and fight back the encroaching ice. This was where Himalayan salt lamp came in: as the children performed their stories to the shaman he secretly turned up its dimmer switch to simulate them recharging the town’s crystals.

Illustration from Storyhaven
© Brentry Primary School with parental permission obtained to use in research dissemination.
Images of children involved in roleplaying of Storyhaven characters
© Brentry Primary School with parental permission obtained to use in research dissemination

With university outreach funding from the Bristol Temple Quarter Engagement fund I assembled a creative team to deliver a pilot of Storyhaven over two months at a Bristol primary school, firstly in the socially distanced classroom, then transitioning to virtual classrooms and Zoom breakout rooms during the January 2020 UK lockdown.

Images of Storyhaven creative team
© individual practitioners with permission obtained to use in research dissemination.

Inviting other practitioners into my research has enabled me to explore my research questions in ways that respond to current creative industry and public sector demands and has led to further opportunities with The Egg Assembly at Theatre Royal Bath and Seven Stories, the National Centre for children’s books. Storyhaven was shortlisted for the New Media Writing Prize 2020 and archived in the British Library’s Emerging Formats Collection.

After ethics review, the data from the pilot has been recorded via practitioner interviews and the children’s own creativity as they experimented with how to blend reading and theatre themselves as immersed research participants.


The Archival Resident in Lockdown

By Jayne Gold

I started my PhD at the University of Bristol at the end of January 2020, just eight weeks or so before the lockdown measures were introduced. The position is funded by the Brecknock Society, in memory of Sister Bonaventure of the Ursuline Convent in Brecon. Sister Bonaventure was a prolific local theatre historian whose extensive body of research of theatre in Brecon from 1699-1870 remains largely unpublished within theatre academia.

Fortunately, before the lockdown measures came into force, I managed to travel to Bristol from my village just outside of Brecon to register and meet my supervisors and to attend my first research meeting at the Theatre Collection with fellow theatre historians from the universities of Bristol and Exeter. I was also able to gather and sort the large amounts of material from Sister Bonaventure’s archive that was contained in outbuildings of houses in the surrounding villages of Brecon. This involved some very cold mornings in sheds and welcome cups of tea in homes meeting key members of the Brecknock Society.

Laura Engel (2019) has coined the term “archival tourist” to describe the process of a researcher immersing oneself in a foreign environment through archival research. However, I have developed an awareness of my somewhat unique position of being an ‘archival resident’, a researcher living amongst the subject of their investigation. This has been emphasised by the lack of regular tourists to my village. The village car park close to my house, normally full of Taff Trail cyclists, and the road to the bridge over the Usk usually filled with people unloading their kayaks and canoes into the water are now empty and quiet.

But I remain surrounded by materials. Whether that be in our hastily adapted office come spare bedroom filled with Sister Bonaventure’s archive placed on a full to the brim Ikea shelf or in the surrounding countryside dotted by grand houses which are the former homes of the gentry who patronised the play performances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

A recent walk from my home revealed I can see a view of Buckland Hall in all its grandeur from the top of the hill. I have the memory of the nearby house at Penpont where we selected and chopped down our Christmas tree on a rainy day and stopped for a hot chocolate. When I drive into Brecon for grocery shopping, I can see the old building which used to house the town’s Theatre Royal which closed its doors in 1870.

Every day I take my sons for a walk along the Brecon and Monmouthshire canal – a toddler sized fishing net in hand – and can imagine barges full of coal and the Brecon Boat Company whose directors were so key to the financial development of the area. Occasionally I’ll see a neighbour on a walk, and we’ll have a socially distanced chat about Sister Bonaventure who taught her in the convent school, or I’ll chat to my neighbour over the fence about the opera singer Adelina Patti at Craig y Nos.

While I cannot gain access to some of the things I need, to collect the last four boxes of Sister Bonaventure’s material from Y Gaer (the local museum) which I am desperate to see, or to check sources with the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, the British Library or indeed the University of Bristol’s own Theatre Collection, being fully immersed in the location of my research helps to focus my thinking, and now increasingly my writing, as I continue my research journey.

First Year Theatre Reviews

Being a first-year Theatre Student during lockdown brings with it very particular limitations. The experience of live theatre either as a member of the audience or as part of the production is not possible. Maybe this is what a chef feels like without a kitchen; a footballer without a team, and a student of literature without books. Four of our fabulous first years here in the Department of Theatre, have put pen to paper, or rather finger to keyboard, to try and figure out what it is we’re missing when watching theatre on screen in lockdown.

