Harold Pinter at the RSC (Part 2): Reflections on the Archive
One of the consistent pleasures of research into the production histories of Pinter’s theatrical work for this project has been the opportunity to learn from and work with the archivists and librarians at different institutions that hold rich and varied material connected with Pinter’s expansive career. Of course, as with any research strategy – particularly those engaged in revisiting or reassessing traces of past performances – archival research is not without its challenges, both practical and ideological.
Drawing on the work of theorists such as Jacques Derrida (Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (1995)) and Michel Foucault (Archaeology of Knowledge (1997 )) Helen Freshwater notes that, in the context of the rise of New Historicism and Cultural Materialism, archival research (and by extension the archive itself and the items contained therein) has enjoyed renewed interest and sustained ‘allure’ (Freshwater, ‘The Allure of the Archive’, 2003). For Freshwater, this poses the danger of a return to the problematic practices of ‘positivistic authentication and pseudo-scientific legitimization’, that is: treating what we find in the archive as ‘true’ or ‘factual’, as empirical ‘proof’ or otherwise ‘fixed’ in terms of its meaning (Freshwater, p. 730.). This position risks negating the complex systems of access, curation, interpretation, subjectivity and reception that necessarily underpin archival practice from both the point of view of the archivist and the researcher.
In turn, these critiques of the archive and its attendant practices has led to what Kate Dorney, former Curator of Modern and Contemporary Performance at the Victoria & Albert Museum, has called a ‘hostility towards the archive’ (Dorney, ‘The Ordering of Things: Allure, Access, Archives’ (2010)). One of Dorney’s key interventions in her essay is to ‘claim for workers in the archive […] a degree of awareness of theoretical critiques of archive use that shows an understanding both of the agency of the archive worker and of the implications that agency holds’ (Dorney, p. 20.). For Dorney, this is not simply a theoretical provocation but a call to arms for best academic practice: ‘there should be a way of writing us [people who work in archives] into history and theory that doesn’t relegate us to archons or assume that we’re ignoramuses. Theatre historians have always been happy to accommodate the opinions and anecdotes of theatre workers in the shaping of their histories […] isn’t it time someone did the same for the archive and its workers?’ (Dorney, p. 35).
As mentioned in previous blogs, since joining the project my primary focus has been on Pinter’s relationship with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) which has involved regular visits to the company’s archival collections held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT) in Stratford-upon-Avon. In the spirit of Dorney’s intervention, as I reflect back on the work undertaken in the RSC’s archives, I wanted to include the perspectives of some of the team members there on the material connected to Pinter’s life and work, specifically Jim Ranahan, Collections Archivist at the Birthplace Trust Library and Archives, and Paul Edmondson, Head of Research and Knowledge at the Birthplace Trust.
Pinter at the Birthplace Trust Library and Archives: An Archivist’s Choices
Housed in the Shakespeare Centre in Henley Street, the majority of SBT’s collections are owned by either SBT itself, the RSC or other depositors. According to Ranahan, ‘across these collections are distributed rich material relating to Harold Pinter, his work and the world he inhabited. Needless to say, Pinter’s productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company features strongly in the RSC archive, but there is also much of interest relating to Pinter in the other collections at Henley Street’.
For Ranahan, it is this wider range of material that goes beyond items connected to specific productions that is most engaging, commenting ‘[m]y personal interest is in Pinter the worker, who made his own way in the world. I naturally gravitate towards items providing background context.’ As a result of this, one of his favourite items from the collections is, ‘Mac, a memoir by Harold Pinter, published in 1968 (reference 83.6 McMaster / PIN). This recorded Pinter’s time in Ireland in the 1950s, as a jobbing actor touring with Anew McMaster’s Shakespearean Repertory Theatre. Insights gained at this time of staging Shakespeare in fields and on village greens prepared Pinter for the “stripped back” productions with which he later built his reputation’.
