I have spent the last week or so in New Haven, Connecticut, alternately attending the NEASECS and delving into manuscript material at the Beinecke Library. I’m going to publish a few posts bringing together the various things I discovered there, but this time I want to offer a kind of preface.
The Beinecke Library was built in 1963, and, to be frank, is not a particularly beautiful building when seen from the outside, putting one in mind of a spaceship from a rather uninventive alien civilisation. This is a slightly unfair judgement, though. On the outside, the play of light over the polygonal façade is nice (if there’s enough sun) and, unlike many other buildings of this era, it does not clash too horribly with the architectural styles of its neighbours. Further, the interior of the building is extraordinary. Although it’s not immediately evident, the walls of the library are made of marble, so that sunlight can penetrate through and cause the walls to glow. This faint luminescence is beautiful, and forms a great backdrop to what immediately draws the eye as you go through the door: a giant cube made of glass and filled with thousands of ancient books. Electric lights illuminate the cube’s interior and cause the edges of the glass to sparkle; at the same time, the warm colours of the leather bindings and yellowing pages soften the otherwise harsh impression of the glass, light and marble. The overall effect put me in mind of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Thankfully, the above-ground parts of the Beinecke serve as an exhibition space, and the reading rooms, nicely carpeted and with plenty of natural light are found underground, gathered around a light well. To these rooms, and with the help of the wonderfully nice Beinecke staff (who even remembered my name), I ordered three sets of manuscript material:
- OSB MSS 57: The William Smith Papers
- OSB MSS 125: David Garrick Papers from the Thomas Rackett Collection
- OSB c442: Richard Warner, Glossary Notes for an Edition of Shakespeare
These items will provide the material for the next few posts, so I thought I’d finish this one with a few snippets of things that won’t make it into the thematic accounts I’m preparing.
First, I wanted to mention the lists of characters I found in the William Smith and David Garrick papers. They provide an interesting overview of each actor’s particular ‘line’, and, while this isn’t enormously useful for such a protean actor as Garrick, it does help one grasp what kind of a performer Smith was. One notes that he graduated from young male lovers (Florizel, Romeo) to statesmen and monarchs (Leontes, Coriolanus, Lear), but that he never played the clown. This fits well with his nickname of “Gentleman” Smith. One can also, however, reverse the process and consider the casting of the actor as an interpretative act: if ‘Gentleman Smith’ plays Leontes, for example, it would suggest that Leontes’s madness is not going to degenerate too far in the throes of jealousy. This is even clearer, and more suggestive with a cast list for Mrs Lovemore, included in the Garrick papers. Lovemore seems to have stuck to noble ladies, playing Cordelia in Lear, Queen Anne in Richard III and Gertrude in Hamlet. This trio is curious in that it suggests that Gertrude was played sympathetically at Drury Lane, more naïve, more like Cordelia than modern interpretations. Of course, it could equally suggest that Cordelia was more like Gertrude, but I find this less likely.
On a completely different level, I stopped halfway through reading the correspondence of William Smith when I saw a reference to footpads operating around Puckeridge. This small and entertainingly named village is where I grew up, and it was very strange to see an account of it in a letter sent over two hundred years ago. I reproduce the section in question here, and add it to my small collection of literary references to my childhood home, the others being in Samuel Pepys’ Diary and The Knight of the Burning Pestle.
One final miscellaneous thing, which is connected to the previous item by the way in which archival work can occasionally trigger emotional responses. Folder 84 of the William Smith papers was unusually fat, and, on opening it, I discovered that it was because it contained locks of Smith’s hair, each cut and carefully wrapped at various points in his theatrical career. I didn’t remove the wrappings (I don’t think I was meant to), but I still felt a chill to be holding such an ephemeral part of the body of a performer, preserved when all but his bones will now have rotted. Keeping locks of hair was nothing unusual at the time (there are locks of Keats’ hair in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge), but the fact that we no longer really do this made the moment all the stranger. At one other time, I felt something similar to this, which was when I found a manuscript epitaph for the actor Gibson, in the hand of David Garrick. It reads as follows:
Gibson from Sorrow rests beneath this Stone,
An Honest Man, belov’d as soon as known;
Howe’er defective in the mimic art,
In real Life he justly play’d his part;
The noblest character he acted well,
And Heaven applauded when the Curtain fell.
Of course, the power of this passage is that Garrick himself was an actor, and so in writing for Gibson may well have thought of himself and how he wished to be remember. He was certainly preoccupied with what we would now call his image whilst he lived.
Not to end on too sad a note, here’s another manuscript poem by Garrick, evidently dashed off to amuse his friends. It’s called ‘Upon Mrs Hale calling Hampton Paradise’, ‘Hampton’ being Garrick’s country retreat.
Throw off, dear Hale, in paradise,
The coverings of mode & vice,
They are not worth the keeping,
In Eve’s first purity be seen,
Nor let a figleaf intervene
To spoil your Adam’s keeping.