Georgia Casimir: Frankenstein, National Theatre

I watched the recording of the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature, and Jonny Lee Miller as Victor Frankenstein. I loved the performance – the huge theatre space (and presumably equally huge budget) allowed for some really amazing effects: thousands of light bulbs were suspended above the stage and audience and created moments of gentle, romantic starlight and equally harsh, exposing and clinical light; there were moments of mechanical music accompanied by chanting, and a 10-minute opening sequence where Cumberbatch broke out of his embryonic cell and essentially spent the next few minutes learning how to walk.

The thing is, as amazing as it was to watch, it mostly felt amazing because I was imagining how it would feel to be an audience member. Watching the performance on a screen, in my own bedroom, it was hard to experience that sense of immediacy that the audience was definitely experiencing. I imagine it would have been a genuinely frightening performance – it is hard to watch a fully grown man struggle so much with basic speech and coordination, accompanied by his grotesque appearance and erratic behaviours, I would have been scared he was going to crawl up into the audience.

Therefore, as much as I was genuinely enthralled by the production, I certainly still felt somewhat left out, experiencing only about 70% of the sensations that I would have had I been there in the flesh. That being said, there are definitely some benefits to watching a recording of a performance.

For starters, you can see everything. The stage was vast, and I doubt whether even the front-row audience member would have been able to see Cumberbatch’s incredible stage makeup in the same detail as I did. Additionally, some of the slower, more dialogue-heavy scenes were somewhat filmic and definitely lent themselves well to a performance.

I can absolutely see the benefits of watching recorded performances. It is generally cheaper, more accessible and allows for the close-up viewing that is hard to achieve from an auditorium; however, on the whole I would still much prefer to see a performance in the flesh – the uncertainty of theatre, the knowledge that there is only one shot at a performance on any one night, and the overall more immediate experience certainly warrants travelling out of my way to watch it myself.

Jasper Price: Hamlet (2016), Royal Shakespeare Company

I watched the latest Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet from the comfort of my living room. I didn’t have to traipse the two-hour journey to London’s Hackney Empire to watch this play. No traffic, no horrible train journey, no sweltering tube ride. I walked from my bedroom to the living room; about 10 feet and didn’t encounter a single person. I didn’t have to wait in a massive queue to use the lavatory as you do at the theatre.

When I sat down, my legs were not wedged in a vice-grip hold, devoid of circulation. Instead, I sat on my sofa and put my legs up on the coffee table. I was able to eat what I liked without the fear of being shushed by another theatregoer. So far this virtual theatre trip is proving easier than the real thing.

However, as the play began, I suddenly felt distanced, unattached from the performance. The lights had gone down in the theatre but sunlight was still streaming from my window. I did not feel totally engaged with the production, as being there would have assured; and my cat miaowing during “to be or not to be” killed any theatrical atmosphere that I was feeling.

Atmosphere. That is the key word to any live event; you and the rest of the audience united for a brief few hours, engaged together in the majesty of live performance. That feeling you get when the lights go down, and everyone falls silent together, is lost at home. Another huge negative with watching a theatre production is that we see what the director wants us to see. As a theatre student, I look away from the main action to see what else is happening onstage; the other actors, the lighting, the set etc. However, I am forced to look watch only the lead actors through a series of closeups.

However, the greatest reason for watching the play virtually was that I didn’t have to watch the whole thing. I spread the play out over multiple days because I was not prepared to sit for three and a half hours watching Hamlet. I would have in the theatre but at home? No. There are pros and cons to watching performance at home, but to me, an 11-inch laptop screen will never beat an 11-metre stage.

Isobel Edmondson: Twelfth Night, National Theatre

Despite not knowing the story of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at all, I found it enjoyable and laughed out loud at some parts, because the themes and characters were so clearly conveyed in the physicality, gestures and voice of the actors. The character Malvolio was changed to a female Malvolia, which I did not really see the point of. While I try to keep an open mind and tell myself that gender does not matter, it clearly does, and it potentially changes the way the audience see the events in the play. Maybe if I knew the play better, I would see why this decision was made, or perhaps I’d be even more confused.

Nevertheless, Tamsin Greig was amusing as Malvolia and I enjoyed her use of gesture, for example: she repeated a hand movement every time she repeated a certain phrase. The phrase itself was not even particularly funny as far as I can remember, but she made it comical with that simple action. A revolving stage was used to transition between scenes which I thought was much more aesthetically pleasing than a blackout or a curtain might have been. It was slick and even added comedy in some parts. I always appreciate the National Theatre’s creative use of space and set design.

