In Conversation: Finding Performance on History’s Pages

I recently had a long chat with Lola Wingrove, our collaborator on ‘The Vital Spark’ and an expert on women in Victorian music-hall performance. Many interesting issues were raised in this conversation, which we hope will come through in the finished work. We’ll be posting some of this discussion here, to give you some background, and also as a window into some of the things we think about when putting together a play about the past.

Laura Rice: What kind of documents do you get to work with and what is your process like in trying to figure out what she did, how do you go about that, what are you working with and how do you get there?

Lola Wingrove: At the moment I have quite a widespread methodology, and my sources, they’re all really intrinsically linked. I rely an awful lot on newspapers, because by looking at how Jenny Hill advertised in newspapers and reviews, I’ve been able to plot over her whole career, where in the country she was at what time, what kind of performances she was giving, what songs she was performing in what halls at what time, a little bit [about] how successfully it went down. Reviews and adverts are really integral to at least knowing what she was and what she was doing in what year. Most of that is accessed through the British Library Newspaper Archive collection. I use them a lot.

In addition I use the newspapers for gossip columns, to find out what’s going on, and also for interviews with her, because how Jenny [told] her stories is particularly important, seeing how she showed herself in that way. But there’s obviously a huge amount of bias taken up with that, because reviewers and interviewers could change it to be what they wanted. I mean, we don’t have that scrict a demand for truth in press nowadays, but definitely at that time anything went.

Hill was also an obsessive letter writer to newspapers, so if ever they got anything wrong, she would write a letter saying, “You got this wrong, change it,” and that’s so useful. There are so many letters from her. When she became ill and couldn’t perform anymore, she just kept writing letters to them. “So, my garden’s really nice…” She was determined that no one would forget her. She seems to have said, “I will write letters and I will remind you all that I’m still here, even if I’m not performing!” So I use all the newspapers,

LR: Are there other sources of information that have been especially useful?

LW: I’ve looked a lot at the sheet music that is available [from Jenny’s repertoire], which is mainly held at the Bodelian Library, in Oxford, and with that I’m trying to analyse the sheet music cover, the illustrations, how much it cost, etc.,  in order to get an idea of what sort of audiences were hearing it and buying it. And I’m also analyzing the lyrics to find out socially what was happening, why these lyrics were particularly piognant to them at the time, and I’m actually doing some recording. I’m doing case studies of six of the songs, three for Jenny Hill and three for Bessie Bellwood, where I’m recording myself singing and performing the songs in order to get an idea of range, and how difficult some of the words would be to sing. By trying to perform it in a funny way, you kind of get ideas of how it could have worked- say, probably they put a lot of emphasis on that word, actually, because if you put emphasis on that, it means something else. So I’m using performance of sheet music in order to get a good idea of  that, and I’m actually analyzing the music itself for things like dynamics. But again, that’s kind of biased in some ways because it was for a very specific audience and could be edited, and I’ve got to acknowledge that. But when you mix the music in with the newspapers it creates something quite interesting.

I’m also doing case studies of the music halls themselves. I’ve been looking at five or six music halls that I know the case study songs were performed at. I’m finding their programmes and posters and bills and things, in order to see what kind of performers they had at the same time as Hill or Bellwood, how much their programmes costs, how much their drinks were…. The programmes also have public transport links, and how much it would cost to get from different areas, so you can get an idea of what kind of audience would have been at those halls, in order to enjoy the material that was on offer there.

And I’m also accessing the LCC, the London County Council records for- it sounds weird, but- health and safety issues. The halls all had to fulfill quite strict sort of moral and health and safety codes, and so I’m looking that up to understand where certain members of the audience were sitting, how many exits they had, how safe it was, what kind of gas lighting they’d got, or electric eventually. And so I’m using case studies of the halls to understand what songs were being performed there, what the halls were liked, what reviewers were saying about those halls, to get an idea of the space in which Hill was performing, because then as soon as you know what kind of performance space she was in then you can imagine the song being performed in that particular setup. Who was close to her, were the galleries where most of the working class people were sitting far away or close to her?

LR: I would never have thought of using those records like that! It really shows how wide a net you have to cast to really get a full picture of performances from the past.

LW: And of course there’s general social history, really, looking at how the suffrage movement was going at the time, with the suffragists- not the suffragettes at that time- and looking at how common women being able to speak their mind was at that time, things like that. By using a mixture of social history and these other documentations, it’s about getting a fully rounded idea of who Jenny Hill was. It’s all about pieceing together these otherwise very biased sort of things, but then you put them next to eachother and and compare them all, you kind of lower the bias a little bit, because one checks the other one out, so you see, well, the reviewer might have said that about this song, but clearly from the sheet music it wouldn’t have been like that at all, you can kind of move them in that way. So it’s quite a wide methodology, but that’s how it’s working at the moment.