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The irresistible Samuel Foote

Found- in the The common-place book of literary curiosities, remarkable customs, historical and domestic anecdotes, and etymological scraps by Rev. Dr. Dryasdust, of York. (London: John Bumpus 1825) these amusing anecdotes about Samuel Foote (1720 – 1777) the British dramatist, comic actor and theatre manager. Probably the best known quotation associated with him is a put down of an unnamed ‘law lord’. Foote said of him- ‘What can he mean by coming among us? He is not only dull himself, but the cause of dullness in others.’ Dr. Dryasdust provides six anecdotes about Foote. The first concerns Samuel Johnson, who tried very hard not to be amused by him..the last, where he messes up his lines in Hamlet, has the spirit of Tommy Cooper or Stanley Unwin. His Othello was apparently a ‘masterpiece of burlesque..’

1. Life's a poor player.

"Dr Johnshon said, 'The first time I was in company with Foote, was at Fitzherbert's. Having no good opinion of the fellow, I was resolved not to be pleased; and it is very difficult to please a man against his will. I went on eating my dinner pretty sullenly, affecting not to mind him; but the dog became so irresistibly comic, that I was obliged to lay down my knife and fork, throw myself back in my chair, and fairly laugh out. Sir, he was irresistible!"

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Famous people from Stevenage (2) Edward Gordon Craig

The only other one appears to be the racing driver Lewis Hamilton, who was really born in Tewin, a few miles away, though some sites will tell you differently. According to the site devoted entirely to famous Stevenage people, most of the other contenders are bit players on soap operas or models, although it is not specified that the one decent footballer amongst them, Manchester United’s Ashley Young, actually came from the town.

Anyway, it can truly be said that Edward Gordon Craig (1872 – 1966), the eminent man of the theatre, designer of stage sets etcetera, was indeed born in Stevenage, long before the ancient Georgian coaching town had a bright, spanking New Town tacked onto its southern end. The illegitimate son of the famous actress Ellen Terry and architect Edward Godwin, it was almost inevitable that he would make his name as a stage designer, with his radical ideas of neutral non-representational sets and use of top-lighting. This photo (to follow) comes from the same archive of press photos featuring Herbert Read, Stephen Spender, Harold Nicholson and Desmond MacCarthy that inspired previous Jots– so one must assume that it too belongs to the Sunday Times Book Exhibition of 1936.

One extraordinary fact about Craig is that although he lived to be 94, all his most significant work was done before the age of 40—that is, before 1912. [RR]

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Stephen Pribil—the Invisibility Man

Here are three photographs out of a possible six from the photo-archive of the famous newspaper  El Mundo of Argentina. Interestingly, they are stamped 1st April 1935. Now, I don’t know if the Spanish, or indeed the Argentinians, reserve the 1st of April for tricks, leg-pulls, spoofs, scams or other deceptions, but if Dr Pribil, a Hungarian oculist, was deliberately playing a trick on journalists with his demonstration of ‘Invisibility  Rays’, then he certainly went to a lot of trouble to do it.

According to the typewritten labels on the back of each photograph Pribil placed three objects—a teddy bear, a bronze statuette and an opaque china vase -- in his apparatus—basically a wooden box fronted by a picture frame behind which is a sort of slated affair. Out of the back of this box electric cables are connected to a supply. Unfortunately, the two photos showing how the objects gradually fade away are missing, but the last photo does show that all the objects have now disappeared.’ They are in the same place, perfectly tangible ‘, the caption points out, ‘but are completely invisible’.

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Young England – the worst play ever?

Found - a 1935 theatre programme for Young England, a play by Walter Reynolds often cited as the worst play ever. Nevertheless it was a great success and some people saw it 20 times. We covered it pretty thoroughly at a posting at bibliophile site Bookride. We had found a copy of the book and catalogued it thus:

Young England is a now uncommon book  and of interest to theatre collectors and connoisseurs of the odd and the zany. Reynolds appears to have been a sort of Amanda Ros of the theatre--so very bad that he is good. Young England (Walter Reynolds) Gollancz, London 1935.  8vo. pp 288. Frontis portrait, 5 plates. A play in two periods. This play had an unlikely success in the 1930s rather similar to the fictitious 'Springtime for Hitler.' It was so appallingly bad that audiences came along in their droves for over 300 nights to shout amusing remarks and generally revel in its ghastliness. The frontis portrait of the Reverend Walter Reynolds shows a stern Scottish type who apparently would walk up and down the aisles of the theatre during performances telling people to be quiet. Quite scarce.'

What emerges from contemporary reviews is that the actors in this terrible play co-operated with the audience and adapted lines and action according to shouts from the audience, some of whom were fuelled by cocktails which were so popular in the 1930s…In one performance the villain, when led away by the police, pauses to say "Foiled!" He was almost licked one night when the crowd shouted not only "Foiled!" but "Baffled!" "Beaten!" "Frustrated!" "Outwitted!" "Trapped!" "Flummoxed!" He waited until the wits were through, then hissed: "Stymied!"

The programme includes "…a short letter from the author of Young England to his old friends, the theatre-going public."

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‘We could, I suppose, fall back on a woman…’

‘We could, I suppose, fall back on a woman…’

The words of John W Carter, scholar, bibliophile, author of the excellent ABC for Book Collectors, and sometime head of Charles Scribner’s Rare Book Department in London. He was discussing with the expert on British theatre, Ifan Kyrle Fletcher, the problem of finding someone eminent enough to open the National Book League’s exhibition on the British Theatre in October 1950 now that John Gielgud had declined the invitation.

From the correspondence that has come to light recently in a file of letters, Carter, having rejected the not very glamorous Ralph Richardson as a candidate, and having dismissed T.S. Eliot out of hand, for some reason, seems indeed to have turned to a woman in the shape of Peggy Ashcroft ( ‘the best actress in England’), who politely declined. Her explanation was that she always hated ‘making speeches‘ and that anyway she was committed to going on tour with the Old Vic on October 16th. Carter then seemingly wrote to the glamorous Fay Compton, who also appears to have said no. Luckily for Carter, the comparatively youthful Alec Guinness, despite being involved with a film at the time, accepted the invitation. [RR]

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John Osborne observed in 1959

Reading Which of Us Two? The Story of a Love Affair (Viking, London 1990).It is the record of a 'youthful, illicit and intense' relationship between John Tasker (1933 – 1988) the theatre director and Colin Spencer (born 1933) artist and writer. Spencer uses a  collection of letters the lovers wrote to each other (his were returned after John Tasker's death) and considers the relationship and why he 'murdered its future'. Spencer makes acute and amusing comments on literary figures including John Osborne (whose library we bought last year). This entry was starred by Osborne in his copy:

17.iii. 59. Yesterday I began drawing the great Mr Osborne, tall, thin, spectral: in black skin-tight trousers that showed a cute bottom and a huge lunch. And camp, my dear – not 'arf.  And the musical, my dear, cor that's a queer dish too, everybody changes their sex halfway through and deliciously lovely Adrienne Corri grows hair on her chest. Most peculiar: he was moving about so much, it's only the second week of rehearsals...though I did some lightning things with a brush, it just won't do so I'm going back after Easter and try some more. He has a curiously camp voice and he appears to stare at one with his teeth...

Colin Spencer says of this letter:

The John Osborne musical was of course The World of Paul Slickey, soon to become the only commercial failure of his early years. [We]admired Look Back in Anger, our generation felt that Osborne encapsulated the rage we all felt over the limitations of the British theatre.Yet like so much of the later Osborne the play now seems an hysterical diatribe, the characters thin and invalid,the plot negligible..it was brilliant journalism.. masquerading as theatre.