Pondering Historical Accuracy

Inspired by a BBC News article, our Artistic Director gives some of her thoughts on historical accuracy in drama.

History, theatre and their relationship – we’ve mentioned it here before, and probably will again, because it’s exactly what we do. So we take note when the question about the balance between them is debated in public, as it was recently in an article on BBC News.

The interesting thing is that it always seems to be an either/or discussion. “Artistic licence was favoured over historical accuracy.” “In one camp are the purists who would say if you must do historical fiction then it must be based on the fact… Then there is the second camp.. which is history is always good and what’s really important is to make people excited about history.” The phrase ‘favoured over’ implicitly suggests that one must trump the other, while the division of schools of thought into ‘camps’ posits that there isn’t a possible compromise, not to mention the implication that people won’t get excited about history if it is fact-based. The question “is it even possible to make a historical drama that is 100% accurate” – with answers given of yes and no – continues to suggest that, really, it’s not possible to responsibly chart a middle course. However, the question that isn’t being asked here is: what do we mean by accuracy? Once you start considering this, some of the either/or begins to break down.

If accuracy means that the costumes, set, and props are period appropriate: yes, that’s achievable, and if one of your production goals is to place a story in a time period, there’s not much excuse for getting that wrong carelessly, even it means that your audience will have to get used to something that looks a little bit different from their imagined ideal of that period. If accuracy means language: it may or may not be achievable. If you wanted to, say, create a play about the Roman Empire, are you going to do it in Latin? (And if you are – do you really know what the local accent sounded like?) If the goal is 100% authenticity, that’s a big hurdle to leap over, one that is automatically going to limit your audience to an extremely small number of people. If accuracy means trying to create the feeling of a period, for example in a play set in the past but made up of fictional characters: we’re moving further away from something achievable, because while you can aim to do so by putting in as many details as possible, most of us would be hard pressed to define the “feeling” of our own time, much less one we didn’t live in. If accuracy means trying to convey an idea from the past, rather than the past itself (for example, the way we approached Mankind), you simply can’t measure accuracy in yards of fabric or verb choice, and the definition of success in achieving it isn’t going to calculated in the same way.

What’s really being questioned in this argument about accuracy is what we do with plays when real historical figures are the central characters, when their lives, which we know from documentary history, are put onto the stage. And most of the argument is about whether the absolute facts are followed, in exact chronological order, in the precise locations where they were known to occur. This is where a degree of ‘dramatic licence’ becomes a point of contention.

But even here there are bigger questions that the debate tends to glide over. Let’s imagine that you’re building a production from primary source documents (such as what we’re trying to do with The Vital Spark). Are you obligated to use all of them? Do you have to depict every single known incident in a character’s known history to achieve accuracy? If the answer is no, then you’re making editorial decisions right away, and while everything might be coming from verifiable historical sources, there’s an argument to be made that you’ve already been “inauthentic”. I don’t think even the so-called purists are actually arguing that a drama need be all inclusive.

The BBC article does hit one particular point that is easy to forget: knowing the facts doesn’t mean we know the thoughts or feelings behind them. It’s an almost inevitable historical hole, and one that drama by its nature requires to be filled. So ascribing motivations and thought processes to characters, while going beyond documented fact, is unavoidable. It may open the door to charges of “inaccuracy”, but it would in most cases be equally hard to make a watertight case for an “accurate” version (as opposed to simply a different interpretation). Arguably, you can get it entirely wrong by making things up without supporting evidence or blatantly contradicting what the record indicates, but that doesn’t mean that it’s inherently wrong to try to fill in the question with educated guesses. Since intention behind action is something historians argue over all the time, I don’t think this is the flashpoint of accuracy arguments in most cases, either.

No, it’s the playing fast-and-loose with chronology and geography that seems to get people truly worked up. “That never happened”, “it didn’t happen like that” – these are the cries of the heart from historians who sit through period drama that has taken artistic licence. And I get it, because I’ve been there and done that. (I’m sure the friend who dragged me to see Titanic remembers being presented with a multi-page list of all its inaccuracies the next day.) Historians don’t want audiences to learn things wrong, to become wedded to an idea of the past that is provably erroneous. However, I also get why following history to the letter isn’t always what a writer or director does. Maybe the point they’re trying to make isn’t about history as a thing unto itself. Setting aside, for the moment, commercialism as a goal unto itself, it’s wrong to suggest that there could never be a valid reason for make some (minor) changes to a story in pursuit of a wider narrative.

