Pre-Raphaelites in The City: Elizabeth Siddal Comes Back To Life

Dinah Roe

Elizabeth Siddal Comes Back To Life Lizzie Siddal - A New Play by Jeremy Green

Christmas has come early for those who feared that the rage for all things Pre-Rapahelite might be diminishing in the wake of Tate Britain’s Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde exhibition.

A new play about Eleanor Elizabeth Siddal, Pre-Raphaelitism’s most famous muse / artist / poet is coming to London’s Arcola Theatre this November. Playwright Jeremy Green has generously shared some of his thoughts with us on matters as diverse as: how deadlines are a writer’s friend; why he suspects that, of all the muses, ‘Lizzie’s story is a bigger emotional journey’; and why he is particularly keen that his play tells ‘Lizzie’s story’ and not the tale of ‘The Pre-Raphaelites and their Camp Followers’.

Although I confess I think the latter might make an excellent Christmas Panto …

Do you follow me (@preraphsrule) on Twitter? Read the interview with extra care - you may find that Jeremy has answered some of your specific questions about his play. Thanks to all who tweeted their questions.

Lizzie Siddal is written by Jeremy Green [photo above] and directed by Lotte Wakeham with design by David Woodhead and lighting design by Howard Hudson. It is produced by Copperhead Productions and Peter Huntley Productions.

It will run at the Arcola Theatre from Wednesday 20 November – Saturday 21 December 2013.


INTERVIEW WITH PLAYWRIGHT JEREMY GREEN

Can you tell me more about your own background as a playwright? Where did you train, how did you start out and what other plays you have written?
I left college with an English degree, and went into business. I wrote in my spare time. I won a prize a few years back for a short play about the illegal trade in animals - Snakes - that was performed at the Young Vic. I had a play on BBC radio - The Wolfgang Chase - a comedy thriller about an undiscovered Mozart manuscript. And I had a short play performed at the Pleasance Theatre - Fairy Tale - about a fairy-tale princess meeting an ordinary modern-day soldier. I wrote a version of a Chekhov farce to go with it. I am now writing drama full-time.

I’m very interested in how writers write. Can you describe a typical writing day for you? Do you have a routine or method? Do you enjoy writing or do you find it a painful process?
My routine is 9.30 till 6pm sat in front of the computer, with an hour’s break for lunch. The best feeling is having a story or a scene that you just can’t wait to write.  Rewriting is important. You have to do it. You always get a better result. And you know when something is good - which means you also know when it isn’t. I get very restless when it isn’t. I feel as if I can’t enjoy anything.

Deadlines are good. They really are. Deadlines are a writer’s friend. They stop your mind from wanderi- oh, look, a butterfly…

What is it particularly about Lizzie that compelled you to write a play about her? (via Amanda Saladine @ajsaladine)
I’d enjoyed working with the actress Emma West in one of my earlier plays. She had mentioned Lizzie to me as a possible subject. I knew a little bit about Lizzie, but then, the more I researched, the more fascinating the story became. Here is a love story, and a rags-to-comparative-riches story and a tale about fame and art and class and romance and truth and a woman trying to make her way in a man’s world.


How did you go about researching her life and work? Were there any sources you found particularly useful?

Yes. Three books by the excellent, perceptive Jan Marsh. I read Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood & The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal & Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Painter and Poet.

And Lucinda Hawksley’s gripping account:  Lizzie Siddal. The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel.

And Franny Moyle’s Desperate Romantics, which is a very good and readable account of the Pre-Raphaelites. (The TV series was a different animal.)

You can find almost all of the art on line, but also I can thoroughly recommend saving up and buying The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites by Elizabeth Prettejohn and Pre-Raphaelite Drawing by Colin Cruise. And I also have useful books by Barringer, Rogers, Hilton, Tickner.

