If there’s one thing that every reveler knows about the winter show, it is that each year, our celebration lands in a different time and place. Sometimes, we paint with a pretty wide brush, pulling together music and dances from all of Scandinavia, or Mesoamerica. Other times we set a more definite locale, e.g. Quebec or last year’s Prosecco, but even so, we draw our material from a broader temporal and geographical landscape. This year, however, we are encamped on a much smaller lot. We find ourselves reveling entirely within the confines of a single building, Haddon Hall.
It is a real place, located on the banks of the river Wye near the town of Bakewell in Derbyshire, England. Currently occupied by the family of the Duke of Rutland, the hall has witnessed a lot of history in the more than nine hundred years of its existence. The very architecture of the place reflects the influence of centuries of political and social change, while the décor dramatizes the cultural evolution of the many generations of its inhabitants.
It is unsurprising that we should choose this place as the setting for theatre, because the history of Haddon Hall itself reads almost like a grand drama, and indeed, various deeds and misdeeds performed in its confines have spurred the imaginative plots of several novels, plays and even films.
The very inception of the place was fraught with intrigue. As William the Conqueror, fresh from the Battle of Hastings, began to consolidate his Norman power base, he awarded tracts of land to his loyal followers. One of these was William Peverel, an illegitimate son of the new ruler. He was deeded real estate in Nether Haddon in 1087, and so the hall acquired its name, The Manor of Nether Haddon, not from any known individual who lived there, but from its location. The Domesday Book, the meticulous record of taxable property in England at that time, records the award.
It wasn’t a castle - a defensible fortress might have become a threat to the ruling monarch - but in 1194, a license was issued to permit a wall to be built around the manor house, and so began centuries of remodeling and additions that resulted in the Hall as it stands today.
Probably the most often recounted episode of the Haddon Hall story is the explanation of how the Hall came to be the property of the Manners family, its current owners. If the fanciful narrative is to be believed, the Tudor-era gentleman George Vernon, whose family had acquired the hall by marriage in the early 13th century, had a lovely, if headstrong daughter, Dorothy.
She was enamored of John Manners, the second (and therefore prospect-less) son of Thomas Manners, the First Earl of Rutland. As the story has it, she slipped out of grand ball being held at the hall, and with the assistance of several trusted servants, met young John at the base of the great stone staircase and disappeared into the night. News of the elopement enraged her father, but he seems to have overcome his displeasure, as the estate was passed on to the couple upon his death in 1565. It has been in the Manners family ever since.
This particular part of the Haddon saga has given rise to a number of popular retellings, including several short stories, and two novels in the 19th and early 20th centuries; Sir Arthur Sullivan (partnering with a lyricist named Sidney Grundy) transformed it into an amusing, if rather anachronistic operetta; and Mary Pickford starred in a silent film account in 1924.
If you note the distinction in titles, you will notice that I mentioned that the hall is now occupied by the family of the “Duke” of Rutland, not the “Earl”. This transformation occurred when the grandson of John Manners, also named John Manners, inherited the title of “Earl”. Then his son, John Manners (!), was made the First “Duke” of Rutland in 1703. This exchange is important because along with the Dukedom came another estate, Belvoir Castle (which the English perversely pronounce “beaver”). It was here that this most recent John Manners ensconced his family, and it was here that they remained.
Haddon Hall sat forlorn and empty, occupied by little more than mice and memories into the early years of the twentieth century. It was a monument to many eras of history, but also a financial encumbrance upon a family that was finding it difficult to maintain its position in the face of social and economic change. The shift of wealth away from land ownership meant that many in England’s peerage found it necessary to part with their holdings and either sacrifice their historical purity or turn them over to the public trust. The fate of Haddon Hall, it seemed, was sealed.
Yet in the mid-1920’s, the Ninth Duke of Rutland, you guessed correctly - John Manners decided to return his family to the hall and begin restoration. Today, Haddon Hall stands as a monument to his determination, and a repository of the spirit and memories of all the generations that have lived and celebrated within its walls.
But there remains a mystery. Why, in the face of economic good sense and conventional wisdom, did this particular John Manners decide to save Haddon Hall? Did something happen to convince him to take on so much risk and hard work? What drew him to preserve a building populated with only the ghosts of history and tradition?
That is why this year we are reveling within the confines of a single building. We are going to attempt to unravel the mystery of this extraordinary and wonderful decision. Join us and see what happens when the Ninth Duke of Rutland and his family meet The Spirits of Haddon Hall.
- David Parr, Artistic Director