So: how important is artistic licence? From the vantage point of sitting right down the binary fence of historian and director, my answer would be twofold.

First, that it varies moment to moment in any given piece, and you have to take each case separately. It’s important in that the lack of one inexhaustible definition of “accurate” means there are many different “accuracies”, and as a theatre creator you need to have the freedom to make those choices. You have to be allowed to fill in gaps, actors have to be able to imagine fully-formed characters where the documents may only give you flat facts. A more purist approach than that would be to suggest that there should be no historical theatre (or historical fiction, or even, perhaps, history with interpretation, rather than just facsimiles of historic documents). As creative people, writers and directors need to be allowed to have room to ask bigger questions – of the world, of life, of human nature – through putting things together and taking them apart, and sometimes that is the goal, not historical fidelity, even if the past is part of the question itself. If you’re honest about it to your audience (and that, to me, is a critical component of being responsible to history), there is nothing wrong with asking, What if?

For my second answer, I’m going to echo Dr Tracy Borman’s statement that “where changes are made to the facts then they should be… for a good and justifiable reason.” Otherwise why on earth are you working on a story about history in the first place? Borman adds that “change for change’s sake is irritating,” but I’d go further and say that it’s also irresponsible, both as a historian and as a director. From a director’s standpoint, “just because” is lazy, and also because it’s blatantly saying that you don’t really care about the historical aspects of your production at all. I’d like to think that HIDden’s approach to historic drama isn’t that unusual, and that other directors who work on it try not to put one aspect of their work above the other but work with them in constantly renegotiated tension. If I didn’t believe that history could stand on its own two feet as inherently dramatic, I couldn’t do my job.

If we take on historical drama as our work, we know that audiences will trust that our productions will contain at least some degree of authenticity, and so we are also taking on some degree of educational responsibility. To advertise a production as “a true story” if we have taken liberties is a disservice to everyone involved, including the people of the past whose lives we’re putting onstage. How we make those distinctions available to audience members can vary, but we should at least try to let them know what they’re getting. We should be allowed our measure of artistic licence, but all licences come with responsibility. Historic drama at its best demands that we respect both.

N.B. It is worth noting that, although the production primarily under discussion in the BBC article is one of live drama, many of the examples given in the actual debate are television series, and the goals, needs, and audiences can be radically different between the two. Neither the article nor this essay attempt to delve into them, but it’s worth considering that the answers to these questions may vary considerably with the change in medium.

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Fact versus Fiction, An Historical Quandary

Some thoughts on historical fact and fiction from our Artistic Director.

Thinking about pageants last week, and as I work on my thesis about mid-century productions of medieval plays, I am often faced with the issue of “historical accuracy”. It’s a question I’ve wrestled with for years, because my historian academic side adamantly dislikes playing free and easy with the past. In David Lowenthal’s The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, a book I highly recommend, he argues that ‘history’ is facts while ‘heritage’ is what we believe to be true of the past. From one perspective, it’s a good distinction to make; but working with historic and historical drama offers a different view.

I always say that history has the best stories. It is absolutely chock full of interesting people and events. You could spend a lifetime just reading true, well-documented historical narratives and, assuming they were well written, never get bored or feel like you were reading something obviously non-fictional. The challenge is that history is almost never simple. It’s made up of people, and their actions, and their ideas, and it’s impossible to address all of those things without complexity. Nor is history as unambiguous as we might like to imagine. It is always subject to interpretation, to the subjectivity and biases of whoever is studying or writing about it. Even if you just go back to original documents, you’re left with questions. Why did these survive? What got lost? Who wrote them, and why, and what were their biases? (For very concrete examples of these questions and how historians address them, the first chapter of Alison Weir’s The Princes in the Tower is great.) None of that is much of a problem if you’re a historian or writing a properly researched, well-documented historical study.