In general, watching stage on screen is something I did before quarantine in the cinema so it has not been such an adjustment for me. Of course, there are some differences though, especially when watching it at home, for example: you are not sitting in the audience. This made me feel somewhat detached from the play, as the audience’s reaction can affect the way you experience a performance. There is a sense of community and camaraderie when watching something with a lot of other people, in the same way that a large part of the atmosphere at a concert is dependent on the audience’s presence. There is also the fact that the action is not live, which means that camera angles could have been edited and manipulated in a certain way.

This forces the audience’s attention on one particular area, which means that everyone watching has a pretty similar or near identical experience compared to the audience members who were actually there; could have looked anywhere and had different perspectives based on where they were sitting. This could be seen as a positive thing, however, as the close-up view of the action allows you to notice smaller and more subtle facial expressions and interactions of the characters, almost like a film. In that regard, the best seats in the house are at home. Either way, I think if I were a fan of a particular actor or if they were just well-known, it’d be much more exciting seeing them in the flesh than on my screen. It would just feel more special and rare. I could tell my grandchildren that I saw them and maybe they’d be impressed and envious that we were actually in the same room.

By Georgia Casimir, Isabel Edmondson, Jasper Price, and Dr Katja Krebs.

Performing The Archive: Our Student Projects

This week’s post is written by second year students on the unit Performing the Archive and give an account of the projects they were working on in their groups shortly before the lockdown. They were developing guided tours, audio installations and performance re-enactments in response to stories discovered in the Bristol Old Vic archive, which is held in the University of Bristol Theatre Collection.

These would have been shown to the public at the Bristol Old Vic on March 23, but this was not possible due to the COVID-19 crisis. Here two of the groups have written about the stories from the theatre’s history that they found interesting, their research and creative processes, and what you would have experienced if their showings had been able to go ahead.

Love and Romance at Bristol Old Vic: from love letters to weddings, both on and offstage, exploring the romances of the Old Vic through an interactive audio tour

We are a group of six students from University of Bristol’s Department of Theatre who are currently working on our final project for Performing The Archive. Throughout this unit we have been collaborating closely with the engagement team at Bristol Old Vic to help share the theatre’s history with the city of Bristol. Our group are focusing on a collection of love stories and romances related to the Old Vic.

To us, this theatre represents community and the spirit of Bristol itself. We want to celebrate the love for Bristol Old Vic and the romances that have happened there by creating an audio tour of the building. Unfortunately, due to the current pandemic, we weren’t able to show our project to the public, but we hope to be able to as soon as it is safe.

We have spent the past few months trawling through the archival boxes in the Theatre Collection, uncovering forgotten romances from the past and transcribing 19th century love letters. From audience members, staff, actors and everyone in between, we have worked with a wide range of historical evidence, including these letters, interviews and photographs.

Having learned about the importance of archival practices in the retelling of theatrical history, we have found it truly heart-warming to discover just how many people have romantic stories connected with Bristol Old Vic. We have turned some of these stories from the past into scripts, and then into audio recordings, to create interviews with historical figures such as James Chute and Charlotte Cushman.

For the more recent and first-hand stories, we have been using Bristol Old Vic’s Memory of Theatre recordings. These interviews are part of a heritage project that aims to preserve the public’s memories and experiences of the theatre for future audiences. During this unit we conducted our own Memory of Theatre interviews with regular theatregoers and staff at Bristol Old Vic. We found this medium a lot more personal to work with than some of the information from hundreds of years ago. It was exciting to hear real voices share their stories and we felt it added a lot of charm to our project. It’s even more exciting to think that these people will hear their stories represented in our audio tour when we are able to present it to the public.

We’ll leave you with one of our stories to whet your appetite. In Bristol Old Vic there is a window in Coopers’ Hall lovingly named ‘the proposal window’ and it has a history of romance surrounding it. Duty Manager Andrew Stocker shared with us the story of a proposal that took place there in 1992; it was Valentine’s Day and Bristol Old Vic’s production of Romeo and Juliet was preparing for their evening performance. “Suddenly, as it was coming up to about quarter past seven”, Stocker recalls, “a young man stood up and… went down on one knee to his girlfriend–and out of his pocket pulled a ring and proposed to her!” Stocker continues, “she screamed initially, and then smiled and said yes and everybody clapped. It was very magical and especially on Valentine’s Day!” It later turned out that the young man chose to propose next to this ‘proposal window’ because it was the very spot where his father proposed to his mother in the 1970s.

This is just one of the tales we have discovered, and we can’t wait to share the rest with the public. We hope that these love stories will bring as much joy to you as they have brought to us.

