Curators' Conversation with Robert Costa

The Churchill's Shakespeare exhibition opened with a bang, as Washington Post reporter, Washington Week moderator, and NBC News and MSNBC political analyst Robert Costa led a spirited onstage discussion about the influence of Shakespeare on Winston Churchill with the exhibition’s curator, Georgianna Ziegler, associate librarian and Louis B. Thalheimer head of reference emerita at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and Allen Packwood, curatorial advistor and director of the Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge.

The conversation was part of the exhibition opening on October 15, 2018 at the Folger Shakespeare Library. 


COSTA: Good evening. Great to be here, really appreciate the warm welcome. It's wonderful to have Jenny Churchill here and Laurence Geller and Michael and the whole team at the Folger Library, a special place. It's special for me to be here with Georgianna and Allen Packwood. I used to bother Allen Packwood when I was a student at Cambridge. I would be the American in the hooded sweatshirt asking too many questions, but who would have thought 10 years later we'd be right here.

PACKWOOD: And you're still asking the questions.

COSTA: I am still asking questions. But Georgianna, I thought I'd start with you, because you went over to meet with Allen at Cambridge to help think through this exhibit—which is wonderful, I hope you all get a chance to spend a few minutes there afterward for the reception. And you learned that Jenny Churchill, Churchill's mother, was part of the inspiration for Winston Churchill and his love of Shakespeare.

ZIEGLER: Yes, well, I really had a good time visiting the Churchill Archives. I'd never been there before, until I went over in April of last year. And I was quite taken with the material I was finding about Jenny Churchill. She, of course, was an American, who sort of in a Downton Abbey kind of way, married into the British aristocracy. But I was interested in the fact that she was very interested in the theater. She went to the theater. She also supported the idea of putting on, of developing, a National Theatre in London, and in order to raise money for that, she sponsored a big extravaganza of a Shakespeare Ball in 1911. Then that was followed up in 1912, by a kind of a Shakespeare Disneyland creation at Earl's Court in London. And the Folger interestingly has the spectacular program. It's more than a program, it's a memorial volume, a souvenir from the ball. But then we also had in our so called "black box" collection of odds and ends, some of the little programs from Earl's Court.

PACKWOOD: So, she would have loved this setting, I think, wouldn't she? I mean this whole setting could have been there in that Earl's Court exhibition.

ZIEGLER: Exactly. I mean she... because part of Earl's, the idea behind Earl's Court, was to recreate Elizabethan buildings. And you know, what's more of an Elizabethan building than the Folger Theatre in Washington, DC.

COSTA [Gesturing to stage set]: This is for which performance?

ZIEGLER: King John.

COSTA: And Churchill loved the age of Elizabeth. I was looking through some of Churchill's speeches. In 1946, he visited Richmond, Virginia, and he said, "the light of the Elizabethan age, which Shakespeare, Raleigh, and Grenville adorn, casts its unfading luster upon our scene here and in Williamsburg nearby." Allen, talk about how Churchill saw the age of Shakespeare, the age of Elizabeth.

PACKWOOD: Churchill was consistently and passionately interested in history, even at an early age when he wasn't interested in very many other school subjects. We have his school reports in the archive from his first school, St. George's School in Ascot. And they make for hilarious reading. You have things like, "Conduct has been exceedingly bad, cannot be trusted to do any one thing."

Yet he later admitted in his autobiography, My Early Life, that where his reason, interest, or imagination were not engaged, he would not or he could not learn. And I think that's the key to it. He only took up those subjects which interested him, and the subjects which interested him at school were English and history. And of course, those two things come together in the Elizabethan age, and they come together in the works of William Shakespeare. He enjoyed entering the Shakespeare competitions at school and Harrow, and he had a very good memory, so he enjoyed learning Shakespeare.

This is a man who lived his life on a dramatic plane. He was brought up in Blenheim Palace, surrounded by tapestries featuring his illustrious ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough. He's aware of his own lineage. And I think, you know, he reads Shakespeare and he thinks, yes, this is what I want to do now.

