Tuesday, January 10th, 2017...2:18 pm

Washington the Great, Chief of the Columbians

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Alfred the Great drove the invading Danes out of England and coins from his reign dub him “King of the English” in tribute to this victory. In the centuries following his death, he gained a reputation as the monarch who did much to create not only the new nation of England, but also the mythology that nurtured its national identity. The Harvard Theatre Collection owns a play about King Alfred with a surprising connection to George Washington and American history, a connection noted during the cataloging process which will make this resource discoverable for researchers.

TS 2026.30 front flyleaf

TS 2026.30 front flyleaf. Note the ownership initials F. H. — could this refer to Francis Hopkinson?

After many years working in technical services for the Harvard Library, I recently realized a long-held dream, a chance to work on a special project involving the cataloging of materials belonging to the Harvard Theatre Collection, under the guidance of Houghton Library’s Ward Music Cataloger, Andrea Cawelti. My project (following on the excellent work on this collection by Noah Sheola) focuses on prompt books: plays printed in the 18th and 19th centuries, which were owned and used by actors and other theatre professionals, marked for performance in ink, indicating entrances, exits, stage directions, and added or cut text.

TS 2026.30 caption

TS 2026.30 caption. David Garrick headed the London cast in the role of Alfred. As the play begins, the caption title is changed from Alfred to Washington. This change continues throughout the play wherever the name of Alfred appears.

The plays are often acting editions, which means that when they were printed for publication, they included the names of theatres, performers, and text associated with specific productions. Our holdings may include several copies of the same acting edition of a printed play. It is the handwritten signatures and ink annotations detailing their provenance and usage in a particular production that render each copy unique and make them prompt books in addition to being acting editions. Often, the text will have been altered or cut, and sometimes new lines or speeches have been added in ink. Plays may also be marked for a specific role by the actor who owned them, entrances and exits noted and sometimes notes on lighting or sound effects written in the margins. It’s thrilling to see the annotations. I wonder what the actor had for lunch during rehearsal and what was going on in the streets and city outside the theatre. A working actor held the same book I’m holding, scribbled notes in it, used it as a practical tool to help create a performance!

TS 2026.30 pages 10-11

TS 2026.30 pages 10-11. Alfred is changed to Washington, Devon to Mercer, and references to Alfred as “master” or “king” altered to “chief”.

Not long after beginning the project, I worked on a prompt book that poses a fascinating mystery involving an unexpected melding of the heroic myths of King Alfred and George Washington. The play, Alfred : a masque, was issued in London with a publication date of 1751, but our copy contains an advertisement at the end of the text with a list of publications for the year 1788, implying that it was printed sometime during or after that later year. On the caption page, the name Alfred is ruled out of the title and the name Washington substituted in ink. Throughout the text, Alfred is changed to Washington wherever it appears. The name of the character of the Earl of Devon is likewise crossed out and the name Mercer written in. A quick Wikipedia search reveals that Hugh Mercer was one of George Washington’s brigadier-generals and a personal friend; killed in action in 1777, he became a rallying symbol for the Revolution. Other replacements include the substitution of “chief” or “great chief” for the word “king”, the alteration of “ Danes” into “British officers”, and “Columbia” and “Columbians” wherever the words “Britain”, “Britannia” or “Britons” are found. This is particularly interesting because it turns out that this play (the original Alfred, that is) introduced the famous “Rule, Britannia”, here transformed into “Rule, Columbia”. Intriguingly, the change to “Rule, Columbia” appears to be made in pencil, which suggests a more modern hand. Not only does it follow the pattern of alteration written in the eighteenth century, but even appears to resemble the handwriting style of the original annotator! More mysteries to be solved.

TS 2026.30 pages 32-33

TS 2026.30 pages 32-33. The adversaries of the hero have been transformed from Danes into British officers.