By Stella Parker, on behalf of her Performing the Archive group, Riddhi Bhatt, Kate Bolton, Ed Lyness, Katie Smith, Ruidong Yang.

Dragon’s Den: Theatre Royal edition

Good morning/afternoon/evening, depending on when you’ve decided to read this blog post and learn more about Bristol Old Vic’s history, which we love and hope you will too. We are Theatre students at the University of Bristol and have been exploring the theatre’s archives in the Theatre Collection to learn more about the Old Vic’s past, which we would like to share with you.


During our research we were particularly gripped by the information regarding the selling of Bristol Old Vic in 1942, and the threat of closure prior to this. We were impacted profoundly by the thought that this theatre, such a part of the heart of Bristol now, was nearly lost for good (and very nearly became a fruit and vegetable warehouse). This information was striking, but in the form of papers and letters it was not particularly accessible or entertaining.

We contemplated how we could make this story relevant to an audience today and decided to re-stage the auction as a pitch on the popular TV show Dragons’ Den. Using the format of this programme allowed us to depict the auction in an inventive way, using the evidence in a manner that a contemporary audience could enjoy and learn from. The challenge of this was staying true to the historical facts while bringing it into our era. We decided to use quotes from the archives so that the language is from the period when the auction occurred, while having modern-day costumes typical of Dragons’ Den suits.


Happy with our idea, we began our research. We needed names. The format required five Dragons and one or two entrepreneurs to pitch. Using Kathleen Barker’s archive material, we were able to find names of the main players involved in the bidding and discovered interesting characters like Milton Bode. Born in Birmingham, he ran away to the circus at 17 and managed touring theatre companies in later life. He was one of the Theatre Royal’s managers just before it was put up for auction and so we decided to have him as our pitcher.

One of the most interesting figures we chose to be a Dragon was Anne Rendall. We found her through the rather aggressive letters between her and Herbert Farjeon (another figure we chose to be a Dragon). Her fierce character and strong language – such as calling someone a “foul shark” – fitted with our re-imagining and was used to create dramatic effect in the den.


The final three dragons became: Clarence Davey, Wilfred Leighton, and John Hare. In the real auction Hare placed the first bid of £10,000 and so, translating this into a Dragons’ Den scenario, we had Hare give the first offer of £10,000. There was an anonymous bidder who placed the winning bid of £10,500 and who later turned out to be Davey. He bid on behalf of the Council of the Preservation of Ancient Bristol, so that they could use the theatre for its intended purposes and pay him back when they had the money.

We felt it important that the council be represented in the den, as the theatre building being bought and used for other purposes was a real threat to the city’s history and culture. This is where Leighton came in. Leighton was the president of the council at the time and so we chose him to represent the organisation. Herbert Farjeon was connected to the theatre due to his fiercely held belief (expressed in many letters) that the theatre should be used as a theatre and only a theatre, and that it should be protected at all costs. We decided to include his character as one of the dragons to create some conflict between the Dragons – some whom believe the theatre should be protected, and others want to make use of the building for more profitable business purposes.

We wanted to create the kind of tension found in Dragons’ Den on television. We loved the intimidating aspect of the show, which we channelled in our portrayal of the historical Bristol business figures. Admittedly, some artistic license was taken when developing these characters in the context of the den, but we did stay true to the impressions gained from the documents.

With our chosen historical figures, we planned how we could connect the events of the auction with the structure of Dragons’ Den. Often in the real Dragons’ Den, two or more of the Dragons may decide to split a deal between them. We decide this was a fitting ending (spoiler) for our piece, as Davey and the Council did decide to help one another in order to save the theatre.

The overarching aim throughout the process was to make the piece educational, entertaining and accessible to anyone who comes to the Old Vic. This is why we chose “the Snug” in the corner of the foyer next to the original Theatre Royal wall as our performance space. This is an intimate space where the actors and audience can feel close and passers-by might happen upon our performance. Being in front of the original wall also allowed us to refer to the auditorium itself during the piece, the very theatre that was auctioned and where the auction took place; to stage a historical event right where it happened.

We hope you have enjoyed reading about our process and that you have learnt more about how Bristol Old Vic has stood the test of time – and won, against all the odds.