ZIEGLER:  C’est moi.  Well, I think also his playing with toy soldiers so much and playing with toy theaters when he was a boy, even before he was actually studying history, I guess.  But he studied history in a way, the Napoleonic period, playing with the soldiers and sort of bringing those two things together at a very early age, theatre and war, in a sense, even as a child.

COSTA: You have a book coming out later this month, Allen, called How Churchill Waged War. Did he see war as theatre?

PACKWOOD:  I think he did. Churchill, I think, from a very early age decides that he wants to do something with his life. One of the big drivers I think is the sad and early death of his father in 1895, when Churchill is only 20 years old and he hasn't yet really proved himself to his father.  So, his father's death has a huge impact on him. He goes into the army but I think very quickly he realizes that he doesn't want to stay in the army. He’s going to take up his father's mantle, he's going to go into politics, he's going to beat his sword into a dispatch box.

But in order to do that, in order to do that he needs two things: he needs fame and he needs fortune. And so, he sees his military career as a means to an end. He's deliberately getting himself transferred to as many dangerous places as possible in a desire to get shot at, in a desire to get noticed, so that he can write these things up as newspaper articles and books, make a name for himself, and make enough money to fund his political career. 

There's one letter, I think, which is very telling, in which he writes back to his mother from the Indian northwest frontier in 1897, where he's campaigning against Afghan tribes. He writes, “I rode on my white pony all up and down the skirmish line. Foolish perhaps, but I play for high stakes. Without the gallery, things are different.” So, I mean I think he did see war as theater. I think actually he saw his whole life as theater. He wanted to be the stage.

COSTA: What about his rhetoric?  If he saw his life as theater, you look at some of his speeches out here in this exhibit and the way Churchill would write out his speeches, it's almost like verse. I'm not saying it's Shakespearian but it has that pattern in a way. What did you make of that throughout your research? When you saw Churchill's speeches, did it remind you in a way of how Brits back then would think through Shakespeare in their own speeches?

ZIEGLER:  I think it all goes back to his study of elocution. I mean, in a sense, Churchill is from the school tradition of memorizing Shakespeare as Allen was saying before. And—I was explaining to a couple people ahead of time—that's what Mrs. Folger had in mind originally when she created this theater as part of the original library building. She thought that there would be young people getting up here and spouting off Shakespeare like Churchill did as a boy. 

So, I think it's this tradition, which unfortunately we're sort of losing except right here at the Folger where they try to get school kids up here doing it, but in general not as many people are out there memorizing. I think that's what he probably thought of when he thought of giving his great political speeches later: I'm giving them to a gallery, I'm in Parliament, I have an audience, and I'm speaking this speech. You're right, he had them typed out to look like the shorter lines of Shakespearian speeches. 

COSTA: There's a wonderful moment in this exhibit—I believe it's Richard Burton in Henry the Fifth—Churchill's sitting in the front row watching Richard Burton and he's reciting the lines as the play is going on.

ZIEGLER:  It's Hamlet.

COSTA: It's Hamlet, okay.

PACKWOOD:  Just picking up on what Georgianna said, I think Churchill liked to have an audience. His political career was forged in the Edwardian period—it's the sort of pre-radio, pre-television age when you would have to go out and speak to huge crowds. So, I mean, you would be going out and you would be speaking to political gatherings of five or ten thousand people, very difficult to imagine now a days, I know, but this is how his oratory and his rhetoric was formed. That was his apprenticeship. 

And it's interesting that his chosen, preferred method of working was dictation. He would like to sit in a chair like this, perhaps with a cigar, perhaps with a glass of whiskey and soda, and he would dictate. The duty secretary would take it down on a state of the art silent typewriter. His words would then be handed back to him, first of all in normal type script, and he would go through with his Churchillian red pen making annotations and changes. You can see this on some of the drafts in the exhibition. When he's happy that the speech is more or less in its final format, it's taken away again by the duty secretary and it's retyped, typed up at about this sort of size, so that it fits comfortably into his jacket pocket or into his hand, tacked together so that can't lose his page, but then as Georgianna said, it's set out on the page in this blank verse format like poetry. And I don't know where this came from. I'm not aware of any other British politicians of that era doing this. I think in those speech notes you can see the influence of Shakespeare and of the book of Psalms and the things that he'd been studying at school. Because of course the advantage for him of having it set out that way on the page is that it gives him the rhythm, it gives him the emphasis, it gives him the pauses.

COSTA: Do you think he was also inspired by Laurence Olivier and other stars of the time? During World War II, our big stars on the screen were reciting Shakespeare. You think of some of his big speeches, it has echoes of Saint Crispin's Day and all of that.

PACKWOOD:  I think so. Churchill loved the movies, and of course, he was friendly with actors like Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. He was very keen that Laurence Olivier do the film Henry V during the Second World War.

ZIEGLER:  Right, I mean, he sponsored Olivier making that as a propaganda film.

COSTA: It was propaganda?

ZIEGLER:  Yes, it was a propaganda film.

COSTA: What do you mean by that?

ZIEGLER:  Well, it was God for England and Saint George and for us winning World War II, you know. It was a way to spark on the troops at the time and to give them courage. I think it really has that effect. Even now when you listen to it, it rouses the spirit. It's interesting to compare that one with the one Kenneth Branagh did many, many years later which we all remember from our time. It was a sort of post-Iraq, kind of Vietnam thing, which is a much darker view. It's the same play, and yet what Olivier did with it, was to just spark it, you know, so that it really does rouse the troops.

PACKWOOD:  And this is at a crucial moment. This is for D-Day effectively, for going back in to northwestern Europe.

COSTA: So, Churchill, at the time in ’44, was that a major cultural moment in Britain, that movie coming out during the war?

ZIEGLER:  Well, I think it was certainly a very important early film in Technicolor. Somebody was telling me recently that I think Technicolor itself was sort of restricted a bit during the war and that they had permission to use this film that was available, color film, to make this Henry V.  And of course, it's absolutely spectacular.

The Folger has a wonderful collection around this movie because we have the original type script for the film itself, which was given to the Folger Library by Laurence Olivier. That's not on display but it's in the collection. We also have a very large set of black-and-white stills, photographs, from the movie, and then one or two that have been hand colored. It's really interesting to see the whole trove of material as well as the programs. One of the things out in the hall that we borrowed from Mr. Bachholder [PH] is a poster for the film when it was given in Germany right after the war in 1946. It's in German— it's Heinrich V.

You'll see when you look at the exhibition that both sides during the First and Second World Wars were using Hamlet and Henry V for their own purposes.

PACKWOOD:  So, for Churchill it was all about mobilizing the English language and sending it into battle, which, of course, is what JFK famously said when Churchill was awarded honorary US citizenship.

COSTA: Talk about that, Allen. JFK, one of our great speakers in American political history, he praises Churchill's “mobilizing the English language,” that's the phase he used. How did he see the English language, and maybe inspired in part by Churchill and his value and appreciation for the English language?

PACKWOOD: So, how did...

COSTA: How did Churchill see the English language? He always seemed to put an emphasis on it in his public career.

PACKWOOD:  Yes, I think so. Churchill's whole life and career is underpinned by the use of words and by the power of words. He finances his political career through his writing as a young man, as a war correspondent, and then throughout his life as a writer. His daughter Mary Soames used to say that the family lived from pen to mouth. And it's certainly true that Churchill's attitude tended to be that if they'd incurred another bill, another bill had arrived, there was another debt, well, you know, his response to that was to write another article. 