However, if your goal is to put a story on stage, you simply can’t address every nuance, every wrinkle, every difficulty. Things get “smoothed out”. And this is where, working in theatre, I part company with Lowenthal’s arguments. He suggests that the general attitude to those performing history (in film specifically, but I suspect theatre would be grouped in with it) is “getting things wrong is quicker, simpler, and usually makes a better story than getting them right”. He also suggests that in a lot of cases, the story is tailored to be the one the audience expect: thereby creating a work of heritage but not one of history.

It’s generally quicker – I’ll agree to that. Unless you want to write a play that will last for fifteen hours, you simply cannot address every complexity of a historical issue. (There are a fair number of historical books which took longer to research and write than the events they discuss took to happen.) Nor can all of them be staged effectively. So in one sense this does create a simplification – but it is not simplification for its own sake, or because we automatically assume that the audience needs things to be dumbed down. It’s literally about practicality. There are certainly situations where, by simplifying, we end up also taking a position about an issue or an aspect of the narrative that might be in dispute. For those of us to whom the historical part of theatre is important, though, it’s our job to make sure that we do our best to give the audience the chance to realise what we’ve done. Making up for those necessary excisisms is part of why we at HIDden try to use this space online to share some of the of thoughts behind our work, including a production’s ‘back story’. I also like to believe that our audiences are intelligent enough to know that no play is the gospel truth. I always hope we’re the spark that makes them ask the questions and want to find out more, rather than the end point of their relationship with a topic.

Does “getting things wrong… make a better story”, though? It’s not unilaterally true. For example, it has always amazed me that not a single major film drama about the sinking of the Titanic has felt that it would be easy able to stick completely to historical characters, because I think one of the reasons the world is so fascinated by that event is that there are so many structurally perfect stories attached to it. There is absolutely no need to play fast and loose and make things up. (Of course, film and theatre are quite different, with the latter arguably less reliant on a very strict formula.) It is worth remembering, thought, that writers exert an influence in their choice of what to use and what to ignore. Even verbatim works are subject to the curatorial interference of creators.

In other cases, the “wrong” is often a creative way of covering over parts of a story that are completely unknown, which is less an error and more a speculation. The Vital Spark will be a good example of this: we’re leaning as heavily as possible on documented history, but we know there will be places where an understanding of the characters, their lives, and their time period will have to be a springboard for filling in the holes. It’s also not necessary to limit that approach to gaps in our knowledge. “What if” is not just an interesting historical conundrum (there are entire series of books dedicated to potential alternative endings to historical events based around that question), it can be a good way of putting connected historical issues into juxtaposition to better understand them. This is very much an aspect of our A Journey with Jonson project. In either case, we will be quite clear, here and in other ways, that we are presenting a fiction grounded in history (this is one way we approach being Historically Informed) rather than full reenactments of actual events. For us, the fictional aspect is not about “improving” history or making a better story. It’s about asking different questions, and finding different ways to know the past, not about suggesting that the factual past is flawed as a narrative.

IN CONVERSATION: WOMEN AND THE MUSIC HALL

I recently had a long chat with Lola Wingrove, our collaborator on ‘The Vital Spark’ and an expert on women in Victorian music-hall performance. Many interesting issues were raised in this conversation, which we hope will come through in the finished work. We’ll be posting some of this discussion here, to give you some background, and also as a window into some of the things we think about when putting together a play about the past.

 

Laura Rice: Are there a lot of women in music halls at this point? Obviously we’ve mostly talked about Jenny, but you’ve mentioned Vesta Tilley, Bessie Bellwood, Marie Lloyd… are there a fair number of women doing the same thing?

Lola Wingrove: When Jenny Hill started her career, it was still a little bit rarer and she was quite pioneering in her performance style of doing a lot of political performance, but it became a really big thing. In fact, in 1891, there was a report in the Theatre and Music Hall Journal that stated in the run-up week to Christmas, out of all the sketches that were on in London at the time, there were 76 female comics starring in them, and only 74 men. There were actually more women, although not by much, it was pretty much 50-50, but a little bit more women. And when you look through the newspapers (although at that time, the male and female adverts are separated) and you look through the lists of the female comics and serio-comics, it’s huge numbers, really massive numbers. People don’t think [of them], but there actually were an awful lot of women.

LR: We have such an image of Victorians being anti women in general, but on stage in particular. I know there’s a number of really famous “legitimate”, quote, actresses around from the same period, but you don’t think of them as being an equal number, in professional performance, at all.

