Wednesday 30 January 2008

Archibald MacLaren and Physical Education

Archibald MacLaren is a vivid minor character in the major biographies of William Morris as the owner of a gymnasium in Oriel Lane where Morris and his undergraduate friends honed their physical skills at singlestick, boxing and fencing. Some twelve years older than Morris and Burne-Jones, MacLaren took to the two of them, inviting them regularly to his home in Summertown and even commissioning the young Burne-Jones to illustrate a collection of fairy ballads he was putting together.

But MacLaren was to become a figure of national, as well as of local Morrisian, importance, since his system of physical training was adopted wholesale by the British Army and the public schools in the later nineteenth century. Some sense of the whole range of his life's work can be gleaned from a notice of his death in the Oxford Magazine for February 27th 1884 (p.114), which I attach below. It opens up a whole new vista on MacLaren which Morrisians, I think, have little suspected. Would it be possible, one wonders, using MacLaren's later physical education writings, to envisage a study of the patterns of physical movement, gesture, pose in Morris's early poetry and stories which related them illuminatingly back to the training he received in his Oxford days at the Oriel Lane gymnasium?


By the death of Mr. Archibald MacLaren, which took place at Summerfield, near Oxford, on Tuesday the 19th inst., one of our principal modern authorities on the science of physical education has been lost to the world. He had long been unable from illness to take the active part which he formerly played in the University, though till a few months back he continued to superintend the work in his gymnasium. He was employed by the Government for several years to put his system into practice in most of the large army depots in the country, and while holding this position he directed the erection of gymnasia at Curragh, Dublin, Chatham, Woolwich, Sandhurst, and elsewhere. As to the results of his system, we quote from a short biography in the Oxford Chronicle of last week:

“How far Mr. MacLaren succeeded, anyone who considers the gymnastic training which now prevails throughout the army depots and public schools of the country will not be slow in comprehending. The enthusiasm which he awakened at the time of the publication of his book on Physical Education will be best shown by cuttings which we take from the Lancet and Macmillan’s Magazine.

“’Few men have done more for physical education than the writer of this book. By his Gymnasium at Oxford he has promoted in an extraordinary degree the health and vigour of the young men of the better classes, while by his excellent athletic code for the army, and by his influence with successive War Ministers, he has aided largely in introducing that admirable athletic training which is transforming the stiff, slow-moving grenadier of old times into the vigorous, rapid, and enduring soldier of modern days. But these services, great as they are, are the least of his merits; he has written on his subject largely, and has written so well and so sensibly, without exaggeration and without clap-trap, that he has succeeded in gradually bringing the whole nation to consider the important subject of physical training. Himself a physiologist, and conversant with the scientific part of the subject, he has been more able to set forth principles and to convince by reason than his predecessors, and his influence has been so much the wider, and will be so much the more enduring.’ – Lancet.

“’It will be no news to the readers of this Magazine to tell them that to Mr. MacLaren of Oxford, more than to any other man living, is the cause of physical education indebted for the rapid strides it has of late effected in this country. His magnificent Gymnasium at the University, and the marvellous results there produced, constitute only a small portion of the work he has been for many years accomplishing. The British Army is now trained on his principles, and in Gymnasia invented by him. His last effort is worthy to be placed on a level with any of his former achievements. It is a little book, but it contains the refined wisdom and experience of a quarter of a century; it throws open to all the world the knowledge obtained in endless studies, experiments, and meditation.’ – Macmillan’s Magazine.

“Another work of Mr. MacLaren’s, Training in Theory and Practice, deals with the whole question of training, which has of late become such a popular one; it is supplemented by diagrams and tables, and an appendix by the Rev. T.H. Hopkins, Fellow of Magdalen, on the use of the sliding seat.”

We may add to the above, that Mr. MacLaren wrote a book of fairy ballads, called The Fairy Family, which has made many friends among literary men.

Probably few of the Undergraduates amongst us were familiar with him: those who were, knew how to value his friendship; but of the members residing in Oxford, and of the Undergraduates of days gone by, we think there are few indeed who did not know him, and few who knowing him will fail to miss him.

Tuesday 29 January 2008

The Drama of the Far Future

As they cross London on their way from Hammersmith to visit old Hammond in the British Museum, William Guest and Dick Hammond pass through an exuberant cluster of utopian architecture which contains, on the south side of the road, ‘an octagonal building with a high roof, not unlike the Baptistry at Florence in outline, except that it was surrounded by a lean-to that clearly made an arcade or cloisters to it; it also was most delicately ornamented’ (News from Nowhere, chapter four). The building turns out to be ‘our theatre’, and Dick is particularly concerned that Guest should admire it because ‘I had a hand in it; I made the great doors, which are of damascened bronze’. ‘We will look at them later in the day’, Dick promises; but he and Guest in fact never do, so our one chance to learn more about what kinds of drama flourish in Nowhere is gone for good, and the octagonal theatre will forever remain as silent and enigmatic as the little town of Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, from which ‘not a soul to tell/Why thou art desolate, can e’er return’.