By Eleanor Motyer Lowndes, Natalya Nielsen, Rhiannon Pearce, Tara Pinto, and Ben Wolverson

How To Be Together

By Dr Kirsty Sedgman

To be together is an act of faith. Imagine reading a book in a steamed-up coffee shop, gazing at the flow of faces outside the window. Think about the press of a crowd in a football stadium, the pleasure of joining in with a wave and getting it exactly in sync with everyone else. About dancing in a cramped hot room or a giant festival field, everyone covered in glitter and someone else’s sweat on your skin. About the comfortable hubbub of a restaurant or the silence of a library; those who stream around us at the train-station, or who sit next to us in hushed pleasure at the theatre, or who manoeuvre their shopping cart around ours – oh, a wonky wheel! No, please, after you.

Festival festival-of-colours-032902 by TLC Johnson, licensed under CC0 1.0

Imagine being together, out there in the world. It’s a quietly radical thought. 

I say radical because, in order to be out in the world with other people, we need to have faith in other people: faith that other people will abide by the same rules as ourselves. Rules of manners, civility, propriety, respect; of morals, ethics, and law. These are just some of the big words we’ve come up with, over the centuries, to describe the necessary boundaries for our successful coexistence.

To be together is, like Blanche in Streetcar, to depend on the kindness of strangers; or if not their kindness, then at least their general lack of antagonism. This begins at the very basic level  the hope that other people, by and large, will not set out to harm us. That our bus to work will be free from explosives. That our classrooms and religious congregations won’t be disrupted by someone wielding an automatic weapon. That no-one will cough on us and spread a deadly virus. 

Less spectacular than these Hollywoodesque acts of cruelty, though, are the small acts of disturbance to which we submit others  or are ourselves submitted  every single day. Here I’m talking firstly about the minor irritations that come from being together in public: about the open-mouthed chomper, the man-spreader, the perfume-overuser, the loud and constant sniff sniff sniff.

Olympic stadium Munich by Markus Spiske, licensed under CC0 1.0

But I’m also talking about the accumulating violence of microaggressions that being-together-in-public can bring. About the dangerous surveillance of bodies whom society has systematically marginalised. The disproportionate policing of those identities and behaviours. The judgments about who does and who does not belong. Our experience of being together in the world differs vastly depending on who we are  or who we are seen to be. 

As a specialist in theatre audiences, I’ve spent my career asking what it means to ‘be together’ in public space. Who decides the rules? Who benefits from those rules, and who loses out? Who gets to define what counts as reasonable, and how do those with alternative definitions (of what’s acceptable vs. unacceptable, appropriate vs. inappropriate) get marked out as unreasonable? 

A couple of years ago I started answering these questions through a study of online guides to ‘theatre etiquette’, the recent deluge of blog posts and articles arguing that theatre audiences are getting increasingly badly behaved – the result of which was my book, The Reasonable AudienceI found that while every etiquette advocate firmly believed that audiences are getting more and more selfish and bad-mannered, in need of ‘retraining’ in better spectatorship, the precise location of that line between good and bad behaviour differed wildly from person to person. 

When it came to mobile phones, for instance, some people said that obviously putting them on silent was okay; others said absolutely not, obviously they had to be turned off entirely. Some people said don’t eat or drink anything in the auditorium; others said that quiet snacks are fine – otherwise you “may as well tape everyone’s mouths shut”. Some people welcomed the demise of the dress code, telling their readers to wear whatever they feel comfortable in – even “rock up in flip flops, if you like”. Meanwhile, others said specifically that “there is no place for flip flops in the theatre”, and that you should buy an outfit that cost “at least as much as the price of your ticket”. 

Flip flops at attention by Joe Strupek, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

If we pay attention, we can see these same discourses of reasonableness playing out in every aspect of public life – from debates about whether or not it’s acceptable to eat on buses, to irritation at children being noisy on aeroplanes, to disabled people getting shamed for sitting down on park benches while taking their one governmentally-mandated walk a day.

You can also see reasonableness fermenting online: in every Twitter storm, every Facebook spat, every online article’s comments section, in every Reddit Real Relationships or AITA (Am I The Asshole?) post. Whether the subject is as big as socialism or as banal as sourdough bread – any native of the internet should be familiar with the furious disagreement even the most throwaway online thought can provoke. 

And what I’ve learned from all this is that everybody  yes, even you  believes that their own opinions are obviously reasonable. Our ideas about right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, acceptable or unacceptable, are obviously common sense. After all, it’s surely just a case of manners and respect  about learning not to be selfish, about being considerate of others… Right? 

The thing is, though, that manners and respect are not neutral. There’s no such thing as a single, reasonable viewpoint. Common sense is actually not that common at all. These things vary from person to person, they land differently on different bodies and different subjectivities, and are absolutely bound up in relations of power. Because as critical race and disability studies scholars have pointed out for decadesit tends to be working-class people, young people, and people of colour (especially where those identities overlap) who get disproportionately  policed and subjected to surveillance even if their behaviour is exactly the same as the older rich white person next to them. 

