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George 'Dadie' Rylands

Shakespearean Scholar and Cambridge Legend

Peter Raina

Just once in a while, actors and performers change the whole way in which they approach the words in their scripts. Such a change happened in the early-to-middle years of the twentieth century; and the person behind it was "Dadie" Rylands. He was a man with an ear acutely attuned to the nuances of poetry, and he insisted that it was the ear and not the eye that mattered most in productions of Shakespeare. It was Rylands who taught an exceptional generation of Shakespearean actors how to speak. Gielgud, Olivier, Ashcroft, Redgrave – all owed their superb diction to him. Moreover, they adored him as a person.

Amazingly for a man with such influence, Rylands was not ensconced in the established Theatre. He taught undergraduates at Cambridge and his own productions were with the amateur Marlowe Dramatic Society there. Nor was his life confined to dramatics and the academic world. He was a fringe member of the Bloomsbury set – firm friends with Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes, all regular correspondents. And his circle of notable friends stretched to a wider group of literati including Maurice Bowra and T. S. Eliot. Rylands died, aged 97, in 1999. We no longer have his irrepressible presence, but he left a palpable legacy in gramophone recordings of all Shakespeare’s plays in which he directed star-studded casts. Now that legacy is augmented by Peter Raina’s study, with its admirable selection of Rylands’ marvellously lucid radio talks (hitherto unpublished) and its sampling of the multitude of letters he wrote and received.

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