There are heaps of sources on line: lizziesiddal.com is a wonderful resource, as are the Rossetti archives, which contain the letters from Rossetti and Ruskin and others. Elsewhere online, I found articles on Victorian London, old Sheffield and many blogs. I’m a big fan of this blog by the way, so thanks for having me.

(Pause In Interview As Dinah Roe Reaches for Smelling Salts: )
Apologies for the authorial intrusion here folks. But I can only respond to being included in such a list of venerable scholars of Pre-Raphaelitism by collapsing onto my fainting couch in an attempt to avoid getting what my grandmother would have called ‘a swelled head’.

(Interview Resumes)
Jeremy Green: I went to the Ashmolean to look at Lizzie’s drawings, and obviously the Tate Britain to see Pre-Raphaelite works. I visited Wightwick Manor - not strictly Lizzie country but a wonderful time warp of a place.

I have all of Rossetti’s poems. And of course everything Lizzie wrote. I also went to visit her grave.

Why did you choose to write a play about Lizzie Siddal and not for other famous muses such as Effie Millais or Janey Morris? (via June McLoughney @JuniexD)
The actress Emma West looks like Lizzie and it was Emma that I was interested in writing for. But this question is interesting because each of these three women had the most extraordinary adventures with their men. I may be doing the other two a disservice but I suspect that Lizzie’s story is a bigger emotional journey and therefore more dramatic. 

Siddal has been portrayed on screen before, from Ken Russell’s Dante’s Inferno most recently in Desperate Romantics on BBC 2. To what extent is her characterization informed by these past interpretations? Did you feel any pressure to react to previous versions?
No, I didn’t feel pressure. I’m aware of Dante’s Inferno and I watched a bit of it on YouTube. I bought the DVD of Desperate Romantics, though I still haven’t watched it all the way through. It’s light entertainment, tongue in cheek. (Somebody on Wikipedia called it ‘Entourage with easels’.)

My work started with the research. I read everything I could find, and gradually I formed my opinion as to her character and the story. Actually, what’s different about this play is that this is Lizzie Siddal’s story. It’s not ‘Rossetti and His Women’ or ‘the Pre-Raphaelites and their Camp Followers’.


Very few of Siddal’s own words survive. Did that make it difficult for you to create dialogue, or form an impression of her character?

Good question. Part of Lizzie Siddal’s allure is the mystery; it can seem hard to pin down for certain who she was. It’s easy to project onto her - victim, heroine, manipulator, sacrificial lamb, artist, hanger-on, feminist icon and on and on. It’s compounded by the fact that none of the contemporary chroniclers wrote much about her. This is partly because they were men. (Rossetti & his brother William, Ruskin, Hunt, William Bell Scott, Ford Madox Brown.) And a lot of them had their own agendas. For example, Rossetti’s brother William is clearly an honourable chap trying to gloss over any faults in his brother’s behaviour. So he tries not to tell us what was going on. And when William writes of Lizzie’s speech being ‘scanty, slight and scattered, with some amusing turns’, well, yes, that may be how she was with William. After all, she had little reason to open up to the Rossetti family. But she appears to have been completely different with Swinburne, for example.

In the end, I had to make choices. I settled on what I felt was the essence of her story and the essentials of her character.  Then I could give her a voice so that the audience can hear what she wants and how she feels.

Finally, I might add that characters on stage tend to be a little more articulate than they are in real life, because that’s what makes dramas worth going to. The real Henry the Fifth didn’t stand outside the gates of Harfleur reeling off heroic iambic pentameters.


Do you admire Siddal’s own work as an artist and poet, or are you more interested in her biography?

In the Ashmolean Museum’s Western Art Print Room, they give you a pair of white gloves and you can sit there and go through a box of Lizzie’s drawings. (One of them is marked ‘By Rossetti’s wife’.) The experience was magical. The art is not. She is not a major artist or a major poet. I don’t think she was naturally gifted, though I do think she had a good sense of design. But she IS an important figure. She had no advantages.  She was not the contemporary idea of beauty. Yet she became the figure of an immortal work of art and the muse for Rossetti’s own best drawings, She had no training in art, nor independent means. Yet she became an artist in her own right and at a time when women were discriminated against in the art world. (No woman could go to life class, for instance). To top all that she wrote poetry, too. Oh and finally, you only have to read Georgie Burne-Jones’ fleeting account of her to realise that Lizzie could be an inspiration to others.