Busy Streets by Photos By 夏天, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Understanding this is to pay attention to the inequities of being together, out there in the world. Who can walk down the street holding hands and pass unnoticed, and who cannot? Who wheels the shopping trolley aside reflexively, and who stands still? Who disproportionately gets served in that coffee-shop, and who do we expect will be the one to serve?

We’re trying to co-exist in a fundamentally racist, sexist, ableist, classist society – one that’s deliberately working to elevate some existences over others. Our shared social spaces have been built to be shared only by some of us. We are trying to be together in a world designed to pull us apart. 

Right now, of course, we can’t be together  or not most of us, anywayor not in the ways we’re used to. Right now, here in the UK, our government is trying to move us back to business as usual. But that’s not what we need. Instead of going back to ‘normal’, now’s our chance to ask what a new normal might look like. The first step toward that new normal is to learn to interrogate the voice of reasonableness inside ourselves  the voice that tells us our own ideas about how the world should be are common sense, objectively correct, while others’ lived experiences are obviously wrong. It starts by asking why we sometimes feel we have the right to pass judgment on others as selfish, disrespectful, rude  and whose disadvantage that might entrench. It begins by understanding that returning to the status quo means some of us get further ahead, while others are left behind. 

Now iour chance to be together better. Let’s not bottle it, okay? 

The Plague, Then and Now

By Dr Eleanor Rycroft

When the coronavirus outbreak hit I was halfway through reading Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. As I continued to read this book about the loss of William Shakespeare’s son to plague, the pandemic developed throughout March, and a transformation occurred to the material. The book changed from being a historical, if heart-breaking, account of the death of a child, to a strangely prescient and very present tale about the sudden loss of anyone to an invisible illness. Ideas that had felt distant became suddenly close; fears that were one imagined were now being plucked from my own brain.

For the last year or so, I have been working on a research project which explores the staging and the meaning of walking in early modern drama. As a rule my research concerns bodies in performance, and I draw on a wide range of printed texts in circulation at the same time as drama to analyse how early modern bodies were understood and represented onstage. Like my experience of reading Hamnet, my response to my research has been transformed by the crisis we are living through.

Whereas, prior to March, I was writing blithely in my notes about “bad plague years” and the effect that these were having on movement and mobility in early modern literature, the material suddenly became more vital and, once again, prescient. The frequent closures of the playhouses during the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth centuries because of plague outbreaks, suddenly spoke to the theatres going dark in our present moment.

During 1603, the year that James VI of Scotland took to the throne as James I of England, a particularly bad outbreak of plague occurred, one that caused the death of 1 in 5 Londoners and continued on and off for the next 10 years. It was in this context that Ben Jonson created The Alchemist in 1610, a play which presents the machinations of servants in the absence of their master who has fled London due to an outbreak of the illness.

Outside of the theatres James VI and I issued a set of Orders in 1603 for the prevention of the plague – including a 6-week quarantine of the sick, and an injunction that if they leave their home then they should mark their clothes for identification. However, a large number of other medical treatises were written around this time. Prior to coronavirus, I had found one of these – James Manning’s A new booke, intitled, I am for you all, complexions castle as well in the time of the pestilence (1604) – particularly interesting, because of Manning’s advice that you should ‘command’ those that you suspect as sick to perform certain physical tasks for you:

“If you suspect any, as you may justly, where some have died out of a house, or where the next house have had the infection, then do as followeth; Command them to stand upright, and to reach themselves upright: if they faile to do it, then suspect a sore in the backe, bellie, brest, or flanks […] presently after this, command them to walke up and downe as fast as they can; if they halt, or steppe not largely, suspect a sore in the thighs, flanks, knees, backe, or hippes: presently after this, command them to bow down foreward to the ground, and reach up something, not removing any foote, if they cannot, then suspect the flanks, or backe: if they do performe all this, and be very short winded, having no other disease knowne; then suspect a soare to ensue, or the bodie very shortly to be in great danger by the pestilence.” (1604, E2r-v)

Colonel Tom Moore

As I read the same text now, it seems to imply a similar distrust of others that has led some people to spy on their neighbours during lockdown. Pandemics may bring out some of the best in us – Clap for Carers, Colonel Tom Moore – but they also appear to bring out some of our worst.

