Dramatising the dreaming spires


The list of plays that are set in Oxford range from classic tales of upper-class English society in the inter-war years such as Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited to a recent adaptation of Zuleika Dobson. Waugh’s classic tale of upper-class English society in the inter-war years was adapted for the stage by Roger Parsley in 1993. Parsley’s version preserves Waugh’s wit and perceptive social observations. The play charts Charles Ryder’s life as a young man, including his time as an undergraduate at Hertford College in the 1920s. Charles and his teddy-bear-toting friend Sebastian Flyte of Christ Church have become familiar Oxford figures, albeit fictional ones. Similarly, Waugh’s earlier novel Decline and Fall, first published in 1928, has been adapted for the stage, and appeared at London’s Old Red Lion Theatre in 2010. The play focuses only fleetingly on Oxford, however, as protagonist Paul Pennyfeather is sent down from the University.In the stage adaptations of Waugh’s two novels, the stereotypical vision of Oxford is reinforced. The city and the University are seen as a playground for the upper-classes, a backdrop to the life of England’s elite, an impenetrable fortress of learning and privilege.

Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, a late nineteenth-century novel, was also recently adapted for the stage. In the stage version of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, the dreaming spires are viewed with awe and reverence. Oxford becomes the focus of the lowly stonemason’s dreams, and is seen as somewhere out of reach to the common man. The place inspires veneration and is seen as somewhere that must be reached in order for happiness and fulfilment to be obtained. It is one of the many works of literature set in Oxford which, unlike Waugh’s novels for example, does not make explicit reference to Oxford University. However, the novel and therefore play are quite clearly set in Oxford. Thinly-veiled references to a place of erudition called Christminster and colleges named Biblioll and Sepulchre pepper the novel and play.

It is not only earlier works that take their inspiration from the city of dreaming spires. Novels from the present day that have Oxford as their backdrop have also been adapted and re-written as plays. For example, Philip Pullman’s fantasy novel trilogy His Dark Materials was turned into a play in 2003 and premiered at the Olivier Theatre in London. Each of these plays presents Oxford in a slightly different light. In the play based on the His Dark Materials trilogy, Oxford is made to seem even more dreamlike, as it is actually the Oxford of a parallel universe portrayed on stage. The place gains an almost mythical quality, as names of fictionalised colleges resemble but do not quite match those of the real world.The work may be a fantasy but is partly set in a city familiar to us all, as the audience follows Lyra Belacqua’s sheltered upbringing in an Oxford college, the fictional Jordan College, believed to be a representation of Exeter College, the author’s alma mater.

Finally, the play based on the Inspector Morse detective series presents the darker side of Oxford, lacing a hint of crime and deception into the cobbled-stoned streets of the medieval city. The play was written by Alma Cullen in 2010, who was also the author of four Morse screenplays for ITV. Cullen inadvertently encouraged hundreds of tourists to walk in the footsteps of the cast when visiting Oxford. While we tend to turn up our noses at the stereotype of Oxford that plays such as the ones above present, there are shadows of the Oxford we know in all of them that in some ways explains the persistence of their appeal, especially here in Oxford.

-Rebecca Loxton

PHOTO/Philip Halling


Sign up for the newsletter!

Want to contribute? Join our contributors’ group here or email us – click here for contact details