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In the Archives: Richard Byrne

Richard Byrne is the editor of UMBC Magazine as well as a playwright whose work has been produced in Washington, D.C., St. Louis and Prague. Staff of Special Collections at UMBC are most familiar with Richard visiting us to investigate a story relating to our campus history, but in today's essay he explores the impact that archival research has had on his life as a playwright.

The Baby Resting on a Skull

Whether it’s digging into faded texts of Renaissance alchemy for a play that I’m writing, or excavating times gone by on the campus of our university for an article in UMBC Magazine, the thrill of chasing down knowledge in archives never goes away.

Archives are a double affirmation. First, the archive affirms that there are substantive parts of our experience – our words and objects and images and artifacts – which are worth keeping, worth guarding, and worth tender and attentive care. And yet, despite that necessary emphasis on jealous care and preservation, the archives enact the delightful paradox of ensuring and promoting access – by researchers and the general public – to these materials.

My most exciting recent encounters in archives came as I was writing my play, Burn Your Bookes, about the 16th Century alchemist Edward Kelley and his step-daughter, the Neo-Latin poet Elizabeth Jane Weston. In the archives of Harvard University’s Houghton Library, the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Library of Congress, I gained access to books owned by Kelley’s employer, John Dee, held Weston’s books of poetry (printed in Frankfurt and Prague in the early 17th Century) in my hands, and read (with fascination and profit) an English translation of famous alchemist and physician Oswald Croll’s Alchemical Basilisk – which includes recipes for aurum potabile (“drinkable gold”).

A playwright who writes about history always finds excitement in getting closer to his sources. The Folger Shakespeare Library, for instance, has a copy of a book owned by John Dee that has the Renaissance polymath’s copious marginalia scribbled in an essay on demonology. Seeing the deep grooves that Dee’s pen cut into the page of that book gave me a sense of the intensity of his character and his quest for occult knowledge. Comparing two different versions of Weston’s first book, Poemata, allowed me to examine at firsthand a discrepancy between the two editions noted by two scholars – Donald Cheney and Brenda Hosington. Cheney and Hosington discovered that the Harvard version of the book had a line on the cover giving imperial sanction to its publication intact, but that the version in the Folger had that line cancelled out. The discrepancy – and the obvious agency behind it – provided me with a key plot point in the play.

Indeed, the Houghton Library’s copy of Weston’s second book, Parthenica, also proved to be a revelation. Both of Weston’s books were published by a Silesian nobleman named George Martinius Baldhofen. Poemata was a small, plain book. But the Parthenica was a much more elaborate production – stuffed not only with Weston’s poems but with poems by literary luminaries and Weston’s correspondence with them. Weston did not supervise the edition, so the book is truly a window on the fascinating character of Baldhofen, right down to its fanciful frontispiece, with human figures and birds woven into an intricate pattern – and an infant reclining its elbow on a human skull! The fancy and extravagance married to morbidity that was only revealed by close examination of the book gave me strong material to write Baldhofen’s part in the play.

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