150 years of drama at Radley

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Radley College Archives contain one of the most comprehensive Drama collections for any school. This is primarily due to the central role drama has played in various guises since the foundation, but also because those various guises have been exceptionally innovative. At times the school has pioneered techniques which have later been adopted countrywide, such as the work of AK Boyd and CPT Wrinch introducing Shakespeare for school boy productions. Other drama institutions have remained unique to Radley, such as the Dons plays. There have also been dramatic innovations beyond the stage, such as the Marionette Theatre and the Film and Video Units – the earliest film production dates from 1928.

William Sewell introduced Drama to the curriculum at Radley, as part of the ‘Arcadian’ aspect of life at the school – a beautiful country house setting with appropriate leisure and cultural activities. As such, drama at Radley was performed in the light-hearted spirit of all country-house drama productions, such as those described by Jane Austen in Mansfield Park, or the charades at Thornfield Hall described by Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre. John Arthur Godley describes such an event in a letter to his mother, dated Wednesday June 3rd 1857:

On Whit-Monday there was acting just like a real play. The money was got by subscriptions, the more you gave, the better place you got. There was a Platform put up in the Schoolroom [now the Library] and great curtains put up; all the desks & forms were moved away. We acted the 1st part of Henry 4th, only we had only about 15 chaps acting, and no women. The things were got from London. And we had grand Piano playing, 2 Prefects, awful swells, played duets between the scenes. It took from eight till 11.30. It was awfully jolly. There were tickets too. … I think I should like you best to send me Shakespeare’s plays on my birthday…’
[He did get a copy of Shakespeare for his birthday]

Such productions continued whilst Sewell was Warden, and intermittently under his successors, until they became a regular feature of the All Saints Day celebrations from 1880 onwards. All Saints Day was the highlight of each year. Then the whole school and many Old Radleians gathered for a chapel service, a concert, sports, a dinner, and entertainment which included scenes from Shakespeare and from Moliere (performed in French) and the Latin play. The Latin plays were produced from texts specially prepared for performance at Radley and printed for sale by Oxford University Press: examples still exist in the Bodleian Library. From 1880 until 1897 four plays were performed in strict rotation: Andria, Phormio and Adelphi by Terence or Trinummus by Plautus. On the whole, the school preferred Plautus. After seventeen years they branched out into a new repertoire: Aulularia by Plautus. The new century was celebrated by an excursion into Greek: Frogs by Aristophanes. The photographs show that the play was performed at using Clocktower as the backdrop. The specially-adapted Latin plays were now abandoned in favour of a mix of new Latin, Rudens by Plautus, and Greek: Wasps in 1905, Frogs was revived in 1906, Euripides’ satyr play Cyclops in 1908.

As now, a school play was an all-school event. In 1900, the costumes for Frogs were designed by, among others, Mrs Croome, wife of the Tutor of A Social – of Croome’s Tower fame – whilst the musicians contributed the latest contemporary piece: Sir Hubert Parry’s music specially written for an Oxford University performance in the 1890s. Frogs in 1900 was performed in the Old Gym. However, in 1904 Rudens was staged in front of Clocktower, and by 1906 Frogs had been moved to the terrace of Mansion. A full review of the first Greek play appeared in The Times for November 3rd 1900.

After 1910, a year with no play, there was just one more performance, Wasps in 1911. As World War I loomed on the horizon, comedy became inappropriate. Boys and Dons were called up to the Front. After five years of silence, in 1916 the newly created Literary Society began an annual event: the reading of a Greek tragedy in the new translations by Gilbert Murray. In July 1917 Declamations was given over to readings from Aristophanes’ Peace. From 1924, Drama stopped as an all-school production and became the preserve of RCADS, Radley College Amateur Dramatic Society, a voluntary Society for a mixture of Dons and boys.

The complete minutes of RCADS survive in the Archives. From their foundation in the mid-1920s, they performed a wide-ranging repertoire which included Shakespeare and brand-new contemporary drama which had only recently premiered in the West-End, such as The gods of the mountains by Lord Dunsany (1926), Arms and the man by George Bernard Shaw (1928) and R.U.R. by Karel Capek (1928), the Czechoslovakian play which introduced the word ‘robot’ into English. In 1929, RCADS instituted the first acting competition, which was held at irregular yearly intervals until 1937 when they changed the competition into the Radley Drama Festival. In 1939, the Junior Drama Festival was introduced, which eventually became the Haddon Cup, named after Richard Haddon, Senior Prefect and Secretary of RCADS in 1945. The most distinguished of RCADS’s productions was probably A sleep of prisoners by Christopher Fry, performed in the parish church in 1955. They also performed at the opening of the Unicorn Theatre in Abingdon.

