The eminent theatre historian Allardyce Nicoll founded the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upo-Avon as a postgraduate centre for the study of Shakespeare and Renaissance drama. Inheriting the former headquarters of the British Council, Mason Croft, the house that once belonged to the popular novelist Marie Corelli and her partner, Bertha Vyver, the Institute opened in October 1951. In an interview shortly afterwards, Professor Nicoll, its first director, described the Institute as follows:
The students must have felt the need to start some sort of theatrical activity alongside their studies, perhaps seeing the enormous potential of the Lecture Hall for dramatic performance. The Hall is a mock Elizabethan building that was originally conceived as the dining room of Trinity College, the educational institution next door that remained open between 1872 and 1908, and that was subsequently converted into residential flats. Marie Corelli purchased the dining room soon after moving into Mason Croft in 1901, and transformed it into her music room, adding a small stage in the corner where the piano now stands, and crowding the space with all sorts of decorative and artistic objects (as can be seen in the picture). At her death in 1924 Bertha Vyver inherited everything, and by the 1930s the property had fallen into considerable disrepair. When Vyver died in 1941, she left the house and all its contents to the nation, and the British Council took over Mason Croft. The Hall started to be used as a tea room, until the University of Birmingham acquired the property and the Shakespeare Institute opened its doors. Maureen Bell has eloquently written about the history of Mason Croft here.
And so it was that two years after the foundation the Shakespeare Institute Dramatic Society was born. The inaugural production was perhaps an unlikely choice. Instead of a major Shakespeare play to start the society’s activity, the students chose A Yorkshire Tragedy, a short play then thought to be anonymous, but originally published in 1608 under Shakespeare’s name. It has since then been confidently attributed to Thomas Middleton, and is still one of the most powerful and shocking pieces of theatre of the Jacobean period. The play takes us to the house of a brutal and spendthrift man who abuses his wife, children, and servants, making their lives a living hell. Based on real events that happened in West Yorkshire in April 1605, it tells a story that is still horrifyingly relevant to the modern world.
A Yorkshire Tragedy, was performed in the Hall of Mason Croft in February 1953. The cast included Robert Loper (Husband), Carol O’Connell (Wife), and John McCabe (Master of the College), with the other parts played by Denis Hurrell, Hilary Evans, Bob Fleming, Richard O’Connell, Austin Hunt, Eric Pendry, Charles Mulraine, Terry O’Connell, Corinne Rickert, Raymond Gentle, and Elizabeth Brennan.
Robert B. Loper, who played the pivotal role of the Husband, was an American Fulbright scholar who graduated from the Institute with his PhD in 1957, having written a thesis under the title Macbeth productions at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1900-1938. After moving back to the United States, he went on to develop a remarkable stage career, playing Macbeth, Hector, and Prospero at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where he also directed 14 professional productions, including Death of a Salesman and Oedipus Rex. He also performed at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, the Seattle Repertory Theatre, the Empty Space Theatre, Intiman Theatre, and A Contemporary Theatre (ACT). But he was also a dedicated teacher, first at Stanford University, where he was appointed Head of Drama in 1963, and then, from 1968, as Master Acting Teacher at the School of Drama of the University of Washington, where he served as head of the School’s Directing programme from 1986 to his retirement in 1990. He died at the age of 75 in 2000. Jacqueline MacDonald, Shakespeare Institute alumna and current PhD researcher at the Drama department in Birmingham, studied with Robert Loper at Washington, and has said that “Bob was an incredibly gifted acting teacher and was very influential on my acting work”.
The records do not indicate, unfortunately, that the activity was continued, although I am currently conducting some research on this. The Institute was transferred to the main campus of the University in Edgbaston for economic reasons, and it was relocated from 1962 to Westmere House, where it remained for the next 17 years. Professor Stanley Wells, who studied for his PhD at Mason Croft between 1958 and 1961, says that he cannot remember any plays being performed in his time as a student in Stratford, and that Westmere did not have a suitable performance space, though a professional company sometimes performed Shakespeare plays in the summer in its garden.
According to our records, activity resumed in 1983 with the production of The Fatal Contract at Stratford’s Methodist Hall as part of the Stratford-upon-Avon Festival. But the society that performed the play was Cloak and Dagger, part of Birmingham’s Guild of Students, rather than the resident company. When Stanley Wells was appointed Director of the Institute in 1988 and he finally managed to relocate it to Mason Croft, the new and more stable part of the history of the Shakespeare Institute Players began. In December 1989 the students produced Tweflth Night, in which the Shakespeare Institute Librarian, Jim Shaw, famously played Sir Andrew Aguecheek. It was to become the first venture of an unbroken performance tradition that continues to this day.
Since then, over the last 24 years the students of the Institute have been keeping the flame alive, performing a total of 60 productions and 11 evening entertainments (see the SIP website for further details). The repertory has been very varied, especially in the early years when the menu included plays like Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, George F. Walker’s Zastrozzi or Wendy Kesselman’s My Sister in This House. Though it has included some ancient Greek drama, Restoration adaptations, and one medieval morality play, it has naturally tended to focus on Shakespeare and the other dramatists of the English Renaissance, normally at the ratio of two Shakespeare productions for one non-Shakespearean Renaissance play.
