Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 115
In a novel just released in the US, author and longtime BBC radio host Simon Mayo tells an amazing—but true—story: that England’s first all-black production of Romeo and Juliet was staged by Black American prisoners of war in a British prison called Dartmoor, during the War of 1812.
Like its setting, the novel, Mad Blood Stirring, is bleak. But it also contains flashes of friendship and creativity that emerge from the Shakespeare plays staged under the order of a larger-than-life—but also real—character: African-American POW “King Dick,” who ran the prison’s segregated block. We invited Simon Mayo to join us on Shakespeare Unlimited to tell us about the history behind his novel and its characters.
Simon Mayo currently co-hosts the popular Film Review show on BBC Radio 5 Live. The American edition of Mad Blood Stirring was published by Pegasus Books in 2019. Mayo is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published February 19, 2019. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “To Prison, Eyes; Ne'er Look On Liberty” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano at VoiceTrax West in Studio City, California, and Sharon Bowe and John Hemingway at the BBC in London.
MICHAEL WITMORE: From 19th-century England’s cruelest and most notorious prison, stuffed in war time with hopeless American sailors, comes death, riot, and a history-making production of Romeo and Juliet. Well, of course it does.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. In a novel just out in the US, Simon Mayo—a long-time BBC radio host—tells an unlikely story that historians say is very likely true: that England’s first all-black production of Romeo and Juliet was staged by sailors—most of them American—in a prison called Dartmoor during the War of 1812. The novel, titled Mad Blood Stirring, is bleak, like its setting. But it also contains flashes of friendship and a love of art that emerge out of gospel music performances and Shakespeare plays staged under the order of a larger-than-life—but also real—African-American prisoner of war called “King Dick”—who ran Block Four, the prison’s segregated block.
Simon Mayo tells us more about the book and its history in this podcast, which we call To Prison, Eyes; Ne'er Look On Liberty. Simon Mayo is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BOGAEV: Well, Simon, when I started your book I realized that I hadn't known that Americans were held prisoner on British soil during the War of 1812. I mean, honestly, I didn't know or remember much about the War of 1812 at all, but I thought that if American sailors were captured they were just put to work on British ships. They were pressed into service. So, is this just common knowledge in Britain because you're better educated than we are?
MAYO: No, there is no common knowledge about the War of 1812 in the UK, none at all. In fact, you know, we kind of don't really know that the war existed. In the UK it was sort of part of the war against Napoleon. It was a trade war. You know, it was all a little bit messy. Then the peace treaty, when it was all over, didn't change anything. In the US, the perception was different because you just won the Battle of New Orleans. . .which actually was fought after the peace treaty had been signed but the news hadn't arrived there, so that the impression was, "We've just beaten the British. Oh, look, peace treaty!" So it felt as though America had won.
BOGAEV: Well, I'm relieved to hear that, because it's all a bit hazy. What was the deal, then? Prisoners were given their choice? Either work for us, fight against your own country, or you're going to be held prisoner in Britain?
MAYO: Yes, that is precisely the choice. The British had been using impressment in the UK. That's how they staffed the ships in the first place. For a period of many years, they had been taking sailors off other ships. If I remember right, the first item on Madison's Declaration of War in 1812 was the British use of impressment. Because so many of the battles were at sea, that's why it was American sailors who were taken and, indeed, British sailors taken to America. But the American prisoners, the most unlucky ones, ended up in Dartmoor Prison, which is where we start our story. They don't all end up there, but seven thousand American sailors were incarcerated in the worst prison that Britain had to offer in 1813 and 1814.
BOGAEV: And you describe it in the book. Why don't you read that passage for us so we can picture something?
MAYO: Okay. So, we are arriving at Dartmoor Prison, this is very, very early in the story, and we're arriving with one of our main characters from the book, who's a white, American sailor who's 16 years old. His name is Joe Hill. And he's arriving with what few compatriots he has left from his ship, which is called the Eagle, and they're being marched to the prison.
