Obituaries: Sybil Rosenfeld

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The Independent Online
If Britain can claim a supremacy in any art form it is in theatre. Far less accepted until after the Second World War was that theatre history was a field for serious academic study, save in its literary aspects. Sybil Rosenfeld was the senior survivor of those who, through scholarship and promotion, led the reversal of this situation. That drama departments now exist unquestioned in many British universities; that British-related theatre research flourishes on an international scale and that we now have a national Theatre Museum all derive from activities in which she was a prime mover.

Such a role was not in her stars. She was born in London, in Bayswater, in 1903, the only child of liberal Jewish parents, her father being one of a family with prosperous ceramics and glass-making interests in Stoke- on-Trent and Czechoslovakia. With cultured parents, her early theatre and opera-going gave her very wide tastes (a lifelong antipathy to Parsifal being a rare dislike). She went to King's College London, where, aged 19, she took the year's top first class honours degree in English. Originally drawn towards languages, she met there the young Allardyce Nicoll, a pioneer of English theatre studies, who redirected her interests and she went on to gain an MA, with distinction, for work on the Restoration playwright George Etherege. Her related edition of his Letterbook was published in 1928, followed in 1939 by a ground-breaking study, Strolling Players and Drama in the Provinces, 1660-1765. This won the Rose Mary Crawshay prize of the British Academy.

Apart from brief work for the League of Nations, Sybil Rosenfeld had the means for a comfortable but never ostentatious independence and, with the Depression, followed her father's wish that she not take paid work when others needed it more. She always travelled widely and just before the Second World War (when she ran a club for Jewish girls in Paddington) moved into the Bayswater flat where she lived for the rest of her life and which, from 1945, became a centre of change in the status of theatre history.

In that year the bookseller Ifan Kyrle Fletcher launched the research journal Theatre Notebook, with Rosenfeld and Richard Southern as joint editors, a role she continued until 1986, when she joined its advisory board. She also contributed some 80 articles, notes and reviews to it, and to many other scholarly publications. In 1948, TN's success led to the foundation of the Society for Theatre Research (STR) of which Rosenfeld was also joint honorary secretary until 1970, later vice-chairman, vice- president and a constant committee attender to her death.

Until the 1960s all such meetings were held at her flat, where the STR in 1955 initiated the Theatre Museum Association; the work of both bodies as pressure groups was seminal in the eventual creation of the present Theatre Museum. Sybil Rosenfeld was actively involved in the TMA and in the foundation, in 1955-57, of the STR's other offshoot, the International Federation for Theatre Research, for which she sat on the Executive Committee and the editorial board of its journal Theatre Research.

Her Foreign Theatrical Companies in Great Britain appeared as an STR pamphlet in 1955, followed by another ground-breaking book, Theatre of the London Fairs in the 18th Century (1960). At this time, with Edward Croft-Murray of the British Museum, she began concentrating on another of her interests, the neglected history of British scene design. They jointly published a detailed Checklist of 18th-century British scene-painters (TN, 1964-66), Rosenfeld going on to write two more pioneering books: A Short History of Scene Design in Great Britain (1972) is a sweeping survey showing all her gifts of economy and clarity as a writer, with Georgian Scene Painters and Scene Painting (1982) a detailed study of the 1700-1830 period.

Her Temples of Thespis (1978) provides an entertainingly scholarly account of aristocratic Georgian amateur theatricals, and in 1984 she rounded off work begun in the 1930s with a full history of the restored Georgian Theatre at Richmond, Yorkshire, where she also gave a celebratory address in 1993. She was then 90, her birthday having been marked by a reception at the Garrick Club. In 1992 she was made an Honorary Fellow of King's College London.

To the end she was active, alert, encouraging, and contributing to plans for the 50th anniversary of the society she helped found. Some of her last work was on scenic entries for the New Grove Dictionary of Opera and, as much devoted to art, architecture and music as theatre, the day before she died saw her casting a vote at the "Living Bridges" show at the Royal Academy, with seats booked for Wednesday's Uncle Vanya at the Albery. In the early hours of that morning, and as she always liked things - "without fuss" - this most eminent and unassuming chronicler of British theatre history herself slipped quietly from the stage.

Sybil Marion Rosenfeld, theatre historian: born London 20 January 1903; died London 2 October 1996.