As well as published works by Pinter like Mac, Ranahan also emphasises the usefulness of a file of ‘Press Cuttings, Theatrical Biography: Harold Pinter’, an artificial collection, compiled over the period 1995 – 2008 (reference GL5/83.6 / Pinter, Harold): ‘Displaying all the arbitrariness associated with Ephemera collections, this compilation of news cuttings provides fascinating snippets. Whilst having an RSC focus, glimpses of other aspects of Pinter’s career are offered’.
Pinter on the Move: Theatregoround
Alongside extensive material connected to the mainstage success stories that mark Pinter’s relationship with the RSC (including annotated prompt books, programmes and productions images, for example), the RSC’s collections at SBT also hold material related to other small-scale regional touring productions. As Edmondson notes the ‘Harold Pinter papers at the Shakespeare Centre remind us of his status as a new writer. He was cheap to put on [both on tour and the mainstage], and the Royal Shakespeare Company needed his small casts for their then up-and-coming Theatregoround offering. Pinter’s Stratford-upon-Avon archive shows his work in community-based contexts years before he became the Nobel Laureate.’
One case in particular which I noted in my first blog post on Pinter at the RSC concerns the 1967 production of The Dumb Waiter as part of Theatregoround’s tour of the Midlands, a glimpse of which is captured in a wonderful series of rehearsal images in SBT’s holdings. Following up on material connected with this production in the Theatregoround Collection, I came across a letter from a Mr Howard Gilbert (published in Adult Education in 1967) reflecting on three visits by Theatregoround to the North Havering College of Further Education. In it, he recounts how,
‘In some strange way these ‘bare board’ presentations seem to stir people more than the most slick and polished of performances. One student said to me afterwards: “With a company like that, who wouldn’t go to see Shakespeare?” Another comment upon the same lines was: “I didn’t like those Pinter plays when they were broadcast, and I very nearly stayed away, but I’m glad I came”. By the same token, it seems to me that Shakespeare is toppled from his artificial, scholastic pedestal and Pinter from the aura of preciousness which is partly his popular image, both to be set upon real platforms as chroniclers of human stories.’
In contrast to critics’ positioning of Pinter as part of the bourgeoning Theatre of the Absurd or the preserve of an intellectual metropolitan elite, testimonies like this suggest that in framing Pinter’s work differently, in taking it on the road and into local communities, other impressions or responses might be generated. As this early Theatregoround flyer from the archives makes clear, addressing problems of access to the theatre and attracting new audiences was at the heart of this initiative.
For me, the dual position of Pinter’s work as both main-stage success story and part of early audience outreach initiatives is at the heart of what I’ve come to think of as the paradox of Pinter at the RSC. The company is both a key agent the consolidation and acceleration of Pinter’s stage career, arguably contributing to the ‘aura of preciousness’ and ‘popular image’ that Gilbert identifies. At the same time, his work also lends itself to the small-scale, stripped back performance conditions of the itinerant Theatregoround, an initiative which explicitly positions itself in opposition to the supposed class barriers that arguably prevent people from accessing the mainstage, London-based shows that major theatrical companies like the RSC produce.
That both these contrasting readings of Pinter’s work and position within the RSC can be gleaned from the same archive is testament to both Freshwater’s cautioning of treating archival traces as somehow ‘fixed’ in terms of their meaning, but also to Dorney’s celebration and defense of both the curatorial practices of the archivists and the joy to be found in archival ‘stuff’. For Dorney, ‘[a]rchives and collections offer space for a quest to pursue ideas and narratives, for speculation, contemplation and, occasionally, reward. Museums, libraries and archives exist in order to house the stuff of the past and collect the stuff of the future [and] the stuff of performance.’ (Dorney, p. 22, emphasis in original). This has certainly been my experience during days spent in the Birthplace Trust; a collection and team of archivists and librarians who welcome speculation and contemplation and who are happy to share in the thrill of ‘reward’ when, at the end of a long day of sifting through stuff, a new idea sparks, a fresh insight is gleaned, or an accepted notion is challenged.
To learn more about the collections at the Birthplace Trust, visit their online catalogue at http://collections.shakespeare.org.uk/. Access to the records can be arranged by contacting email@example.com. My sincere thanks to Jim and Paul for offering their thoughts and for allowing me to reproduce them here.