‘barren of all interpretative comment’

Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.
Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.
I love order. It’s my dream. A world where all would be silent and still, and each thing in its last place, under the last dust.[1]

[Samuel Beckett, Endgame]

By way of a sequel to Callan’s recent post about J.O. Halliwell-Phillips and the place of the fragment, excerpt and ‘scrap’ in theatre history, I want to introduce here another model for doing theatre history and to think about what happens if we don’t excerpt but attempt to present complete sets of documents. My case study is the published works of Charles William Wallace and the archive of research materials put together by Wallace and his wife, Hulda Berggen Wallace. Where Halliwell-Phillips offers ‘scraps’, the Wallaces offer apparent completion, but their practice provokes as many questions as that of their predecessor. Their story involves long, hard years of archival toil, feuds with rival theatre historians such as C.C. Stopes or Albert Feuillerat, and – at the last – a search not for documents but for oil…

Charles and Hulda Wallace carried out their last spell of research in the London archives just over a century ago, in 1916. Although nominally based at the University of Nebraska, where Charles held a post as Professor of English, they had lived in London since 1909 and had worked regularly in its archives since 1904. Hulda was Charles’s principle research assistant and her hand is everywhere in their collected papers: in research notes, as the main transcriber of original documents, and as an editor of Charles’s often clotted prose. Charles describes her in the dedication to one of his books as ‘Companion and Fellow in Research’. In twelve years of intensive research, the Wallaces combed through thousands of catalogued and uncatalogued records, discovering a mass of important material relating to Shakespeare and the early modern stage. The most famous is the lawsuit between Stephen Bellott and Christopher Mountjoy, in which Shakespeare appeared as a witness, which they found in the (still) uncatalogued section of the Jacobean records of the Court of Requests, and which was the subject of Charles Nichols’s recent book Shakespeare on Silver Street. You can see the complete set of documents in Shakespeare Documented; including the set of depositions that includes Shakespeare’s testimony.

wallaces in pro ostler heminges

Charles and Hulda Wallace inspecting the Ostler-Heminges documents in the Public Record Office. Reproduced in J.W. Robinson, ‘Shakespeare and Nebraska: Charles William Wallace, 1865-1932, and the “Great Index of the World”’, Nebraska History 60 (1979), 1-20.

Charles was an internationalist by temperament, a man who undertook graduate studies at Universities of Heidelberg and Freiburg im Breisgau and was published by Englische Studien and the Jahrbuch der Deutschen Shakespeare-Gesellschaft; his papers include plans for an international Shakespeare research institute and an outline of the ‘Foundations of Government Based on Ideals of Human Rights’, which he planned to send to President Woodrow Wilson.

After the Wallaces left London in autumn 1916, Charles’s career took an unexpected turn. He spent much of 1916-17 on a lecture tour of the US, using the popular new technology of the lantern slide, commemorating the three hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and raising money to support his research. In 1918-19 he was on leave from Nebraska yet again, now in pursuit of another source of financial support, looking for oil on land in Wichita Falls. In May 1919 he struck oil, and he appears to have spent the rest of his life developing his find. Although he wanted to resume his research and was planning to return to London, he fell ill before he could do so, and died of cancer in 1932. Hulda died in 1958 and the Wallaces’s papers arrived at the Huntington Library as the gift of her sister, Virginia E. Berggen, in 1962.[2]

The Wallaces’s archive also offers a more inclusive history of the theatre than the one that we see in E.K. Chambers’s monumental 1923 work, The Elizabethan Stage, or similar projects, one that is in tune with recent attempts by theatre historians such as William Ingram to connect the theatrical engagements of early modern individuals with other aspects of their lives. Once they had the name of someone involved with the theatre, the Wallaces would collect other references to them, such as lawsuits in which they appeared as plaintiff, defendant or witness; taxation records; and wills. And their research went beyond these individuals and into early modern culture more broadly when they researched the environs of the playhouses (generally in attempts to pin down their locations) or sought to compare Shakespeare’s signature with those of his contemporaries, recording in the process the names, ages, occupations and signatures of many people who would otherwise be lost in the uncatalogued records of the National Archives. They also collected materials not directly connected with the theatre: libel cases from the Court of Star Chamber for a collection of verse libels that they were apparently planning; materials on early America and the ancestors of the founding fathers. They recorded material that might connect Shakespeare’s plays to broader social and cultural histories, or illuminate particular allusions within the plays – for instance, some of their notes record material on Aleppo, alluded to in Macbeth and Othello, while others cover terms used to describe mental illness, relevant to Hamlet.

Charles Wallace published two books, both focusing on the early modern children’s companies: The Children of the Chapel at Blackfriars, 1597-1603 (1908), with its weighty set of subtitles, Introductory to The Children of the Revels: Their Origin, Course and Influences: A History Based Upon Original Records, Documents and Plays: Being a Contribution to Knowledge of the Stage and Drama of Shakespeare’s Time, and The Evolution of the English Drama up to Shakespeare with a History of the First Blackfriars Theatre: A Survey Based Upon Original Records Now for the First Time Collected and Published (1912). The second book is an invaluable resource for the Before Shakespeare project, and Charles’s work was groundbreaking in its attempts to bring together a wide range of documentary materials, and in his and Hulda’s scrupulous textual approach to their various kinds of evidence.

