“…mark me for his friend”

I met someone.

It came about, like these things often do, through a friend connecting us.  Soon, we were sending letters — the good, old-fashioned, hand-written kind. Then we started talking on the phone, and. he sent me photos, and a book of poetry.  And, on a fateful day in November, eight banker’s boxes arrived from California.

Six of the eight boxes we received in November.

Six of the eight boxes we received in November.

My penpal was William A. Riley, who sent his beloved late wife’s world of research on Timon of Athens to the American Shakespeare Center archives. I was delighted, and I found the timing of this gift almost magical. Lois Folger Riley* wrote her dissertation on the play that would complete the ASC’s first go at Shakespeare’s canon.  Her lifework, our company work, intersected.  One, perhaps, feeding the other.

We often receive gifts from supporters who contact us to find out if we can use the items. Last week, I took in a collection of books on 18th Century acting in England.  Earlier this year, we received costumes — party frocks and army gear (from two different donors), but this is the first time we had made a friend and been the recipient of a collection of research materials that, as best I could tell, had never been published anywhere else.

After their arrival, we let the boxes sit next to Kimberly Newton’s desk for a long while, contemplating what we could do with them.  Should they go into our archives at Washington & Lee?  That would mean cataloguing every piece of paper, or, at a minimum, each file folder.

One of the eight boxes of research that arrived in Novenmber

One box of files

Our archival area at the ASC administrative office is just big enough to hold the five years of materials we keep on site, so we couldn’t really keep all of Riley’s materials here.  Finally, I stopped letting the boxes haunt me each time I walked by Kimberly’s desk and decided that if I tackled a box or two a week, clearing away anything that was clearly detritus — boxes of carbon copy paper, stacks of typing paper, devoid of type — we would get somewhere. While I did that task, I also noted how the boxes were organized.  Some were the neat files pictured above, usually divided into research on chapters.  Others contained amazingly detailed pieces relating to research — down to the requests Ms. Riley sent to the librarians at the British Library for books she wanted to study.  There was a list of good places to eat in Louisiana, used went she went to visit her dissertation adviser.  There were also envelopes full of what we, at the office, have come to call “early modern word processing,” duplicates of sentences that she would tape into paragraphs in varying arrangements as she organized her thoughts.  A week or so ago, having done an initial assessment and seeing what we had to work with, I began the process of examination in earnest and developed a rough plan for moving forward.

This is the collection of each chapter we will be working with.

Each of the items in this stack is one chapter

Over the next few months, I will share that plan with you and will show you what we come up with.  We don’t know yet if we will be able to preserve this work for future generations.  We’ve yet to dive into the prose, or grapple with the premise, but we look forward to finding out what is there when we take that next step. We want to evaluate this research and see how it relates to what we do, possibly open up discussions — between students, teachers, professors, scholars, actors — and ask what they see, at long last, in Ms. Lois Riley’s The Meaning of Timon.

As we undertake this journey, I expect we will find out things about women writing their dissertations in the mid-20th Century, about the process of getting words to paper and research in that period vs today (see the “word-processing” example above), and, most of all, about Timon.  As for Bill’s wishes, when he sent the materials, he asked that we use them as we are able.  He shared many things with me about the woman he clearly loved, telling me things like “I used to say ‘she is the smartest woman I know,’ but now I say ‘she was the smartest person.'”  He told me, too, about her family — she is related to both the founder of the Folger Shakespeare Library and Starbucks coffee. I can’t think of a better pairing–if anyone could use some coffee, it is the people working hard at that regal institution.  He’s filled me in on their travels and has sent some photos with extensive captions written in his hand.

A collection of photos of Bill and Lois Riley, 1975-79. Bill's daughter stands next to him in the photo on the upper right.

A collection of photos of Bill and Lois Riley, 1975-79. Bill’s daughter stands next to him in the photo on the upper right.

I am looking forward to discovering more about this rarely staged play and about the scholar who created enough material to fill eight banker’s boxes with it.  I hope you will join me on this journey.

The journey begins.

The journey begins.

*She wrote under the names Lois Starbuck (a collection of poems called Journey Through Sun and Shadow) and Lois D. Pizer (dissertation).