Brief Lives

Written by Patrick Garland

Tuesday 1st March to Saturday 5th March 2011

Directed by Jaspar Utley

It is a cold winter's day in 1696. John Aubrey is recounting his sometimes bawdy, sometimes instructive, and always entertaining gossip that he has been collecting all his life. He can justly be claimed as the first English biographer and he tells us how Sir Walter Raleigh had his way with the ladies; gives a slanderous account of William Shakespeare and recounts how the Earl of Oxford embarrassed himself in front of Queen Elizabeth. A lively, if not necessarily accurate, account of eccentricities and anecdotes that still resonates today.

AuthorPatrick Garland

Patrick Garland (b 1935)

Patrick Garland is a writer, actor and a director of theatre, television and film. He started Poetry International in 1963 with Ted Hughes and Charles Osborne. He was a director and producer for the BBC's Music and Arts Department (1962-1974), and worked on its 'Monitor' series. In 1964, he directed the 'Monitor' film, 'Down Cemetery Road' about Philip Larkin, in which John Betjeman also appeared. He served as the Artistic Director for the Chichester Festival Theatre twice, 1981-1985 and 1990-1994, where he directed over 20 productions. His 1971 television film of 'The Snow Goose' won a Golden Globe for Best Movie made for TV, and was nominated for both a BAFTA and an Emmy. He was made an Honorary Fellow of St Edmund Hall, Oxford in 1997. Other productions of his, include the revival of 'My Fair Lady' on Broadway in the early 1980s with Rex Harrison (about whom he wrote 'The Incomparable Rex') and the musical 'Billy' with Michael Crawford at Drury Lane. He is married to the actress Alexandra Bastedo.

BiographerJohn Aubrey

John Aubrey (1626 - 1697)

John Aubrey was an antiquary and writer, best known as the author of the collection of short biographical pieces usually referred to as 'Brief Lives' and as the discoverer of the Aubrey holes in Stonehenge.

He was born near Malmesbury, Wiltshire to a well-off gentry family. For many years an only child, he was educated at home, with a private tutor although he was later educated at the Malmesbury and Blandford Forum grammar schools. He entered Trinity College, Oxford, in 1642, but his studies were interrupted by the English Civil War. His earliest antiquarian work dates from this period in Oxford. He spent a pleasant time at Trinity in 1647, making friends among his Oxford contemporaries, and collecting books. He spent much of his time in the country, and in 1649 he first 'discovered' the megalithic remains at Avebury, which he later mapped and discussed in his important antiquarian work 'Monumenta Britannica'. His father died in 1652, leaving Aubrey large estates, but with them some complicated debts.

Blessed with charm, generosity of spirit and enthusiasm, Aubrey went on to become acquainted with many of the most celebrated writers, scientists, politicians and aristocrats of his day. He claimed that his memory was 'not tenacious' by seventeenth-century standards, but from the early 1640s he kept thorough (if haphazard) notes of observations in natural philosophy. He also began to write 'Lives of Scientists' in the 1650s. In 1660 Aubrey produced a huge 2-volume (if unfinished) collection, the 'Wiltshire Antiquities', including some biographical material.

In 1663 Aubrey became a member of the Royal Society. He lost estate after estate due to lawsuits, until in 1670 he parted with his last piece of property and ancestral home, Easton Piers. From this time he was dependent on the hospitality of his numerous friends. In 1667 he had made the acquaintance of Anthony Wood at Oxford, and when Wood began to gather materials for his 'Athenae Oxonienses', Aubrey offered to collect information for him. Aubrey approached the work of the biographer much as his contemporary scientists had begun to approach the work of empirical research by the assembly of vast museums and small collection cabinets. Collating as much information as he could, he left the task of verification largely to Wood, and thereafter to posterity. As a hanger-on in great houses, he had little time and little inclination for systematic work, and he wrote the 'Lives' in the early morning while his hosts were sleeping off the effects of the night before.

As private, manuscript texts, the 'Lives' were able to contain the richly controversial material which is their chief interest today, and Aubrey's chief contribution to the formation of modern biographical writing. When he allowed Anthony Wood to use the texts, however, he entered the caveat that much of the content of the Lives was 'not fitt to be let flie abroad' while the subjects, and the author, were still living.

