In Memoriam: Michael R. Booth (1931-2017)
Friday, October 27, 2017
Posted by: Noe Symonanis
In Memoriam: Michael R. Booth (1931-2017), Emeritus Professor of Theatre, University of Victoria
Tracy C. Davis, Barber Professor of Performing Arts, Northwestern University
In 1996, ASTR honored Michael R. Booth as its Distinguished Scholar, recognizing a lifetime of work on nineteenth-century British theatre. He was born in Shanghai, where his father was manager of the P&O Bank, and fled with his parents from the chaos of the Sino-Japanese War to Victoria, British Columbia where his precocity flourished. He began his undergraduate studies at Victoria College, aged 16, and matriculated from the University of British Columbia, BA Hon (English) in 1951. He was a great raconteur, and told many stories at his own expense, for example that he gone away to university to study English with the conviction that Gone with the Wind was the ultimate in literary achievement. No wonder, we might conclude, that he would later champion things so outré as melodrama, burlesque, pantomime, and extravaganza.
Michael took his MA at the University of London, then returned briefly to UBC to teach English. In this period, he discovered that a succession of gold rushes resulted in theatres being built throughout the interior of British Columbia, many of which remained amid the abandoned flumes and bars of ghost towns. Leading stars of the British theatre had ventured to these theatres, and Michael wanted to know what this was all about. When he returned to London to take his PhD, the very idea that one could make a scholarly career out of Victorian drama was so counter-intuitive that he was obliged to write his dissertation on the eighteenth century; still, he pushed the topic as close to the nineteenth century and as relevant to performance criticism as he could get away with.
During this period he met his first wife, Jenifer, a librarian at the British Library. They resettled in Canada. While on faculty of the English Department at Royal Military College (1960-66), he found Kingston, Ontario to be a nice town but lacking in extramural activity. Opportunity came knocking. At this time, an enormous corpus of nineteenth-century plays was being brought out by Readex: printed plays, manuscript plays, and prompt books were comprehensively photographed and the texts miniaturized on card paper that required a special machine for enlargement. RMC bought a subscription and Michael systematically read each installment as it was issued.
As baby boomers matured, Canadian universities expanded and in this process qualified Canadians who could fill new posts were cherished. The University of Guelph headhunted Michael to become its founding chair of theatre (1967-75). When the University of Warwick, just twelve years old, created its Department of Theatre Studies in 1975, Michael moved to England to become its first head and professor. The designation Theatre Studies recognized a less literary, more comprehensive approach to the discipline and this was reflected in the curriculum that Michael and his earliest colleagues, including Clive Barker, championed. Despite his scholarly specialty, Michael relished theatre of all kinds, particularly the avant-garde, and so built an undergraduate curriculum that emphasized political theatre and social engagement as well as theatre history. During this period, he served the Society for Theatre Research in various ways, including as editor of Theatre Notebook. In 1984, Michael responded to two more calls: the Thatcher government’s incentives to trim the payroll by giving professors early retirement packages and the invitation to return to British Columbia to chair the theatre department at the University of Victoria. This was a happy homecoming, and he remained in the department until 1996.
Michael never learned to type, let alone use a computer. His prodigious output was accomplished the old fashioned way, in an era when academics and typists had symbiotic occupations. He became my doctoral supervisor just after he finished his groundbreaking book Victorian Spectacular Theatre. Since, in those days, dissertators drowned in index cards and other scraps of paper, I asked him how he went about his work. “The first day of my sabbatical I sat down without a thought in my head. My desk had nothing on it but a pad of paper and a pen. Then I just started writing.” This only slightly disingenuous marvel was accomplished by dint of a prodigious memory and capacity to organize masses of detail. Indeed, he knew his argument and put his hand on each corroborating snippet as the need arose, drawing upon his personal library and collections of Victorian paintings, especially watercolors, and promotional materials that he had painstakingly amassed. But, to round out this reminiscence, I will add that he also halted work punctually for morning coffee (never tea) and afternoon tea (never coffee) even if this meant stopping mid-sentence, heedless of remoteness from the desired provisions. For him, academic work was a matter of routine, and long before slogans about work/life balance came to the fore it was clear to everyone that he would get on with the job, but only after a morning swim, and carry on with the job as long as necessary, but that these breaks were sacrosanct.
Though a dedicated undergraduate teacher, Michael had a laissez-faire approach to postgraduate supervision. He told me that he had seen his doctoral advisor precisely four times: first at the mixer welcoming new students, once when sent on an errand to purchase pipe tobacco, another time through the glass panel of his advisor’s door, and finally at his viva voce when he defended his dissertation. He was determined to be approachable, and we talked far more often during intervals at the theatre than in his office. He was much in demand and invitations took him to Australia and to a visiting professorship at Columbia University, where he stepped in for Martin Meisel in 1984, offering a course on farce. Those who knew him chiefly through conferences might describe him as avuncular, and decidedly idiosyncratic. The finer points of political correctness eluded him, but so too did sartorial vanity. What mattered was advocacy for his field, and he carried this out by directing as well as editing and writing about nineteenth-century plays. Determined that both Victorian melodrama and Victorian acting be better understood, he could recite Henry Irving’s repertoire of dramatic monologues with the intensity of one possessed, and defy any spectator’s skepticism until the passion and the pathos were grasped in equal measure.
