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Interview: Dr Eleanor Lybeck


Our New Generation Thinkers for 2017 were announced at Sage as part of BBC Radio 3's Free Thinking Festival. This week we talk to Dr Eleanor Lybeck from University of Oxford.

The New Generation Thinkers for 2017 made their radio debut on Radio 3 Tuesday 4 April

Doctor Eleanor Lybeck

Her story so far

Eleanor researches the history and practice of popular performance from the turn of the 19th century, including the story of her great-grandfather who made his name as a stage clown and joined the D’Oyly Carte company performing around the world in comic operas. When Eleanor’s father disappeared from her own life in 1993 he took with him the remnants of her great-grandfather’s career, which she has now recovered and stitched together to tell the tale of this once celebrated and now forgotten figure of the theatre. She has explored how the circus has been a theme running through Irish culture. Her new project will explore how contemporary political rhetoric has, since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, appealed to voters through literary and cultural allusion.

Divorce can mean more than the break-up of a relationship. It can also create a chasm between children and their ancestors.

When New Generation Thinker Dr Eleanor Lybeck's father disappeared from her life in 1993, he took with him memories of her great grandfather, Albert James, and the remnants of his illustrious career on the stage working with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company at the Savoy Theatre.

These included publicity posters, scrap books, scene plots, annotated scores and souvenirs, personal letters sent to Rupert D'Oyly Carte and affectionate notes to Eleanor’s infant grandfather.

“I had always known that there was something unusual and special about my great grandfather,” she says. “But it wasn't until I set off for London to pursue my undergraduate degree that I really discovered Albert and realised what I had lost when my father left.

“While I was studying at King’s College – just down the road from the Savoy – I decided that this was the time to find out more.

“As an academic, I have always been fascinated by performance in its broadest sense. And my research into Albert has always run alongside my studies, teaching and wider work.”

Dr Lybeck's Radio 3 programme will present the results of that research. It will be the story of Albert James told through interview, biographical essay, and song. How a runaway apprentice from the City of London made his name as a stage clown in the 1870s and later joined the original D'Oyly Carte company, taking lead roles in provincial tours of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Savoy Operas and going on to perform all over the world.

 “One of the most important sources for discovering Albert’s role in popular performance and theatre at the end of the nineteenth century has been an amazing collection of D’Oyly Carte memorabilia preserved by the private collector and Gilbert & Sullivan expert, Melvyn Tarran,” says Dr Lybeck.

“Some of the objects in the collection had been sold to Mr Tarran by my father. It was so comforting to see how much care Mr Tarran had taken in displaying Albert’s things. He had even mocked up Albert’s desk in the Savoy Theatre offices, where he had worked at the end of his career as an advance publicity manager.”

Another important way in which Dr Lybeck has tried to access the life of her ancestor is by taking to the stage herself.

“I began to perform because I was so captivated by the idea that someone so close to me had been on the stage,” she says.

“I soon decided to form my own theatre company, Sidelong Glance, and have been working with my sister to produce a stage biography of Albert in which I play our great grandfather on the last night of his life.

 “I hope the Radio 3 programme can be an extension of this theatre piece and an outlet for my wider research. Radio 3 has such a long history of celebrating the D'Oyly Carte, it’s very exciting to have the opportunity to introduce Albert and other forgotten comic opera stars of his era to their audience.”

The programme will also open up a more general discussion of what identity is and where it comes from, as well as how you can lose it, and rediscover it.

“When there is divorce or separation in the family, there can be a real sense of not knowing where you come from,” says Dr Lybeck.

“I certainly want to explore that. At the same time, I want to bring Albert and all the wonderful people he worked with centre stage again.

“There is great value in recovering these odd and overlooked aspects of our nation’s cultural history.”

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