While Manning is from Wellingborough, the place bearing the brunt of the plague – as with coronavirus – is London. In 1603, the playwright and pamphleteer Thomas Dekker published The Wonderfull Yeare, a text which considers all of the strange (or ‘full of wonder’) events, from Elizabeth’s death, to James’ inauguration, to the plague itself. In it, he makes the point that once the ‘pestilence’ takes hold of the body, it has the potential to punish even the strongest and fittest of us, resonating with our disbelief when we hear of somebody who has died of COVID-19 ‘with no underlying health conditions’:

“How nimble is Sickness, and what skill hath he in all the weapons he playes withall? The greatest cutter that takes up the Mediterranean Ile in P[au]les for his Gallery to walke in, cannot ward off his blowes. Hes the best Fencer in the world […] he’ll make you give him ground […] and beat you out of breath, though Aeolus himselfe plaid upon your wind-pipe.” (1603, D4r)

For all of our understanding that certain structural, economic and physiological factors make some people more susceptible to COVID-19, Dekker’s comment upon the indiscriminate nature of illness brings his text right into our present moment, even while the references to the St. Paul’s and fencing locate it firmly in the past. By invoking St. Paul’s Cathedral, Dekker provides the reader with a glimpse of a London locale which was far more than simply a place of worship in the seventeenth-century, but rather one which bustled with cultural and commercial activity.

The ‘Mediterranean Aisle’ was the name given to the central walkway of the Cathedral and Dekker draws our attention not only to the parading around which took place in the church but also, implicitly, the connection between social proximity and disease. A later pamphlet written by Dekker provides us with a vivid sense of what it meant to walk in St. Paul’s at that time, and of how easy it must have been for disease to spread in such a crowded setting at the very heart of the city:

“What layinge of heads is there together […] What shuffling, what shouldering, what Justling, what Jeering, what biting of Thumbs to beget quarrels, what holding up of fingers to remember drunken meetings, what braving with Feathers, what bearding with Mustachoes, what casting open of cloakes to publish new clothes […] I heare such trampling up and downe, such spitting, such [ha]lking, and such humming, (euery mans lippes making a noise, yet not a word to be understoode) […]

For at one time, in one and the same ranke, yea, foote by foote, and elbow by elbow, shall you see walking, the Knight, the Gull, the Gallant, the upstart, the Gentleman, the Clowne, the Captaine, the Appel-squire, the Lawyer, the Usurer, the Cittizen, the Banker, the Scholler, the Begger, the Doctor, the Ideot, the Ruffian, the Cheater, the Puritan, the Cut-throat, the Hye-men, the Low men, the True-man, and the Thiefe: of all trades & professions some, of all Countryes some; And thus dooth my middle Isle shew like the Mediterranean Sea […] Thus am I like a common Mart where all Commodities (both the good and the bad) are to be bought and solde.” (1608, D4v-Er)

Sadly one of the commodities being brought to this roiling sea of London society is the plague itself. There is still widespread disagreement among historians and epidemiologists about whether the plague was spread by animals and insects or through human-human contact, but there was clearly a sense among early moderns themselves that proximity was a factor in catching the disease. In Dekker’s depiction of bodies spitting, touching, and rubbing against each other, the potential for transmission is clear: there is saliva on people’s fingers, there is face-touching, and there is the flourishing of potentially infected clothes.

With such an emphasis on faces and mouths and fabrics, you can almost see infectious droplets pass through the air. With such a social mix and volume of people, you can almost sense the viral load. While these terms may not have been available to early modern people – or to me, a couple of months ago – they inhere in texts from the 1600s that are themselves contaminated by an ever-present plague. They underscore these texts’ responses to the body and reveal our inability as social creatures, really, to remain socially distanced for long.

Cited works


Dekker, Thomas, The dead tearme (London,1608)

Dekker, Thomas, 1603. The vvonderfull yeare (London, 1603)

Jonson, Ben, The Alchemist (London, 1612)

Manning, James, A new booke, intitled, I am for you all, complexions castle as well in the time of the pestilence (London, 1604)

O’Farrell, Maggie, Hamnet (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2020).

Endgame for End Times

By Dr Isabel Stowell-Kaplan

A: So … What is the likelihood that we will get to see Endgame? 😢

B: Yeah […]
[Edited to omit various conversations about tension headaches, cancelled plans and working from home]

C: Yes, sadly I think Endgame’s gonna be a no go …😔 I actually think the Old Vic will be closed from next week as it seats over 500.

This conversation is from mid-March and already it feels quaint and impossibly distant.

Having made a return to the U.K. to take up my Marie Curie Research Fellowship at Bristol after ten years abroad, I was looking forward to returning to friends and to the theatre – ideally in combination. I’d made plans to see Endgame (dir. Richard Jones) at the Old Vic, quickly reviving a tried, if not quite trusted, practice for theatrical selection: one of us would pick a show and the others had to see it.

