February 25, 2012

"Oh, do call me Ned if you like. Lawrence of Arabia is so very tedious."

When Robert Graves learns that he is speaking to T.E. Lawrence at the beginning of The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion, Lawrence invites him to be more familiar: “Oh, do call me Ned, if you like. Lawrence of Arabia is so very tedious, don’t you find?” Ned’s response reflects the ambivalence toward fame that was characteristic of the historical T.E. Lawrence, who was apparently frustrated by his celebrity despite participating in the creation of his own mythic identity.

Ned goes on to mention the major event that led to Lawrence’s fame: “Since that show about him has been selling out in the West-End, he’s received letters from as far away as America, Canada, even Japan, requesting the usual things, to be the godfather to their children, to speak at Universities. Marriage.” Ned’s use of the third person here sets up a distinction between his actual self and the persona of Lawrence of Arabia. (This distinction is reminiscent of another Oxonian and Caffeine Theatre stalwart, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who rejected mail addressed to Lewis Carroll.) The West End show in question was a lecture-demonstration by American journalist Lowell Thomas, who combined film and discussion in what we might now call a multimedia event. A wonderful collaboratively produced online exhibit chronicles Lowell Thomas’s performance, “With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia,” and further developments in the legend of Lawrence of Arabia. The exhibit is called “Lowell Thomas and Lawrence of Arabia: Making a Legend, Creating History.”

While much of Lawrence’s involvement in this play is drawn from Robert Graves’s perspective in Good-bye to All That, several events can be corroborated in biographical materials on T.E. Lawrence. The following examples are mainly taken from Jeremy Wilson’s book Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorized Biography of T.E. Lawrence (New York: Atheneum, 1990).

In Massicotte’s play, Lawrence and Curzon discuss their participation in the Paris Peace conference that resulted in the Treaty of Versailles. Lawrence was in Paris from January 9 to the end of May, 1919. According to Wilson, “Long afterward he would describe these months as ‘the worst I have lived through; and they were worse for Feisal. However he learnt the whole art of politics, from them. Perhaps I did, too!’ ” (598).

Wilson also cites an American account of Lawrence that gives a sense of his larger-than-life character: “He has been described as the most interesting Briton alive, a student of medieval history at Magdalen College, where he used to sleep by day and work by night and take his recreation in the deer park at four in the morning—a Shelley-like person, and yet too virile to be a poet” (605). Yet Lawrence’s prose has poetic qualities, and his encounters with young poets such as Robert Graves and Ezra Pound suggest an interest in poetry.

Lawrence’s move to Oxford is explained as follows: “There was nothing to do in Paris and he returned to Oxford. On June 10th he had been elected to a Research Fellowship of All Souls College. He had been approached about this months before, by Geoffrey Dawson of The Times, and had indicated his willingness to accept if a Fellowship was offered. The conditions had been drawn up by the Warden and D.G. Hogarth in as vague a fashion as possible: during his tenure he was to ‘prosecute his researches into the antiquities and ethnology, and the history (ancient and modern) of the Near East.’ The Fellowship was worth £200 a year, a comfortable income for a single person. It would run for seven years, and carried the right to rooms in college” (616). In The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion, Lawrence feels confined in his rooms in Oxford. He and Robert share a sense of imprisonment, trapped by their post-war guilt. Another biographer, Flora Armitage, describes Lawrence’s time at Oxford after the war: “At All Souls where he went into residence he indulged in outbursts of wild, almost undergraduate exuberance, as when he leaned out of the window…and loudly clanged the iron bell taken as booty in his raid on the Tell Shahm station.” (Armitage, The Desert and the Stars, New York: 1955, 160).

In the play Lord Curzon accuses Lawrence of continuing a correspondence with Emir Feisal, his main contact in Arabia. But Lawrence at least intended to sever ties with Feisal, writing in a letter: “My first sign of grace is that I will obey the F.O. [Foreign Office]…and not see Feisal again” (Wilson 620). During one scene, Lawrence has read about events involving Feisal that have upset him: “the ‘General Syrian Congress’ had proclaimed Feisal King of an ‘independent and integral Syria,’ which was supposed to include not only Lebanon, but also northern Mesopotamia and Palestine. The claim to these latter regions caused as much irritation in Britain as it did in France, and was roundly dismissed in San Remo. Both the Foreign Office and the India Office now viewed Damascus as a hotbed of rabid nationalism which threatened to unsettle the whole region” (631). In Stephen Massicotte’s play, Curzon’s ties to the Foreign Office allow for this diplomatic conflict to be portrayed in dramatic fashion as he and Lawrence clash in Lawrence’s rooms in Oxford.

Wilson also mentions the initial meeting with Robert Graves, and Lawrence’s feedback on Robert’s poems: “After a dinner at All Souls…he met Robert Graves, who had become a member of St. John’s College. He showed great interest in Graves’s poetry, and his comments were evidently of some value…” (627). Flora Armitage adds other incidents described in the play: “At Fullers’ Restaurant for tea with Robert Graves, he caused a momentary flurry amid the teacups by clapping his hands, Eastern fashion to summon the waitress; and once he indulged again in his old sport of roof-climbing in order to hang a crimson Hejazi flag from the pinnacle of All Souls” (Armitage 164).

