do ut possis dare: Before the PhD and after

Craig Fees (CF)
Interviewed by Bettina Schnurman (BS)
19.3.2004

[A piece of self-reflection in the form of an interview]

BS: I am Bettina Schnurman. It is the 19th of March 2004. I have been a researcher in the Archive and before I go, I wanted to ask the Archivist, Dr. Craig Fees, how he became involved in the Archive and Study Centre. So, Craig. In the last issue of the [Joint] Newsletter you used the Latin phrase “do ut possis dare” under the Archive and Study Centre tag. You know Latin?

CF: No. My friend Henry White, his sister Winifred and I briefly took lessons from a Catholic priest in Walnut Creek, California, when I was growing up, but I don’t really know any Latin, and do ut possis dare comes to me from a remarkable Dutch scholar called Jan Gonda. When I was an undergraduate I was taught the old Chambers-Young hypothesis of Medieval Theatre history: That the Greeks invented theatre from religious rituals, the Romans secularised and developed it, that it was broken apart and wiped out in the barbarian invasions, and that it had to be gradually re-invented in the Middle Ages, evolving step by step from tropes in church services until it achieved Shakespeare. I was a theatre student, and the idea that theatre could be killed, reinvented and re-grown in this way was, to me at that time, patently absurd, so I embarked on an MA thesis which became “Medieval Theater in Indo-European Context”. It took me five years, and I was told afterwards by one of the assessors that I ought to have done it as a PhD. That would have given me a very different career. The thesis itself was over 400 pages long, began with a study of histories of theatre history from the Elizabethan period onwards, turned to the Romano-Celtic theatres in England and the continent, and then to ideological continuities discernible within Indo-European language families as far-spread as Old Irish and Sanskrit, in time from 2000 years or so before Christ to late medieval France, and involving objects as diverse as a Roman-period votive offering found in a French pond to fragments of dramatic literature in Tocharian from the Middle East; with a special study of folk drama. I got to use the resources of just about every college, university, public and private library in the Los Angeles basin, apart from the Huntingdon (though we did do a performance of Shakespeare in its grounds). At the time I was working my way through college as a van driver for the Los Angeles Cash Register Company, and was able to drop in to different libraries during lunch hours or on the way from one pick-up/delivery to another, and photocopy like mad. Ideal job for a student. It left evenings and weekends to write, read and do theatre, and days behind the wheel to think and bounce around in the bizarreness and sublimity of Los Angeles. In the end it was all a kind of tilting at windmills, because my dispute with Chambers was based on ignorance. The more I absorbed him, the more I realised that he actually did document the survival and continuity of theatre through the Dark Ages. We simply had different ideas of what constituted “theatre”. He was a Victorian civil servant, for whom Britain was the apex and yardstick of history and civilisation, and understood theatre as a Literary form framed by a stage, the nature of which was itself part of the yardstick. For him the disappearance of written literature and formal stage-buildings from the West after the fall of Rome was prima facie evidence that “theatre” had died, and Shakespeare was equally irrefutable proof of its rebirth. The growth from no stages to temporary street stages to the open air Globe to the elaborate proscenium-arch theatre machines of the Victorian period spoke for themselves. For my part I was a theatre student in California at the height of the 1970s, heavily into William James and Martin Heidegger, and I regarded theatre as an organisation of skills and technologies of performance, which was itself a mode of being. The mode of being was primary, and utilised the resources of the environment in the being of its being. The idea that a mode of being could be destroyed was absurd to me; but that it might be extremely difficult to document in the context of lost sources of information made absolute sense. The question then was, how do you document something which exists by definition, but leaves virtually no trace in “history”, in the written record? Something which is either sub-historic, in the sense that it is not recorded or does not leave a record during a period which does have and does create written records; or which is pre-historic, in the sense that it is part of a time for which there are no written records. During the recent war in the Balkans we saw different powerful factions attempting to destroy the records of the people they overwhelmed: stripping them of passports and family and official documents of all kinds: Trying to remove them from history. That illustrates the immense practicality of the question: How do you reconstruct what was in the absence of written records? How do you bring the a-historic – being and experience which are not part of the written record – back into History? That was the problem I was pursuing. An Archive and Study Centre is a very good laboratory for exploring these things. There’s a very similar problem for psychoanalysis, and psychodynamic psychotherapy generally; captured in Christopher Bollas’s “The Unthought Known”,  one of the most exciting book titles around.

