Hardy’s Wessex brought to life – The Story of Dorchester’s ‘Hardy Players’

April 1, 2010

This Heritage Lottery-funded project uncovered the story of the Hardy Players – an amateur dramatic society in Dorchester, Dorset, who adapted and staged the works of Thomas Hardy, with input from Hardy himself, between 1908 and 1924.

It enabled Dorset Museum to acquire, interpret, conserve, and publicly display a large collection of the Hardy Players’ working papers and records, which otherwise would have been lost to private collectors.

The Hardy Players are of national and regional importance due to the unique position they hold amongst amateur dramatic societies. Their programme for the adaptation and staging of Hardy’s works is a remarkable and sustained example of the appropriation of a major literary figure by the community and region that inspired him, carried on with his full knowledge and consent, and sometimes with his direct participation.

Thomas Henry Tilley, builder, stonemason, and Mayor of Dorchester (a ‘real live Mayor of Casterbridge’) was stage manager for the Hardy Players and one of the two Dorchester figures chiefly responsible for the productions In his unpublished memoir, Tilley explicitly states that the Hardy Players’ mission was to use Hardy’s works to revive and continue a sense of regional identity. By securing this archive for Dorset, and retaining it in the county in which it was created, this project seeks to remain true to this ethos within the Hardy Players and awaken in the local community a greater interest in their identity, local history, and literature, helping engender a heightened sense of place.

The revised and annotated prompt copies and actor’s parts, give the dialogue as actually delivered and the stage business as performed and prove direct evidence of the scenery and settings. They are the closest we can now get to the experience of a Hardy Players’ production and the attractively produced programmes incorporate photographs of the places Hardy used as the settings for his novels.

The collection is also important for the study of Thomas Hardy himself, whose involvement with the Players was closer than he sometimes admitted (at least one document in the present collection has annotations attributed to him). Not only was he personally responsible for four of the adaptations, but the whole enterprise, particularly in his later years provided him with an outlet for his fascination with the theatre and a form of continuing participation in the local community.

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