Hilary Mantel is an excellent writer. But when it was announced in January 2013 that Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies were going to be adapted for the RSC and a media maelstrom broke out, I felt uneasy. It wasn’t as though Thomas Cromwell was unknown, or had never been put on the stage before, e.g. by Shakespeare. In 1973 (I think) I went to see A Man for All Seasons with a friend who is an English historian. We were moved, but as we walked home he said: ‘Hm…I think Thomas Cromwell is the more interesting character’ — and explained why. Later, I discovered that between 1907 and 1909 George Calderon had researched the sources as thoroughly as Hilary Mantel and produced his remarkable verse play Cromwell: Mall o’Monks (‘hammer of the monasteries’).
Before the RSC got going on its adaptation, which I felt would not be without difficulties, I wrote to a senior figure enclosing a copy of George’s play, in case it could be ‘grist to anyone’s mill’. He wrote back: ‘Fascinating stuff. Did you know that Victor Hugo also wrote a play about Cromwell?’. Well, I did, but that was about Oliver…
When the media maelstrom broke out this week over BBC2’s dramatisation, I felt even more uncomfortable on George’s behalf, as it were. Rachel Sylvester’s long piece in The Times on Tuesday, 20 January 2015, ‘Cromwell rules in Westminster’s Wolf Hall’, related Cromwell’s ‘pragmatism’ and Thomas More’s ‘utopianism’ to British politics today, claiming that Mantel’s (Cromwell’s?) ‘many fans at Westminster’ include Cameron, Osborne and Clegg, and ‘modern politics is, like Cromwell’s, all about strategy, not philosophy’. This fired me to pen a brief letter to The Times after supper:
Everyone is discovering Thomas Cromwell (Rachel Sylvester, ‘Cromwell rules in Westminster’s Wolf Hall’, 20 Jan). For the record, the first play about Thomas Cromwell was written by George Calderon in 1909. Calderon is the Russianist who introduced Chekhov to the British Stage, was a great reviewer for the TLS and Times, and died at Gallipoli a hundred years ago this June. Calderon used exactly the same sources as Hilary Mantel, but produced a pre-Shakespearian morality play in iambic pentameter. His message was as contemporary as Rachel Sylvester suggests Mantel’s is: George Calderon’s play was written as an allegory of the rise of Lloyd George!
(Patrick Miles etc. plus Calderonia blog address)
My personal belief about letters to the press is that one should write them when one’s fired up. The longer one spends on making them ‘lapidary’, the more dead, boring, and unlikely to be printed they become. Fire them off and forget about them.
I was therefore astonished to see the following printed in The Times yesterday:
Sir, Everyone is discovering Thomas Cromwell (“Cromwell rules in Westminster’s ‘Wolf Hall'”, Jan 20). The first play about Cromwell was written by George Calderon in 1909. Calderon is the Russianist who introduced Chekhov to the British stage, was a Times reviewer, and died at Gallipoli 100 years ago. He used the same sources as Hilary Mantel, but produced a pre-Shakespearean morality play in iambic pentameter. His message was as contemporary as your writer Rachel Sylvester suggests Mantel’s is: Calderon’s play was an allegory of the rise of Lloyd George.
(Patrick Miles, Cambridge)
I am sorry that they removed the final exclamation mark and made it altogether drier (more lapidary), but I have to admire the way they have drawn the sting of my peevishness about Hilary Mantel’s, the RSC’s, and the BBC’s success compared with George’s ‘failure’ (I doubt whether his play has ever been performed, except possibly on radio in the late 1920s/early 1930s). They seem to have made as many as a dozen alterations, all very acceptable, which proves that the art of editing is alive and well.
Next entry: Lacunae: the ‘benefits’