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Simon Mayo on the 19th-century Dartmoor inmate who staged UK’s first all-black Shakespeare

Author Simon Mayo. Photo: David Venni

In 1812, Dartmoor Prison was home to 6,000 US troops. Among them was a notorious inmate who produced the first all-black production of Shakespeare. Simon Mayo talks to Nick Clark about his novel based on these events

Richard Crafus, a giant of a man known as King Dick, was a notorious inmate who ruled a block in Dartmoor Prison in the early 19th century. Few in Britain have heard of him, and fewer still know of his extraordinary contribution to British theatre.

It is thanks to this American “gangster-turned-theatre impresario” – and his fellow inmates of Prison Four – that the first all-black productions of Shakespeare were staged in Britain in 1814, according to Simon Mayo, who has made one of those productions central to his novel Mad Blood Stirring.

The radio broadcaster stumbled upon the story that forms the basis of his novel by chance in a footnote, while researching a different book. It referenced the 6,000 Americans interred in Dartmoor Prison during the War of 1812, forgotten inmates in a conflict largely scrubbed from our history books.

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Further research showed those US prisoners had asked their British captors to be segregated by race, which led him to Prison Four – one of seven blocks in Dartmoor Prison – and its 1,000 black prisoners. “I felt the prickles on my neck. The story was pretty good and I wondered if anyone else had done it,” Mayo says. “I looked around and no one had.”

Despite the terrible hardship, it wasn’t all bad for the inmates in Prison Four. It offered diversions from gambling to fencing and boxing to dancing. It even had a Methodist preacher and a choir. There was also a theatrical society, one of two in Dartmoor at the time.

One contemporary account said King Dick was “by far the largest and I suspect strongest man in the prison” and was described as judge and executioner in keeping order. He ruled over everything in Prison Four, including the theatre, and nothing was done without his say so. This included the staging of Romeo and Juliet and of Othello – one prisoner’s account suggests he may well have played Othello himself. According to the New England Historical Society, he was the most famous man in the prison, with one inmate writing: “His word is supreme, no higher authority can be appealed to than his.”

Mad Blood Stirring, the novel by Simon Mayo, in paperback edition
Mad Blood Stirring, the novel by Simon Mayo, in paperback edition

The events of Mayo’s novel play out entirely in Dartmoor, with much of the action set in Prison Four as preparations are made for the production of Romeo and Juliet. Finding out about those Shakespeare productions was the moment “that I knew this story had to be written”, Mayo says. He adds: “It’s my guess that this is the first all-black and black-produced Shakespeare in the UK. It seemed to be worthy of acknowledgement. I also think with the choir, it may have been the first time gospel music was heard in the UK.”

Mad Blood Stirring is set three years into the war, just as it’s drawing to a close. “It’s a war nobody really knows anything about in this country,” Mayo says. “There were a lot of afters from the American Revolutionary War – the British wanted to get back at America, America wanted to kick Britain again. But it didn’t really change anything, so maybe that’s why no one has heard of it here.”

The conflict is most famous in the US for two events: the first was the burning down of the White House by British troops. The second was the British ships bombarding Fort McHenry, which led Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner.

Little is known about Crafus until his arrival in Dartmoor, aged around 25. But he certainly made an impression once there. “He is 6ft 7ins, carries a club and has a bearskin hat,” Mayo says. “He’s a thug and a gangster but he’s also a theatrical impresario. He’s a character that if I’d invented people would not have believed was credible.”

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While completely unknown in the UK, Crafus “crops up in a number of places” in the US. Mayo has counted five novels, one play and a film in which he makes an appearance. He was portrayed as a Haitian revolutionary in the 1952 film Lydia Bailey, and a decade ago was brought to the stage in the US by Carlyle Brown in Dartmoor Prison.

He also makes a surprise appearance in the 2014 book Thirteen Soldiers: A Personal History of Americans at War, written by US senator John McCain, who died last year. “He called him a natural autocrat,” Mayo says. “So some people know of him. He’s on the radar, but in general he is going to be news to most people.”

A contemporary portrait of Richard Crafus (King Dick)
A contemporary portrait of Richard Crafus (King Dick)

The novel itself is steeped in the theatre; not only is it about a production of Romeo and Juliet, the structure is based on the play too. “The book is absolutely theatrical,” Mayo says. “The first thing I did was read Romeo and Juliet all the way through, which I’d never done before. This is not a retelling, as that wouldn’t work, but I did think: ‘Why don’t I write it in five acts, and have some of the characters echo Romeo and Juliet’s characters’. There are a few phrases that Shakespeare aficionados will spot too.” One is the title of the book, which are words spoken by Benvolio in Act III.

Mayo says he was also inspired by the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. While writing his novel he bought the play script by Jack Thorne and was prompted to put in scenes of dialogue – set out like a play – between King Dick and Agent Shortland, who ran the prison.

“I was reading Cursed Child and wondering if I could play with things from it,” Mayo says. “Jack Thorne was part of the equation, his influence was there in the book. If I hadn’t been reading the play, I don’t think those scenes would have seen the light of day.”

The film rights to the book were snapped up before it was even written, and by coincidence Thorne himself was brought on to adapt it. “He was exactly the right choice and a great name to have on the screenplay,” Mayo says. “We’ve met and had a chat, but he’s done his bit, we discussed it.”

Could Mad Blood Stirring be adapted into a stage play? “It needs a number of things to happen but I’d love to see a dramatic performance because it lends itself to that,” Mayo says. “It would be great to bring Richard Crafus to the stage again.”

As for Crafus, after his release and return to the US in 1815, historians can only pick up scraps. He is believed to have gone to Boston and taught boxing, while some say he served as a police officer. He died in 1831, but this larger-than-life character clearly left an impression, as multiple papers carried news of his death.

Mad Blood Stirring is published by Black Swan