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)]