[Was Siddal’s death an] accident, suicide, murder, or some combination? And how does that factor in dramatizing Lizzie?
(via Paul Fyfe @pfyfe)
I don’t think there was a murderous bone in Rossetti’s body. I suppose you could argue that he was culpable by going out and leaving her the night of her death. Or you could speculate that they’d had a row and then he encouraged her to drink too much laudanum. I don’t think either is true.

Lizzie’s death was a tragedy for Rossetti. He was so overcome with remorse that he buried his poems with her. Then he ruined his reputation for evermore by digging them up again later.

I think Lizzie took the laudanum herself. Did she take too much deliberately or accidentally? Did she even know what she was doing?

Of course I give a view in the play. I think if you’re writing a drama, the audience demands their pound of flesh. They’ve paid for their seats. They want their money’s worth. They want to exercise judgement. What happened? Show me.

Which other members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle appear in your play?
Rossetti, Millais, Hunt, Ruskin, Annie Miller and Charlie Howell, the dodgy agent. This is draft 25 of the play. I’ve been working on it for two years.  Previous drafts have included Mrs Rossetti, Walter Deverell, Fanny Cornforth, Emma Brown and Ford Madox Brown. As I honed the story, they all had to go.
     
Did the fact that Lizzie Siddal’s looks are so well known create any difficulties in terms of casting? Did you feel limited by the need to find an actress who looked very like the images we have of Siddal?
I knew the actress before I began the work. I had her in mind. But it is certainly an issue for anyone casting a story that’s already in the public domain. Can you suspend your belief in a dark-haired Marilyn Monroe? Or for that matter, would you feel happy with a blonde Dante Gabriel Rossetti?

Can you describe your working relationship with your director, Lotte Wakeham? Her current project, assistant directing Matilda on Broadway, seems very different to Lizzie Siddal at the Arcola. How has she contributed to your vision for your play?
We’re about to enter rehearsals, so it’s early days. But she’s done a lot of other things besides Matilda, including Shakespeare, Marlowe, Lorca and several contemporary playwrights. She is very intelligent and thoughtful and has a very nice sense of humour. I can’t wait to see what she’s going to create.

                                                                              FIN


I would like to thank Jeremy Green for taking the time to tell the readers of ‘Pre-Raphaelites In the City’  more about his play, and I look forward to seeing it myself. If you would like tickets, please contact the Arcola Theatre.

Responses

  1. Thanks for this excellent interview, Dinah!  I get the sense that Lizzie is in good hands.  Being in the U.S, I am despondant that I won’t be able to see the play.

    Stephanie Pina responded at 05:37pm on 11/25/2013
  2. Excellent interview

    Marian Gibbons responded at 09:28pm on 11/26/2013
  3. Hi Stephanie,

    Jeremy was an absolute pleasure to interview, and I really got the sense that he’d been very thoughtful about Siddal, and respected her enough to do his research properly.

    I suspect you’d really have liked the play, and I wish you could have been there. There were not a few of our other twitter buddies present on opening night.

    Perhaps we could have organised ourselves and worn your Siddal tee-shirts!

    Dinah responded at 06:11pm on 01/05/2014

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Pre-Raphaelites in the City

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This blog explores the thriving Victorian cities which inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, and were shaped by them in turn. While the Pre-Raphaelites produced poetry and art praising the natural world, most were born and raised in urban environments, and their work retained a cosmopolitan sensibility. Although this blog will sometimes take excursions into the countryside, its focus will remain on city life. If you want more information on images or sources, please get in touch.