LW: I think the thing is, there were a lot more legitimate actresses, but they were still always thought of as being a bit loose moralled. But I think the difference with the music hall performers is about class. There are quotes at the time about platform women and suffragettes, about how it was unwomanly to be seen to be speaking in public, and this sort of idea, but a lot of the music hall performers were working class and were very poor when they started off their careers, and so in a weird sort of way, I guess they probably didn’t mind losing their reputations, they made up for it with the ammount of travel, money, and independence they could get from the music hall stage. A report from 1981 says that on average an actress in the legitimate theatre would get about two or three pounds a week, to live off, to buy costumes for the shows they were in, all that sort of thing, whereas around the same time, Jenny Hill would get about 80 pounds for twelve nights’ work, and would get lots of benefits thrown for her. She’d be given diamond jewellery, and be given all sorts of presents and things. I think women started to see that if they went on the hall stage, they could earn a ridiculous amount of money, and they had a really good say in what material they did, so although they were still looked on as being loose moralled, and having that sort of reputation, they were earning so much money and getting to travel around so much, I think they said, ‘well,  screw it.’

Again, we don’t tend to think of [women onstage], I think partially because of the fact that these women were belittled quite a bit by the press or weren’t  reported on as much by the press, and theatre historians since then haven’t really looked at them too much. But actually there were huge numbers of them doing really interesting work.

LR: And a woman was actually better off, financially at least, making a career in music hall than as a ‘legitimate’ actress?

LW: If you were good enough- Jenny Hill  got asked to perform as a ‘legitimate’ actress but she always turned those offers down, because the pay wasn’t good enough. That was the main reason she wouldn’t perform in “proper” theatre, it just didn’t meet her pay criteria.

LR: That’s fascinating, because you’d really expect that the kind of theatre higher up the social ladder would come with a better paycheque.

LW: In legitimate theatre, the women were normally just a supporting cast, there weren’t a huge amount of fantastic roles for women at that time, they were normally weak or portrayed as being hysterical. In terms of casting, [music hall] was much better- you could show off your talents. It’s Fanny Lesley, I think, who was talked about how, in the music halls, she actually got to dictate exactly what material she sang, what she did, so if she made any failures she only had herself to blame. But it’s that kind of idea, that the music hall stars didn’t want to go into the legitimate theatre, because they’d just be cast in these plays which didn’t really have any good roles for women in particular. You didn’t have that many options in legitimate theatre, while in music halls they could dictate their own material, get lots of money, and do whatever they wanted.

LR: It’s interesting, given how narrow our usual view of Victorian women and their world is, to realise that it’s both a financial decision and an artistic one, where playing music halls gives women more artistic flexibility and autonomy, and that was definitely something they wanted.

LW: That’s one of the things about Jenny Hill. It’s always made out [in the newspapers] like she had to perform because there was nothing else she could do, and it’s overlooked a lot that, actually, she always wanted to perform and it was her sort of obsession, and it was definitely her talent. She did actively look to do it. And the press tried to undermine her in lots of ways; they kept trying to pretend it was really bad for her health, and they would always call her a ‘clever little thing’, and they tried to imply that her farm in Stretham was bought for her by someone else, a secret male lover, or something like that. And therefore she would counteract it with all these adverts where she would put in exactly how much she was earning, to show people that although she was being framed in this sort of way, she wasn’t really like that, she was earning this money.

LR: So she’s really savvy about PR, and about making this a financially very rewarding career, and she’s also stubborn about having her autonomy and making sure people know about it. Such an interesting person, and she seems to go against so much of what we think is true about Victorian women. I can’t wait to get Jenny ‘back’ on the stage again!

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Conversation: Finding Performance on History’s Pages

I recently had a long chat with Lola Wingrove, our collaborator on ‘The Vital Spark’ and an expert on women in Victorian music-hall performance. Many interesting issues were raised in this conversation, which we hope will come through in the finished work. We’ll be posting some of this discussion here, to give you some background, and also as a window into some of the things we think about when putting together a play about the past.

Laura Rice: What kind of documents do you get to work with and what is your process like in trying to figure out what she did, how do you go about that, what are you working with and how do you get there?

