By Gail Kern Paster

Folger: from a book of magic spells
A page from a book of magic spells. 

Thanks to a remarkable set of events, the Folger is celebrating this spring as a season of magic.

The magic will begin with Teller ’69 (of magician duo Penn & Teller), who will come to the Folger to join Aaron Posner in co-directing our spring production of Macbeth (produced in partnership with Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, N.J.). While there is always a certain apprehension whenever a theater company decides to produce “the Scottish play,” Teller vows to defy theatrical superstition and to bring us a Macbeth full of terrifying special effects, many of them taking place in a special transparent box that will dominate the center of the stage. What will the witches look like? What will happen when Lady Macbeth calls on the spirits to “unsex me here”? How will Teller stage the banquet scene and the
appearance of Banquo’s ghost? It is an understatement to say that we are excited about what Teller will deliver.

There is magic happening in Central Library as well. It began last June, when Heather Wolfe ’92, curator of manuscripts, glanced at the cover of a Sotheby’s auction catalog. It featured the image of a late-16th-century manuscript page, and she thought it had a familiar look. The Sotheby’s page was one leaf of a grimoire, a book of magic spells and conjurations. Heather noticed, in the upper left corner, the pencil notation 206. She immediately went to the Folger manuscript archives and pulled out Folger Ms. V.b.26, a grimoire in our collection, and noted with mounting excitement that its last leaf was numbered 205. As she compared the handwriting in V.b.26 with that of the Sotheby’s image, it became evident that the two manuscripts had once been part of the same book.

Clearly, the manuscript being sold at auction needed to become part of the Folger collection. Thanks to a timely and generous gift from the B.H. Breslauer Foundation, we were able to bid successfully for it. It was a grand day indeed when FedEx delivered the volume. For the first time in this library’s 75-year history, two parts of a single manuscript were reunited.

We decided to further celebrate this wonderful acquisition by featuring it at Acquisitions Night, an annual fundraiser to be held in March, at which guests are treated to a display of all the rare items purchased in the previous year. Guests are offered the chance to adopt one of the items—to donate it to the Folger with a bookplate in their name. Along with the grimoires, we will show guests other items in the Folger collection about palmistry, astrology, witchcraft and other occult sciences.

It seemed only logical, then, to organize our annual Folger black-tie gala, which will take place in April, around magic, with guests being offered an unpredictable—and delightful—evening of leger­demain and illusion emanating, perhaps, from Teller’s transparent box. This will be a fitting conclusion to a magical interlude in the Folger’s history.

Paster is director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. The Folger opened in 1932 with a gift from Henry Clay Folger, Class of 1879, and his wife, Emily, and is administered under the auspices of Amherst College.

Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library