"The fog rolled away, blown by some unfelt zephyr. They had been climbing since first light, but this was no vantage point, just an endless, rotting-brown wasteland, a panorama as bereft and cheerless as a desert. Joe fought against the chills.
“‘If it wasn't for the hallelujah in our hearts, Mr. Roche,’ he observed, ‘we might conclude this is the arse-end of England.’
“‘We might indeed,’ said Roche. ‘And looks like we're 'bout to climb right into it.’
“Up ahead, the redcoats conferred, then steered their prisoners from the track towards a steep escarpment. As Joe scrambled past, two of them smirked at him. ‘Hope you're not going to stop singing now,’ said the purple-faced once. ‘Not now you're so nearly home.’ They laughed, and then the purple one coughed and spat. The path they indicated was wider and less marshy, but the gradient was a tough one and the English knew it.
“‘What was wrong with the other track?’ asked Joe.
“‘View's better this way,’ said the purple soldier.
“‘Proper scenic it is,’ sneered his colleague. ‘Quite something, top of this here hill. All the prisoners say so.’
“The sailors' exhaustion was now bone-deep. Painful, bloodied feet began to slip from underneath tired bodies as they climbed, weary hands reaching out for balance. Leaden legs cramped then gave up altogether. Joe put both hands on the sodden, muddy hips of the barrel-shaped man in front of him, and pushed.
“The summit was marked by a solitary, skeletal pine tree, and a militiaman sitting beneath stood to greet them, his arms open wide. ‘Welcome to Dartmoor,’ he beamed. ‘Why don't we rest your rotten Yankee bones here for two minutes, just so you can take it all in, like.’
“Joe clambered his way over the top, pushing Goffe then pulling Roche as he went. Around him, the cursing told him everything he needed to know. This wasn't the casual profanity that was part of a sailor's life. This was fearful, terrified blasphemy.
“‘Sweet baby Jesus, would you look at that!’
“Across the fields, another half-mile of gorse and stones, a great prison city had been carved from the moor. A huge encampment of enormous gray hulks, vast granite buildings with pointed roofs shunted hard together, seemed to grow from the earth. There were turrets, chimneys, fences, and, surrounding the whole, two formidable encircling walls. All of it was gray. A deathly, exhausted, pain-filled gray. An unearthly silence seemed to spread across the fields, reaching out from the prison to envelop the sailors.
“‘What in God's name?’ muttered Joe, dread settling deep in his stomach. ‘It's a ghost town, a ghost town.’
“‘And we're the ghosts,’ said Roche.”
BOGAEV: Okay, this...
MAYO: Well, I don't want make people think this is a grim book, you know, because this is quite a cheerful book in places. But that...
BOGAEV: It's a playful romp.
MAYO: Yes, thank you. Well, it is in places.
BOGAEV: Well, it doesn't sound like a picnic. You've been there. What was it like then and how bad is it still?
MAYO: Yeah, no, and... oh, it's still horrendous. It's still a working prison and Dartmoor is a very wild and desolate place. That's why it was built there. And I think it was kind of built to terrify people and it does exactly that. It looks as though it hasn't changed in two hundred years. I mean, you know inside now that the conditions are a lot better. I spoke to some of the inmates who actually read the book as well, which was quite an unusual experience. But, yes, so the conditions inside now are finer and conform to all the rules and regulations which you'd expect. But back in 1813, 1814, when these guys arrived it, was a hellhole.
BOGAEV: And terribly overcrowded, more than a thousand prisoners in there?
MAYO: Yeah, so, there were seven prison blocks arranged in a half-circle and each block, which we were just describing there, had three floors and each one, at the time of the story, holds a thousand prisoners. It was kind of made to hold about three hundred. Each block was made to hold about three or four-hundred, but is now holding a thousand. Originally, it was built for the prisoners of the war against Napoleon, and then as the French left, the Americans filled the place up. So, yeah, at the start of the story there are seven-thousand American sailors in the seven different blocks, 1,500 on the first floor, five hundred on the second floor, and then the top floor is called the cockloft where there was trading and there was gambling and theatrical performances.
