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University of Texas at Austin

Donald Wolfit:

An Inventory of His Papers at the Harry Ransom Center

Creator: Wolfit, Donald, 1902-1968
Title: Donald Wolfit Papers 1803-1984 (bulk 1937-1968)
Dates: 1803-1984
Extent: 29 document boxes, 15 oversize boxes, 1 flat file drawer (13.78 linear feet)
Abstract: The papers of this British Shakespearean actor and theatre manager consist largely of performance-related materials, supplemented by correspondence, literary works, and personal papers.
Language: English.
Access Open for research. An appointment is required to view the costumes in Series I. Please contact the Center before requesting this material:

Administrative Information

Acquisition Purchase, 1991 (R12539)
Processed by Helen Baer and Antonio Alfau, 2000

Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin

Biographical Sketch

Donald Wolfit was born in 1902 in the village of Balderton in Nottinghamshire. When he was sixteen he had an audition with the actor-manager Fred Terry who did not hire him. Unruffled, he began studying elocution and the broadsword and in 1920 won an unpaid position as an assistant stage manager with Charles Doran's Shakespeare Company. Walk-on parts quickly led to speaking roles and a small salary. After the company disbanded two years later, Wolfit was engaged for a tour of Shakespeare with Alexander Marsh's company. A second interview with Fred Terry led to a one-year stint touring the provinces and Ireland, followed by engagements with Frank Cariello and Matheson Lang. The latter's generosity toward Wolfit propelled him from anonymity to moderate recognition as an actor.
Wolfit made his first appearance at the Old Vic Theater in 1929, where he scored an important success as Claudius. A cranky sort, his difficulty in getting along with fellow actors resulted in his staying for only one season. In the early 1930s he began to save his earnings from working in films so he could start his own theater company. His first attempt at management was a week-long drama festival in his hometown in 1934. In 1937, a year after his Hamlet at Stratford-upon-Avon had lifted him to the ranks of the leading players of the day, Wolfit formed the Donald Wolfit Shakespeare Company. Although he was generally believed to be a better actor than manager, his productions were initially a financial success.
From 1938 to 1943 Wolfit played most of the major Shakespeare roles in his own company's productions. The start of World War II disrupted theatrical activity in Britain but he was able to turn the upheaval into triumph by performing during the London blackout to good reviews, a courageous effort for which he was belatedly recognized when the Queen made him a Commander of the British Empire in 1950. Wolfit's 1944 Lear marked the first time he was broadly recognized as a great actor. By this time, though, critics were condemning his company's poor supporting players and tasteless costumes. After the war he attempted to lease the Lyceum Theatre but was thwarted in this venture and also in his efforts to obtain state support for a tour to Canada. He eventually made the trip abroad on his own funds, an act which solidified his reputation as an outsider in the London theatrical circle. In 1948 Wolfit married his leading lady Rosalind Iden, the daughter of the British director, actor, and educator B. Iden Payne. Payne was internationally known as a Shakespearean director and for his modified Elizabethan staging.
In 1951 Wolfit was again engaged at the Old Vic which had just been placed under Tyrone Guthrie's administration. Troubles soon arose and Wolfit resigned, never to appear on the boards of the Old Vic again. Short on funds, he resorted to film and television work. In the spring of 1953 he mounted a season of classical plays in London; that fall he staged a season at the King's Theatre, Hammersmith, but he was overworked and did not perform at his best. However, the proceeds from his film and television work allowed him to continue presenting financially risky works.
Wolfit's lifetime of service to the theater and to Shakespeare was rewarded with a knighthood in 1957; although he announced his retirement the following year, he persisted with his stage work. Between 1959 and 1963 he and Rosalind presented recitals in Africa, the United States, Australia, and Asia. Wolfit attracted national attention during the Actors' Equity strike of 1962 when he sided with the management. In the 1960s he made fewer appearances; his dream of a National Theatre for Britain was finally realized but it was too late for him to be involved to a significant degree. Wolfit died in February of 1968 after a brief illness.
The Donald Wolfit Papers were purchased from the Wolfit family via Bertram Rota Ltd. in 1991. Other Wolfit papers are held at the Theatre Museum in London.
Harwood, Ronald. Sir Donald Wolfit C.B.E.: His Life and Work in the Unfashionable Theatre. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1971.