Anyway, E.K. Chambers traced the rise of theatre following the wreck of Rome back to the inevitable religious cauldron, as being fundamental to civilisation and culture; and then traced a child-like growth from relatively primitive written tropes to more complex and sophisticated miracle and morality plays: Court and street performers flourished throughout the Dark and Early Middle Ages, but in the Chambers-Young model they thrived in detachment from the history of theatre as such. As did “folk drama”, on which Chambers wrote another influential book. Between them, his two-volume The Medieval Stage and the single volume The English Folk Play firmly blocked the flow of theatre history for the better part of a century. That his work was built on a pack of cards – an unstated and, more importantly, unexamined set of culturally-determined assumptions – was neither here nor there, unless you were prepared either to take Chambers on directly and attempt to topple a giant who was the foundation for most subsequent academic and popular theatre histories throughout the Twentieth Century; or to save the effort of engaging and understanding Chambers by by-passing him entirely, taking the trade of theatre history to new ports and new cities on different coasts, letting Chambers and Co. atrophy on increasingly disused Victorian academic trade routes. I suppose if I really had been doing a PhD and had been linked into others working on that level, I might have been tempted to the latter; but in the end I tried both, and in that sense did neither. I came to England, got caught up in disturbed children and got deflected from my work, or at least that aspect of it.

BS: How did that happen?

CF: Well. While still in Los Angeles I came to a certain point in my research when it had to go in one of several directions. I had identified what I thought was something like an underlying Indo-European generative grammar involving performance, which needed to be tested. When you are playing dot-to-dot with a scrap of text from xth century Middle East, a poem from y century Ireland, a votive offering from z century Gaul, and a sacred text from xx century India, you can weave almost any pattern you like, and don’t have to worry too much about Reality. What I wanted to do, however, was to identify something like a cultural algorithm which would be genuinely useful and could be tested in application by others; through which the apparent emptiness of the early Middle Ages, say (or pre-historic Greece), in respect to “theatre” could be populated with probability using those cultural objects which did remain. Could you – and if you could, how could you – extrapolate meaningful patterns from diverse cultural remnants – items or associations which might have no necessary, direct, or obvious connection with their contemporary performance traditions -, and reconstruct, with a reasonably high degree of reliability and even predictive value what those traditions, or their aspects and elements – might have been? It would have to make sense of what came before and after, and provide a fruitful heuristic both for re-examining objects which were already known, and for locating objects or features which had not yet been “thought” but which ought, if the algorithm corresponded reasonably closely to reality, be there. A Rotary Foundation Fellowship gave me the opportunity to come to Europe to pursue postgraduate work, and because you had to provide Rotary with a selection of five universities in three different countries from which they would choose the one to which you would go, it gave me the nice problem of laying out in front of myself three different possible futures: To go to a French university and become an archaeologist, concentrating on the remains of Romano-Celtic theatres in France; to go to Trinity in Dublin to research traditional Irish performance traditions; or to come to England, to the University of Leeds, to research Christmas mumming plays through the Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies. Leeds was my first choice, and when my application for a place on the MPhil course was successful, that’s where Rotary sent me. It’s an excellent way to begin life in another country: You’re supported by a network of generous Rotarians, who take you into their homes and workplaces; and you give talks at Rotary lunches throughout the local District which, given that it was Yorkshire, was great. And I was well fed. It was the winter of 1981/82 as well, which meant lots and lots of snow. Having grown up in Denver, and cut my Anglophile teeth on “All Creatures Great and Small”, I felt at home. I love shovelling snow, and I’d come with my Sorels, my woollen longjohns, down mittens, wool balaclava…It was heaven. I found it strange that the English didn’t seem to have come across proper snow shovels, but that was only one of many small cultural shocks; like having to invest in about a half dozen different types of electrical plugs because electrical outlets had not yet been fully standardised in our part of Headingley.

BS: Near the cricket ground?

CF: Yes. The cricket ground was just around the corner. On match days I could pretend to be Seneca, listening to the distant sound of spectators disturbing my second floor study on Shire Oak Road. Just as I used to be able to hear the fans cheering in L.A. when the wind blew from the direction of Dodger Stadium. Anyway, I didn’t really understand the sacred nature of the Headingley ground at that time and never did what I ought to have done and seen a match there. I missed Botham, for goodness sake.

Leeds was my first choice. Dropping in to all those different Los Angeles area libraries while doing my Master’s research, I managed to compile a pretty exhaustive collection of books and photocopies on folk drama. When I got the bibliography into the thesis, it covered umpteen pages, with hundreds of entries. Immensely fun and rewarding. But, out of all of that mass of literature, going back to the beginnings of Notes and Queries in the early 19th century and coming straight up to the then-present, in all kinds of media, there was only one paper in all of that – one article in more than a hundred years – in which the “folk”  emerged in their own voice – as sentient people with a legitimate and considered point of view on what they themselves were doing; which challenged the researcher’s point of view, but which the researcher was happy to present. Sitting in the comfort of the Occidental College library and at the tail end of five years of research, this article hit me like a clap of thunder. It was by Susan Pattison. She was a student in the Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies at the University of Leeds, and because of that article I decided I wanted to go there. I began my PhD at the Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies in 1981, unaware that radical changes were underway in Britain. In short succession there was the Poll Tax, the miner’s strike, the war in the South Atlantic, and the closure of the Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies as part of government cuts to higher education. I was the last student graduated from the Institute. I got a sense of the deep anger around this time when one of the old mummers I interviewed in Chipping Campden talked about taking Mrs. Thatcher to the bottom of the garden and shooting her. As a folklorist – or I guess more of an anthropologist in relation to England – it was an interesting time to be introduced to British culture: to learn about what holds a society together, keeps things safe and working together, and to see over time how a society responds when trust and the invisible bonds of mutuality are whipped away. The first time we met, my tutor at Leeds took me aside and tried to convince me to enrol at the University of Pennsylvania or somewhere else in America with a good Folklore program, and to simply use Leeds as a base. I didn’t have the maturity or experience to understand what he was saying; and exercised my right as an American student to cheerful hubris. When his post disappeared two years later – when the whole department closed, to save the University costs – and I was enmired in neonatal PhDism and overwhelmed by a residential school full of severely disturbed children – I thought again, or should have. But my reservoir of cheerful hubris seems pretty  deep.

In any event, when I started at Leeds my aim was to study the heck out of a defunct mumming tradition in Yorkshire, examining it and its local culture from every possible angle, and in infinite detail. What are the links between the invisible and the visible, which would allow us to move with confidence from knowledge of one to firm hypothesis about the other? My tutor, Tony Green, thought I should see an authentic living tradition before getting too stuck in, so in November he sent me down to Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds, to see if I could make contact with the leader of the mummers there, to arrange to see the play at Christmas. I left Leeds for the Cotswolds on the day the blizzard of 1981 started. I took a train to Birmingham, where the weather was pretty clear; a bus to Stratford-on-Avon, not too bad; hitchhiked to within a couple of miles (the downhill side!) of Campden, and then walked through growing snowfall with a backpack full of camping and recording equipment, up the hill. At that point the snow was coming down very hard. I cheerfully turned down two lads in a Landrover who offered me a ride up the hill into Campden, thinking I was closer to the top than I was. By the time I crested the hill, at a place called Paul’s Pike, about a half-mile out of the town, I was soaked in sweat from the inside, blinded by melting snow on my glasses, and soaked from the outside. There was a man in the garden there, and as it was getting late I asked if I could pitch my tent, and instead was directed bemusedly on to a smallholding a few hundred yards away, up Kingcombe Lane. The folks there, the Twinberrows, hardly batted an eye when I knocked on their door, no doubt steaming like a packhorse in the porch light, and asked if I could pitch my tent. Fortunately, they took me instead into a contractor’s hut their daughter used as an outside bedroom during the summer, and set me down there. I collapsed on the bed, but hardly had time to sit and feel sorry for myself and wonder what the heck to do next when Dave Twinberrow came back and told me it was time for dinner. That was the first small step into my PhD. He took me into a low-ceilinged kitchen filled with the smell of a wood-stove. The meal was delicious, and all of the vegetables came from their own ground. They let me help with the washing up, they let me help with chopping fire-wood and chores around the place, and they let me make myself at home. In those days I still carried a strop and shaved with a straight razor. It was great.