BOGAEV: Let's talk about this racial separation, because that's such an important component of the story. The prisoners were segregated by race. There was one block for non-whites, and all the others were for the white prisoners. Is this historically factual? And if so, how did the segregation come about?
MAYO: I mean, this was really how I got to write the story in the first place, because I'd been researching a prison in the southwest of England, just for my previous novel, and I sort of stumbled on this fact that, in 1814 at the request of white American sailors, they went to the British agent, which is the name given to the governor, and they said that they wanted to be separated. They want to be segregated from their comrades-in-arms, and the British agent agreed. So, prison four became basically the non-white block because there are prisoners there from India as well.
But the segregation was at the request of the white sailors. And I time and again came back to this central fact because it seemed to me astonishing. They had been fighting on the same side and the first thing that they do when they get onto English soil is they want to be separated. It's that act of violence at the start of the book which sort of sets everything else up and running.
BOGAEV: And when you read that, is that what made you want to write a novel about this?
MAYO: Yeah, I think so because it just felt like a part of British history that I didn't know anything about. It's the only time in British history that there's been racial segregation in a prison, and I thought, well, why don't I know that? And when I went to the museum in Dartmoor, I asked the guy who runs it—he was an expert in the prison—I asked him about the segregation and he didn't know anything about it either. So, it just seems to me as though this has been a story waiting to be told, that it's an incredible story. It produces the first, not to get ahead of ourselves, but, you know, it produces the first black Shakespeare in the United Kingdom, as in terms of a Shakespeare production. It's the first time that black Gospel music is heard in the United Kingdom. As I mentioned, the only time there's been a racially segregated prison. And nobody knows about this. Nobody knows about this story, so I thought, well, I'm not going to wait for someone else to tell the story. I'm going to tell it. And that's what we're talking about.
BOGAEV: Well, it is wild, and let's get to the Shakespeare part of the story. You said something interesting at some point. I read that you said, "Oh, I was looking into this and I discovered this story, and here this segregated group they put on Othello. I might have stopped there, but then they put on Romeo and Juliet, and that's what really got me interested."
MAYO: Yes. No, no, that—
BOGAEV: It sounded like you wouldn't have written the book if they had just done Othello.
MAYO: I mean, I probably would have. It might have been a different book because it was the denouement of reading that it was Romeo and Juliet that was the second production that made me think, okay, this is a gift. This has fallen in your lap. If you turn this down you're an idiot. So, I decided not to be an idiot. I just think there's something about... obviously, there's something about the drama of Romeo and Juliet and the two houses and the warring families that, if you were in a segregated prison, it was just an obvious story to do.
Plus, Romeo and Juliet has a bright, positive opening half, really, and it's quite possible that there would be a happy ending. It's only at the beginning of Act 3, of the killing of Mercutio, that it all kind of spirals out of control. So, that was the pattern that I followed. I think it just felt like a gift. I don't think Othello would have lent itself as easily to what I wanted to do in this novel. And because Romeo and Juliet is told in five acts, I've told it in five acts. It's not a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, but there are some echoes of Romeo and Juliet that happen, and some of the characters represent some of the characters in Romeo and Juliet. It just felt like the right... it just sort of fell on me and I thought, “Okay, well, I'll go with this.”
BOGAEV: I can see that, because it's kind of mind-blowing that men would put on Romeo and Juliet in prison under these circumstances. And how did that come about? In the book, one of the characters says that the idea to put it on came to the black prisoners' ringleader, King Dick—and we'll talk about him in a moment—and it came to him when they were locked up with these French sailors, as you said, leftover from the Napoleonic Wars. So, originally, it must have represented separate nationalities.