Scope and Contents

The Donald Wolfit Papers consist largely of performance-related materials, supplemented by correspondence, literary works, and personal papers. Although the primary focus of the papers is on Wolfit's career as an actor-manager, there is a significant amount of material concerning some of the theatrical issues of the day upon which Wolfit, as a leader in his profession, felt compelled to comment. The papers are arranged in five series: I. Theater Papers, 1921-1984 (35 boxes), II. Correspondence, 1928-1984 (4 boxes), III. Works, 1922-1964 (1 box), IV. Miscellaneous, 1803-1983 (2 boxes), and V. Works by Other Authors, 1937-1972 (2 boxes). Within each series, materials are arranged alphabetically by title or subject.
The papers arrived at the Ransom Center via an antiquarian bookseller after Ronald Harwood made extensive use of the papers while writing his biography of Wolfit. With the possible exception of the materials in Series I, little trace of any original order employed by Wolfit was evident. Annotations by Harwood and his assistants can be found throughout the collection.
The Theater Papers series contains performance-related, administrative, financial, and publicity materials for plays, recitals, and radio broadcasts; works by Shakespeare, or excerpts thereof, are prevalent. Because the bulk of the series dates from between 1946 and the early 1960s, only a small amount of material from Wolfit's wartime work is present. Generally, the materials in this series document Wolfit's role as actor-manager and not the contributions of individual members of his company; it appears that only the music advisor and scenic designers enjoyed relative autonomy within the company. Except for a few photographs in Series I, Wolfit's work in film is not represented.
The Correspondence series illuminates Wolfit's artistic choices and opinions, and the myriad details involved in managing a theater company, through letters from actors, playwrights, theater managers, designers, and musicians. Subjects include the Actors's Equity strike, the National Theatre, and Wolfit's dispute with the Old Vic. Although the bulk of the correspondence is collected in this series, letters are scattered throughout the collection; they can be found via the index of correspondents regardless of their location.
Wolfit's literary output is the subject of the Works series, which contains speeches, lectures, poems, and notes about Shakespeare, the acting profession, and other topics, along with juvenilia and fictional works. Notes and other materials gathered by Ronald Harwood for his biography of Wolfit can be found in the Works by Other Authors series.
Nearly all of the materials in the Miscellaneous series, while not directly related to Wolfit's work as an actor-manager, are of a theatrical nature. In their entirety, the Wolfit papers give little indication of a personal life outside the theater save his membership in the Garrick Club, which stationery he often used. Rosalind Iden's presence in the collection is limited to a few scripts, two gowns that were presumably worn by her, and a toast to Wolfit.

Series Descriptions

Index Terms


Aylmer, Felix, 1889-1979
Clewes, Winston, 1906-
Coast, John
Craig, Edward Gordon, 1872-1966
Dean, Basil, 1888-1978
Gielgud, John, Sir, 1904-
Glasgow, M.C.
Guthrie, Tyrone, Sir, 1900-1971
Harwood, Ronald, 1934-
Hunt, Hugh, 1911-
Keynes, John Maynard, 1883-1946
Linstead, Hugh N. (Hugh Nicholas)
Maule, Donovan
Olivier, Laurence, 1907-
Porter, George W.Y.
Selby, Percival M.
Shaw, Bernard, 1856-1950
Stern, Ernest, 1876-1954
Trewin, J.C. (John Courtenay), 1908-
Watson, Rosabel


British Actors' Equity Association
National Theatre (Great Britain)
Old Vic Theatre (London, England)


Iden, Rosalind
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616--Dramatic production
Actors--Great Britain--20th century
Theater--Great Britain--History--20th century

Document Types

Costume design drawings
Prompt books
Set design drawings

See Also:

Detailed descriptions of the costumes in Series I including images, are available in a searchable database.

Donald Wolfit Papers--Folder List