And he does use his pen throughout his life to finance his particular lifestyle. But, of course, he also uses it to underpin his political philosophy. His books are also about getting his own views out there, getting his own take on the First World War, on the Second World War, putting forward his defense of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, and of his ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough, and then, of course, using his speeches and articles throughout the 1930s to warn about the dangers of fascism and after the war to warn about the dangers of communism, which, of course, is why ultimately, as you said earlier, he wins the Nobel Prize for Literature—and he wins it for both the written and the spoken word.

ZIEGLER:  So, can I ask you something about that? When I was reading about it, I remember reading something about one of his ministers in World War II complaining because Churchill always gave them such long minutes. But then people started to realize that actually these were the notes for the book that he was going to write about World War II.

PACKWOOD:  There's a moment where Chamberlin, before Churchill has become Prime Minister, when Churchill is still first Lord of the Admiralty in Chamberlin's cabinet in 1939, where Chamberlin complains that Churchill has been sending him very long minutes which he's sure is just material for the book. What's interesting is that when Churchill gets into office he's very clear that actually anything, any order he issues, should be in writing, and that his subordinates should not rely on reports of what he might have said. It has to be written down.

And equally, he much preferred to receive information in writing. Clementine Churchill said that if you wanted to get her husband’s attention, then don't talk to him, put it in writing and deliver it to him. And actually, he liked his key minutes that he received to be as short and succinct as possible. He felt that if you couldn't say something in one page of good English, it had to be good English, then you shouldn't say it at all.  Of course, that didn't sometimes stop him from perhaps dominating cabinet meetings a little bit and for going on rather longer than some of his admirals and generals would have wanted.

ZIEGLER:  Well, he certainly wouldn't have tweeted, that's for sure.

COSTA: Are you sure about that?

PACKWOOD:  Well, I'm not.

COSTA: As someone who has to cover these kinds of big personalities all day, are you sure he would not have tweeted?

PACKWOOD:  I'm not sure about that. I don't think he would have tweeted, I think he would have had people who...

ZIEGLER:  People tweeted for him.

PACKWOOD:  ...tweeted for him, just as he had on the whole people who would be on the phones and work the phones for him. Actually, he was very good I think at spotting new technology and using new technology. If you think of all of those sort of key Churchill speeches, think of how many phrases, Churchillian phrases you know without really thinking about it—Blood, toil, tears, and sweat, never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few, give us the tools and we will finish the job. Those sorts of lines, they would lend themselves to tweeting, wouldn't they?


COSTA: What about this part of the exhibit from 1947, “The Dream”? Michael alluded to it in his remarks. Churchill, he would reference Shakespeare, he would appreciate Shakespeare, but with this 1947 essay, “The Dream,” he seems to almost be living a Shakespearian life. He sees his father while he’s painting a picture.

ZIEGLER:  I guess I could be accused of making the Shakespeare connection when I first saw that in the archives. I realized that he had written this...  Well first of all, he was, of course as most of you know, quite an artist himself. Churchill found it relaxing. We have a reproduction out there of a very damaged painting that had been given to Churchill of his father, Lord Randolph. Churchill took it upon himself to copy it, and when he was in the studio copying it, he said he saw his father's ghost appear, sat down in the chair, and Churchill carried on this long conversation with his father, mostly filling him in on political points because so much history had happened from when his father had been on Earth as it were that he had to fill him in on a lot of things.

And then he wrote this up in an essay called, “The Dream,” which I guess first was just for the family. And then it was eventually published. I thought, “Wow, he sees his father's ghost, and then I thought, his father's ghost—this is really Hamlet. You know, it's the father and the son, plus he'd written the biography of his father and had also written a six-volume biography of John Churchill, Lord Marlborough, the Duke of Marlborough. There's that cartoon out there from Punch which shows the Duke of Marlborough as a ghost standing behind Churchill after he's published the biography and sort of encouraging him for his career.