PlayBrief Lives

This play portrays the reminiscences of John Aubrey. A one-man show, it was famously staged in 1969 starring Roy Dotrice. The production has been performed worldwide since then and Dotrice himself went on to play Aubrey for more than 1,700 performances which still warrants a mention in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest-running one-man show. In 2008, 'Aubrey's Brief Lives' was a five part drama serial on Radio 4. Writer Nick Warburton intertwined some of Aubrey's biographical sketches with the story of the turbulent friendship between Aubrey and Anthony Wood.

Aubrey initially began collecting biographical material to assist the Oxford scholar Anthony Wood, who was working on his own collection of biographies. Over time, Aubrey's biographical researches went beyond mere assistance to Wood and became a project in its own right. Aubrey was careful, wherever possible, to seek out and talk with those who had been acquainted with his subjects. His sociable nature and his wide circle of friends helped him in this pursuit. At his death, Aubrey left his biographical writings in chaotic order. It has been the task of later editors to organise the manuscripts (held at the Bodleian Library) into readable form.

Aubrey's 'Brief Lives' has been loved for generations for its colourful gossipy tone and for the glimpses it provides of the unofficial sides of its subjects. Aubrey's use of informants and his eye for the unusual provides much more vivid pictures than a biography based on documents could. He is frank but never malicious. 'Brief Lives' includes biographies of such figures as Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, John Dee, Sir Walter Raleigh, Edmund Halley, Ben Jonson, Thomas Hobbes, and William Shakespeare.

The Bench Production

Brief Lives poster image

This play was staged at The Spring Arts and Heritage Centre (formerly Havant Arts Centre), East Street Havant - Bench Theatre's home since 1977.


John AubreyDavid Penrose


Director Jaspar Utley
Producer Ingrid Corrigan
Stage Manager Phil Hanley
Assistant Stage Managers Terry Smyth
Sharon Morris
Assistant to Mr Penrose Ruth Prior
Poster Design and Photography Dan Finch
Lighting Design Damon Wakelin
Sound Design Sarah Parnell
Lighting Operation Thomas Hall
Sound Operation Jacquie Penrose
Set Design Pete Woodward
Set Construction Callum West
Thomas Hall
Pete Woodward
David Penrose
Terry Smyth
Costumes Sue Dawes
Programme Editor Derek Callam
Front of House Gina Farmer

Director's Notes

I am about the same age as Aubrey as he appears in this play and his cluttered house and mind bear some affinity with mine.
I was in my first year as an undergraduate when I read the Peregrine edition of Aubrey's Brief Lives. I still have it. As a philosophy student, I was intrigued by what he said about Thomas Hobbes, contrasting the boldness of his thought with his personal fearfulness, occasioned, hinted Aubrey, by his mother falling "into labour with him upon the fright of the Invasion of the Spaniards."

As an English Literature student, I was intrigued what he had to say about the lives of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Milton and Kit Marlowe. And as a callow youth, I was highly entertained by his scurrilous and often bawdy accounts of various historical figures, including Sir Walter Raleigh. It was the thought of Aubrey, like some 17th century gossip columnist, going from one great house to another and then returning home to scribble down a salacious anecdote or "fact" that made him so fascinating.

Later on, being out of the country, I was sadly unable to see Patrick Garland's celebrated play about him and Roy Dotrice's famed performances. But even then I knew that one day I would either act in the play or direct it, and I bought a copy of the script that accompanied me around the world. Now the time has come.

Directing a one-man show has a different dynamic from the normal multi-cast production. I was helped by the fact that David knew all his lines before rehearsals began: this was a great comfort as I was going to be in India for the final three weeks before the play started! In the event, we found ourselves at the stage of concentrating on nuances and polishing David's performance at the beginning of February. The other aspect of the play - the set and props - was also well in hand, although it meant denuding much of my house in the process. But it was important that the set reflect the mind of Aubrey - interesting but disordered!

I have been blessed with an exceptional production team and especial thanks must go to Ingrid Corrigan, Phil Hanley and Ruth Prior.