That night the Cotswolds was buried in snow. My little tent would have been crushed! We were sealed off from the rest of the world for the better part of a week. Fantastic. Then, when Dave heard what I was about, he started introducing me to old mummers, and thanks to Dave, by the time I could hitchhike out and buses and trains were moving again, I had done my first recordings on the old reel-to-reel Uher I had brought from the University, had been introduced to the leader of the mummers in the Volunteer (who made me turn out my pockets to make sure I wasn’t concealing a tape recorder), had met Mrs. Dyer, at whose 100th birthday party I was many years later asked to speak, had been introduced to the concept of ‘incomers’ and the politics of tradition, and had been invited by Dave and his wife Dieuwke to come back for Christmas. Night after night during that first Christmas I would come in from fieldwork in the pub, or someone’s house, and find a hot water bottle in my sleeping bag. As a boy from Southern California, born in Arizona, and despite growing up in Colorado, I had never even seen a hot water bottle. I would put on my long underwear, get back into my clothes, pull on long woollen socks over my cottons, put on my wool balaclava, get into my mountain-rated sleeping bag, pull a duvet over me, hope I’d taken care of all the calls of nature, clutch the hot water bottle, and freeze. Night after night it was the coldest I have ever been, colder than the winter in Denver when I kicked a boot through the bedroom window; and I picked up a cough which is still, from time to time, with me. But by the time the roads were clear and I was able to leave I was committed to a PhD. on Campden.

Christmas with the Twinberrows in Chipping Campden was wonderful, and I was pleased when Dave invited me back again in the Spring to do more fieldwork. The Twinberrow’s place quickly became my second home. Now, Dave did building and maintenance jobs for a residential special school down in the Vale, on the edge between the Vale of Evesham and the Cotswolds, and on one of my visits I met some of the school’s team members on a work day up at Dave’s. I helped them to put up a new poly-tunnel for Dave, and that sense of working and working together appealed to me. Meanwhile the school had decided to turn one big children’s bedroom into two smaller ones, and during one of the school’s holidays Dave took me down to help him drive a door-hole through a wall to get into the right-hand room. Ten years later I adapted that room for our first dedicated archive store, clearing it and building shelving, filling in the window, installing air conditioning, putting Chubb locks into the door. Climatically it was ideal. The building had originally been the Victorian estate manager’s house, and the wall Dave had me tackle was actually two walls: An external wall based on solid Cotswold stone, and another wall added not long after the house was built as part of a brick extension, or vice versa. Brick stone brick? Anyway, it was a tough job, but enjoyable, and while drilling and hammering and drilling and hammering I had a lot of time to think. My PhD had begun. It would be on Chipping Campden. I was a foreign student, and could not legally hold down a job in England. The Cotswolds was an expensive place to live, but a commute from Leeds was out of the question. I needed a place to stay while carrying out my field, archive and library research. Having been to a boarding school myself, it made sense to offer my labour in return for a place to stay, and I cheerfully saw no complications. I expect Dave or someone mentioned that it was a therapeutic community, but I had no idea what that might mean, and at that stage I had not met any of the children. Despite having taken Abnormal and Clinical Psych in college I had no real-world concept of what ‘disturbed’ meant, or how incredibly damaged a child of six or seven or eight could be. When I eventually did meet them, it was as an exotic visitor, and they were tremendously kind to me. So one thing led to another, and in September 1982 I returned from a visit to the States to begin as a part-time volunteer, living on-site, formally ‘around’ with the children for something like 20-30 hours a week, and surrounded by them for 24 in a day, making £10 a week, or possibly £12 – I must have had a raise somewhere in there –  half of that per week, the rest at the end of the month. It was called ‘pocket money’. Having no idea what I was getting into. Immersed in a learning experience like no other. After five years I became a paid part-time member of the therapeutic team; and two years after that I was asked to set up the Archive and Study Centre. That was fifteen years ago.

BS:  It sounds like a good experience.

CF: Not good, but immense. Before working in the school I could not have imagined myself as a father. Now I think I’m a reasonably good one. On that basis alone I have a great deal to be grateful for. But I wouldn’t have gone into something like that with my eyes open, and I wouldn’t do it again. Disturbed children are immensely rewarding because there is an intense honesty with which, if you engage, you can move mountains within yourself and in them. But engaging is the fiercest kind of commitment. It played havoc with the PhD., especially when my Department and the external support systems it represented disappeared in Mrs. Thatcher’s reforms. I found myself talking about The Work to people I was supposed to be interviewing, for example; I even took children with me when I visited people, and some of them became part of life in Campden. The research itself also had its difficulties. On the final Christmas Eve before I submitted, when I was in the last stages of writing up, I came across the leader of the mummers and his boys that night in the Lower High Street. He told me, in no uncertain terms, loudly and in unmistakeable tones to f*** off; just after, unfortunately, I had turned my tape recorder off. I would love to have had a recording of that moment, when six years of hard work and sacrifice crashed into the abyss.

BS: Crashed? Why?