The myth of Lawrence of Arabia as created by Lowell Thomas (and as we know him from Peter O’Toole’s portrayal in David Lean’s film) competes with his efforts to present himself to the other four characters in The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion. For his servant Jack, Lawrence is initially an eccentric charge, but he eventually comes to represent all that is wrong with the British military. For Curzon, Lawrence is a personal nuisance and a political firebomb. For Nancy, Lawrence represents competition for her husband’s time and affection, until she finally meets him and they reconcile. For Robert, Ned is a friend. When Robert invites Ned to “come out of there and be Lawrence of Arabia,” he sparks a powder keg whose explosion has a tremendous impact on the lives of all of these characters, and repercussions beyond the limits of Oxford.

February 21, 2012

Poetry Out Loud

Today, Caffeine Theatre staff members Dan Smith and Kristin Idaszak volunteered at the Poetry Out Loud Chicago Suburban Regional competition at the Arts Center of Oak Park. Thanks to Chicagoland Regional Poetry Out Loud director Liz McCabe for inviting us.

Dan served as Master of Ceremonies and started off the festivities by reading "Free Verse," a favorite Robert Graves poem from the 1918 collection Fairies and Fusiliers. To kick off round 2, he read "Careers," a poem about sibling rivalry from the same collection. Also during round 2, Dan recited his favorite anti-Petrarchan Shakespeare sonnet (Sonnet 130: "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun"). He would like to thank the teachers in the second row who prompted him when he forgot the beginning of the third quatrain (which he forgets every time he tries to recite this poem).

Below, for your delectation, are the two Robert Graves poems Dan recited today:

"Free Verse”

I now delight
In spite
Of the might
And the right
Of classic tradition,
In writing
And reciting
Straight ahead,
Without let or omission,
Just any little rhyme
In any little time
That runs in my head;
Because, I've said,
My rhymes no longer shall stand arrayed
Like Prussian soldiers on parade
That march,
Stiff as starch,
Foot to foot,
Boot to boot,
Blade to blade,
Button to button
Cheeks and chops and chins like mutton.
No! No!
My rhymes must go
Turn 'ee, twist 'ee,
Twinkling, frosty,
Will-o'-the-wisp-like, misty;
Rhymes I will make
Like Keats and Blake
And Christina Rossetti,
With run and ripple and shake.
How pretty
To take
A merry little rhyme
In a jolly little time
And poke it,
And choke it,
Change it, arrange it,
Straight-lace it, deface it,
Pleat it with pleats,
Sheet it with sheets
Of empty conceits,
And chop and chew,
And hack and hew,
And weld it into a uniform stanza,
And evolve a neat,
Complacent, complete,
Academic extravaganza!


Father is quite the greatest poet
That ever lived anywhere.
You say you're going to write great music--
I chose that first: it's unfair.
Besides, now I can't be the greatest painter and
do Christ and angels, or lovely pears
and apples and grapes on a green dish,
or storms at sea, or anything lovely,
Because that's been taken by Claire.

It's stupid to be an engine-driver,
And soldiers are horrible men.
I won't be a tailor, I won't be a sailor,
And gardener's taken by Ben.
It's unfair if you say that you'll write great
music, you horrid, you unkind (I simply
loathe you, though you are my
sister), you beast, cad, coward, cheat,
bully, liar!
Well? Say what's left for me then!

But we won't go to your ugly music.
(Listen!) Ben will garden and dig,
And Claire will finish her wondrous pictures
All flaming and splendid and big.

And I'll be a perfectly marvellous carpenter,
and I'll make cupboards and benches
and tables and ... and baths, and
nice wooden boxes for studs and
And you'll be jealous, you pig!

February 14, 2012

"Good-Bye to All That" as Source Material

While The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion is based on historical characters and inspired by historical events, the actual scenes of the play result primarily from the imagination of playwright Stephen Massicotte. Robert Graves’s 1929 autobiography Good-Bye to All That provides a fascinating window onto the world of this play. Indeed, the book appears to have been Massicotte’s main source of information about the friendship between Robert Graves and T.E. Lawrence. Much of the play draws on Good-Bye to All That, capturing the spirit of Graves’s own description of Lawrence, if not always following this description to the letter.

The opening scene of the play depicts the initial meeting between Robert and Ned, much as Graves describes it in his autobiography: “The first time I met Colonel T.E. Lawrence, he happened to be wearing full evening dress. That must have been in February or March 1920, and the occasion was a guest night at All Souls’, where he had been awarded a seven-year fellowship.” These details are mentioned in the play; Massicotte also establishes the electric connection between Ned and Robert upon their first meeting as it is described by Graves. “The formality of evening dress concentrates attention on the eyes, and Lawrence’s eyes immediately held me” (Graves 297). Robert and Ned are clearly drawn to each other in the opening scene of the play, and they quickly unite against Lord Curzon, the British Foreign Secretary and Oxford University Chancellor.

