Honouring Professor Reg Foakes

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Photo: Christa Jansohn

Photo: Christa Jansohn

Professor Reg Foakes, who died at his home in Stratford-upon-Avon just before Christmas, was a wise, liberal-minded, influential and much-loved Shakespeare scholar and teacher. His career spanned over sixty years at the universities of Birmingham, Durham, Yale, Toronto, Kent and Los Angeles. He was born and grew up in West Bromwich. His degree at Birmingham was interrupted by the Second World War while he served in the Royal Navy and installed radar in night fighters. After his degree he undertook post-graduate study at Mason Croft with the renowned Professor Allardyce Nicoll. In 1951 Reg, along with John Russell Brown and Ernst Honigmann, was a made an Assistant Lecturer in the then newly-founded Shakespeare Institute. All three went on to become eminent Shakespearians and remained good friends for life.

Reg lived with his wife Barbara in a bed-sit in Mason Croft where, he recalled, ‘we ceremoniously boiled or fried our one egg a week and our two ounces of bacon’ (war-time rationing was only just beginning to relax). Whilst teaching and completing his Ph.D., he assisted with the annual Shakespeare Survey and co-organised the prestigious international Shakespeare conferences.

As a scholar he is cherished for his edition of Philip Henslowe’s Diary and his excellent editions of Troilus and Cressida, Henry VIII, and The Comedy of Errors. In her recent post his friend Sylvia Morris remembers Reg working on his landmark edition of King Lear at The Shakespeare Centre Library, ‘although he was a highly-respected academic his unassuming personality and willingness to discuss his work made him popular.’ His scholarship also includes work on Romantic and Victorian poetry.

At Kent, Reg was founding professor of English and with his vision and perseverance co-founded the successful Gulbenkian Theatre which opened in 1970. Stanley Wells, Honorary President of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust said Reg was ‘admired and respected by generations of students and colleagues both in England and in America.’ Among his former students was Professor Carol Rutter of Warwick University, who praised his ‘detailed performance memory going back seventy years.’ When he moved to the University of California in 1982 he also put down roots in Stratford on Holtom Street. Professor Michael Dobson, Director of The Shakespeare Institute paid tribute to Reg’s ‘remarkable scholarship matched by his creativity; he was a powerful poet.’

Barbara – with whom he had four children – died of cancer in 1988. A few years later Reg found love again with his second wife Mary, whose mental illness led to her death in 1996. In his memoirs, Reg writes: “Now I see that achievement, the goal of youth, is not what matters most in life, but rather love, generosity, acceptance, and the ability to endure with patience suffering that can not be avoided.”

There will be a service for Reg at Holy Trinity Church on Monday 20 January at 12.30pm. All are welcome.

Here are some tributes to Reg which I have received in recent days:

Professor Stanley Wells C.B.E., Honorary President of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, says:
‘During a career lasting well over sixty years, Reg Foakes made many distinguished contributions to the study of Shakespeare and the theatre of his time. Modest and self-effacing, he was admired and respected by generations of students and colleagues both in England and in America.’

Professor Michael Dobson, Director of The Shakespeare Institute, says:
‘The entire intellectual community of the Shakespeare Institute — its past and present students and fellows, in Stratford and beyond — mourns the passing of Reg Foakes, one of its founding Fellows on its establishment in 1951 and someone who remained both a familiar face in its library and an inspirational presence on its reading lists throughout a long and brilliant transatlantic career. His remarkable scholarship — visible in distinguished editions of plays by Shakespeare and Tourneur, of the theatrical papers of Philip Henslowe, of the criticism of Coleridge, of images of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, and much else, as well as in major critical works on Shakespeare both in his own time and in subsequent culture — was matched by his creativity; he was a powerful poet and autobiographer, as well as an endlessly generous colleague and teacher. He is already much missed.’

Professor Kate McLuskie, former Director of The Shakespeare Institute, says:
‘He was my first boss at the University of Kent where he founded the English department and was very proud of establishing, with the other Kent pioneers, a new kind of interdisciplinary curriculum with an emphasis on genres and on the full range of literature in English, including writing from Africa, the Caribbean and the US. (Commonplace now but quite original in 1965). Not content with establishing innovation, he kept it going with new programmes in Art History, Drama and Film studies during his time as Dean. When the new universities initiative began to falter in the 1980s, he was able to build on his international reputation to go to a chair at the University of California and, as you know, he was active intellectually as a poet, a biographer and a scholar until his death. His warmth and loyalty and concern for his students was kept from sentimentality by a sharp critical tongue. He granted all his colleagues and friends the honour of treating them as his intellectual equals who could be clear about his position and its difference from their own. I will miss him and was glad that he became my and my husband’s friend as well as my mentor and supporter.’

Professor Carol Rutter, University of Warwick, and former student of Reg says:
‘First in his 1968 Henslowe’s Diary then in the 1977 facsimile The Henslowe Papers Reg Foakes gave students and scholars access to the primary manuscript materials that allow us to know the day-to-day activity in the single early modern playhouse, the Rose, for which such records survive, the playhouse where Shakespeare most likely had his writerly beginnings. All theatre history of Shakespeare’s playhouse is indebted to Reg Foakes for opening that archive, making it accessible to interpretation.