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Radley drama at this time was under the guidance of two inspirational Dons, AK Boyd and CPT Wrinch. The greatest contribution both of them played was in creating fully staged productions of Shakespeare. These resulted in AK Boyd’s book The technique of play production, London 1934, which became a standard textbook for school drama departments across the country and in national recognition of their work which culminated in a five day conference at Stratford-on-Avon about the role of Shakespeare in schools in 1953. This work continued under PDL Way into the late 1970s.

The 1920s also saw the foundation of one of Radley’s longest-running and most fondly remembered institutions: the Dons plays. On October 31st, 1925, Common Room shared a double-bill evening’s entertainment with the school. From then until 1963 there was an annual Dons production, with two evening performances one for the school, the other for the Old Radleians. In the years before the Second World War, professionally written sketches were performed. By the 1940s these had been replaced by full-scale pantomimes, written by A.C. Rawlinson, with original music composed by ‘Ceddy’ Borgnis. There were occasional revivals of favourite revues and songs, and the flavour of the whole can be gained from the titles, such as ITDA (It’s that Don Again), Revudesdons, Dons will be dons, etc. In the 1950s T.E.E. Cocks and A.D. Caesar devised the majority of the entertainments, still in the same style. The unbroken run came to an end in 1963, but the Dons plays and revues have continued intermittently until the present. An almost complete collection of the scripts and music is in the Archives.

The school centenary in 1947 was celebrated with a pageant of the entire history of the school written and performed by RCADS. The period just after World War 2 also saw a new element in Radley life: the Marionette Society. The marionettes were introduced to Radley by Eastbourne College who brought their thriving society with them when they were evacuated to Radley in 1941. Radleians enjoyed the mix of technical innovation, drama and composition which the marionettes offered, and the society embarked on a long and illustrious career, the highlight of which was Black and white blues written and performed by Peter Cook and Michael Bawtree in 1956. They also tackled opera: The Beggar’s opera by John Gay and Bastien and Bastienne by Mozart were notable hits.

C.P.T. Wrinch also reintroduced Greek plays which became the highlight of Gaudy and were performed by the boys studying Classics rather than RCADS. Now a mix of tragedy, comedy, satyr and home grown satire was performed. In 1948, the two productions – the Greek play, Sophocles Philoctetes and RCADS performance of The admirable Crichton inspired the Dons Play, The admirable Philly ‘to everyone’s satisfaction and entertainment’. In 1951, Sophocles suffered again when the school performed Trachiniae, and the Marionette Society contributed their own version Kiss me Herky. For the next twenty-five years, throughout the increasing consumerism of the 1950s and the hippy-age of the 1960s, Radley produced a biennial Greek play which attracted reviews in The Times, and enticed eminent academics and actors to view performances. They used the entire campus: photos show performances in Chapel Quad, in front of Mansion, by College Pond, the Old Gym.

In 1981 there was a new departure for Radley drama. On the retirement of PDL Way, RCADS ceased to control the drama productions. They now became an all-school event, under the direction of Jim Hare. His innovation was to set up small studio-based productions as part of ‘additional subject drama’, alongside the major annual school play. The plays chosen continued to be cutting-edge drama, including Peter Schaefer’s Equus and The insect play by the Brothers Kapek. The most spectacular was Jim Hare’s own dramatization of Piers Paul Read’s book Alive about the survivors of the Andean air crash – Maybe tomorrow. One flew over the cuckoo’s nest was taken to the Edinburgh Fringe. Jim Hare kept comprehensive records of all his productions, which have now been donated to the Archives.

All these productions were ably assisted by the Art Department who were responsible for all scenery. The work of both Chris Ellis in the 1940s and 1950s and Charlie Musset in the 1970s and 1980s was particularly celebrated. Chris Ellis also masterminded the marionettes.

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Listing of Dramatic Productions at Radley