Curzon’s role in the play is inspired by Graves’s description of him as Ned’s enemy, a description colored by the context of Lawrence’s penchant for sophomoric pranks: “Lawrence also proposed to present the College with a peacock which, once accepted, would be found to bear the name ‘Nathaniel’—after Lord Curzon, an enemy of Lawrence’s, and Chancellor of the University”(301). The presence of Curzon, described by Ned as “Former viceroy of India. Former member of the War Cabinet. Former drinker or champagne at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919,” raises the political stakes of the pranks in the play.

Graves describes an incident involving the flag of Mecca flying over All Souls' College as an example of Lawrence being silly: “He behaved very much like an undergraduate at times. One day I happened to visit the top of Radcliffe Camera and look down on the roofs of neighbouring colleges. From a pinnacle of All Souls’ hovered a small crimson Hedjaz flag: Lawrence had been a famous roof-climber when up at Jesus College twelve years before this” (300). Massicotte incorporates this incident into the play, but Curzon’s reaction renders it far more serious and offers a moment of conflict that (if we can believe Ned) arises from a miscommunication. Curzon interprets Ned’s Hejaz flag as consorting with the enemy and goes so far as to accuse Ned of treason. Ned claims that he “wanted to suggest that all lands are holy.”

Similarly, Massicotte develops a planned practical joke involving a herd of deer into an anti-colonialist gesture. In Good-Bye to All That, Graves describes the project as follows: “Another scheme, for which he enlisted my help, was to steal the Magdalen College deer. We would drive them one early morning into the small inner quadrangle of All Souls’, having persuaded the College to answer the Magdalen protests with a declaration that it was the All Souls’ herd, pastured there from time immemorial. Great things were expected of this raid, but we needed Lawrence as the stage-manager; so it fell through when he left us” (301). In the imaginative world of the play, the great expectations of this raid are fulfilled. A letter from the deer characterizes their occupation of the All Souls’ quad as striking back against the quasi-colonialism of Oxford. Again, Massicotte’s version imbues the events with greater political significance.

Graves’s description of Lawrence ends with a reference to his “morbid horror of being touched,” another key detail exploited for dramatic effect in the play. In using Robert Graves’s own words about T.E. Lawrence as a source for this play, Massicotte expands and elaborates for both theatrical efficacy and thematic resonance. To paraphrase Graves’s poem “Free Verse,” Massicotte’s technique of adaptation allows for the action of the play to “run and ripple and shake,” creating a vibrant stage world that is more than just an “academic extravaganza.”

[Citations with page numbers are from Robert Graves, Good-bye to All That (New York: Doubleday, 1957)]

February 12, 2012

Robert Graves Coffeehouse and Poetry Contest Call for Submissions

It's that time again! Caffeine Theatre is seeking submissions for its Robert Graves Coffeehouse and Poetry Contest. Please see both calls for submissions below and help us spread the word!


Caffeine Theatre seeks short (15 minutes or less) original performance pieces of all disciplines--music, dance, theatre, spoken word, poetry, etc.--for its Robert Graves Coffeehouse, which will take place on Saturday, April 7. The Coffeehouse is in conjunction with Caffeine’s Chicago premiere of The Oxford Roof Climbers Rebellion by Stephen Massicotte, which chronicles Graves’s friendship with T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia). As such, pieces should explore the work or life of Robert Graves AND/OR Lawrence of Arabia.

Please email a script and/or a 1 page proposal to Associate Artistic Director Kristin Idaszak (kristin@caffeinetheatre.com) including a description of your proposed piece, how many people you expect to be involved, estimated length, and any required resources. (We will accept proposals for scripts that do not yet exist or pieces that do not have a traditional script, but please include that information in your proposal.) Please also include a short bio or resume and use “Robert Graves Coffeehouse—Last Name” in the subject heading.


Accepted pieces will be notified by March 11, 2012


Caffeine Theatre seeks original poetry for our fifth poetry contest: “Fairies, Fusiliers, and Pillars of Wisdom.” Submissions may include any size or style of poem, as long as it is inspired in some way by the life or work of Robert Graves or T.E. Lawrence, or in some way speaks in conversation with the life and/or work of one of the two. Poems exploring war (especially World War I), love, loss, friendship, and/or classical Greek and Roman texts are particularly welcome. Winners will be posted on Caffeine’s blog (http://caffeinetheatre.blogspot.com), and performed at the Robert Graves Coffeehouse in April. Any new or previously written poem may be submitted (provided it can be republished and performed).

TO SUBMIT: Email poem(s) and a brief description of relation to Robert Graves or Lawrence of Arabia to Caffeine Theatre Associate Artistic Director Daniel Smith at dan@caffeinetheatre.com with a subject heading that indicates a poetry contest entry. DEADLINE: March 15, 2011.