Lola Wingrove: At the moment I have quite a widespread methodology, and my sources, they’re all really intrinsically linked. I rely an awful lot on newspapers, because by looking at how Jenny Hill advertised in newspapers and reviews, I’ve been able to plot over her whole career, where in the country she was at what time, what kind of performances she was giving, what songs she was performing in what halls at what time, a little bit [about] how successfully it went down. Reviews and adverts are really integral to at least knowing what she was and what she was doing in what year. Most of that is accessed through the British Library Newspaper Archive collection. I use them a lot.

In addition I use the newspapers for gossip columns, to find out what’s going on, and also for interviews with her, because how Jenny [told] her stories is particularly important, seeing how she showed herself in that way. But there’s obviously a huge amount of bias taken up with that, because reviewers and interviewers could change it to be what they wanted. I mean, we don’t have that scrict a demand for truth in press nowadays, but definitely at that time anything went.

Hill was also an obsessive letter writer to newspapers, so if ever they got anything wrong, she would write a letter saying, “You got this wrong, change it,” and that’s so useful. There are so many letters from her. When she became ill and couldn’t perform anymore, she just kept writing letters to them. “So, my garden’s really nice…” She was determined that no one would forget her. She seems to have said, “I will write letters and I will remind you all that I’m still here, even if I’m not performing!” So I use all the newspapers,

LR: Are there other sources of information that have been especially useful?

LW: I’ve looked a lot at the sheet music that is available [from Jenny’s repertoire], which is mainly held at the Bodelian Library, in Oxford, and with that I’m trying to analyse the sheet music cover, the illustrations, how much it cost, etc.,  in order to get an idea of what sort of audiences were hearing it and buying it. And I’m also analyzing the lyrics to find out socially what was happening, why these lyrics were particularly piognant to them at the time, and I’m actually doing some recording. I’m doing case studies of six of the songs, three for Jenny Hill and three for Bessie Bellwood, where I’m recording myself singing and performing the songs in order to get an idea of range, and how difficult some of the words would be to sing. By trying to perform it in a funny way, you kind of get ideas of how it could have worked- say, probably they put a lot of emphasis on that word, actually, because if you put emphasis on that, it means something else. So I’m using performance of sheet music in order to get a good idea of  that, and I’m actually analyzing the music itself for things like dynamics. But again, that’s kind of biased in some ways because it was for a very specific audience and could be edited, and I’ve got to acknowledge that. But when you mix the music in with the newspapers it creates something quite interesting.

I’m also doing case studies of the music halls themselves. I’ve been looking at five or six music halls that I know the case study songs were performed at. I’m finding their programmes and posters and bills and things, in order to see what kind of performers they had at the same time as Hill or Bellwood, how much their programmes costs, how much their drinks were…. The programmes also have public transport links, and how much it would cost to get from different areas, so you can get an idea of what kind of audience would have been at those halls, in order to enjoy the material that was on offer there.

And I’m also accessing the LCC, the London County Council records for- it sounds weird, but- health and safety issues. The halls all had to fulfill quite strict sort of moral and health and safety codes, and so I’m looking that up to understand where certain members of the audience were sitting, how many exits they had, how safe it was, what kind of gas lighting they’d got, or electric eventually. And so I’m using case studies of the halls to understand what songs were being performed there, what the halls were liked, what reviewers were saying about those halls, to get an idea of the space in which Hill was performing, because then as soon as you know what kind of performance space she was in then you can imagine the song being performed in that particular setup. Who was close to her, were the galleries where most of the working class people were sitting far away or close to her?

LR: I would never have thought of using those records like that! It really shows how wide a net you have to cast to really get a full picture of performances from the past.

LW: And of course there’s general social history, really, looking at how the suffrage movement was going at the time, with the suffragists- not the suffragettes at that time- and looking at how common women being able to speak their mind was at that time, things like that. By using a mixture of social history and these other documentations, it’s about getting a fully rounded idea of who Jenny Hill was. It’s all about pieceing together these otherwise very biased sort of things, but then you put them next to eachother and and compare them all, you kind of lower the bias a little bit, because one checks the other one out, so you see, well, the reviewer might have said that about this song, but clearly from the sheet music it wouldn’t have been like that at all, you can kind of move them in that way. So it’s quite a wide methodology, but that’s how it’s working at the moment.