MAYO: Yeah, so, there is very little that is known about the facts of this, other than Romeo and Juliet was performed in Block Four in 1814. I've cheated a bit by shifting it into early 1815 for the purposes of the story. We also know that the French had a theater company and they put on plays when they were in prison four, and that the American sailors kind of inherited a lot of their sets and the American prisoners had two theater companies. So, for the purposes of clarity, I've just reduced it to one theater company. So, we know that these theater companies existed. We know that Othello and Romeo and Juliet were chosen and were put on and performed, and it cost sixpence to sit at the front and thruppence to sit at the back. That's...
BOGAEV: You mean, people who came from outside of the prison had to pay?
MAYO: No, no, I think they were inviting other prisoners to come in. There's a lot of money swilling around. Because these are prisoners of war, they get paid a salary by the American government. So, the money comes in and the money is spent in the market. There are also winnings which the sailors have from boats that they've captured, so there's a lot of money that's swilling around, and so there's an incredible amount of gambling. So, asking money for a theatrical production might sound a weird thing to do in prison, but because they were prisoners of war they had cash, and so they spent it.
BOGAEV: And they had scripts? They had a library?
MAYO: Yes, there was, I mean...
BOGAEV: Despite this being the ass-end of England?
MAYO: Yes, yes, exactly. I think it's in Block Seven, one of the sailors had spent winnings on a library—and this is all true—and I used that library as the probable source of the scripts that they use for this production.
BOGAEV: Well, it's also true there was this King Dick character. He just sounds like something else. He knows his Shakespeare very well, down cold. He quotes Hobbes. He's just intellectually and physically larger than life. Who was this guy?
MAYO: King Dick's real name is Richard Crafus. We know absolutely nothing about him until he arrives in Dartmoor Prison, having being caught by the British off the French coast. He very quickly takes over prison four. He's six foot... he's either 6’5”, 6’7”, or 7’, depending on whose account you want to believe.
BOGAEV: Or 9’10”.
MAYO: Or 9’10”. I mean, and this is an era where the average height of the sailor was about 5’2”, 5’3”, so this man is a giant. He also wears a bearskin hat on his head and he carries a club in his hands at all times. He runs the gambling. He basically has his finger in all the pies in the prison and he's obviously a fearful character. But here's the thing: he's clearly a Shakespeare scholar and it's his production… his idea to put on Othello and it's his idea to put on Romeo and Juliet. The challenge for this book was to try and make him not a cartoon character, because if I had just invented this 6’7” guy with a club and a bearskin hat and a love of Shakespeare, I think you might be thinking, "Really?"
BOGAEV: Yeah, that would have been very convenient.
MAYO: Yes, exactly. But he is this astonishing man and I really I felt the pressure to try and make him a believable character. I'm sitting here in the studio, I'm a white Londoner, and I was trying to make King Dick the center of the story, because I wanted him to dominate this the way he dominated prison four. So, I sweated long and hard to try and make him a character that you would cheer for, but you would be afraid of.
BOGAEV: And you also feel for him. He kind of becomes this King Lear figure by the end of the book, because he is so broken up about the strife, the violence.
MAYO: Yes, that's right. He does essentially become Lear at the end because—I mean, this is a bit of a spoiler, but it is in the history books—the story of the Americans in Dartmoor kind of finishes with the Dartmoor massacre in April 1815. As I see it, Dick has done his level best to keep the lid on this boiling pot of a prison and he has fought long and hard to try and keep everything together. But when there is, as the British say it, this escape attempt and the British troops open fire, that's kind of, you know, that's kind of the end of it.
But he's just an interesting character. I mean, I saw him as I guess a tribal leader and an equal with the prison agent. So, we have some scenes in the book where they speak on equal terms, just to give an insight into the kind of man that Dick was and the kind of thinking and the kind of process that he was going through.
BOGAEV: Well, a tent pole of this plot, and there's a lot going on in your book, is that Romeo is black and Juliet is a white sailor, and this was a huge revolutionary abomination for these sailors locked up at Dartmoor in the book. They didn't blink, it sounds like, at two men kissing each other, but God forbid it be interracial. So, how did that story line evolve for you as you were writing, working with this material?
