Before I began work on ‘Elias Ashmole versus the Widow’ I had co-written two other plays on local, historical subjects – “Testament to a Trade” (2007) with Gwilym Scourfield and Heather Dunmore for Oxford Theatre Guild, commemorating the end of the slave trade in Britain, and “Lies on their Lips” (2009) with Gwilym again, for Abingdon Drama Club, about a robbery and murder in Abingdon at the end of the eighteenth century. I looked forward to further opportunities to produce a script on the basis of records, and found the combination of Hester Tradescant’s mysterious death and the foundation of a world-renowned museum – the Ashmolean, compelling
Reading through documents often gives a strong sense of a character’s voice. (Bibliography below).Elias Ashmole emerges from diaries and commentary in C H Josten’s collection of materials. There is no shortage of material, too, on the Tradescants, for instance in Arthur McGregor’s books on the museum. Prudence Leith-Ross is one of the authors who introduced me to the conflict between John Tradescant the Younger, Hester Tradescant and Elias Ashmole, while other writers unequivocally take sides – Mea Allan, referring to Elias’ proceedings against Hester, remarks acidly, “He had buttoned it up three ways…”
In searching to bring Hester to life I found there was substantial material on her utterances and actions, but writers Anne Laurence , Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford, and Olwen Hufton provided more accounts of seventeenth century women’s lives and the moral and legal context within which they lived. R.F Ovenell’s history of the Ashmolean gave a chronological overview of my whole story. Nicholas Tyacke’s History of the University in the seventeenth century was again delved for context.
Above all, as its title proclaims, the play is about the contest between Elias and Hester over the collection – Tradescant’s Ark. For that I have kept close to the documented evidence, but fleshed out the characters psychologically, and presented some of the legal actions in a heightened way. That is, where arguments would not have been presented in face-to-face confrontations of the adversaries at the time, I have put them into that format for dramatic interest. At the same time the words in those scenes are substantially those of the documents from the period. Hester’s submission (Scene 20, pages 46 -47) is what I read and then copied from a facsimile of the 1676 original one winter’s afternoon in the Bodleian. Josten believes the submission is written in Elias’ hand. Hester may have been illiterate by our standards, and signs herself ‘ester treduscant’.
‘Elias Ashmole versus the Widow’ remains true to the sequence of events in the relationship between Elias and Hester, and their outcomes, and seeks to reveal the motives which drove the characters.
Joel Kaye, July 2013
Allan, M., 1964. The Tradescants, their Plants, Gardens and Museum 1570-1662 (London).
Hufton, Olwen The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe, vol 1
Josten, C. H. (editor) (1966). Elias Ashmole (1617–1692). His Autobiographical and Historical Notes, his Correspondence, and Other Contemporary Sources Relating to his Life and Work Oxford: Clarendon Press, vol. I, p. 18
Laurence, Anne: Women in England 1500-1760
Leith-Ross, P., 1998. The John Tradescants: Gardeners to the Rose and Lilly Queen (London).
MacGregor, A., 1983. Ark to Ashmolean (Oxford).
MacGregor, A. 2001The Ashmolean Museum: a brief history of the institution and its collections
MacGregor, A. (ed.), 1983. Tradescant's Rarities (Oxford).
Mendelson, Sara & Crawford, Patricia 1998 Women in Early Modern England
Ovenell, R. F., 1986. The Ashmolean Museum 1683-1894 (Oxford).
The History of the University of Oxford: vol. IV, Seventeenth Century Oxford, ed. Nicholas Tyacke
Where I will admit to fabrication is in Elias’ song ‘When I was a little boy’ which is probably from a later century than when the play is set , but did fit the character. I found it in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.
The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs 1959 ed. Ralph Vaughan Williams and A L Lloyd