Wednesday, September 9, 2020

476. Gordon Bottomley’s King Lear’s Wife

This week's blog is a contribution by John Aplin, editor Gordon Bottomley and Thomas Sturge Moore: The Complete Correspondence, 1906-1948 [online at Intelex Past Masters]. His edition of the letters from Ricketts and Shannon is in preparation. This blog contains letters from Ricketts, Shannon and others about Gordon Bottomley's play: King Lear's Wife.

King Lear’s Wife And Some Related Correspondence

Gordon Bottomley’s poetic drama, King Lear’s Wife, completed in 1914, remains the work for which he is best known. The reconstruction of a freely-imagined earlier episode in the life of Shakespeare’s tragic hero, this single-act play premiered in September 1915 in a production mounted by John Drinkwater at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, which had opened in 1913. Designed to the exacting requirements of Barry Jackson by a local Birmingham architect, Samuel Cooke, this new building was regarded by Bottomley as an ideal performance space, describing it enthusiastically to fellow poet, Robert Calverley Trevelyan, as ‘the most beautiful & the most wonderfully equipped theatre in England. The auditorium has a rising amphitheatre. The decoration everywhere is brown wood with white inlay, & the lighting arrangements miraculous’ (note 1).

Charles Ricketts, sketch, 'King Lear's Wife'
(from: Gordon Bottomley, A Stage for Poetry, 1948)

Georgian Poetry publication


Edward Marsh would give King Lear’s Wife prime position in his anthology Georgian Poetry, 1913-1915, published by The Poetry Bookshop, the successor volume to his hugely successful Georgian Poetry, 1911-1912. The book appeared only at the end of 1915, after the Birmingham performances, the War having delayed its appearance by a year. Bottomley had arranged with Marsh for up to fifty additional copies of the pre-published sheets of his play to be generated ‘while the type is up and then sewn into pamphlets for possible use as acting parts and prompt copies’ (note 2). He retained a few of these for his own use, providing them with a hand-made cover to his own design. At least one of these copies has survived, inscribed to his aunt Sarah Gordon (‘to Aunt Sarah’), and is now at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. Bottomley also sent a copy to the play’s dedicatee, Thomas Sturge Moore, much to Moore’s delight. 


I could hardly believe my eyes when I opened your parcel last night and beheld the gleaming book. I took it to bed with me and have read and reread the opening flatteries. […] The design is very charming and I congratulate you on your first raid into plastic art. 

(note 3)

Photograph of The Sheiling, Silverdale
[in a dedication copy of King Lear's Wife and Other Plays, 1920]

Controversial song


The Birmingham production of the play did not pass without controversy. It related to Bottomley’s closing lines, when one of the two old women preparing the corpse of the dead Queen sings what came to be known as the song of the louse, after which the curtain falls.


The louse made off unhappy and wet;—

Ahumm, Ahumm, Ahee –

He’s looking for us, the little pet;

So haste, for her chin’s to tie up yet,

And let us be gone with what we can get—

Her ring for thee, her gown for Bet,

Her pocket turned out for me.


Until 1968, English stage performances were licensed by the Lord Chamberlain, an officer within the Royal Household who could censor plays at will. His office took exception to these lines and the context in which they were performed, presumably regarding them as undignified and offensive. Much to Bottomley’s anger, the lines had to be dropped and the actress simply hummed the melody to which the words would have been sung.

The opportunity for a first London production of the play came on 19 May 1916, when Viola Tree, the daughter of the actor-manager, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, organised a single matinée performance at His Majesty’s Theatre in aid of war charities, when it was seen together with short plays by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (Hoops) and Rupert Brooke (Lithuania), Brooke having died a year earlier. John Drinkwater again undertook the production, but it was not a very satisfactory occasion, partly to inadequate rehearsal and casting. Viola Tree insisted on playing the role of Goneril, and her mother, Lady Tree, was the Queen. Gordon and Emily Bottomley attended, and Emily would tell their friend Ben Fletcher, head of the Leicester School of Art, that ‘you saw a better thing at Birmingham than you would have done at His Majesties [sic], as far as “King Lear” went. The only thing is Rupert Brooke’s play was fairly well done & very interesting – with Ricketts designs for dresses &c which made Gordon quite jealous’ (note 4). 

Gordon Bottomley, King Lear's Wife and Other Plays (1920)
[Binding designed by Charles Ricketts: deluxe edition] 

Ricketts’s advice


Nonetheless, Ricketts had a direct influence on changes which Bottomley made for this performance, resulting from the intervention by the Lord Chancellor regarding ‘the louse song’. When Bottomley sent the special copy of King Lear’s Wife to Ricketts and Shannon, probably early in 1916, Ricketts was the first to respond, with a recommendation which Bottomley was to follow.