MAYO: So, I made a decision very early on to run the production of Romeo and Juliet into the massacre. Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, so I put the two together. And I don't think there would have been an eyebrow raised at all about a man playing Juliet. The first Juliet in the first-ever production of Romeo and Juliet was a man called Robert Gough. But, yes, the fact that Joe Hill is white and Habakkuk Snow is black, it becomes a real moment and—
BOGAEV: It was the first thing they rehearsed, the first scene they rehearsed.
MAYO: Yeah, that's right, that's right, and it becomes a very, very big deal, indeed. In fact, the agent says, you know, you scrap the kiss or you scrap the play. But it's also a dramatic moment, I think, because Joe and Habs have to rehearse the kiss and when they do it, Joe discovers that actually he quite enjoyed it, so... I don't want to give too much away, but they are the Romeo and Juliet of the play and they are the Romeo and Juliet in my story as well.
BOGAEV: Well, there is an interesting twist when King Dick says that Shakespeare was black. He's arguing with this white character Joe, and King Dick's men agree. So, what did you want King Dick to mean by that?
MAYO: A few years ago I was very fortunate to interview Maya Angelou, and in the course of that conversation she said:
[CLIP: Maya Angelou, in an interview with Simon Mayo]
ANGELOU: When I came to one—well, a number of sonnets—I thought, that’s got to be a black girl who wrote that.
MAYO: It was something about the way he wrote in one of his sonnets.
[CLIP: Angelou reads from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29]
“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate…”
See? That’s a black girl!
It was a very powerful moment, I thought. So, I was thinking, well, if Maya Angelou thought that growing up as a kid in the 20th century, how much more likely is it that King Dick might have thought the same thing? So, yes, he is absolutely... to Joe's bafflement, King Dick declares that Shakespeare was black and Joe is advised to just go along, as you probably would, as he's a very, very tall guy. But I thought it made King Dick's ownership of the play and ownership of Shakespeare that much more believable and understandable, if he thought that Shakespeare was black. So, if this doesn't sound too boastful, I took my lead from Maya Angelou and I thought if she can believe it then maybe we can, when we read about it, of King Dick.
BOGAEV: That's interesting that you tell that story, because I was trying to put myself in your position as a British, white man writing a book dealing with race and Americans, what you would go to, to inform yourself. Did a conflict come up for you personally?
MAYO: Well, you mean apart from on every page from the beginning to the very end? You mean apart from that?
BOGAEV: I suppose, yes. Yeah, apart from that.
MAYO: I came to the conclusion that if I sat down and worried about it too much I would never write a single word. So, what I decided, I just attacked each scene as I would any other story and I gave it my best shot. So, I did an awful lot of reading, I did a lot of research, and what you have in Mad Blood Stirring is the best that I can do and I'm hoping that people will go, "Okay, yeah, I can see that and I love the ride that we go on," and "Who knew that about Romeo and Juliet?” But I think I have been as faithful as I can to the drama that was happening in the prison in 1814. I've injected more racial tension in the story than there is documentary evidence to suggest, but that is because most of the documentary evidence that we read comes from the best-selling memoirs which were written by the white sailors after the War of 1812 when they got home. But was I aware that I was detached from the life story of these people? Sure, yes, absolutely. In my last book, the lead character's a 16-year-old girl. You know, with respect, I think that's what authors have to do.
BOGAEV: Well, switching gears for a moment, you talked about taking artistic license and that Romeo and Juliet inspired the structure of your novel, that you have five acts, and you also switch back and forth from novelistic writing to scenes written as if they were a play. What was the idea there?
MAYO: I thought that was... I mean, I was really happy to do it and I enjoyed writing them. I thought that was the kind of... when I handed it into the editor I thought that it might come back, you know, like a piece of homework that you get back from your teacher at school, with a red line through it, you know, "See me," let's think of that. But actually, everyone has liked it as much as me.