The same care is evident in his other publications, most of which are either editions of primary documents, many published in the University of Nebraska’s own Studies series. He also wrote more popular pieces for periodicals such as The Times and The Athenaeum, announcing and describing his discoveries. He was working on three monographs in the mid 1910s: a comprehensive study of the children’s companies, covering the entire period from the early sixteenth century to the nursery theatres of the Restoration, of which The Children of the Chapel and The Evolution of the English Drama were tasters; a history of the Chamberlain’s/King’s Men; and a biography of Shakespeare. The papers at the Huntington include detailed but incomplete drafts of the King’s Men book and some material for the children’s companies book, but none of these books were ever finished.

Charles’s publications thus include both narrative history and the primary materials on which he planned to base such a history, in addition to what we might now think of as public engagement or impact work. It is hard to underestimate the utility of the Wallaces’ transcriptions of material from lawsuits, especially because some of the materials that they consulted are now in a worse state than they were a century ago. Yet these publications are also frustrating because they reveal and obscure simultaneously – although they provide full transcriptions they don’t always provide catalogue numbers, either because Charles was trying to hide his tracks from rivals such as Stopes or Feuillerat or because the cataloguing systems of the Public Record Office (now The National Archives) were in a state of flux in the early twentieth century.

As their research notes repeatedly demonstrate, the Wallaces were passionately committed to the task of interpretation, but in Charles’s essays it is more often than not refused or deferred in the interests of putting the reader to work. To give just one example, in 1910 he published three sets of documents from the Court of Requests in a work titled ‘Shakespeare and his London Associates’: the Bellott-Mountjoy case; a lawsuit in which John Witter sued John Heminges and Henry Condell over a share in the lease of the Globe estate; and Robert Keysar v. Richard Burbage et al., which concerns the lease of the Blackfriars playhouse.[3] In his general preface Charles declares that ‘the items of fact must be gleaned from the documents themselves’ (2 [262]), and he makes similar assertions in the prefaces to each set of documents. ‘That the reader may have free and independent range, the records are printed here in extenso, barren of all interpretative comment’ (4 [264]); ‘It is not my present purpose to analyse nor even to suggest lines of analysis of these documents. They will tell various stories to various interpreters according to the information, bent, and analytical power brought to the study of them’ (47); ‘I do not wish to verge upon analysis of the records, nor even to attempt to suggest the new items of fact. That must be deferred to later publications’ (79 [339]).

‘They will tell various stories to various interpreters…’ For all his talk of scientific rigour, Charles was aware that theatre history is a series of narratives pieced together from incomplete and imperfect evidence – working as he did with the scholarship of the forger John Payne Collier, the arch excerpter J.O. Halliwell-Phillips and the cavalier F.G. Fleay, he could not be unaware of the more equivocal aspects of the historian’s desire for order. His refusal to analyse is suggestive, especially given that his and Hulda’s archive makes clear the extent of his knowledge and the additional evidence that he could have brought to bear on these cases. Yet the very fact of his discovery of the materials printed in ‘Shakespeare and his London Associates’ has had a lasting effect on not only the interpretation of the documents but also their physical condition and their very location within the archive. When the curators at the Public Record Office were made aware of these three lawsuits, they removed them from their respective places among the uncatalogued records and gave them their own section, now numbered REQ 4 and titled ‘Documents of Shakespearean Interest’. These are still the only documents to bear this catalogue number. As scholars have often noted, archives are shaped by their users – as Jacques Derrida puts it in Archive Fever, ‘archivisation produces as much as it records an event’.[4] Shakespearean archivisation produces – Shakespeare?

A refusal to interpret can become a form of interpretation, as Charles must have known when he compiled the Bellott-Mountjoy, Witter-Heminges and Keysar-Burbage materials in ‘Shakespeare and his London Associates’. A theatre history of this kind may dream – as Clov does in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame – of the moment at which ‘all would be silent and still, and each thing in its last place’, but it also acknowledges the ‘impossible heap’, refusing to pretend that the dust has settled. It longs for the end but constantly defers it in pursuit of the next fragmentary piece of evidence. It both sustains and resists interpretative endgames.

Lucy Munro


[1] Endgame, intro. by Rónán McDonald (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 1, 35.

[2] The most detailed account of the Wallaces’s lives and works can be found in J.W. Robinson, ‘Shakespeare and Nebraska: Charles William Wallace, 1865-1932, and the “Great Index of the World”’, Nebraska History 60 (1979), 1-20 [link: http://www.nebraskahistory.org/publish/publicat/history/full-text/NH1979Shakespeare.pdf%5D.

[3] ‘Shakespeare and his London Associates’, Nebraska University Studies 10 (1910), 261-360.

[4] Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 3.

7 thoughts on “‘barren of all interpretative comment’

  1. Pingback: Shakespeare in Scraps: Halliwell-Phillipps and Theatre History | Before Shakespeare

  2. Hi, live on the other side of the world. Any chance of you guys putting one or two of your upcoming conference on youtube?


    • Hi Roister! Thanks for your interest: we’re hoping to tweet and blog as much of the conference as possible, so there should be regular updates in written form on the website. We’ll update the conference page with more information on this nearer the time!


  3. Pingback: Before Conference (and The Woman in the Moon) | Before Shakespeare

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  5. Pingback: The First Blackfriars: A Workshop Reflection | Before Shakespeare

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