A published play about King Alfred, who drove the Danes from England and was remembered in popular lore as the first king of all England, has been altered to be about George Washington, who may be seen as having driven the British from the American Colonies, becoming the “Father of His Country”. But that’s all we know. Unlike many of our other prompt books, this one has no signed name indicating ownership, aside from what appear to be two initials on the front cover. We have no knowledge of whether, when or where the altered version may have been performed. We can surmise that the changes to the text were made in or after 1788 because of the advertisement, but we can assert nothing further with any confidence.

TS 2026.30 pages 62-63

TS 2026.30 pages 62-63. Washington is here given the honorific “Great chief” and we see “Columbia” taking the place of mythical “Britannia” and “Albion”.

I began looking online for clues and found an article by Dr. Kevin McGinley: The 1757 College of Philadelphia Production of Alfred: A Masque — Some New Observations, which offers evidence that General Washington may have attended this 1757 production, the only connection I could find between Washington and the play. I wrote to Dr. McGinley at the University of Tampere in Finland and he has offered some intriguing thoughts on our find, which he may pursue further as part of his own research on the play and on Scottish drama in the New World.

TS 2026.30 pages 64-65

TS 2026.30 pages 64-65. Although these annotations appear to be in pencil, they follow the pattern set by the earlier alterations and even seem to follow the earlier style of handwriting!

Dr. McGinley noted that the period of 1788-1789 was marked by celebrations of George Washington, from his birthday in February to the first Presidential inauguration on April 30, so our book might well fit in with the tributes of the time. After examining a scan, Dr. McGinley suggested that the initials on the front cover might be “FH” and could refer to Francis Hopkinson. Hopkinson designed the Great Seal and the flag of the United States, played the harpsichord and wrote music, and (possibly an interesting connection) was nominated as a federal judge by President Washington in September of 1789. Harvard’s Loeb Music Library has a copy of Francis Hopkinson’s lessons : a facsimile edition of Hopkinson’s personal keyboard book, which contains handwritten musical notations by Hopkinson himself. Josh Kantor, of the Loeb’s Isham Memorial Library, kindly made scans of several pages of this facsimile so that we could compare Hopkinson’s handwriting with the handwritten notations in our text. All of these possible connections are pure conjecture, of course. Scholars such as Dr. McGinley will do the real research on an item like this, but any information we can notice and record while cataloging these prompt books offers researchers useful clues that may inspire projects involving Harvard’s collections.

TS 2026.30 ad

TS 2026.30 ad. This advertisment suggests a printing sometime before or during 1788, an important year for Washington and America.

I was working on this project in November not long after our presidential election and, as I pondered the power of the Electoral College, I thought about what was happening in America back in 1789. The Constitution became effective in March of that year and the Electoral College, which was created under Article II of the Constitution, unanimously awarded all 69 of its votes to George Washington. As we prepare to inaugurate our 45th president, it is instructive to think about that time 228 years ago when our brand-new nation was inventing itself — deciding whether to call our leader “president” or “chief”, deciding how to run a presidential election and, possibly, creating a new mythology for a new country.

[Thanks to Susan Radovsky, Metadata Creation, Harvard Library Information and Technical Services, for contributing this post.]


  • Very interesting. I can imagine the thrill of holding these artifacts in your hand and thinking about the people who may have worked with them and written in them. The idea that someone would modify a play about a king of England to make it be about George Washington is interesting and surprising to me. I notice in one of the images that it looks as if “lord” was crossed out and replaced with “friend.” So interesting to imagine someone doing this, at a time when Americans were working out how our society would be structured without an aristocracy. I hope more is uncovered about this piece.

  • Shakespeare’s plays are often ‘updated’ as a commentary or reflection on present times or other past eras. Some notable examples that come to mind are the famous RSC “Miami Vice” version of Romeo and Juliet or the production of “Much Ado” which featured Teddy Roosevelt and the Keystone Kops! This is comparable and reflects a venerable theatrical tradition, IMNSHO.

  • I appreciate how Susan has made these materials come alive, connecting them to history, theatre, and our jobs here at the Harvard Library. She proves once again that while we have outstanding collections, it is creating accessibility and connection to the collections that makes them especially valuable to people. Kudos to Catalogers! Brava to Radovsky!