In Conversation: The Late Victorian World of the Music Hall

I recently had a long chat with Lola Wingrove, our collaborator on ‘The Vital Spark’ and an expert on women in Victorian music-hall performance. Many interesting issues were raised in this conversation, which we hope will come through in the finished work. We’ll be posting some of this discussion here, to give you some background, and also as a window into some of the things we think about when putting together a play about the past.

 

Laura Rice: I think it’s kind of hard to get one’s head around music halls today, we just don’t have anything like it. We don’t have different theatres for different socio-economic classes. Theatre is generally thought of as a middle and upper class thing now, because of prices, and the theatre of the common, for everybody, is television and film, so we don’t have relationship with the idea that there could actually be separate theatres based on who you are.

 

Lola Wingrove: It’s quite interesting because things like film was basically what killed music halls, film and then television, and television is blamed a lot for the downfall of film nowadays, because if you’ve got it in your front room why would you bother going out. Most people seem to be staying in their houses and aren’t really interacting in the same kind of way. One of the biggest draws in music halls was their sense of community spirit and bringing everyone together and making everyone feel like they’re sort of mucking in together, so to speak. Yes, I think it’s something that’s quite foreign to us now, when we think about it, it doesn’t quite work out. It’s a really interesting theatre format, but people can’t quite understand it so much now.

 

LR: Do we have anything analogous? I feel like there are different programmes that are aimed at different groups, but it’s not quite the same in live performance.

 

LW: No. I know people [have compared] the TV show “Britain’s Got Talent” to the variety performance, because it’s the same sort of set-up of having people doing different kinds of performance, and you’ve still got that interactive quality, with people ringing in and voting and people talking about it in the street, and they’ll chat to eachother about it and read about it in the paper, so you’ve got that kind of weird community, in that it draws everybody in to talk about something in common. But one of the really great things that music halls did was actually reflect everyday life, a bit like soap operas do today, only the live format made it all even more immediate. They would have performers on stage that were performing for the people as the people you’d see selling stuff on the markets, or in the coffee shops. So although the kind of classed analogy is sort of there, it doesn’t totally work in that same sort of way. That’s why I think people have a difficulty understanding music hall.

 

LR: And the idea of variety, in a performance, because you don’t go to something where you’re going to see seven or eight different things, on potentially completely different themes in one night, we just don’t really have that anymore.

 

LW: That’s the thing, [there were] professionals going around and doing these different acts, and they would perform all across the country, so you’ve got professionals- animal trainers, acrobats, dancers, singers, comedians. And on the bills, quite often, especially towards the late Victorian period, the music halls would normally include a section from a ballet or an opera or something, so we tend to think of music halls as being these sort of rowdy, working-class kind of thing, and [we often think they were] a suppression, a way of keeping the working class away from the fine arts, but it wasn’t that at all. I mean, they were much better versed in ballet and opera and things like that than a lot of us probably are today, because of the fact that they would see it on a regular basis and get all these different acts. And we tend to think of the halls as being quite xenophobic because of the amount of patriotism and stuff like that, but for a lot of the halls, they actually employed lots of different acts from all over Europe, and there was a cultural exchange happening through the halls, which is quite often neglected and ignored as well, so it was quite a sort of novel and interesting experience. There are some acts that are just a little bit weird. Like, there was one guy and his whole act was just jumping up and down on the spot. No one has quite worked out why that was so popular, but he apparently just jumped up and down and everyone thought it was wonderful. But that’s the problem with performance history and archives, you can’t quite see how he did it in a way that was so hilarious.

 

LR: Where do their performers fit into the bigger arts picture of the times, and into society on the whole? I assume Jenny Hill wasn’t someone Queen Victoria was going to invite over for coffee, but maybe she would, I don’t know!

 

LW: Well, not Hill, but [her contemporary] Bessie Bellwood, she was invited by Princess Louise, by royal appointment, to sing one of her songs, because she’d heard the servants singing it and enjoyed it, so she invited Bessie Bellwood to go and sing to her. That’s how far it could go, if you had a really good, catchy song! Even royalty could invite you to perform.

