Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, Folger staff provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, Dr. emma poltrack, shares items she presented on June 2, 2022 in conversation with actor John Floyd as an introduction to Love in Color: Mythical Tales Around the World, Retold by Bolu Babalola. Discussion questions from the evening can be found here.
Babalola’s Love in Color continues our previous exploration of Shakespeare and mythology begun with Madeline Miller’s Circe, providing a new opportunity to consider the ways in which old stories are adapted, expanded, or reimagined to create new works. Joined by actor John Floyd, who is playing Francis Flue (and therefore Thisbe) in Folger Theatre’s upcoming production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we considered the links between Babalola’s stories and Shakespeare’s.
We began by exploring a map from John Ogilby’s Africa: being an accurate description of the regions of Ægypt, Barbary, Lybia, and Billedulgerid . . . (1670), as many of the myths Babalola adapted come from Africa, specifically the Western region. This intricately decorated map reminds us how many of our contemporary reference points are the result of European colonization and that the “accurate description” promised in the volume’s title is actually a very specific perspective. Interestingly, Ogilby came from a performance background, having been apprenticed to a dance instructor and responsible for establishing Ireland’s first theater. He also published two editions of The Fables of Aesop, claiming his own place in the trajectory of those who have preserved and perpetuated culturally significant stories.
An avid reader himself—he is currently attempting all of Toni Morrison’s work—Floyd was particularly drawn to Attem’s in Babalola’s collection, and so chose this striking illustration of a leopard to include in the items explored as a nod to the tale. It comes from Edward Topsell’s The historie of foure-footed beastes, a translation of a translation sharing a wide variety of information about a variety of creatures. Included alongside leopards and elephants are mythical beasts such as unicorns and sphinxes.
Another re-told myth Floyd responded to was Pyramus and Thisbe, which also was a source of inspiration for Shakespeare. A tragic story with Romeo and Juliet-like features, it tells of lovers separated by a garden wall whose plan to run off together is thwarted when a lion scares Thisbe from their rendezvous point. Her abandoned mantle is discovered and Pyramus, thinking her dead, kills himself. When Thisbe discovers her slain lover, she joins him in death.
In a curious “conceit” likely given as a gift on Shrove Tuesday (left), Pyramus and Thisbe are joined by Dido to create a trio of tragic lovers, one of four groupings that can be created through folding the paper to reveal different heads, each accompanied by a verse telling their story. Babalola imagined the duo as college students sharing a dorm wall and communicating through playlists, giving them a happy ending not found in the source material. As for Shakespeare, he kept the lovers’ tragic end, but presented the story as a play within the overarching plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a performance gone hilariously wrong due to the bumbling shortcomings of its amateur actors (right). Looking forward to his own chance to bring this version of Thisbe to life, Floyd appreciated the wonderful sweep of movement contained in John Massey Wright’s illustration, and well as the expression on the hapless Pyramus’s face.
We ended the evening by considering Midsummer’s fairies, another strand of folklore that Shakespeare included in his play. Walford Graham’s costumes for Augustin Daly’s late 19th-century production of the play link the sprites closely to nature, with delicate floral elements, moth-like details, and web designs. Fifty years after playing Titania at the Royal Shakespeare Company (right), Dame Judi Dench again appeared as the fairy queen in a Peter Hall-directed production at the Rose Theatre in Kingston. In this later production, she was costumed to resemble Queen Elizabeth I, who carries with her her own mythology tblurring the lines between history and legend.
To immerse yourself further in real-world materials related to this month’s pick, visit our curated Love in Color image collection.
We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program: