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The Folger Spotlight

Collection Connections: 'If We Were Villains' by M. L. Rio

Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, Folger staff provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, Elizabeth DeBold, Assistant Curator of Collections, shares items she presented on April 7, 2022 as an introduction to If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio. Discussion questions from the evening can be found here.

M.L. Rio’s compelling debut novel, If We Were Villains, focuses on a group of seven young actors studying Shakespeare at the elite Dellecher Classical Conservatory in the 1990s. Oliver, James, Alexander, Filippa, Wren, Richard, and Meredith are close knit after three years of progressively intensive studies, but as with any family, their dysfunction is almost as strong as their devotion. Unfortunately, their studies are cut short when tragedy strikes, resulting in Oliver’s conviction and imprisonment. Full of dark academic emotion and Shakespearean levels of tragedy, this book inspired me to dig into our images of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century actors, costume designs, and early modern recipe books, among other items. M.L. Rio joined us for a joyful trip through our collections related to all things Shakespeare and Performance. 

The history of Shakespeare performance is full of successful partnerships. One such was Edward Hugh Sothern, an American actor active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who was known for his renditions of dashing, heroic roles. His successful business partnership with actress Julia Marlowe (born Sarah Frances Frost) led them both to dominate the production of Shakespeare plays in the 1900s. Here they are in the titular roles of Romeo and Juliet. These two costumes, although different than the ones pictured, were used by Marlowe and Sothern in a different production of the play. They eventually tied the knot in 1911, and were each others’ second marital partners, staying together until Sothern’s death in 1933. Marlowe was known for her feminist advocacy, and sat on the Advisory Council of the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage.

Maurice Barrymore as Orlando [in Shakespeare’s As you like it] [graphic] / Gilbert & Bacon. Folger Shakespeare Library: ART File B281.3 no.1 PHOTO (size XS).

Cousins Richard and Wren Stirling are part of a theatrical familial dynasty in the book. At the Folger, we have plenty of items related to some of the real-life acting families, including the Redgraves, the Booths, and the Barrymores. Maurice Barrymore, pictured here in a pose M.L. Rio playfully referred to as “the little teacup,” was the patriarch of the Barrymore acting family. His children, Lionel, Ethel, and John all went on to have successful careers in the theater, as did many of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren (including present-day actress Drew Barrymore).

We can’t talk about the history of Shakespeare performance without mentioning Paul Robeson. In 1944, he made history as the first African American to play the role of Othello in the United States (the first African American to play Othello on a major urban stage was Ira Aldridge at the Old Vic Theater in London in 1825). Robeson’s American production of Othello revised his explosive turn as the Moor of Venice in London in 1930 opposite Peggy Ashcroft. Both productions caused a great deal of tension before and during the performance, as a Black American man kissed and murdered white women on stage during a time when interracial marriage was illegal in the United States, and interracial couples faced violence and social ostracization. Rio pointed out that we often forget the power of emotion and the interplay between actors and audience in the moment, and commented on the beautiful work being done in the contrast between Hagen’s darker costume and Robeson’s lighter costume in this production.

A book of choice receipts collected from several famous authors a great part in monasteries and often experimented as to a great number of them [manuscript]. Fogler Shakespeare Library: V.a.452

Many of the characters in this book struggle with addiction and substance abuse. This is not a new or uncommon problem, and throughout time, people have tried to find ways to alleviate the effects of overusing and abusing various substances. The Folger has a wonderful collection of recipe books, including recipes for food and medicine (and sometimes both). Thomas Sheppey, a man writing in the 1670s, recorded this page full of advice for anticipating and possibly combatting hangovers and to “make sober one who is drunk.” His suggestions include drinking vinegar, “snuffing up” ivy leaves, and eating the roasted lungs of a goat, but he concludes “the best remedy is sleep.” 

Among other hidden references for the eager reader, Rio evokes two creators with close ties to Shakespeare and particularly the Scottish Play. Raphael Holinshed, the namesake of Dellecher’s Dean Holinshed in the book, receives top billing for a collaborative history of the British Isles first published in the 1570s. Shakespeare drew on many of the stories presented by Holinshed and his co-authors, including the plot of Macbeth. In this woodcut from the 1577 edition of Holinshed’s works, Macbeth and Banquo meet three women on the road, kicking off the long path to tragedy. Rio also pulls on Swiss painter Henry Fuseli, with one of her characters referring to his unnerving and supernaturally charged painting The Nightmare, which was popular with early Gothic circles at the beginning of the nineteenth century. He drew inspiration from Shakespeare’s work and brought this energy to their creation as well, including this painting of Macbeth’s encounter with the Weird Sisters in Act 4.

The characters in If We Were Villains often perform outdoors and in non-traditional settings outside of the control provided by a traditional theater in a building, and Rio seemed delighted to find that we had some photographs of outdoor performances from her alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, performances often take place in the Forest Theatre and Arboretum, lending the energy of a natural setting to theatrical productions. As a young college student writing this novel, M talked about taking inspiration from the unpredictable energy of outdoor performances here. Perhaps these photos will inspire you to go out and recite some Shakespeare to the trees, the moon, and whatever else might be listening this week. Just make sure to avoid any trios of women you might find stirring strange concoctions over an open fire, or at the very least, be polite. 

To immerse yourself further in real-world materials related to this month’s pick, visit our curated If We Were Villains image collection.

Graphic illustration of stacks of books in purple. aqua, and whiteThanks to Elizabeth DeBold and M. L. Rio for participating in this month’s session! Words, Words, Words continues on May 5, 2022 with a discussion of Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. Registration for this session opens Monday, April 11. We hope you make a plan to join us!

We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program: