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Issue 474, 3 December 2001

Theatre history saved in new drama archive

Historic artefacts documenting the history of modern British theatre have been saved from obscurity by a new archive at the University, including letters by Noel Coward, Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud.

Theatre studies professor Philip Roberts (left) has been instrumental in bringing the archives of major figures in the theatre, such as George Devine and Lord Harewood, to the University, creating what is already one of the biggest collections of modern theatrical documents in Britain.

George Devine was the first artistic director of the Royal Court theatre, and an influential producer of new writing. From the 1950s he staged productions by a series of new writers, helping to make the names of playwrights such as Osborne, Pinter and Beckett.

Professor Roberts said: "There's a glamour side to the archive, with correspondence from figures such as Gielgud, Olivier, Ashcroft and many others. But the archive also has the full financial accounts of the theatre from 1956 to the present day, documenting how such an institution managed to survive in adverse economic and political conditions."

Bringing such a major collection to Leeds has had a domino effect, with other collections following suit. Professor Roberts has been hunting down people involved in the alternative theatre of the 1960s and 70s, to see what treasures they might have hidden in their attics.

"The very nature of alternative theatre means that things were done on a wing and a prayer, and so papers from that time are scattered and in grave danger of being lost for ever. Many people aren't even aware they still have papers from the time. It's been fascinating tracking it all down a bit like detective work."

Lord Harewood has donated his archive, including correspondence with T S Eliot, and Princess Margaret. Also coming to Leeds is the archive of the late John Hodgson, former head of drama at Bretton Hall, including material by the world famous choreographer Rudolf Laban, who designed the first ballet notation. Most recently, the West Yorkshire Playhouse has agreed to add its extensive archive to the collection on an ongoing basis.

Professor Roberts, in partnership with the head of special collections Chris Sheppard, has applied for an AHRB grant to catalogue the collection, and ensure its accessiblility through a dedicated website.

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