The JSA was very well represented at the recent conference held at Pembroke College, Oxford on June 21-23 when some 50 ardent Johnsonians gathered to consider the topic of “Johnson and the Theatre”. The JSA members present were Barrie and Fay Shepherd and John Byrne.
Over the three days the participants were given a superb insight into 18th century theatre in all its aspects, from the formality of Drury Lane under Garrick to the fringe theatre of Southwark Fair, with its rowdy and riotous behaviour of the audience (who seemed to be as much a part of the spectacle as they were spectators) and the ever present prostitutes and pimps who made the theatre crowds their willing prey.
The opening session on the afternoon of the June 21was on the subject of “Johnson’s Shakespeare” for which our John Byrne chaired a panel consisting of Professors Jack Lynch, David Nokes and Robert Folkenflick. John confessed himself as being dazzled by these academic luminaries but he managed to hold his own.
Over the next few days all of the participants enjoyed papers of great academic value ranging from an in-depth analysis of the financial results of Garrick’s ownership of the Drury Lane Theatre to an examination of 18th century opera (described by Johnson as “An exotick and irrational entertainment”) to Tiffany Stearne’s wonderfully illustrated paper on “Johnson, Garrick and the Southwark Fair.
The weather was kind and the experience of being at beautiful Pembroke College was enhanced be the fact that many of the students were still in residence and in the midst of their exams. The gardens at Pembroke were in their full summer glory and the College staff at all levels outdid themselves in their hospitality.
There was a superb concert of 18th century music and a performance of Samuel Becket’s Human Wishes which was given in costume by the drama society made up of the College students. This was an excellent entertainment. The Sheppards and John Byrne report that the dinners and wines served at the college were up to their usual standard. The formal dinner, held on the second evening, had an 18th century theme and was chaired by Professor Lynda Mugglestone, the first woman fellow at Pembroke College and also the first woman to be appointed Vice Gerrant of the College. Dr Mugglestone will take up the position of President of the Johnson Society of Lichfield in September of this year. Her charm, wit and knowledge bode well for a stellar year in that position.
Old friendships were renewed and new friendships made. Our representatives report that the conference was a great success and a fitting prelude to what will be a five day conference in September 2009 to celebrate the Tri-Centenary of Johnson’s birth. There will be limited vacancies and high demands for these. It will be a highlight of the Tri-Centennial celebrations and early bookings are advised.