I think at that particular time, because this is long before the royal command performance occurred, a lot of the middle and upper classes just tended to think of the performers as low and just weren’t particularly interested in them. They’d almost be sort of our idea of the reality show stars today, where if you were middle or upper class you’d probably have heard of Jenny Hill, and there are certain songs that you might even buy to play on your piano by her, but you wouldn’t exactly think of her in particularly high esteem. However, amongst the working classes… That is arguably a much wider base, because most of the classes would go to the halls, that was their main source of entertainment. Especially in the winter time when at home it would be very dark or you wouldn’t have enough money to get a fire going, you could go to these halls which were all beautiful and glittery and well-heated, so people would often go to the halls several times a week.

[With] that kind of audience base, performers like Jenny Hill were exceptionally well known, I mean they were really, really hugely famous, to the extent that when they died, in the funeral procession, they would have ten thousand people lining the street for them, these sorts of amounts. Definitely for Hill. Marie Lloyd was a very famous, she had twenty or thirty thousand lined up, lining the streets for her. So they were hugely popular and influential, with women in particularly. [Women would be] waiting for them backstage to give them presents. They had a lot of groupies, a lot of people were really sort of obsessed with them, and they were the stars who were used the most for advertising. They were the ones who were put onto cigarette cards or used to advertise [other things], in Vesta Tilley’s case it was clothes. And advertising gives you some power as well, so they were enormously famous, probably just because of that wide base, probably even better known that some of the legitimate performers, who arguably had the smaller audience base really.

 

LR: Is there any permeability between those two worlds theatrically?

 

LW: There was. Each year for pantomime the legitimate theatres stole a lot of the music hall and variety performers for their pantomimes, in order to get quite a lot more people in, and so even the middle and upper classes would have seen Jenny Hill in her numerous amounts of pantomime, so they did cross over to the mainstream theatres there, and there’s a lot of evidence of music hall performers being asked to perform, because even the legitimate theatres, they’d have a main play, but they’d quite often have a little bit of variety warm-up stuff before the main event happened, so they’d get performers like Jenny Hill to perform there. So there were definitely cases of that. And also, both amongst opera and ballet stars, there’s a lot of them finishing performing, and then going around to a hall around the corner and deciding to have a sort of knees-up but still perform again, and so there was quite a lot of moving across in that way. I don’t think there were so many legitimate actress who’d want to be seen on the music hall stage, so there’s a bit less in terms of cases of it going that way, but definitely in the other way it did work, and in fact I know they often said with Jenny Hill, that she was good enough and had been invited to perform in legitimate theatres as an actress.

 

 

The Vital Spark: A New Project

We’ve hinted at new things on the HIDden horizon. One of them is, on the surface, a big departure for us- but it’s very exciting. This is a new piece of drama, tentatively titled The Vital Spark. It’s the story of the life of Jenny Hill, the first woman to be recognised as a “comedienne”. Hill was a star of the late-Victorian music hall, who, like many performers since, combined humour, interesting characters, and a certain degree of social commentary.

Hill is the thesis subject of Lola Wingrove, a PhD candidate at the University of Bristol. I first heard Lola speak about women’s performance in music halls last year, and right away I knew there was a play in there waiting to happen. We chatted after her lecture about the idea of using her work on reviving Hill’s repertoire to create the basis for a play about the life of this remarkable Victorian performer. And now, in collaboration, we’re doing just that.

A new play… Victorians… on the surface, it’s quite different from what HIDden has done thus far. This project goes to the heart of our interests: a fascinating personality, and interesting story, and one that speaks to a specific aspect of the past, one that you might not know very well. Certainly it’s quite new to us! Moreover, it’s taking us all right back to the archives; there are no scripts left of Jenny Hill’s performances, and of course there is no film, so the challenge, to Lola as the writer and to the HIDden team in putting the production together, is to use original material to try to imagine what happened. As with our medieval productions, we know we’re not going to “authentically” “recreate” anything. What we’re hoping to do is to use the evidence that history has left us to create something new, something that will show you a bit of theatre history that you haven’t had the chance to see before.

Although we’re still in the early stages of this project, we’ve already learned quite a lot. In the weeks ahead we’ll have more interesting things to share with you: a bit about Jenny Hill and her life and times; the Victorian theatre; and just how we’re approaching the challenges of creating a new piece from historic documents. I can’t wait to see how it all comes together- it’s going to be an exciting journey!