Well, Keats’s Grecian urn teases us out of thought; can William Morris’s utopian theatre tease us into thought? We have some excellent accounts of Morris’s actual tastes in drama, contemporary and historical. Nick Salmon has a trenchant article on ‘The Unmanageable Playgoer: Morris and the Victorian Theatre’ (Journal of the William Morris Society, 12.4, Spring 1998, 29-35) and Pamela Bracken Wiens’s introduction to her edition of Morris’s own dramatic experiment, The Tables Turned or Nupkins Awakened (Ohio University Press, 1994), valuably extends Nick Salmon’s thoughts. Such discussions may give us some sense of what might be playing in Nowherian theatres in the immediate ‘Morrow of the Revolution’; but the novel itself also requires us to think very much further ahead than this, towards the ‘future of the full-developed new society’ decades or centuries down the line. We will need, therefore, to be boldly speculative, to draw not only on Morris’s own historical dramatic tastes but on the whole later history of political, modernist and postmodern theatre, if we are to tentatively sketch the lineaments of what might be playing in Nowhere’s octagonal theatre the day that Guest and Dick jog gently past it with Greylocks. And surely News from Nowhere encourages us to do just this. It is, after all, merely ‘some chapters from a utopian romance’ (my emphasis), a heading which licenses us to go on and write other, additional chapters for it, including, I would like to think, one on drama (whose possibility and validity the text has thus architecturally marked out for us in advance).

However, drama in utopia can have its unsettling moments too, as Samuel Delaney’s marvellous novel Triton, one of the new-wave 'critical utopias' of the 1970s, reminds us. For its hero, Bron Helstrom, discovers that his exciting early encounter with an attractive, enigmatic woman in the ‘unlicensed sector’ – rich, it appears, in sexual promise – is actually nothing but a carefully coordinated dramatic performance staged for his benefit alone (‘we’re operating on a Government Arts Endowment to produce micro-theater for unique audiences’). Which might suddenly open up the vertiginious possibility that William Guest’s encounter with his own desirable but disturbing woman, Ellen, on the upper Thames in Morris’s utopia might just be a piece of colourful Nowherian micro-theatre whose theatricality he so painfully fails to grasp …

Monday 28 January 2008

William Morris and Jack the Ripper

Dorothy Coles's moving obituary for Dawn Morris (1955-2007) in the latest issue of the Morris Society Journal (XVII, 3, Winter 2007, 10-12) reminds us what a vivid person and devoted Morrisian Dawn was, and how welcome her Sheffield events were as a northern counterbalance to the Society's London focus.

Years ago, after I gave a paper on Morris and Sherlock Holmes at one of her Sheffield conferences, Dawn informed me, to my amazement, that she had heard or read that Morris had once been arrested on suspicion of being Jack the Ripper. I was incredulous, since no such story appears in any of the main Morris biographies, but she was convinced about this and said she would endeavour to track down her source.

Time passed, we both became busy with other things, and we never did go further into this curious Jack the Ripper claim. Certainly Morris was active in the East End as a political activist during the Ripper years, and one could, I suppose, imagine the police, as part of their campaign to harrass socialists, trying to intimidate one of the movement's leaders by arresting him on such grounds. Maybe. But is there any genuine historical evidence out there that he ever actually was arrested as a Ripper suspect? Dawn Morris was convinced that he was, but does anyone else know what her putative source might have been?

Saturday 12 January 2008

Morris and Wilde: The Final Meeting?

In his wonderful William Morris: A Reference Guide (1985), which is such a rich source book for the multifarious highways and byways of Morris scholarship, Gary L. Aho lists a 1950 letter from Sydney Cockerell to the Times Literary Supplement which ‘attempts to lay to rest the legend popular among Wilde biographers, that Wilde visited WM [sic] on his deathbed. As WM’s secretary, Cockerell was constantly with him, and he does not recall a Wilde visit; more significantly, Wilde was in prison during the months of WM’s last illness’ (p.158).

A later item blames Hesketh Pearson’s biography of Shaw for ‘the anecdote that WM, when he was slowly dying, enjoyed a visit from Wilde more than anyone else’ (p.245); and Aho’s final mention of the topic a few pages later ups the ante considerably. For it seems to be not one but a whole series of Wildean visits that are at stake: ‘many fresh anecdotes, drawn mainly from Shaw’s correspondence, also appear here, among them the mistake concerning Wilde’s supposed visits to WM on his deathbed’ (p.253).

One visit or several; Wilde’s biographers, Hesketh Pearson or Shaw: beyond the scholarly conundrums here, we can surely play mentally with the dazzling idea itself – a final visit of Oscar Wilde to the dying William Morris. We have had some good general accounts of the relationship between the two men’s work, including recently a trenchant piece by Peter Faulkner in the Morris Society Journal (vol XIV, no 4, Summer 2002, 25-40); but could not some Morrisian enthusiast with strong creative writing interests exercise his or imagination and write us a fictional dialogue between Morris and Wilde under these circumstances in late 1895 or 1896 (Morris died on 3rd October)? Such a project would be strongly in the spirit of Wilde himself, with his own brilliant dialogues on ‘The Critic as Artist’ and ‘The Decay of Lying’. Could the Society Journal not announce a prize for the best Wilde-Morris deathbed dialogue – ranging across literature, decoration, art, politics, with Wilde flamboyantly expounding his individualist perspectives and Morris rousing himself for one last effort to defend his more collectivist stance - and then later print the winning entry?