Of course, the casts and crews have consistently included people who went on to have outstanding careers elsewhere, including many eminent Shakespearean scholars: M. J. Kidnie, Jane Kingsley-Smith, Kevin Ewert, Roberta Barker, Gabriel Egan, Paul Prescott, Paul Edmondson, Elizabeth Klett, John O’Connor, Eleanor Lowe, Erin Sullivan or Will Sharpe, to name but a few.
The current members decided early on in this season that we had to mark the Players’ 60th anniversary with a new production of the play that the pioneering dramatic society performed in 1953. We asked Dr Peter Malin, long standing member of the society since his days as a PhD researcher, to direct the new production of A Yorkshire Tragedy. In his production the tale comes to life with uncommon vividness, in an intimate and intense experience for the audience.
The cast includes students from the Institute and other local actors, as the Players have always fostered an engagement with the local community by inviting Stratford actors to join their ranks. Mark Spriggs takes on the crucial and difficult role of the Husband, while Helen Osborne plays his unfortunate Wife, and Elizabeth Sharrett his Jilted Fiancée (an invented non-speaking character that haunts the new production). The cast also features Yolana Wassersug (Maid), Cassie Ash (Son), Louis Osborne (Ralph), Rachel Stewart (Principal of a College), Jen Waghorn (Olive), Jenna Owen (Sam), Charlie Morton (Gentleman), Thea Buckley (Citizen) and myself (Magistrate). Jen Waghorn also provides the musical arrangements, David Graybill is the technical director, and Emma Poltrack, the Stage Manager.
The performances will take place on 2, 3 and 4 May at 8pm, with a matinee on Saturday 4 May at 3pm. Tickets are £6 (£5 concessions)and can be booked in advance on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maureen Bell has stated that Marie Corelli “firmly insisted in her will that all actors, actresses ‘and all persons connected with the stage’ be excluded from the premises’”. She would have been horrified, perhaps, to know that her beloved music room is now the hub of a vibrant and thriving theatrical activity. But, challenging her prohibition, the current members of the Shakespeare Institute Players take great pride in being part of an illustrious tradition of theatre making. And it is in this spirit that we will be honouring our preceding generations with this tribute to their achievement in keeping our theatrical heritage alive.
José A. Pérez Díez
The programme note from the director of the 2013 production, Shakespeare Institute alumnus Dr Peter Malin:
Journalism into Theatre: A Drama-Documentary?
On 23 April 1605 Walter Calverley, a Yorkshire gentleman, killed two of his three young sons, attacked his wife and left her for dead. Taking to horse with the intention of killing his third son, a six-month old baby who was out at nurse some distance from Calverley Hall, he was thwarted when his horse stumbled and threw him. He was quickly apprehended and subsequently examined, imprisoned, and executed by “la peine forte et dure”, or pressing to death.
Calverley’s story was being told in pamphlets and ballads even before his execution. The only surviving example, dramatically titled Two Most Unnatural and Bloody Murders, tells of his betrothal to a local girl, whom he subsequently abandoned to marry a “courteous gentlewoman” closely related to his guardian in London. Whether there was an element of social coercion in this marriage is uncertain. For whatever reason, Calverley fell into a dissipated lifestyle, lost a fortune at the gaming table and began to take out his frustrations on his wife. His brother, a theological student at Cambridge, stood surety for him and was cast into prison when his debts went unpaid. Examined by the magistrate, Sir John Savile, after his arrest for the murder of his sons, Calverley claimed as a motive his wife’s frequent assertions that “the said children were not by him begotten” and that he had found himself “in danger of his life sundry times by his wife”.
A Yorkshire Tragedy was printed in 1608, claiming to be one of Four Plays in One; the others, if they ever existed, have not survived. According to the title page it had been acted by the King’s Men at the Globe, and was written by one W. Shakespeare. The second of these assertions has not survived close scrutiny, though the people of Calverley in Yorkshire remain understandably reluctant to relinquish their connection with the Bard. The claim of performance by the King’s Men may also be nothing more than a canny marketing ploy – one which I have been happy to repeat in the publicity for this production! Current scholarship has largely settled on Thomas Middleton as the author of the play.
At first glance, it seems that Middleton has slavishly followed Two Unnatural Murders in constructing the play. Much of the dialogue could be characterised as a mere versification of the pamphlet, with even stage directions picked up more or less verbatim: “she caught up the youngest”, for example, becomes “catches up the youngest”. The playwright’s skill, however, creates a spare, tight drama, alternating between tense duologues and emotionally fraught soliloquies, supported by a subtle interplay of prose, blank verse and rhyming couplets. Calverley’s behaviour is left open to a range of interpretations, from marital disharmony and social pressures to psychological imbalance and even demonic possession. Middleton surrounds his protagonist with a variety of subsidiary figures ranging across a broad social spectrum; whatever their status, however, these secondary characters are guided by a powerful and affecting moral courage which they are prepared to assert in facing up to Calverley even at the risk of their own physical safety.
It is notable that Middleton leaves the characters largely unnamed – perhaps for fear of offending Calverley’s surviving (and influential) family. One effect of this, despite the source pamphlet’s localised verisimilitude, is to turn the dramatis personae into generic figures – Husband, Wife, Son, Gentleman, Knight, Master of the College – suggestive of both the morality play tradition and the contemporary fashion for “warning” literature. These people could be us.
We have taken this feature of the text as a licence to remove the play one or two stages further from its historical and geographical origins, not concerning ourselves, for example, with fidelity to its Yorkshire setting. That, perhaps, should remain the preserve of Northern Broadsides.