In retirement, Michael enjoyed the sunshine of Greece where he and his second wife, Judy, settled in Afissos. He died peacefully in Victoria on 2 October 2017 following a short illness. His desire to present one more paper, in spring 2018 at the Palazzo Pesaro-Papafava, the conference site maintained in Venice by the University of Warwick, shall not be fulfilled. Instead, this meeting will be dedicated to his memory.
Special thanks to both Judy Booth and Jenifer Booth for their generous assistance
David Mayer, Professor Emeritus, University of Manchester
I’m not going to claim that my friend and colleague Michael Booth single-handedly created nineteenth-century theatre studies, but he was—assuredly and undoubtedly—one of the pioneers who championed research into Victorian theatre and the examination of Victorian play texts, the theatrical mise-en-scène, and nineteenth-century audiences and theatres and dragged these subjects into the academy where their study became—at first—permissible and—ultimately—respectable. Before Michael, there was George Rowell in Britain and Alan Downer in America who argued for the importance of this period of theatrical effort and who offered plays and biographies as more-than-reliable proof of their claims. But Michael was something altogether distinct. Where Rowell and Downer glowed, Michael exploded: a dozen essential books in less than two decades, beginning in 1964 with Hiss the Villain, then continuing with Eighteenth Century Tragedy and English Melodrama in 1965, following these with his five-volume English Plays of the Nineteenth Century between 1969 and 1976, and then going on to produce Victorian Spectacular Theatre and Prefaces to English Nineteenth Century Theatre and Victorian Theatrical Trades before the 1980s had ended. He had put nineteenth-century theatre onto the academic map.
But Michael was more than the author of brilliantly researched seminal books. Keynoting at conferences, he spoke to and encouraged more timid scholars to follow his example, if not always with his remarkable success. He knew how performers worked and how theatres functioned. He taught undergraduates the value of nineteenth-century theatre study and lured from me the best doctoral student I never had, turning her into an acknowledged and venerated leader in our field. Other scholars who, when postgraduate students, experienced his teaching, speak warmly of him.
Michael was generous. He answered queries. He was generous with data he had mined at great effort. He provided leads into topics which we had never or barely considered. He had a store of theatrical anecdotes which engagingly bolstered his points.
I always knew that Michael would out-distance me in the field, that where I lumbered, he walked gracefully and assuredly. I am immensely grateful for how much Michael has given my chosen field of study, for its breadth and for some of its depths. I am delighted to be able to acknowledge my great debt to Michael and pleased, as well, to stand in his shade. We will miss him.
A Personal Valediction
Victor Emeljanow, Emeritus Professor of Drama, University of Newcastle (NSW)
I was in London in 1974 on leave from the University of New South Wales. My academic trajectory had hit an impasse. I had been employed by the university on the grounds of my knowledge about Greek and Roman theatre, but by 1974, partially affected by the Australian involvement in the Vietnam War, my sense of security was being challenged and indeed my scholarly interest in Classical theatre was waning. I decided to go to a meeting of the Society for Theatre Research held in the rather austere rooms of the Art Workers’ Guild in Bloomsbury – I think it was an annual general meeting. I can’t remember the details of the meeting but I was introduced to a microbiologist and to his friend who possessed some of the qualities of a leprechaun with glasses that emphasized a penetrating glint, and what I took to be a shamrock pinned to the lapel of his jacket. On closer inspection I discovered that I was mistaken – it wasn’t a shamrock but a Mickey Mouse pin. The microbiologist was Terence Rees and his friend was a Canadian academic called Michael Booth.
The three of us got on famously and we ended the evening at a riotous Italian dinner in a restaurant around the corner. I don’t think I had the opportunity to meet Terence again although his book on theatre lighting, finished in 1978, remained a source of invaluable information for me. My contact with Michael, however, would prove to be enduring. Our subsequent discussions gave me a sense of direction which I lacked at the time. His first book, English Melodrama, together with the early collection of British and American melodramas, Hiss the Villain, which I read immediately, were eye-openers to a theatrical world far removed from the certainties of an established literary canon, let alone the well-trodden paths of Classical tragedy and comedy. Michael pointed me towards the beginning of a new journey.
That journey was strengthened by the opportunities to talk about Victorian theatre when he visited Australia or when I was able to spend time with him at the University of Warwick and the University of Victoria. (I remember with clarity an occasion on one of his Australian visits when he delivered a scintillating version of the monologue “The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God.” He looked his audience directly in the eye and challenged anyone to laugh. Nobody did.) The last time I saw Michael, sixteen years ago, was in Afissos. He and I strolled down to the water’s edge, where I remained while he swam his twenty laps.