Though it does sound simple enough, the fact that the five of us have wildly different theatrical tastes has made for a kind of dramatic Russian Roulette over the years. We all saw things we wouldn’t otherwise – good and bad – and we had dinner and drinks to talk about it. You know, everything we all did before lockdown. This time it was Endgame, chosen likely as much for Alan Cumming as for Samuel Beckett. I have vague memories of seeing him on a different outing, that time upside down in a skirt at the Lyric, Hammersmith.

In any case, I don’t need to tell you that Endgame was of course cancelled, the Old Vic was closed, everything was closed.

Some time later I received an e-mail from the Old Vic announcing that for those still with tickets for dates unplayable, they would be screening the archive recording. For me, the fact that the Beckett Estate – an estate with such an ‘iron grip’ on Beckett’s work that they had, in 1994, prevented a production of Footfalls from touring to Paris because Fiona Shaw had roamed further than the stage directions allowed or who, in 2006, issued an injunction against an Italian theatre to stop the ‘use of female actors in the two main roles’ of Waiting for Godot (‘Beckett Estate Fails to Stop Women Waiting for Godot’) – had granted permission for the theatre to screen the show, underlined the extraordinary nature of these times. These were the (dramatic) End(game) times indeed.

And so, despite some concerns that watching Endgame right now might be a little too ‘on the nose,’ we agreed to watch it online together and all settled down to do just that.

Jane Horrocks and Karl Johnson as Nell and Nagg. Endgame, Old Vic Theatre. London, 2020. Credit: The Old Vic Theatre.

Watching Endgame in lockdown was a revelation; and not simply because I was watching a play in a post-apocalyptic landscape peopled by characters who seemingly cannot leave each other and rarely leave the room, or, in the case of Nell and Nagg, their bins. ‘New Tory policy?…’ asked friend ‘B’ over text.

It was more that what had previously felt like a strange, though affecting, exercise in postmodern nihilism, suddenly felt … immediate. The striking darkness of Hamm’s demand, ‘Put me in my coffin,’ for instance, answered simply, ‘There are no more coffins,’ seemed suddenly to foreshadow a desperate COBRA meeting of 2021. What is more, Beckett’s careful attention to the minute and even mundane elements of life were no longer remote or abstract but tangible and proximate. It was as though someone had accidentally pulled the world’s focus and Beckett’s mirror (up to nature) no longer reflected obliquely but directly. Take this:

HAMM (irritably): What’s wrong with your feet?

CLOV: My feet?

HAMM: Tramp! Tramp!

CLOV: I must have put on my boots.

HAMM: Your slippers were hurting you? (Pause.)

This line has always seemed witty and wry but also strange and obscure. In lockdown 2020 it simply rang true. In a world where you can’t leave your home, you might just as well change into your boots (and forget having done so) because ‘your slippers were hurting you.’ Similarly, this:

HAMM: You haven’t put on his ribbon.

CLOV (angrily): But he isn’t finished, I tell you! First you finish your dog and then you put on his ribbon!

Hamm and Clov’s commitment to catastrophic-era crafting would make Kirstie Allsop proud. Moreover, Clov’s angry insistence that Hamm doesn’t understand the order of things – in big or small ways – reflects the frustrations of so many locked-down and locked-in relationships.

Similarly, watching Clov’s ritualistic navigation of his delimited space – up and down and up and down the ladder to the exceedingly high windows – made a new kind of sense. Clov’s methodical commitment to his repetitive tasks chimed with a newfound awareness of our own cyclical routines.

Alan Cumming as Hamm. Endgame, Old Vic Theatre. London, 2020.
Credit: The Old Vic Theatre.

As our recurring activities – opening *our* windows, making dinner, taking daily exercise – have gained an oversized importance, Clov’s weary but unvarying commitment to his own became relatable in a way I never expected. I feel echoes of Clov’s careful self-choreography every time I open the door. Indeed, taking my government-sanctioned daily exercise, feels increasingly like a high-stakes rehearsal for Beckett’s 1980s television play, Quad: a choreographed ‘dance’ in which actors cross the stage at regular intervals, walking carefully-defined paths and never touching.

Though my original plans to see Endgame at the Old Vic were frustrated – a part of that outside world we none of us can reach – the archival recording, played at home in these strange times, enabled me, to paraphrase Kent’s famous exhortation, to ‘see [it] better.’ For me, to view Endgame in these end times helped to make new sense of the Endgame and the (End) times.