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Unlocking the Secret Soul: Mary Kelly, Pioneer of Village Theatre

  • Mick Wallis

Though little remembered or honoured today, Mary Kelly (1888–1951) was one of the more enlightened among those who, between the wars, encouraged the then-booming amateur theatre into attempting more than the limp reproduction of West End successes. She had a strong belief in the intrinsically dramatic potential of the country dweller, imbued with generations of traditional lore: but unlike many of her more nostalgic contemporaries, Mary Kelly well recognized the class conflicts and history of deprivation of the rural poor, and blended such elements into the pageants she devised not only for her own village but for other rural communities – and which she encouraged others to emulate through her instructional writings. Mick Wallis, Reader in Performance Studies at Loughborough University, has written on modern-day pageantry in his two-part article on ‘Pageantry and the Popular Front’ in NTQ 38 and 41 (May 1994 and February 1995), and in ‘Delving the Levels of Memory and Dressing-up in the Past’ in Inter-War Theatres, edited by Clive Barker and Maggie Gale, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. His millennium show, In the Twenty-First Century Everyone Will Be Stelarc for Fifteen Minutes (Rehearsal for a Ceremonial Event), with Jan Overfield and Movements in Mayhem, was premiered at Loughborough in December 1999.

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Notes and References

1. ‘Prompter’, ‘Devonshire Cream Tea’, The Western Independent, 31 May 1936.

2. Johns, Roy, ‘Memories’, in Devonshire Dialect (Plymouth and West Devon Cassette, Talking Newspaper for the Blind, 19931995).

3. Book, p. 5. For bibliographical details of this and other Kelly items, see ‘Principal Printed Works’, above.

4. Book, p. 1–5 passim. This essay partly answers Margaret's hope (p. 181) that someone might make an account of Mary's life-work. It supplements my entry in The New Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

5. Book, p. 164–91 passim. See also Howkins, Alun, Reshaping Rural England: a Social History, 1850–1925 (London: Harper-Collins, 1991), Chapter 2.

6. Johns, op. cit., and Book, passim. But ‘us wasn't short of entertainment’ even before then – much of it closely imbricated with House and Church. There were plenty of village musicians. Concert evenings and dances to piano and riddle were held in the cleared-out school-room (and the Squire would sometimes lend a magic lantern and operator); the Rector's wife, a country dancing enthusiast, held folk festivals on the Rectory lawn in summer (Johns, op. cit.).

7. Village Theatre, p. 126.

8. Ibid., p. 127.

9. MS note at Kelly House. I am grateful to Mrs. Margery Kelly for repeated help in preparing this material, and to Roy Johns, interviewed on 25 May 1999. These sources and the Book silently inform much of the narrative.

10. Maitland Kelly's forename commemorates an earlier intermarriage of the two families.

11. At Holy Cross, Pondoland.

12. Village Theatre, p. 146.

13. The Kelly Players became a fully-fledged amateur company, continuing into the 1960s.

14. Village Theatre, p. 156–85 passim.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., p. 37.

17. Ibid., p. 50. Kelly says it is difficult to be precise, since ‘until lately, so few people have ever troubled to make more than passing comment on the lives of those who get them their bread’ (p. 44).

18. Ibid., p. 37–124 passim.

19. Ibid., p. 73–8 passim.

20. Ibid., p. 67, 82.

21. Ibid., p. 87, 93.

22. Taylor, George, History of the Amateur Theatre (Colin Venton, 1976), p. 118.

23. Village Theatre, p. 168–76 passim.

24. ‘Prompter’, op. cit., was reviewing the play – and praised Roy Johns's voice, ‘as rich as the soil outside’.

25. The Mother, p. 7.

26. Ibid., p. 11.

27. Ibid., p. 12.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid., p. 9.

30. For a general appraisal of pageantry in the interwar period, see Wallis, Mick, ‘Delving the Levels of Memory and Dressing up in the Past’ in Inter-War Theatres ed. Barker, Clive, Gale, Maggie (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

31. How to Make a Pageant, p. 5, 8.

32. Ibid., p. 8–9.

33. Ibid., p. 6.

34. Glassberg, David, American Historical Pageantry: the Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), p. 5; Matless, David, Landscape and Englishness (London: Reaktion Books, 1998). Aspects of Village Theatre and the pageants discussed below also align Kelly with Matless's other chief category, the ‘organicist’. While both groupings embrace far-rightist positions, Kelly comes nowhere near them – see her comments on Nazis in Village Theatre, p. 157. She also seems little concerned with ‘Englishness’ – the ‘countryman’ in any country is her principal interest.

35. Withington, Robert, English Pageantry: an Historical Outline two vols. (Harvard, 1918, 1926), p. 205.

36. Rillington, p. 3; Charles Henderson in Bradstone, p. 7.

37. Rillington, p. 3.

38. Group Play-Making, p. 9, 11.

39. Ibid., p. 11.

40. Ibid., p. 16–68 passim.

41. See Newton, Robert, Acting Intprovised (London, Nelson, 1937). For a brief outline and critique of Koch's work, see Glassberg, op. cit., p. 242–5.

42. Newton, op. cit., p. 3–4, 26.

43. Group Play-Making, p. 35.

44. Ibid., p. 13–28 passim.

45. Ibid., p. 111–12.

46. Drama, p. 6.

47. Quoted in Styler, W. E., A Bibliographical Guide to Adult Education in Rural Areas, 1918–1972 (Department of Adult Education, University of Hull, 1973), p. 6.

48. ‘Mary Kelly, Dartington, and the Ends of Patronage’, forthcoming.

49. Village Theatre, p. 165.

50. Book, p. 207.

51. Interview with Barbara Kelway, 1 June 2000.

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New Theatre Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0266-464X
  • EISSN: 1474-0613
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