Jaspar Utley


The NewsMike Allen

Brief Lives at the Spring Arts Centre, Havant

WHAT a play, and what a performance!

David Penrose, directed by Jaspar Utley for Bench Theatre, delves deep into the psyche of 17th century diarist John Aubrey as presented in Patrick Garland's one-man play. It contains pathos and bathos, lechery and learning, and Penrose has all the varied virtuosity that mixture demands. Yet he has the ability at all times to ensure it is the character and not the actor we see.

He plays older than his real age with no fuss or flammery, a pair of aged-looking specs lending a slightly manic glint to his eye. He takes the audience into his confidence as if each of us is an old friend who has just dropped in for a chat. And he is clever in building us up for a big revelation - and then letting the moment fall funnily flat.

A busy, lovingly furnished set completes the picture. Until Saturday

The News, 2nd March 2011

remotegoatJill Lawrie

Brief Lives

'Brief Lives' is the historian John Aubrey's memories of life before the English Civil War, and his best known work. A collection of short biographical essays, not particularly accurate from a historical point of view but nonetheless an amusing and informative account of anecdotes, gossip, scandal and daily life from the late 1600's.

During the 1960's Patrick Garland writer/actor/director and twice Artistic Director at the Chichester Festival Theatre, developed these biographical sketches into a one man show famously starring Roy Dotrice in both the West End and on Broadway. It proved such a success Dotrice made it into the Guinness Book of Records for 1,782 performances, becoming something of a legend.

Bench Theatre has an extensive talent pool which ensures a high standard in all their productions and this was no exception, directed by the much travelled Jaspar Utley.

The action takes place on a cold winter morning in 1697 in Aubrey's lodgings, and the set itself was a striking collection of antiquarian clutter! The walls clad with mounted bucks heads and an alligator, copious piles of books and manuscripts untidily placed on every surface. Fireplace and velvet draped bed, alongside quill pen, candles, pots and pans. A remarkably authentic picture of his shabby abode was created with imaginative lighting and great sound effects.

David Penrose (John Aubrey) was an outstanding success taking on this marathon and challenging role. He portrayed humour and pathos as he shuffled through his rambling musings reminiscing from his sickly childhood, Blandford school days and on to scientific experiments and two-headed babies! Even gallantly attempting to eat and drink that included a revolting looking concoction of milk-soaked bread! A notable and convincing characterisation rich in detail and beautifully sustained for 2 hours. Mention too for Alice Corrigan and her unaccompanied vocals to the haunting "Reynardine".

A skilful production greatly enjoyed by an appreciative audience and their next production "Volpone" is eagerly anticipated.

remotegoat, 4th March 2011

Daily EchoHam Quentin

Brief Lives, Bench Theatre, The Spring Arts Centre, Havant

JOHN Aubrey, the famed collector of other people's lives, or anecdotes about them at least, is seen in his London lodgings in this one-man show.

Although the sound effects sometimes seem too overtly artificial, they do help to give an impression of the scholar's straitened circumstances and the life of his neighbours and the streets outside. The set is extremely detailed, with a treasure trove of authentic props but like the sound it seems to fade out a little early so that the illusion is incomplete.

As Aubrey, David Penrose is at his best delivering the amusing, touching, saucy stories that make up the substance of Patrick Garland's script with excellent timing and subtle humour that earn enthusiastic audience response. However, he can seem almost too vigorous for the doddery old scholar and one only gets a very occasional glimpse of the character at the heart of this show.

Daily Echo, 7th March 2011

The Worshipful, The Mayor of HavantCouncillor Yvonne Weeks

Brief Lives, Bench Theatre

Tonight I was invited to attend the production of 'Brief Lives' at The Spring Arts Centre in Havant. David Penrose played the 17th century diarist John Aubrey and what a performance he gave, a one - man play, and he made you feel you had just dropped in for a chat and a bit of 17th century gossip. 'Brief Lives' includes biographies of people such as William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, Francis Bacon John Dee and Ben Jonson. David's performance was two hours long and a tremendous feat.

The Mayor of Havant, 4th March 2011

Production Photographs