By Matt Shaw
A woman waits on stage as the audience enter. She is asleep, wrapped in a fur-trimmed coat. As we settle, the performer awakes to the crackle of radio news. She is disturbed by a dream, by memory, and the play begins. For the next hour, we are treated to a tour-de-force one-woman performance exploring the life of the longest serving American First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and focussing in particular on the gaps between personal stuggles and construction of a public persona.
Written and performed by Alison Skilbeck (and directed by Lucy Skilbeck — no relation), Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London is book-ended by the First Lady’s illness during the Cuban Missile crisis of October 1962 that led to her death on 7 November 1962). Unwell, accompanied only by memories and troubled by current news of possible war, she relives a series of snapshots and recollections of her official visit to Britain in 1942. This framing device allows the play to include earlier memories, as well as her husband FDR’s death in 1945.
These emerge in a carefully crafted rush of vignettes, often of conversations between Eleanor Roosevelt and the great and the good, such as the formidably icy Queen Mary and the somewhat feeble Mrs Churchill, and internal monologues highlighting the self-doubt mixed with resolution and determination, the importance of physical appearance (‘Smile!’) and enforced femininity, and the constant need to be useful that informed her remarkable public career.
The source material for the one-woman play was derived from Roosevelt’s own diary, which Skilbeck was able to read at the FDR Library in Hyde Park, New York, and which has been expertly contextualised by deep reading sessions of secondary works in the British Library. And while the play makes for moving viewing on its own, the IHR’s interest in helping to stage this performance emerged from this intersection between the creative and the historical, the archival and the artistic.
As other Institute events have underscored, including this year’s ‘New Approaches to Writing History’ (9 May 2019), at which a panel explored unconventional ways of writing history, there is a growing interest, desire and need to explore creative and personal approaches to history. Recent histories in this vein include the AHRC-funded format-busting Creative Histories of Witchcraft Project at Bristol or David Gange’s salty exploration of Britain’s coasts by kayak, and of course many events showcased as part of the Being Human festival. In part, such experiments in form and process may be results of the impact agenda, the influence of psychogeography, the influence of interdisciplinarity. But they may also be a case of form following function, and a sense that established historical formats might not always be the best way to allow our engagement with the past to breathe or to consider historical topics that have left few evidential traces or been ignored by earlier scholars.
Being historians we know that some of this is, of course, not new. Norman Hampson’s decision to explore the Life and Opinions of Maximilien Robespierre (1974) through a conversation between four imagined individuals was a response to the inscrutability of the Incorruptible One, while in 1991, Carlo Ginzburg suggested that new ways of historical thinking — and the challenge of postmodernism to the representation of reality — had brought ‘the peripheral, blurred area between history and fiction close to the centre of contemporary historiographical debate’. Voltaire, Gibbon, Mackintosh, Macaulay and co. would also have felt that they were deeply involved in a literary and creative endeavour. This is putting aside the rich overlap between the historical novel and history, or the play, TV series or film.
Digital presents another arena, from games to websites and apps and augemented reality. Eleanor would no doubt have explored many of this, game as she was to take on the latest development. No doubt she would also have had a podcast. The IHR’s contribution to this medium has been underway since at least 2009, with the podcasting of over 800 seminars, but we have recently begun a more curated approach and have launched ‘History in Conversation‘. We were delighted that Alison Skilbeck agreed to discuss on stage the process of writing and performing ‘Mrs Roosevelt…’ with the IHR’s director, Professor Jo Fox, after the performance. A podcast of this discussion will be available soon.
To read more about Eleanor Roosevelt, including many of her papers, transcripts of broadcasts, and journalism, see the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at GW Columbian College of Arts & Sciences. The Wohl Library of the IHR also has extensive US collections, including materials relating to the Roosevelt administration, WWII and the post-war era.
Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London was supported by the BAAS / US Embassy Small Grants Programme.
Matt Shaw is Librarian of the IHR, with research interests in the French Revolution and, more broadly, the long-eighteenth century. He has also worked on American Studies, the First World War and issues related to archives, libraries and digitisation.