PACKWOOD:  And the interesting thing you just touched on is that it's the one thing I think that Churchill didn't write for money and didn't write for publication. He was normally with Dr. Johnson on this, that no one but a blockhead writes except for money. But this he wrote and he seems to have written it for his family and presented it to his family first of all.  He may have told it to them and they may have persuaded him to, to write it down. It wasn't published until after his death. The very poignant thing about “The Dream,” I think, is the way that he ends it. Churchill has explained to his father's ghost all of these terrible things that have happened since his father's death—there have been these two huge world wars, millions have died—and yet then, before Churchill has had a chance to explain his own role in these events, his father's ghost disappears in a puff of cigarette smoke. And the final words from the father's ghost before it disappears are, “To hear you speak, I'm surprised that you didn't do more yourself. I'm surprised that you didn't go into politics.”

COSTA:  When I was at Cambridge, it would almost move you to emotion, when I would go through—they used to have the micro films when I was there, now it's all digital—Churchill writing letters to his father, almost begging his father to come visit. There was a coldness there in that relationship. When you think about Churchill and Shakespeare, they're two titans of their times combined in this exhibit. You look at the beginning of the exhibit, you have the correspondence box with Queen Elizabeth. Can you talk a little bit about Churchill's relationship with the monarchy?

PACKWOOD:  Should I?

ZIEGLER:  Yes, that's you, it's your monarchy.

PACKWOOD:  Well, yeah.

COSTA: It's true.

PACKWOOD:  I think there was a little war about that, wasn't there?  Clementine Churchill said of her husband that he was the last great believer in the divine right of kings. And certainly, it's true that throughout his life.

Of course, he served several monarchs, all the way through from Queen Victoria to Elizabeth the Second, and he is very deferential to monarchy. And, of course, sometimes that hurts him. During the abdication crisis in December 1936, he actually stands up in the House of Commons and tries to defend the king and says actually Edward should be given more time. He's completely out of step with the rest of parliamentary opinion and public opinion at that point. He's actually shouted down in the House of Commons and it's one of the few times that he's not able to make himself heard in the Commons. Of course, this isn't quite how the movie The King's Speech presents it.

During the Second World War, he forms a very effective partnership with King George the Sixth and we have some wonderful letters between them.  And then, of course, he's the first prime minister for Queen Elizabeth II, is actually the prime minister at the time of the coronation in June 1953.  And I think, you know, it's very clear that he saw her coronation, coinciding, of course, with him having returned as prime minister, as a new Elizabethan age and that's how he describes it.

COSTA: Georgianna, final question here and then we'll get a few questions from the audience.  Coming at Churchill through your prism of Shakespeare, what was that experience like and what did you learn along the way?

ZIEGLER:  Well, it was very interesting for me. I have dabbled some in the Victorian period which is sort of the beginning of Churchill's time and Shakespeare at that time, and of course, I'm also interested in the history of women. So, I'd read the biography of Clementine Churchill and I was quite taken by her and also by Jenny Churchill—and Jenny Churchill's interest in the theater and Shakespeare.

But it was a great surprise to me to see how much Churchill was influenced by Shakespeare. I didn't know about his schooling and all those letters that he wrote talking about trying out for the Shakespeare Prize like the one here on display. It's kind of sweet because he says to his mother, “I'm sorry I haven't written more recently but I've been really busy trying to learn Shakespeare for the Shakespeare Prize.” And at the end of the letter, he signs it kind of formally, you know, “your affectionate son,” and then he crosses out “affectionate” and writes “loving.”  He was so removed from his mother in terms of parenting that it's interesting he's, as you said with his letters to his father, he's striving for this.

I was interested to see how much Shakespeare ran through the whole family, from his mother, himself, and then with Clementine and their children. At the end of the exhibition, you have the letter that Clementine writes saying that she's been reading Shakespeare to Diana and Randolph and they're memorizing Shakespeare.

So, you can see this sort of thing starting all over again. Then Sarah becomes an actress and there she is playing Ophelia in the Hallmark Hall of Fame Hamlet.  So it keeps going down from one generation to the next.