The general idea—I should put this in some kind of context. Each of the five acts ends with a dramatic piece of dialogue. Specifically, the reason I did it is when I was getting towards the end of Act 1, I had taken on holiday with me the new Harry Potter play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and it was reading a play at the same time that made me think I would like to hear Dick's voice and Thomas Shortland’s voice speaking together. When I'm halfway through the book I get a call from a woman called Tessa Ross, who's the film producer who's bought the film rights for Mad Blood Stirring, and she said, "Well, we've got someone to write the screenplay.”
"That's fantastic. Who is it?”
And she said, "It's Jack Thorne. He's the guy who's written the Harry Potter play.” So, it was—
BOGAEV: Wait a second. I was going to ask you whether you contacted them because you were reading the play. It was totally out of the blue?
MAYO: No, it was completely out of the blue. When I got to meet Jack sometime later, I said, "You have to know, your influence in this book is—even though you've only just written the screenplay—the manuscript that you have just read has your influence because those dramatic scenes at the end of each act, they're only there because I've just read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child."
BOGAEV: Well, what's the status of the script, and are you involved in it?
MAYO: No, I'm not... if Jack's writing it, I'm quite happy to let him do that. So, the status of this is... from the outside, the film world is torturously slow. I'm a radio man. I think, you know, you do one show, you move on to the next, and it's all over and done with very quickly. However, the film business doesn't work like that, and the last time I checked I think they found a director and they're going to be working with him. But, you know, there are a thousand reasons why these things fall apart, so I'm not... all I'm responsible for, Barbara, is this book that we're talking about, and if it becomes anything else, then I'm very excited. But if it doesn't, then I'm very happy with the book.
BOGAEV: Well, one more question, a Shakespeare one. Working on the book and thinking about the role that Shakespeare was playing, or at least acting in Shakespeare's plays for these prisoners who are just on tenterhooks, the rumors that the war's over, it appears to be that the war's over, but they’re still prisoners. There's so much tension, there's so much going on in this prison, and they throw themselves into Shakespeare. I wondered if you discovered anything for yourself about Shakespeare or Romeo and Juliet that hadn't occurred to you before.
MAYO: That's a very good question... by which I mean I hadn't thought of an answer before you'd asked it. I would say that I had never read Romeo and Juliet all the way through without a break, ever. So, more than anything else, what I took away from it is, and this is going to sound like a cliché, but I couldn't help but think that if Richard Crafus, a.k.a. King Dick, was impressed with the words of Shakespeare, and wanted to own the words of Shakespeare, and chose Romeo and Juliet for his men in prison in Dartmoor, that is has a timeless quality. I said it was going to be a cliché, but there was something about the streets of Verona that Shakespeare wrote about which switches very easily and nimbly into the chaotic streets of Dartmoor prison, which is why there have been so many adaptations. But there was something about the genius of the characters and the two tribes that Shakespeare wrote about which fits perfectly into the experience of the sailors in 1814 and to our experience of life now in 2019.
So, I'm restating something that your listeners will be very familiar with, but as someone who hadn't read Romeo and Juliet for himself, which I did in one sitting, I think that was what came over to me most powerfully. There was something about his prose, something about his characters, something about the lines, something about the drama that he puts on for us which still works now as it has done for hundreds of years. And, you know, and if it works in the most appalling of conditions, and it's hard to think of a production of Romeo and Juliet that would have been produced in worse conditions than the one in Dartmoor prison in 1814. If it can work there, then I think it obviously still has a power for everybody now.
BOGAEV: Well, Simon, this has been delightful talking with you. I really appreciate it.
MAYO: Barbara, I appreciate your time. Thank you very much, indeed. I've loved it.
WITMORE: Simon Mayo is a long-time B-B-C Radio personality, who currently co-hosts the popular Film Review show on BBC Radio 5 Live. His new novel is titled Mad Blood Stirring. The American edition was published by Pegasus Books in 2019. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
“To Prison, Eyes; Ne'er Look On Liberty” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano at VoiceTrax West in Studio City, California, and Sharon Bowe and John Hemingway at the BBC in London.
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