Friday, May 13th, 2016...10:19 am

Prompt Service: Cataloging the HTC Promptbooks

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23498_34_45_wadmanFor much of the past year, I have had the pleasure of cataloging promptbooks from the Harvard Theatre Collection. Promptbooks are texts of plays which have been annotated with stage directions, alterations, descriptions of scenery or sound effects, and other details from actual use in the theatre. They function almost like a blueprint to a particular stage production. The Harvard Theatre Collection holds thousands of them, mostly dating from the late 18th through 20th centuries, a significant number of which remain uncatalogued. Many others are only minimally cataloged, with records that omit valuable information relating to their unique manuscript annotations. My job has been to improve access to this remarkable collection, giving the promptbooks HOLLIS catalog records that include access points for genre terms (mainly “acting editions” and “promptbooks”) and, crucially, the names of the actors and other former owners who inscribed their names in them. To date, I have identified over 120 unique owners, all of them now searchable in HOLLIS, ranging from celebrities such as Laura Keene and Edwin Booth, to relative obscurities like Frederick Chippendale and the enigmatically named Q. K. Philander Doesticks. What follows is a kind of highlight reel of my year in promptbooks, four interesting examples selected from the hundreds that have passed across my desk.

First, a representative specimen of a promptbook. This copy of The King of the Commons was published in New York by Samuel French in the middle of 19th-century. It bears extensive manuscript annotations from production, even a sketch of the chairs used onstage, and is signed “Edwin Adams, Boston Mass., July 1862.” Such inscriptions are of course useful if you happen to be interested in Edwin Adams, but they also come in handy when the printed text itself is undated (as is usually the case with printed plays of this period).




Next we have a page from the 1802 London edition of Folly as it Flies (2015T-37 (351)), with the autograph, apparently, of Warren Wood. On other promptbooks with the same signature, it looks more like Warren T. Wood.


By this time I had seen a number of promptbooks owned by William Warren (1767-1832), and others owned by William B. Wood (1779-1861).


Left, autograph of William B. Wood (17476.30.20.5). Right, autograph of William Warren (2015T-37 (515)).

Both men were Philadelphia based actors and theatre managers, and I was pondering what connection Warren T. Wood might have to them when it dawned that the promptbook is actually artifact of the partnership of Warren and Wood. The middle initial “T.” is a “+” sign. Other promptbooks formerly attributed Warren T. Wood have been identified, and their records likewise corrected.

It is not uncommon to find programs, fragments of playbills, or other theatrical ephemera inserted in promptbooks. This copy of the burlesque melodrama Little Jack Sheppard (23498.34.45) includes something a little more unusual: a printed special notice apologizing to the audience “on behalf of Miss Wadman, who is suffering from a severe cold.” Miss Wadman is listed among the principals in the printed cast list of this edition. Happily, a contemporary review had this to say of Wadman’s performance ‘… a dashing representative of Thames Darrell is found in Miss Wadman, whose cold, for which a superfluous apology was made on Saturday, in no way detracted from the purity and finish of her vocalisation.’ (The Era (London, England), Saturday, January 2, 1886; Issue 2467, p. 7c).



When I got to this heavily marked copy of The Earl of Warwick by Thomas Francklin (TS 2178 50.15), the missing title page made it difficult to tell which edition I was looking at.


Comparing the page count and other salient characteristics against copies held by Houghton or viewable in Eighteenth Century Collections Online, I narrowed it down to one of three editions printed in London, 1766. A manuscript emendation on page 10 held the final clue. Here the former owned has crossed out “The blush of virgin modesty o’erspread” and written “The crimson glow of modesty o’erspread,” (italics added). The “blush of virgin” reading appears only in the first edition; indeed, I soon found that unmutilated copies of the first edition include an errata statement immediately following the title page, alerting the reader to the error on page 10, but as the copy in hand was lacking its title page and all preliminary leaves, I could not have known this at the outset.


Left: first edition (TS 2178 50.15), with manuscript correction. Right: third edition (17473.18.7).


TS 2178 50.15

One more observation on The Earl of Warwick: the markings nicely illustrate some 18th-century theatrical terminology. The initials PS and OP by the characters’ entrances and exits stand for Prompter’s Side and Opposite Prompter. The prompter’s job was similar to that of a modern stage manager, and he generally sat on the left side of the stage (from the actors’ point of view).

As interesting as the above examples may be, I must admit the most memorable aspect of this cataloging project has been the absurd titles and stranger-than-fiction biographical facts I was compelled to record. I learned that Ada Clare was known as the Queen of Bohemia until she suffered a dog bite in her agent’s office and died from rabies, that actor John Blake Rice became mayor of Chicago, and that producer William Wheatley employed three hundred babies crawling across the stage in the 1866 Niblo’s Garden production of The Black Crook. Some play titles are too good not to share, so I kept a list, figuring one day they might be good for the blog. To cap off my retrospective account of a year spent cataloging promptbooks, here are my favorite six play titles from the Harvard Theatre Collection:

I’ve eaten my friend.

A scene in the life of an unprotected female.

Who stole the spoons?

Satan in Paris.

You can’t marry your grandmother.

Lucretia Borgia, M.D.


Francklin, Thomas, 1721-1784. The Earl of Warwick, a tragedy, as it is perform’d at the Theatre Royal in Drury-Lane. The 3d ed. London, T. Davis [etc.], 1766. 17473.18.7.

White, James, 1803-1862. The king of the Commons. New York: Samuel French, 122 Nassau-Street, [between 1857 and 1862]. 2015T-37 (492).

Cobb, James, 1756-1818. Love in the East, or, Adventures of twelve hours: a comic opera in three acts. Dublin: William Porter, [1788]. 17476.30.20.5.

Reynolds, Frederick, 1764-1841. Folly as it flies : a comedy, in five acts, as performed at the Theatre-Royal, Covent-Garden. London: A. Strahan, 1802. 2015T-37 (351).

Stephens, Henry Pottinger. Little Jack Sheppard: a three-act burlesque-operatic-melodrama. London: W. S. Johnson, 1885. 23498.34.45.

Francklin, Thomas, 1721-1784. The Earl of Warwick : a tragedy / as it is perform’d at the Theatre Royal in Drury-Lane. London: printed for T. Davies, [etc.], [1766]. TS 2178 50.15

Francklin, Thomas, 1721-1784. The Earl of Warwick, a tragedy, as it is perform’d at the Theatre Royal in Drury-Lane. The 3d ed. London: T. Davis [etc.], 1766. 17473.18.7.

Reynolds, Frederick, 1764-1841. Laugh when you can : a comedy, in five acts, as performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent-Garden / by Frederick Reynolds. London: Printed for T.N. Longman and O. Rees, No. 39, Paternoster-Row, 1799.

[Thanks to Noah Sheola, Bibliographic & Metadata Assistant, for contributing this post.]

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