CF: Because so much of the thesis, ethically speaking, depended on him. He kept the mumming tradition going. It was part of his family. I had met his family. His aunt had given me home-made marmalade. I’d watched snooker with his mom. I just felt that if I didn’t have his permission, so to speak – his good feeling; his consent to focus on his tradition -, I would have to re-write the whole thing, and centre it somehow elsewhere.

BS: What did you do?

CF: The short story is that a few nights later I went to his house, unannounced, braved the dogs, and lived. I went to his funeral last year, and I still don’t really know what it was all about; why he turned on me that night. But by going to his house; by accepting in advance the unknown fury that didn’t, in the end, come – he was an immense gentleman in a puzzling way – we re-established a balance and I didn’t have to completely re-write my thesis after all.  Then, when I went into the Viva the external examiner relieved me of any anxiety by shaking my hand as I entered and telling me they had agreed to award me the PhD., – “Congratulations, Dr. Fees” – and turned the Viva into a friendly discussion.  That really was a relief. The last couple of years of writing up had been the hardest years of my life that I could remember, on just about every level. In the end it wasn’t the thesis I had set out to write. I simply ran out of time and emotional resilience.  In fact it took seven or eight years before I could walk into Chipping Campden and not feel as if the  outer layers of my skin were being peeled away. But apart from some inarticulate youth in the Introduction, I genuinely think it was a good piece of work. The few articles that came out of it seem to me fired with an articulate command of the subject, purpose, imagination, and integrity.  I am happy to stand by the person I was then. I just wish I had been linked into the academic structures that my tutor, Tony Green, implicitly knew were on the point of disappearing. But looking at the clock, I think you have to be going. I apologise for all of the digressions.

BS: You still haven’t answered my original question! About how you became involved in the Archive and Study Centre.

CF: I’m sorry.

BS: And I wondered why “Do ut possis dare“?

CF: “Do ut possis dare“: “Give, in order to make it possible [for another] to give.” Jan Gonda presented it in the context of the Indo-European concept of ‘sacrifice’. Why do we make ‘sacrifices’? Why do we give the god wine; or roasted meat and fat; or ghee; or silver and gold, or our sweat and blood, or part of a crop, or poetry and prayers?

The standard answer is “Do ut des”: “Give in order to receive”. We give something to the god in order to get something back in return, – a good crop, a cure, a safe journey, a victory over our enemies. In effect, we buy it – trade for it – do a swop. “Do ut possis dare” is more sophisticated. It posits a world in which the natural flow and right order of things is plenty, wealth, security, health. This is fundamentally a good and generous world, and by default, and as part of their nature, the gods are there to make things grow; kings are there to ensure well-being and justice; parents are there to enable their children to grow into healthy, productive adults. Sacrifice in this sense is a gift, and your gift, of praise, or performance, or whatever, enriches the king or the god; strengthens them; feeds them; empowers them, enables them to do what they are naturally designed to do. Blockage of the natural flow, exhaustion unreplenished by praise, or lila, or some other form of ‘sacrifice’ (play can be a sacrifice), leads to war, famine, economic ruin, injustice, and so on. When strengthened through the literal nourishment of the ‘sacrifice’, the right order of things is empowered, established, maintained. If out of balance, things return to balance, growth, abundance, health, justice. It is as simple as that. That’s essentially my worldview, especially having lived and worked with disturbed children. Do the right thing, do the kind thing, do the generous thing, and in its own mysterious way, the system will conduce to the good and growing. Not directly, or in the short term, through do ut des – although that has a part to play – but to the fundamentally deeper do ut possis dare: difficult because it tends to be slower, and the relationship between act and consequence can get lost. It’s subtle in other ways as well: easy to take for granted, impossible to control – growth necessarily happens in ways we don’t expect and can’t predict -, and the return is often indirect and impersonal: you may well benefit in some way from the ‘sacrifice’, the right act; but it is more likely to be the benefit that comes from living among people who are growing. The ‘direct’ benefits are often months, or years or even generations down the line, and without records – in archives or oral history, for example – the link is often a matter of faith and belief. Both the laying down of archives and oral history, by the way, can be seen in these Indo-European terms as forms of ‘sacrifice’: and both – you can see why it is not a paradox, because both are ‘about’ the past – involve a fundamental belief in the future.

BS: I’m afraid I really do have to go. But going back to ‘do ut possis dare‘. What were you saying by putting that into the Newsletter?

CF: Effectively, ‘give me the tools and I will do the job.’

BS: Thankyou, Craig. I’ll turn this off now.

CF: Will you send me a copy?

BS: Yes.