Performance studies, too, is massively indebted to Reg Foakes, a pioneer in the subject area who constantly used performance — the life of the play on the stage — to help him (and us) think through textual editing and textual criticism. Not only did he have a detailed performance memory going back seventy years, he was a great theatre-goer right to the end, who always saw performance with fresh eyes, fascinated by the ways actors, directors and designers pushed the boundaries of the play experience — even when he (those famous eyebrows working!) had to admit the achievement, well, rubbish.

He was a first rate editor: his Arden 3 King Lear is exemplary. What a world he opens onto the play! How lucky today’s students are to have this Lear to be getting on with.

He was the most intellectually generous of scholars, particularly with research students whose work he took a lively interest in decades after any formal supervision was completed. He gave his time, his thoughts, his probing questions, his intent and properly critical reading of anything I sent to him for comment (and I always wanted his comment). Mostly kind and careful with the ‘youths’ hesitant gropings toward ideas, he nevertheless didn’t hold back from crushing dismissal when he thought I was talking nonsense — but he’d always ring me the following day and say, ‘I’ve been thinking …’ That further ‘thinking’ finding the germ of the idea I’d been bumbling around trying to express, and helping me figure out what I really wanted to talk about.’

Please add your own tributes to Reg in the comments box.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Grahame White

    But I bet you were left with the Meal Tag, Reg was known as a bit ‘careful’ when it came to paying the bill, and somehow seemed to be capable of dodging it with a wise quote from Shakespeare.

  • Grahame White

    He arranged a meeting with me (Mary’s Brother) in 1986 en route to Hawaii, with Jimmy Stewart, but unfortunately at the time Jim was away filming, so next time in 1988 rearranged when he was in Santa Monica another meet. Sadly Jimmy away again, but Reg had a ‘Plan B’ and met up Bruce Dern, Michael Landon and Charlie Bronson. Hardly heard of Bruce and Michael, but knew of Charlie from ‘The Great Escape’ and had a great time together.

  • Grahame White

    He was (Reg) the best Human I ever truly ever met, and married my Sister (Mary White) and we had many wonderful times together. Often visit the bench at Shottery near Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and take a while to contemplate. Loved taking Reg out for meals (last one at Bourton-on-the Water and driving Reg home was an absolute pleasure. RIP Reg.

  • Gordon McMullan

    Peter Holland is entirely right about Reg’s ability to walk anyone into the ground. I met him when I had a fellowship at the Huntington in 1995. I was beginning the editing of ‘Henry VIII’ for Arden, and naturally I wanted to confront the anxiety of influence by speaking to the slightly scary and very distinguished Arden Two editor of the play. Reg rapidly ascertained that I liked hiking and had boots with me, and he and Mary drove me to some mainly vertical bit of bleak Californian coastline and off we set, straight up a pretty strenuous trail. Only when I had completely run out of breath about halfway up did Reg begin to interrogate me about the play, while continuing to charge up the slope…. Needless to say, he turned out to be hugely generous with his time and thoughts, and I both learned a great deal from him and thoroughly enjoyed the time I was fortunate to spend with him. (I also learned never to say ‘How are you?’ when I met him, since he made it clear he considered this question, at least in its no-response-required American formulation, to be meaningless.) A sharp and generous man who will be much missed.

  • jeanette

    Reg and I spend many evenings sharing dinners, going to hear the Santa Monica Symphony, exchanging stories about our families and so many more memories. I always felt at “home” when I stayed at 1052 when he went back to England for the summer. My sister and I are grateful that we visited Reg in Stratford for he was a warm, generous host to take us sight-seeing, to see a play and just feeling like family. I’ll miss him but will never forget him. -Jeanette Gilkison (English Dept. UCLA)

  • lisaspangenberg

    He was kind and courteous as well—my first two years as a grad student at UCLA both Reg Foakes and Dan Calder found R.A. money for me. That made it possible for me to eat, but I also learned a great deal. Reg almost persuaded me to change from Medieval to Renaissance literature. I wanted to mention Reg wrote poetry particularly fine sonnets.

  • Peter Holland

    And apologies for a typo Reg would have enjoyed: ‘yeards’ neatly combines ‘yards’ and ‘years’ but I meant the former.

  • Peter Holland

    To add to the comments above, I want to mention just a couple of things. Reg was wonderfully generous, of course, but he could also be magnificently acerbic and had no hesitation in telling any of us both what he thought was rubbish in our ideas and what he thought was rubbish in others’ work. No-one was ever left in doubt about Reg’s opinions, always based on scholarship, critical incisiveness and rare open-mindedness! And we all knew Reg as a great walker: Romana and I vividly remember running through Santa Monica, trying desperately to keep up with Reg who was striding out yeards ahead of us – and we thought we were reasonably fit…

  • Professor R A Henderson

    In the 1990s I was fortunate enough to teach at the International Shakespeare Summer School in Stratford for several years, and it was there that I met Reg Foakes, who was a much appreciated speaker. His courtesy, gentleness and dry humour, together with his scholarship, made him a delight to know, and it was a privilege to work alongside him. I remember him with affection and immense respect.

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