“In the Moon, is a certain Island….”

1.        William Blake’s An Island in the Moon, written c. 1784, is a spirited prose satire with extravagant dialogue and humorous as well as poignant songs and poems, three of which were used five years later in Songs of Innocence. The title comes from the first words of a 16-page manuscript that Blake never published and which ends abruptly, missing its last page or so. Blake was 27 years old, five years a professional engraver, two years married, and a new co-proprietor of a print-selling business, hoping, as he makes clear in Island, to make money and a reputation, but also, no doubt, to buy time for his other loves, poetry and painting. Blake was also the author of Poetical Sketches, songs and poems written primarily during his engraving apprenticeship, when he was a teenager. The printing of these early literary works in 1783 was sponsored by John Flaxman, the great English sculptor and classicist, and other friends who, like Blake and Mrs. Blake, attended the literary salon of Mrs. Mathew. Blake sang and read his songs and poems at these “most agreeable conversaziones” and, according to one participant, “was listened to by the company with profound silence, and allowed by most of the visitors to possess original and extraordinary merit.” [1] 

2.        The characters and scenes parodied in Island are almost certainly drawn from the salon environment of Mrs. Mathew’s and the gatherings Blake and Mrs. Blake attended at the houses of his other friends. The boisterous Quid, one of three philosophers and a self-professed cynic, represents Blake himself. His name refers to money, specifically a pound, and is Latin for "what"--an inquisitive “what?” as well as an exclamatory "what!" He mocks everyone's ambition and vanity, including his own; Suction the Epicurean, also a philosopher, is based on his younger and much beloved brother Robert, who was 17 in 1784 and whom Blake was teaching to become an artist. Around the same age as Robert was William Henry Mathew, Mrs. Mathew’s son, who was the model for Sipsop the Pythagorean, the third philosopher. There has been much speculation on the identities or sources for the other characters. Obtuse Angle probably represents Thomas Taylor, the Platonist; Inflammable Gass represents either Joseph Priestley or William Nicholson, both of whom experimented with inflammable gases; Mrs. Gittipin may be based on Nancy Flaxman, wife of the artist, and Etruscan Column represents Rev. John Brand, the secretary of the Society of Antiquaries.

3.        But knowing the historical references is unnecessary, for, as Blake says, "the people are so much alike and their language so much the same that you would think you was among your friends." Indeed, God's plenty populates this stage and are all easily recognized: the wide-eyed student, the insensitive teacher, the drunken artist, the pseudo-intellectual, the fashion slave, the gas bag, the religious fanatic, the sexual hypocrite, the sexually repressed or obsessed. And, as one would expect, communication among this eclectic crew is highly ironic and continually breaking down or rendered absurd. Only songs appear communal, with the islanders quite literally coming together at the end as a chorus.

4.        Translating one medium into another always requires compromises to a greater or lesser degree. I believe those made here have been to the lesser degree while retaining the spirit of the original. As written, Island has five different settings, a narrator and 15 characters. I consolidated the action into one place, a tavern, over one evening, where they “try’d every method to get good humour,” and I used 14 characters instead of 15, merging Steelyard the Lawgiver with either Estruscan Column or Obtuse Angle, and conflating Tilly Lally and the narrator. I transposed Mrs. Nannicantipot’s four lines of text to Mrs. Gimblet and Mrs. Gittipin. I cut Handel’s instrumental Water Music, which was written for a large orchestra, and added two songs that I felt fit thematically, one from an 1803 letter to Thomas Butts and one from Songs of Experience of 1794. And I moved the last scene earlier in the play in order to end with all the characters coming together in song, a triumphant moment among the disputing group.

5.        I first read Island in 1977, while a graduate student at Columbia University, in Geoffrey Keynes’ Blake Complete Writings (Oxford U. P. 1966). I was immediately struck by its playfulness, energy, and ribald humor and thought its characters and actions were perfectly suited for the stage as a one-act play. [2]  I had recently finished curating a traveling exhibition and writing its catalogue on l9th-century British theatre prints and co-authoring with the actor-musician David Patrick Kelly Tiny Kingdoms, a cabaret verse-drama performed at the Other End Cafe, Greenwich Village, 23-30 November 1976. It seems that at the time I was inclined to see nearly every text and event as inherently theatrical, suitable for farce, melodrama, burlesque, tragedy, or comedy. I wrote the adaptation that year but did not get a chance to test my supposition until spring of 1983, during my second year as a Mellon Fellow in Art History and English Literature at Cornell University. I had the very good fortune to meet Evamarii Johnson and Robert Gross, young professors in Cornell’s Theatre Department. Evamarii directed the play and Robert played Tilly Lally, the narrator and owner of the tavern in which the action is set. The rest of the cast was made up of talented undergraduates and two graduate students. The music, 21 songs arranged for voice, piano, and flute in the 18th century ballad mode and central to the play’s meaning and success, was composed by the flautist Margaret LaFrance and performed by her on piano with Maura Malarcher, one of her students, on flute.

6.        Island was performed in Cornell’s Kaufmann Auditorium, 7-8 April 1983, as part of “Blake: Ancient and Modern,” a two-day symposium (8-9 April) at Cornell featuring lectures by Karl Kroeber, Morris Eaves, Albert Roe, Peter Kahn, Robert Essick, John Stallworthy, Reeve Parker, and myself. For the symposium I had organized three exhibitions, Blake, Illustrator and Poet at Olin Library, The Art of Illuminated Printing at the Art History Gallery, and Prints by Blake and his Followers at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum. Cornell was awashed in Blake events that spring, but of them all, I am sure the exuberant performance and music of An Island in the Moon stole the show. Its success enabled an encore presentation on 11-12 May in Cornell’s Drummond Studio, which we videotaped with two cameras each night. I edited the 3/4” videotapes for Ithaca Public Television, which aired it on 2 December 1983 and a few other nights the following spring. The tapes were then transferred to 1/2” videotape for home and classroom showings. And that is the state in which the performance had remained for nearly twenty years. Now, with the advances in digital technology--and the assistance of Todd Stabley, multimedia consultant at UNC's Center for Instructional Technology--I am able to rebroadcast the play. The present Website includes the entire 48-minute video, audio and video clips of each song, dramatis personae and credit pages, and the text of the adaptation with illustrations of key scenes. I am delighted to once again introduce students to this humorous and satirical side of Blake, a side little seen or known but present in one way or another in nearly all his literary works.

In early spring of 2011, this site went off line due to server upgrades, which removed the legacy video streaming software. In preparing to resume streaming the video and its clips, fall 2011, I redigitized the 3/4" master videotape and with my assistant Bihan Zhang made all new video and audio clips.


[1] J. T. Smith, A Book for a Rainy Day (London, 1845), 81; see also Bentley, G. E., Jr. Blake Records (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 26. BACK

[2] Island had been staged once before, in Edinburgh in 1971, as Conversations at Mr. Quid’s, by Roger Savage, a fact that I discovered while creating this Website (see Philips, Michael, ed. William Blake, An Island in the Moon. A Facsimile of the Manuscript. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, in association with the Institute of Traditional Science, 1986, 23 n35). BACK