[dated by Bottomley27 Jan 1916

My dear Bottomley

This is just a few hurried lines to say how greatly I am impressed by King Lear’s Wife. It is fresh and full of surprise, with plenty of stuff of a finer order, though freshness, vividness, novelty of a kind count enormously where success or even & idiotic interference of the censor, yet, I am not sure that the character of the song does not underline the scene too much, which is quite forceful and weird [sic] enough without the extra cynical touch. The song in itself is too professional, too much for effect. I am not sure that something quite unrelated to the situation would not give added strangeness. […]

(note 5).

It was wise advice, as Bottomley readily acknowledged a few days later.


The Sheiling | Silverdale. | near Carnforth.

January 30th. 1916.

My dear Ricketts


I see you are perfectly right about the song, and you are the first person to say just that about it. I am so sure you are right that if I can think of the right snatches I shall substitute them. When I began the play I did about the first fifty lines and then was         interrupted by the idea of the song, which amused me so much that I did it straightway; then when, long after, I came to finish the play I just dropped each stanza into its socket without thinking quite enough of its relationship to the new material, and without realising that the song rather repeated the situation when it should have varied it. I see now that the old ladies seem to have    chosen it rather too consciously for the occasion from their repertoire.

I heard it performed at the dress-rehearsal at Birmingham, before the censor intervened; the words were scarcely intelligible, and such a fine shivery little tune had been found for them that it put things rather right, so that one only heard a malevolent uncouth gabble which sounded delicious.

(n0te 6)

In fact, Bottomley would not write new words only for the closing scene; he also substituted new texts for the play’s two other songs, all of which he sent for Ricketts’s approval, and these were inserted for the single matinée performance at His Majesty’s Theatre. Much to Bottomley’s pleasure, music was specially composed by a friend of Edward Marsh, the young Ivor Novello. Interestingly, however, when republished in the collection King Lear’s Wife and Other Plays (1920), for which Ricketts designed the cover, Bottomley retained his original texts, perhaps as much in defiance of the censor as for artistic reasons.

Gordon Bottomley, King Lear's Wife and Other Plays (1920)
[Binding designed by Charles Ricketts: regular edition]

Shannon reads King Lear’s Wife


If Bottomley benefited from Ricketts’s wise assessment as to what might work most effectively on the stage, we should not overlook Charles Shannon’s responses after his own first reading of the play, sent a few weeks after Ricketts’s more detailed assessment. Shannon too considered its effect in performance, but focussed more on the challenge of securing a performer adequate for the challenging part of Goneril, which in May 1916 would be played by Viola Tree (and not very satisfactorily, as it turned out). He believed it needed the skills of an actress like Lillah McCarthy, at this time married to Harley Granville-Barker (they divorced in 1918), but that it might be beyond even her capabilities. 


[dated by Bottomley16 Feb. 1916.


My dear Bottomley

I only read your wonderful ‘King Lear’s Wife’ last night having been busy since its arrival ploughing through Arnold Bennett’s ‘These Twain’. I cannot stop in the middle of any work I have determined to read out of sheer obstinacy. I liked your play immensely. I think Lear’s “The filth is suitably dead. You are my true daughter” quite worthy of Shakespeare himself. I shall look forward to seeing it played but I doubt if there are the people to do it. I imagine Goneril a great stumbling block the rest if frankly done should act itself. It is so refreshing to see real action in a play. The washers are superb in fact they all are.

Forgive this scrawl | & with kind regards to you both

Yrs sincerely | Charles Shannon 

I can only see Mrs Barker doing Goneril & she might overdo it

(note 7).


Emily Bottomley was as delighted as her husband by this response from Shannon, and was astute in recognising its rarity value. ‘We were so pleased this morning to get a letter from Charles Shannon. Now Shannon is a person who never does write a letter to anyone – he makes Ricketts do all the writing – hardly anything can provoke him to take up the pen, but by his own free will & unsolicited he has written to say he has been reading Mrs Lear & how much he likes it' (note 8).

                                                                                                John Aplin



Extracts from correspondence are used with thanks to Scirard Lancelyn Green, literary executor for Gordon Bottomley, and to Leonie Sturge-Moore and Charmian O’Neil, joint literary executors for Thomas Sturge Moore, Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon.



1. Bottomley to Trevelyan, 8 October 1915, collection British Library: BL Add MS 188957/1/87.

2. Bottomley to Marsh, 2 August 1915, Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

3. Sturge Moore to Bottomley, 18 March 1916, collection British Library: Add MS 88957/1/67.

4. Emily Bottomley to Fletcher, 23 May 1916, collection Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle.

5. Collection British Library: BL Add MS 88957/1/75.

6. Collection British Library: BL Add MS 58091.

7. Collection British Library: BL Add MS 88957/1/82.

8. Emily Bottomley to Joan Fletcher, about 17 February 1916, collection Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle.